Thanks to aggressive publicity campaigns sponsored by the diamond industry, anyone buying a diamond can confidently go into the transaction armed with enough information to ask the right questions. In the pre-purchase stage, you’ll likely query the seller about the five C’s: carat, cut, clarity, color and cost. As long as you trust the jeweler, you can be confident about the value of the gem you’re interested in based on his or her answers. But what about pearls? What questions do you ask? What does a high quality pearl look like? What are traits to avoid? Here we’ll tell you what makes a pearl valuable. We’ll also give you questions to ask your jeweler and tools to judge these lustrous gems yourself.
Pearl Value Factors
While there is no international standard for grading pearls, there is a system that is commonly used to evaluate these beautiful colored gemstones. Developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the world’s largest non-profit institute of gemological research and learning, this grading system considers seven pearl traits when determining value. They are: size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching. Let’s take a look at each one as it relates to the beautiful cultured pearl.
Pearls can be as small as a pinhead or nearly as big as a golf ball, but, of course, somewhere between these two extremes is the norm.
Size is determined by many factors. These include the size of the animal that produces the gems, the size of the implanted bead, the length of time the oyster or mollusk was allowed to form the pearl, the climate and conditions of the environment, and the health of the animal that produced the pearl.
Different types of pearls have different expected size ranges. For example, because they are produced in a relatively small oyster, akoya cultured pearls are usually much smaller than their South Sea counterparts, which are grown in one of the world’s largest mollusks, P. maxima. This large animal can accept a larger bead nucleus and can lay down nacre, the combination of organic substances that makes up a pearl, much faster than its smaller cousin. Be sure to find out what type of pearl you’re looking at (freshwater, akoya, South Sea or Tahitian). All have different expected size ranges, and anything outside the range will be reflected in the price. A guide: akoyas typically range from 2-11mm; Tahitians from 8-14mm; South Sea pearls from 9-20mm, and freshwater pearls from 4-11mm.
All other things being equal, a larger pearl will command a higher price. Larger pearls typically take longer to grow, and are not as common as smaller pearls. As in anything, however, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For some people, another pearl value factor, such as luster, may be more important than size.
When evaluating size, keep in mind that high quality small pearls exist, as do poor quality large pearls. Thus, pearl size is only one factor to consider when judging pearl quality. Which brings us to…
Close your eyes and picture a strand of pearls. What do you see? Probably a lustrous necklace of white round gems, right? That’s because the white round pearl necklace is a timeless jewelry staple and traditional classic in many cultures. As you can expect, round pearls are desirable due to demand, but they are also valuable because they are rare. (Think about it: Irritant enters oyster, oyster secrets nacre, nacre covers irritant. Pearl comes out…round? Doubtful.)
Although pearl culturing techniques are improving all the time, a perfectly round pearl is uncommon. (Akoya crops typically contain more spherical pearls than other pearl types.) According to GIA, collecting enough high quality round cultured pearls for a matched pearl strand can take years. Round or near round pearls will command more money than other shapes. That’s not to say that other shapes aren’t valuable. (Remember again the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”) According to GIA, drop shapes can sometimes match the value of rounds, especially when they’re symmetrical and well-formed.
Not a traditionalist? Pearls come in many shapes, and, depending on what you like, can be just as desirable, but less costly, than round. Pearl shapes include button, oval, drop, semi-baroque and baroque. Some pearls even resemble bars, crosses, and coins. Some, called circled pearls, have grooves that go around the gems’ circumference. These beauties can make wonderful jewelry.
GIA classifies pearls into three major shape categories:
1. Spherical: Round or near round pearls
2. Symmetrical: When bisected, these pearls have equal halves
3. Baroque: Pearls with no discernable symmetry
Although pearl shapes vary, those that display some type of symmetry typically cost more. But baroque pearls, either when set alone or grouped with similar shapes into a necklace or bracelet, can be highly beautiful and unusual. And baroque pearls often show orient, a desirable shimmering rainbow-like effect that adds to the pearls’ value. Many designers prefer to work with baroque pearls for their infinite design possibilities—and many consumers buy them for their unique beauty.
Although white will likely always win the pearl color popularity contest, pearls come in a wide array of gorgeous colors. From the aforementioned white to grey-black, pearls can also be lavender, pink, orange and many shades in between. The choice is up to you, but keep the wearer’s skin tone in mind when choosing: Pearl color should complement the wearer’s coloring.
When describing a pearl’s color, jewelers talk about three traits: hue, which is the overall pearl color—the one you see on first impression; overtone, which is not always present but which is the secondary color you see when you look at the pearl (i.e. a pinkish blush on a white pearl) and orient, which is also not always present, but, as mentioned above, can best be described as a colorful, rainbow-like sheen.
The popularity of pearl colors waxes and wanes; value is determined by what’s in fashion. As can be expected, white is always “in.” Lavender pearls are very popular right now too. And Tahitian cultured pearls, which are typically dark gray, dark green, or dark blue/purple were, amazingly, pretty much unheard of before the 1970s, but are now widely coveted—and very costly. Sometimes, too, a model or celebrity will wear a certain pearl color and that color will experience a surge in popularity.
As with size, pearl types display typical characteristics when it comes to color. Akoyas, for example, are usually white or cream; Tahitians are typically black, gray or brown; South Sea are usually silver, white or a gorgeous golden color, and freshwater come in white, cream and a wide array of pastels. Acording to GIA, if the desirable pearl color is rare, fine pearls displaying that color it will command high prices.