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The Jewelry Hut
The Cultured Pearl The Buying Guide
Getting to know Gems
How to select, buy, and care for, and enjoy Pearl Jewelry
Selecting pearls to treasure
How to choose Fine pearls
Today, pearls are available to meet every occasion, every personal style, and every budget; some are rarer than others, some much costlier than others. You may wonder how you will ever be able to balance quality, beauty, and value, but it will come more easily than you can imagine, especially if you follow some simple guidelines.
First you must take time to find fine jewelers to explore the many varieties available and decide what type of pearl you really want. Be sure to select reputable, knowledgeable jewelers who will be able to show you a wide selection and help you learn to see subtle differences.
Once you know what type of pearl you want, and the range in price, you must decide how to best meet your own needs.
The secret to getting what type of pearl you really want
If you are like most people, you will find that you have a minimum size with which you are comfortable, and may prefer a particular color or shape. Here are some guidelines to help you get what you want without sacrificing important quality factors.
Never sacrifice lustrousness for this is what sets the pearl apart from all other gems and gives it “life.” Most of all, lustrous pearls will give you many years of pleasure and enjoyment. Such pearls are difficult to find; you won’t find them just anywhere, but when you persevere and succeed, you will experience a rare pleasure and pride every time you wear them. You may even find that strangers can’t resist the urge to come take a closer look and comment!
The secret to getting the pearls you really want is to look for intense luster and orient: the more intense the luster and orient, the less noticeable all other factors become!
This is easy to understand if you think about it for a moment; lustrousness actually creates an optical illusion making subtle differences less noticeable;
A slight out-of-round pearl will look more round in shape because of the optical illusion created by its radiating glow
Moderate surface blemishes are less noticeable because of the optical illusion created by its radiating glow
Color differences are muted by the rainbow like iridescence that pearls with good orient exhibit across their surface
Pearls look larger because their glow emanates outward. Compare smaller pearls with intense luster and orient against larger pearls that are duller or chalkier. You will see that the smaller, lustrous pearls will appear larger than the smaller ones!
Whatever type of pearl you choose; saltwater, freshwater, round, baroque, button, white, black, cream, or gold, you will have something wonderful as long as you choose a pearl with rich luster and iridescence.
When buying pearls, it’s important to take the time to compare various types, sizes, and qualities to develop an eye for the differences. Be sure too search fine jewelers who are most likely to have a wide selection of pearl types and qualities. Her are some suggestions you might find helpful:
Compare the quality factors as you shop. Pay special attention to differences in luster and orient as you compare other factors; color/tint, cleanliness, roundness, and size. You can learn a great deal about pearl quality simply by looking. Keeping each quality factor in mind as you compare, you may find roundness may be poor; if luster and color are good, they may have clean surfaces; shape may be good but matching in the strand may be poor. An so on.
Examine pearls against you neck and face to be sure the color of the pearls suits your skin, eye and hair coloring.
Compare different sizes. As you shop, ask what size the pearls are, and compare differences in cost for the same quality, in different sizes. A double strand of smaller pearls may cost less than a single strand of larger pearls, and create an equally important look.
To help develop an eye for subtle differences, it is sometimes helpful to ask to see the same size pearl, but at different prices. If you compare several different strands that are all the same size, but different prices, the variable will be quality; careful comparison can help you develop greater skill in spotting differences that affect cost.
Ask whether or not the color is natural especially when considering colored pearls (gray, blue, black, golden, green, pink, etc.). Pearls of artificially colored pearls should sell for much less. If the color is natural, be sure it is so stated on the bill of sale.
Be sure to ask whether or not the pearls are genuine or simulated, and be sure that ”genuine cultured” or “genuine natural” is in writing on the bill of sale. Don’t be afraid to use the “tooth test”; it won’t harm the pearls (but remove lipstick first).
Shopping around can be of tremendous help before you buy pearls. It will help you become familiar with the wide range of pearls available within your price range; it will also develop your eye to distinguish quality differences, and help you decide what color, size, shape, and type are best for you. If you take the time to follow this advice, your pearls will be a source of lasting pleasure and pride.
Pearl choices: A world of variety
Never before have there been so many beautiful pearl choices, from so many different parts of the world. In addition to Japan, where the art of culturing pearls was developed and refined, beautiful cultured pearls are being produced in many other countries including Australia, China, the Cook Island, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tahiti. Other countries that may become important sources for cultured pearls; some of which were once known for natural pearls, include India, Mexico, Thailand, Venezuela, Vietnam, and in the United States, Hawaii.
White pearls have certain characteristics in common no mater what their origin, each country or locality seems to produce a slightly different pearl, varying somewhat in color, orient and lustrousness, size or shape. Here we want to give you a glimpse of some of the wonderful pearls now available from major pearl producing nations. The information and descriptions provided here will help you better understand the varieties now available, how they compare to each other, and what your choices are.
Whatever the source, remember that fine pearls are produced in every country, and poor pearls are produced in every country. When making a selection, the basic factors that affect quality must always be considered: luster and orient, color, surface perfection, shape, size, and in fancy color pearls, tone.
