Pearls: How to Buy This Year’s Hottest Gemstone

Posted by JewelryKind

Everyone in the jewelry and accessories industry has seen the recent surge in the popularity of pearls. What used to be considered too classic, too antiquated, too mainstream is now being talked about in terms of a revival, a renaissance, even. Already this year, fashion’s hottest designers, from Louis Vuitton to Saint Laurent, have featured them on the runway in bold new designs and collaborations.

Unfortunately, with a spike in popularity comes a spike in scams and rip-offs by those looking to capitalize financially on a trendy item that most mainstream consumers simply don’t understand – or know how to purchase. The result is price gouging and generally seedy behavior among a few bad apples (pun intended). But education is power, and if consumers understand what they are buying and how to determine a fair price, unfair practices and ill-advised behavior can be mitigated.

All that said, here’s a general guide that can help consumers, importers, wholesalers, and retailers alike.

Cultured vs. Natural

Here’s the first step in understanding the intrinsic differences in pearls and their value. There are two major types of pearls: cultured and natural. And while it may seem like jewelry 101, cultured is not synonymous with fake or “faux.” While faux are generally made of plastic, glass, or other man-made material, cultured pearls are as real as they get, albeit with a little help of growers who carefully seed pearl-producing mollusks in controlled environments.

Both cultured pearls and natural pearls are 100 percent real gemstones. The difference between the two is based on how they are made. A natural pearl forms when an irritant accidentally enters the inside of its mussel’s soft tissue (like a grain of sand, for example). In response, the animal launches a defense mechanism of sorts, surrounding the irritant layer by layer with a secretion and coating it over and over until a pearl is formed. The process is much the same for a cultured pearl, except farmers intentionally place that irritant into the mollusk and grow the pearl on a controlled environment.

When it comes to the price difference between the two, natural typically fetches more money…but even then this isn’t always the case.

Cultured Pearl Types

In today’s online retail market, all real pearls and real pearl jewelry sold are cultured pearls, unless they are specifically marked as natural pearls. There are five main types of cultured pearl jewelry sold: Akoya, Freshwater, Hanadama, Tahitian, and South Sea.

Akoya takes the cake for perfectly round, white pearls. These are classic pearls as you probably know them. They come with the highest luster and shine of all the cultured pearls on the market. However, Hanadama pearls are are commonly referred to as the Ferrari of the pearl world; they are actually cultured Akoya pearls that have been certified by the Pearl Science Laboratory (PSL) of Japan to carry the name. Cultured Hanadama gemstones feature the highest pearl luster of all cultured pearls on the market. Freshwater pearls emerged as rivals to Akoya pearls in the 90s. They are fairly similar to Akoya, but offer a wider selection of colors, shapes and sizes.

White South Sea and Golden South Sea pearls are the most sought-after cultured versions of the gems in the world. Expect to pay a premium for them because they are more rare than Akoya or freshwater varieties.

And finally, you have Tahitian pearls: naturally black in color and come from the Pinctada Margaritifera, the only oyster that naturally produces black pearls. They are unmistakably vibrant and extremely rare.

Grading and Price

There are four main factors that affect the price of a pearl: shape, surface, luster, and size (The Pearl Source and Laguna Pearl have some good education guides for further reading – highly recommended).

Luster

When you think of luster, think of sheen. It’s that glossy, shiny appearance of a pearl, and the glossier the better. High-quality gems will possess high luster, making the gemstone stand out and “pop” when viewed by the naked eye.

Shape

Exactly what it sounds like. The shape of the pearl itself impacts the quality and price. Generally speaking, the rounder the better.

Size

And as you may have guessed, the bigger the pearl the bigger the price tag. That’s not to say that larger pearls are “better” per se, but they are in fact more expensive.

Surface

No pearl is perfect, and the outside of each is full of bumps and imperfections. Just like a diamond with inclusions may fetch a lower price, so too would a pearl with a less-than-perfect surface.

How to Buy

We’re literally just scratching the surface when it comes to pearl grading, and very few people are true pearl experts capable of determining precise value of each individual gemstone. Entire courses have been dedicated to the subject. But the above can and should act as a foundation level of guidance. When it comes time to purchase, ask questions about the type of pearl as well as its luster, shape, size, and surface. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to make a better purchase on your next strand.

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