Pearl Basics

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About Pearls

Pearls are one of the most sought after gems in the world.  They are a mark of distinction, elegance, success, and social standing.  Gone are the days of pearl divers who would scour the ocean floors in search of the sea's most valuable treasure.  Pollution and greed have destroyed the ocean's ability to produce pearls.  Today, all pearls, fresh water or salt water, are produced through a grafting process made famous by Kokichi Mikimoto and perfected by Robert Wan of Perles Tahiti.  These pearls are called cultured pearls.

Natural pearls are extremely expensive and the pearl contains no nucleus.  A cultured pearl, fresh water or salt water, contains a nucleus.  Only an X-ray can differentiate between the two so beware of anyone claiming to sell natural pearls.  Someone selling natural pearls will have a Gemological Institute of America (GIA) certification (or equivalent) showing tests and results.  Natural strands will be priced well into $100K and beyond.  These strands can be found in the mideast (around the Persian Gulf), high end auction houses, and luxury jewelers.  However, they will never be found online, on eBay, and will never be less than $100K.  Many Chinese dealers claim to sell natural pearls but refer to cultured pearls.  Although this is generally due to translation from Chinese to English, there are more than a few fraudulent dealers coming from China.

Cultured pearls can be as expensive as natural pearls.  One such example is the Australian white strand bought by Harry Winston at auction for $850K.  Generally, salt water pearls, be they Akoya or South Sea, will start to retail at $1200 (for an Akoya strand grade B) to $3800 (for a South Sea Strand not round grade B).  Wholesale prices begin at $450 for an Akoya strand grade B and $1300 for a South Sea strand grade B.    

Keshi Pearls are natural, irregularly shaped pearls.  These strands are also expensive since they are natural pearls and difficult to match for a strand.  Shell pearls and Mallorca pearls are manufactured pearls.   

Akoya Pearls are cultured in Japan and range in size from 2mm-8mm.  South Sea pearls are cultured in Burma, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, French Polynesia (Tahiti), and The Cook Islands.  These range in size from 7mm to as large as 18mm (or larger).  Beware of Akoya strands claiming to be larger than 8mm since these tend to be manufactured.  The oyster used to produce the Akoya is small and not physically able to generate a large pearl.  South Sea pearls are produced from large oysters resulting in larger pearls.

Pearls are judged and priced according to luster, orient, size, shape, and color.  Luster (also described as shine) is the ability of the pearl to reflect an image.  A pearl with highest luster will have a mirror like surface and reflect the image looking into it with great clarity.  The duller the image, the lower the luster.  A high luster results from deep, even layers of nacre coating the pearl.  Orient refers to the layers and undertones present when you look past the luster (holding the pearl to a white background helps).  It is also called iridescence.  A deep orient means thick layers of nacre coating the pearl and results in many colors in the pearl's undertones. 

The larger the pearl (size), the more expensive with pearls over 12mm being most expensive.  A 0.5mm increase in size can increase the price of a pearl or strand by several hundred dollars.  Shape also influences price; perfectly round being the ideal.  The closer to round, the more expensive the pearl though shapes such as drop, circle, baroque, semi-baroque, and oval are also valued. 

Color is particularly important when judging pearls.  Natural colors are prized.  As a consumer, you would like to see Akoya pearls with a creamy white color with rose/pink undertones, Australian whites with no hues of grey, and Philippine/Indonesian/Burmese pearls with a deep gold or champagne color. 

Black Pearls are cultured in French Polynesia and The Cook Islands from the oyster Pinctada Margaritifera; the black lipped oyster.  They come in a variety of colors with the fancy colors (blue, aubergine, peacock, pistachio, oil slick) being rare and expensive.  Color is determined by the temperature of the ocean and nutrients present where the pearl is being cultured.  A reputable dealer will guarantee and certify their pearls to be a natural color either through a warranted appraisal or GIA certification.

There is no standard classification of pearls as there is with diamonds.  However, pearls are generally classified according to one of two systems.  The first, A, B, C, D, is the most popular with A+ being the highest grade; a pearl with highest luster, deepest orient, minimal, if any, blemishes covering less than 10% of the pearl surface.  This is the classification used by GIA and G.I.E. Perles de Tahiti (GIE PdT).  The second, AAA, AA+, AA, A+, A, B, C, D, is used by pearl farmers and vendors in an effort to seperate the top A+ grade in the GIA, GIE PdT systems.  This second system of grading is used by Circuit Party Jewelers.

There is a third grading system that is considered legitimate and is widely used; AAA, AA+, AA, A.  It is meant to parallel the A-D method used by GIA, GIE PdT.  Be leary of this system since it is meant to fool the consumer on a subconscious level.  For example, the lowest grade, A, is meant to parallel the GIA grade of D.  Some pearl vendors who use this system will claim not to carry anything lower than a grade A.  In consumers' minds, A is better than D and so will shop with that particular vendor.  While it may sound good to the consumer, in reality he/she is being fooled by the vendor since A in this case is really a GIA grade D.  These dealers tend to be overpriced and dishonest though there are some excellent, reputable dealers who use this system.  A reputable dealer, regardless of the system they use, will offer a copy of their pearl grading chart and explain clearly how it relates to GIA, GIE PdT.

The final cost of a pearl or strand of pearls is determined by its luster, orient, size, shape, color, grade and one more factor; matching.  As stated previously, the larger the pearl, the higher the price.  However, pearls that are small, perfectly matched and graded A+/AA+ can be more expensive than a single, large pearl of the same grade.  This is because matching pearls is extremely difficult.  It's almost as difficult as matching snowflakes.  Therefore, two perfectly matched 10mm pearls can be more expensive than one 13.5mm pearl of the same grade whereas one 10mm pearl won't be half as expensive as a 12.5mm pearl of the same grade. 

I hope this guide has been informative and helpful.  If it has, please vote yes.  As always, contact me if you have anything more to add or constructively criticize.  Aloha and ahui hou!

Jose

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