Buying Guide to Pearl Jewelry

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The classic elegance and luster of real pearls has been prized for centuries, and popularized by everyone from Cleopatra to Jackie O. Richly symbolic and rare, pure and precious, pearls have a beauty that glows from within.

Seeking the perfect set of pearls means matching quality with personal style, and we’ve got the guidelines to help you do both.

Jewelry: Pearls

So what’s the best way to choose the best pearls?

Pearls are the gemstone of the sea, created by oysters and mollusks that, in reaction to a foreign particle getting trapped inside of them. To smooth it over, the shellfish secretes layers of calcium carbonate that over time create a pearl.

Natural pearls are valued according to luster, shape, size, surface, and color — exactly the qualities you probably would have been drawn to without knowing why. First select the type of pearl based on the color, quality and origin. There are many to choose from including cultured, freshwater, Akoya and Tahitian, all of which have different characteristics based on where in the world the pearl was created.

Next, choose the size and shape of the pearl you want. Because they're created by individual shellfish, pearls can also showcase your individuality.

How do you spot and identify quality?

The luster of a pearl describes the way its surface seems to glow and reflect light, and it is considered one of the most obvious and important features of a pearl’s quality. High quality luster creates a reflective, mirror-like surface while poor luster looks milky or chalky.

The surface quality of a pearl, also known as its skin, is judged by the number of existing spots or blemishes. The fewer the flaws, the higher the value. In some cases, however, the imperfection of divots, dents or scratches also serves as a testament to its natural origins (it’s real!) as well as providing a unique form of identification for its owner.

Although several grading systems exist worldwide, Bed Bath and Beyond adheres to a scale that grades the luster, surface and shape of a pearl from A to AAAA, with A representing good and AAAA representing exceptional.

Pearl Luster Grade:

Pearl Luster Grade

The surface quality of a pearl, also known as its skin, is judged by the number of existing spots or blemishes. The fewer the flaws, the higher the value. In some cases, however, the imperfection of divots, dents or scratches also serves as a testament to its natural origins (it’s real!) as well as providing a unique form of identification for its owner.

Pearl Shapes:

When it comes to shape, naturally round, symmetrical pearls are prized for their rarity and considered the most valuable. Following the popular, round pearl, in order of descending value are the following shapes: off-round (or slightly oval); semi-baroque (not round but instead pear, tear-drop, egg or button shaped); and baroque (an irregular shape with uneven surface).

Pearl Colors:

Color also factors into the value of a pearl, but it is not subjected to a grading scale because they are considered a matter of personal taste (as well as what looks most flattering against your skin tone).

In fact, although rosy white, silvery white and pale gold are considered the most popular colors, the shade or hue of a pearl is not an indication of quality. Choose from a range of pale ivory, gold, silver and pink to numerous shades of gray as well as aubergine, peacock green, and on very rare occasion, black.

Although the range of colors occurs naturally, some pearls are dyed or irradiated (to the core) to achieve a specific, colorfast shade.

What size is the best?

Pearls are measured in millimeters across their diameter, and although not directly considered an indication of quality, size does have an impact on price. Some strands of pearls feature graduated sizes of pearls, with larger pearls in the center and smaller ones at the ends.

Although pearls were once sought in the wild, many of today’s most beautiful pearls are “cultured” and farmed, meaning the oysters or mussels are manually treated with an irritant designed to stimulate pearl production.

The process of “seeding” the oysters and mussels, however, does not necessarily guarantee a pearl. In fact, although millions of irritants are planted inside shellfish, it is estimated only 50 percent will grow to adulthood and produce a worthy gem.

One of the reasons why real pearl jewelry is so highly valued is that it may require sorting through 10,000 pearls to find 50 matched pearls suitable for a high-quality, 16- inch necklace.

Freshwater Pearls Vs. Saltwater Pearls

Pearls occur in both fresh water (mussels) and salt water (oysters).

Freshwater pearls are more commonly found than their saltwater counterparts, making them generally more affordable. (Even so, it’s not unheard of for an especially rare and flawless freshwater pearl to command top dollar.) But that doesn’t mean these pearls are any less attractive. Freshwater pearls boast colors ranging from traditional white hues to alluring lavender shades. Freshwater pearls are primarily farmed in China, but they are also produced in Japan and in the Mississippi River Basin of the U.S.

Saltwater pearls, which include Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls, can be found in bays, inlets, and atolls throughout the central Indo-Pacific region. Saltwater pearl varieties differ in color, shape, size and, of course, price.

