Lessons in Pearls

Types of Pearls

Choosing Pearls | Care for your Pearls

Akoya This is the most familiar type of pearl sold in necklaces. The image that comes to mind upon hearing the word "pearl" is most likely that of an Akoya pearl. Nearly all of the pearls cultured in Japan are Akoya pearls, and most necklaces are strung with this variety. The mother oysters are usually palm-sized, so the pearls themselves are not so large, averaging between 2mm and 10mm. Akoyas from Japan and China are grown in pearl oysters and are known for their shimmering beauty and warm colors which range from rose, cream and gold to silvery white and blue/gray.

South Sea Large (10mm and up) cultured pearls grown in tropical and semi-tropical oysters in the South Seas and around the coast of Australia. Their color ranges from silvery white to gold; they are quite costly due to their size and rarity. South Sea pearls are taken from white-lipped oysters, the largest of the pearl oysters. They are a lovely silvery-grey color, and while they can be up to 15mm in diameter, South Sea pearls of this size are very rare and expensive.

South Sea Half Pearls these thick-nacred pearls are a handsome hemispherical shape, similar to Mabe pearls. The color is the same beautiful silvery-grey as the spherical South Sea pearl introduced above.

Tahitian Black Large (10mm and up) cultured pearls grown in black-lipped oysters in French Polynesia (especially Tahiti). Colors range from silvery gray and green to deep purple and black. Also quite popular, and valuble, is the "peacock green" variety, a deep green with a reddish tinge. Their large sizes and unique colors command premium prices. Other varieties of pearls may be dyed and called "black" pearls, but real, natural black pearls are those taken from black-lipped oysters.

Mabe Large, hemispherical cultured pearls grown against the inside shells of oysters rather than in the oysters' bodies. These are taken from Mabe oysters, and give off a unique rainbow-colored sheen. Thanks to developments in pearl culturing technology in recent years, we have been able to cultivate a few spherical Mabe pearls, in addition to the original hemispherical shape.Though Mabe and South Sea half pearls are the same shape, we make a clear distinction between them, as they are cultivated from different species of oyster. Less expensive than round cultured pearls due to their half-round shape, they are most popular in earrings, rings and brooches.

Freshwater Pearls cultivated in mussels, not oysters, in freshwater lakes and rivers in China, Japan and the United States. These are cultivated chiefly from the bivalve known as the IKECHOUGAI. Due to their easy cultivation, freshwaters are fairly inexpensive. Shapes can be freeform, rice shaped, off-round or spherical and colors range from milky white, to peach, pink, and lavender as well as orange and wine. Recently pearl culturing technology has succeeded in producing specimens so large and spherical that many people mistake them for Akoya pearls at first glance.

Seed Pearls When this pearl is brought into existence in the gonad of the mother oyster, it is very small, resembling a poppy seed. The finished pearl is also quite small, and is produced without a man-made nucleus. During the cultivation period, the mother oyster takes in some foreign particle, such as a tiny pebble, and this becomes the core of the pearl. The pearl's shape can be oval, or distorted according to the shape of the foreign matter forming its core.

Keshi Also known as seed pearls, these tiny pearls can be as small as a grain of sand and form accidentally in many cultured pearl oysters.

Baroque Cultured pearls that are irregularly-shaped, yet often lustrous and appealing. Due to their shapes, baroque pearls are often less costly than round, cultured pearls.

Choosing your Pearls

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There is no official quality grading system for pearls like the four C's for diamonds, but there are characteristics that affect their value: color, luster, surface, shape and size. Contributing greatly to the value of your cultured pearl jewelry is how well matched each pearl is in a strand or earrings. They should all be the same size, shape, color and luster. The more they match, the higher the cost.

Color — Mollusks produce pearls in a wide range of hues. The general color of a pearl is called the body color. White, cream, yellow, pink, silver, gold or black are typical. Whatever color you choose, look for pearls with a deep, rich hue that seems to come from within the gem. Finer quality pearls have a hint of secondary color, or overtone, which is visible when light reflects off the surface. An overtone can be pink, rose, green or blue. So, a pearl necklace may appear white, but when you examine it more closely, you may notice a rosy overtone. While color does not affect the quality of a pearl, it is important that the base color and overtone of all the pearls in a piece of jewelry should match. Sometimes pearls are dyed to meet personal preference or to achieve a desired color; however, the product description should mention this.

