Buying Quality Jewelry, Part 3 – Pearls

Buying Quality Jewelry, Part 3 – Pearls

Everybody’s heard it, and it is nevertheless true–no woman can go wrong wearing basic black and pearls. While the right “little black dress” may vary from woman to woman, what makes a good pearl is pretty universal. Since prehistoric times, few things have compared to the elegant beauty of smooth, sleek pearls. They are also versatile; pearl jewelry is equally appropriate with a couture gown at a formal ball or with jeans and a blouse at lunch with friends.

For the record, pearls are jewels, but not gems. Gems are mineral crystals produced inside the Earth; pearls are natural articles most often produced by oysters. They form when a nucleus (a speck of food, usually) gets caught in the oyster and is coated with nacre or mother-of-pearl. The longer the irritant stays in, the more nacre coats it and the bigger the pearl. Layers of nacre mirror light in a rare way, giving pearls their characteristic glow.

Mollusks are found all over, but produce so few jewelry-quality pearls that natural pearls were limited to kings and merchant princes as gifts to wives, money to friends or bribes to enemies! Today, most modern jewelry consists of cultured pearls. They are real pearls in every sense and more affordable because finding them isn’t luck–pearl farmers implant a nucleus in an oyster, instead of waiting for it to happen on its own.

To prevent over-fishing, harvesting natural pearls has been outlawed in many countries, but natural pearls are nevertheless obtainable, most often in vintage jewelry, also called antique or estate jewelry.

Pearls vary in quality and are graded on seven factors

Size: Pearls are measured in millimeters (mm); 25.4 millimeters equals 1 inch, so, a 6 mm pearl is just under one-quarter-inch in diameter.

Color: White pearls are most shared, however, pink, gold, silver and many other colors are obtainable–the black pearl is especially popular.

Shape: For necklaces and bracelets, spherical pearls are the most sought-after. Pearls, however, come in many shapes, including drop, button, oval, baroque and circled; these are great for broaches, earrings and rings.

Luster: Refers to the way light travels by the pearl and reflects back to the eye. Because pearls are round, the layers act like mirrors, making pearls appear to glow from within. If you look for the light identify on the pearl, the sharper the reflected images, the higher the luster grade.

Surface Quality: Like gemstones, few pearls are perfect; blemishes on a pearl can be spots, pits, scratches, etc. clearly, the pearls with the fewest blemishes have the most suitors.

Nacre Quality: The thicker and more already the layers of mother-of-pearl, the higher the quality.

Matching: Since each pearl is a rare creation, more consistence in color and size of a string of pearls method more beautiful jewelry.

Types of pearls

  • Akoya: The original cultured pearl, from Japan and China. Traditionally, the Japanese have produced pearls that are highest in quality and most consistently spherical.
  • Cortez: First discovered by Cortez along the Baja California coasts, these were the ‘Queen of Gems and Gem of Queens.’ Almost harvested to extinction, natural harvesting is now banned, replaced by a young Mexican cultured pearl industry which produces some excellent jewels.
  • Freshwater: China has a virtual monopoly on the freshwater pearl industry. They are rarely round and usually without the luster of saltwater pearls.
  • Mabe: A hemispherical pearl, which make a great pearl ring, but are also used in bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
  • South Sea: Farmed in the waters between Australia and China, these are among the largest cultured pearls with beautiful (and completely natural) white, cream and golden colors.
  • Tahitian: truly grown all over French Polynesia, a Tahitian pearl is naturally grey, silver or black. The most sought after Tahitian pearl is black with peacock overtones.

Fake pearls

Man-made pearl-like objects are called faux, artificial, imitation, manufactured or simulated. Outside the US, they are sometimes sold under trade names like Mallorca pearls, Red Sea pearls, Laguna pearls, and so on. Manmade pearls have no value as jewels, already though these counterfeits sport a realistic turn up at very low cost. Under US law, manmade pearls can’t simply be sold under trade names; they must be clearly identified as imitation.

Pearl jewelry care

Pearls are like teeth–hard, but very breakable. Perfumes, hair spray, already the body’s natural oils can dull pearls’ luster or cloud their radiance. Gently wipe off your pearls after every wearing using a soft, damp cloth. If you spill, clean it closest, especially if the pearl contacts acidic food. Use a soft cloth moistened in fresh water, followed by a separate drying cloth. Wrap pearl jewelry in a soft cloth (damp linen prevents dehydration) and store them in a separate jewelry box. Most people should have their pearls restrung about once per year.

Pearl grades

Most saltwater and freshwater pearls are graded on a four-point extent (AAA; AA; A or B). AAA pearls are closest to spherical and have the highest luster; in strings, they are most closely equaled in size. B pearls have little luster and vary greatly in shape, color, etc., and may have obvious blemishes. A special system is used by Tahitian pearl traders, Tahitian pearls are ranked from A by D using criteria similar to the salt and freshwater systems. So, if someone tries to sell you an A or B-grade pearl, be sure you know who gave out that grade!

Old wives’ tale?

You really can tell if pearls are real by rubbing them against your teeth! Because pearls are natural creations, they are not perfectly round. The surface imperfections of real pearls feel a little rough or gritty against the teeth. Imitation pearls will feel smoother, almost slippery–sorta’ like the guy who’s trying to palm them off as the real deal!

in spite of of when or why you choose pearl jewelry, get what you pay for by knowing what to look for.

For more information:

The US jewelry industry is heavily regulated to prevent misrepresentation or fraud. All jewelry sold in the US must be clearly described according to regulations set by the Federal Trade Commission (

You can also visit the pearl exhibition webpage of the American Museum of Natural History ( or the pearl sellers industry association, (

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