South Sea pearls are the most rare — and largest in size — of all pearl varieties and come in white and gold. Tahitian pearls, with their plethora of exotic dark colors, are considered second only to South Sea pearls in terms of value.

Akoya pearls are the most abundant cultured saltwater pearl. Boasting a consistently round shape, this variety is often referred to as the classic pearl, known for a brilliance and luster so clear you can sometimes see your reflection. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tend to be the most affordable saltwater pearl.

Natural Pearls Vs. Cultured Pearls

Cultures throughout the world have cherished the pearl for centuries. Pearls are naturally breathtaking — unlike precious gems, they don’t need to be mined, polished, or cut. For this reason, they have long been regarded as a symbol of purity andbeauty.

In today’s jewelry industry, cultured pearls are the standard. It takes pearl farmers less than two years to produce a pearl, whereas natural pearls can take up to 10 years to fully form. In order to determine a natural pearl from a cultured pearl, use of an x-ray and trained eyes are necessary. The outer layers of both are the same material. It's the inner core or nucleus of the pearl that is different.

Although natural pearls still exist in nature (historically they were found in the Persian Gulf), they are extremely rare. A natural pearl is likely to fetch a high price on the market, regardless of its size or color. In fact, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a perfect strand of natural pearls to command hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pearl Varieties

Use this chart to note the differences between freshwater pearls and the three primary varieties of saltwater pearls.

Pearl Origins (Farms) Size Shape Color Rarity
Fresh Water China, Japan and U.S. 2mm to 15mm+ Multiple shapes available Ranges from white to various shades of pastel pinks and lavenders Most commonly produced pearl
Akoya China, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Thailand 2mm to 10mm (7mm is average) Consistenly round Neutral white to cream Relatively rare
Tahitian French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Micronesian Islands 8mm to 18mm Drops, baroques, buttons and circles (round is most valuable) Primarily black, but can range from creamy gray to iridescent peacock Very rare
South Sea Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia 8mm to 20mm Baroque to round Mostly neutrals — silver, white, cream and golden colors The most rare pearl, especially those exhibiting golden colors

Great Lengths!

Classic pearl necklaces range in traditional lengths from short chokers to long, rope length strands. Your fashion sense and personal style will dictate the design that’s right for you.

14 to 16 inches – Choker

This is the average choker length, fitting closely around the neck and falling just above the collarbone. It is a becoming length for most necklines and is often very popular with younger women, as it lends a sweet look to any outfit. Chokers with a little more length—closer to 16 inches—could possibly work when coupled with a pendant or pin for an additional accent.

Choker Length

18 inches – Princess

This length is often referred to as the princess length and is a very popular choice. It falls directly at or a little below the collarbone, allowing a little more drape than the choker lengths. Pendants are quite becoming when added to chains of this length, which is one of the reasons this is one of the most common necklace lengths.

Princess Length

20 to 24 inches – Matinee

At this length, sometimes referred to as the matinee length, a necklace falls further past the collarbone and begins to make a statement that is slightly bolder than the choker or princess lengths. This is the preferred length for either low necklines or to accompany a turtleneck. It is also often used for layering with other lengths. The 24-inch matinee is an intermediate length between the shorter matinee and longer opera lengths. It’s a common choice for eveningwear or for styles and pendants, necklaces or strands that need to make a statement or splash. It’s also an acceptable business-style length. Falling below the neckline, the 24-inch length begins to remove emphasis away from the neck area.

Matinee Length

30 to 36 inches - Opera

The bold, attention-getting opera length is surprisingly versatile for an array of body shapes. Typically saved for formal occasions, the opera length can work equally well in a single- or double-strand style.

Opera Length

36+ inches - Rope

Longer (36+ inches) styles are known as rope necklaces. Like the opera length, they can work In single or double-strand styles, and are usually reserved for formal events or business. They can also be knotted for a different look.

Rope Length

Pearls should be gently cleaned with a damp, soft cloth, or chamois.

Their soft, organic surfaces are vulnerable to heat and chemicals and should never be cleaned with detergent or bleach. Toothbrushes and other abrasive materials are also a no-no. Pearls scratch easily!

Along the same lines, subjecting your pearls to perfumes, lotions, makeup, and hairspray should also be avoided.

Since quality pearl jewelry is often strung using silk thread, it is wise to remove your pearls before swimming or bathing. It is also a good idea to keep an eye on your strand of pearls and notice if they seem to be “loosening up.” This may be an indication that the string is stretching. Pearls worn frequently should be restrung once a year by a professional jeweler.

Finally, to prevent scratching, store your pearls in soft pouches away from other jewelry.