Different markets seem to favor some colors over others. White pearls are the most popular in America, while Asia prefers silver. Regional color preference often relates to the skin tones of the wearers. Experts agree that a buyer should base color choice on what will look good on the person who will wear the pearls. Generally, yellow or golden pearls look best on darker skin tones, while pink pearls favor fairer skin tones.

Luster — Lustre is the inner brilliance that deepens and grows as the number of pearl layers increase. This brilliance is the single most important factor in selecting pearls! Just as advocates of finely cut diamonds stress the brilliance and fire of properly proportioned stones; advocates of fine pearls stress the brightness and glow of high lustre pearls! Like the radiance of diamonds, this glow is what first strikes the casual observer of pearls when they are viewed from a distance and none of their other quality characteristics are or can be conspicuous.

This effect is created by light reflected from the pearl's surface and from the many layers of tiny calcium carbonate crystals within the pearl nacre, producing brilliance and sheen. The larger the pearl, the more nacre it has, and the greater its luster.

Surface Smoothness — Like diamonds or other gemstones, pearls are seldom flawless. All natural or cultured pearls are expected to have some surface imperfections, but the fewer and less noticeable they are, the better. The highest-quality pearls are those with the smoothest surfaces, but do not underestimate the beauty of a lustrous pearl with a few tiny wrinkles, bumps, welts and the like.

As a mollusk creates a pearl, sometimes the layers of nacre do not adhere smoothly, so spots and bubbles can appear. These imperfections may be small and unnoticeable or large and distinct. The number and visibility of marks on its surface determines the quality of a pearl. Lustre can drown out pearl blemishes the same way brilliance can drown out diamond flaws. Just as someone will often need a microscope to see diamond flaws, they will often have to peer at a pearl close up to see its blemishes. Stand a few feet back and you will need the eyes of a hawk to see the same flaws especially if the lustre of the pearl is good!

Shape — While pearls come in many different shapes, those that are perfectly round are the most rare and therefore the highest quality and most valuable. Only about 1% are actually perfect spheres. To find out if your strand has perfectly round pearls, just roll it on a flat surface. If it rolls smoothly and evenly, the pearls are round. Small imperfections of shape can sometimes be desirable as long as they are symmetrical. Teardrop-shaped pearls are often used in pendants and earrings.

Jewelers can make beautiful jewelry out of less symmetrical shapes as well. The irregular shapes of baroque pearls work well as necklace accents; a half sphere pearl called a "mabe" is often used in bracelets, necklaces and earrings. However, it is important that the shape of each pearl should be consistent in a strand or earrings.

These shapes are all desirable and can be evaluated for the own aesthetics and affordability. While these exotic pearls give the individual a way to express uniqueness round pearls continue to be a classic and a highly sought after shape. In regard to monetary value the more perfectly round the pearl the higher it's market price.

Size — Pearls come in a variety of sizes. Although pearl size like color is a personal preference, the larger the size the more expensive and valuable the pearl. Assuming all the other factors are equal, the size of a cultured pearl is the most important factor in determining its worth. Large cultured pearls are more rare, and price rises significantly with size.

Even though a pearl is large, it may not be so valuable if it lacks nacre thickness. In time, a pearl without many layers of nacre may crack and discolor, diminishing its value. Only an expert can determine the true thickness of a pearl's nacre.

Millimeters are to pearls what carat weight is to diamonds! Cultured pearls are measured in millimeters; rounds by their diameter, baroques by their length and width. Depending on the type of mollusk that produces them, cultured pearls come in a wide range of sizes, from 3mm freshwater pearls to 15mm Australian or Tahitian pearls. Average pearl diameters: 6 to 8mm Akoya, 5 to 6.5mm freshwater, 11 to 13mm South Sea, 11 to 12mm Tahitian.

Caring for your Pearls

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Taking proper care of your pearls is not difficult if you remember that they are organic--produced by a living thing. Pearls are soft and delicate, but if cared for with common sense, they will maintain their luster for centuries.

  • Pearls should not come in contact with cosmetics, hairspray, perfume, chlorinated water, or other harsh chemicals.
  • To keep them clean, they should be the last item put on when dressing and the first item removed at the end of an evening.
  • The best way to maintain their luster is to wear the pearls often and wipe them down with a soft cloth afterward--pearls absorb the oils from skin, which helps keep them moist.
  • To avoid nicks or chipping, separate pearls from other jewelry by storing them in a cloth pouch or jewelry bag. Don't toss them carelessly into a purse or jewel box where they can become scratched by hard metal edges or harder stones.
  • Pearl strands should be restrung periodically because the silk thread used to tie the pearls together breaks down over time.

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