Australia: The best of “down under”
Australia is the world’s largest producer of fine white South Sea pearls, producing round beauties that rival the finest that once came from Burma. The finest Australian pearls; large white pearls, are considered by many experts to be the “queen” of today’s cultured pearl market. Australian “keshis” are also very fine. They have become very desirable but are becoming increasingly rare.
Luster and orient. Australian pearls offer a rich, subtle, satiny luster not quite as “silky” as the finest that once came from Burma, some of the finest now produced in Australia have been mistaken for Burmese.
Nacre thickness. Very thick. Pearls are cultivated within the oyster for much longer period of time than Chinese or Japanese varieties; up to three years. The resulting nacre coating than that of the other cultured saltwater pearls, 2 - 2.5 millimeters or more, and future generations.
Color. Primarily in the white family, colors include white-pink (white with a pink blush), the rarest and most prized; silver-white, also highly prized; and warm creamy-pink. They also occur in blue, green gold, and black tones.
Surface. The rarest can be flawless, but as a result of he extensive length of time in the oyster, minor blemishes are more acceptable in Australian pearls than in cultured pearls from China and Japan. As with all pearls, develop your own eye to see what is “normal” so you can better judge what is acceptable to you.
Shape. Fine, round pearls are rarest. Australian cultured pearls are available in round and baroque shapes, symmetrical and asymmetrical.
Size. Rarely smaller than 10 millimeters or over 20, which is exceptionally large and very rare in fine quality.
Treatments. Minimal routine processing is the rule, and while some treatments such as dyeing have been reported, artificial enhancements are much less common. Australian producers have established very high standards and discourage dyeing and chemical treatments.
China: Queen of the freshwater cultured pearl
China has always been a land of contrasts, and so it is today with pearls. It is a land with vast potential, poised to become a world leader in the production of freshwater and saltwater varieties.
China now produces most of the world’s freshwater cultured pearls and is producing a steadily supply of saltwater cultured pearls.
Quality. While there are fine, lustrous Chinese pearls available in a wide range of alluring colors and shapes at very affordable prices, low quality pearls are also being produced in abundance. Quality varies dramatically, however, so it is virtually impossible to make general comparisons to similar varieties from Japan or other countries.
Saltwater cultured pearls. These include “Akoya” and “south Sea” cultured pearls. The best Chinese Akoya are under 6 millimeters in size; South Sea pearls are being produced in sizes over 10 millimeters. Quality varies widely, but generally speaking, Chinese Akoya do not yet compare favorably with fine quality Japanese pearls in their lustrousness, orient, color: surface, shape or size; Chinese South Sea pearls are also normally inferior to those produced by other countries.
Freshwater cultured pearls. These include the “rice-krispie” pearl; narrow, elongated pearls with a crinkled surface, and somewhat larger, smoother “flat” varieties. The smoother, flatter types are often mistakenly compare to those from Japan’s lake Biwa, but in most cases cannot compare in shape, smoothness, and lustrousness.
Potato Pearls are a bright spot in Chinese production. A wonderful new type of nucleated freshwater cultured pearl introduced by China, this creation is a near round, which is how it got its nickname, and occurs in a wide range of colors, including white and pastel shades. While the exact technique used to produce these beauties is not know, it is known to involve implanting a round, all nacre nucleus, perhaps made from a non-nucleated freshwater cultured pearl such as the inexpensive tissue-graft rice-krispie pearl type, shaped into round beads after harvesting and then re-implanted in another freshwater mollusc. Whatever the case, the finest “potato” pearls are very beautiful, all nacre pearls and exhibit a rich luster and orient rivaling a natural pearl. They are much less expensive than other round pearls and provide excellent value and long lasting beauty; unfortunately, sizes rarely exceed 6 millimeters.
Chinese freshwater pearls occurs in every color, size, and shape; including stick, cross, and wing shapes, and every quality. There is a huge range in quality, so be sure to compare carefully.
Pay special attention to the luster, surface, and shape. Also keep in mind that many Chinese fancy color freshwater pearls have obtained their color from dye, and white pearls are routinely subjected to excessive processing.
Treatments. Most of China’s production is routinely bleached and dyed, and many pearls are subjected to extensive treatment.
The Cook Island: Aubergines to Whet any appetite
While similar to other natural color “black” pearls being cultured throughout French Polynesia, this newcomer to the world of cultured pearls is producing some of the most distinctive colors; sensual shades in mauve to aubergine. Designers are just discovering this lovely pearl, and creating some luscious creations!
Luster and orient. Less bright and intense than Japanese pearls; subdued and velvety in character. Less intense luster and orient than Tahitian pearls.
Nacre thickness. Very thick; comparable to that of other cultured South Sea pearls.
Color. While some silvery-gray to black shades are produced with overtones typical to other location in French Polynesia, most exhibit a distinctive bronze to dark gray-brown body color with strong pink overtones. The resulting “dusty rose,” “mauve” and “aubergine” shades are very appealing and distinctive.
Black pearls are currently being produced throughout French Polynesia in about 30 lagoons. Each lagoon produces pearls with slightly varying color characteristics (because of differences in the water itself). The pearls coming from the Cook Islands are produced in just two lagoons, so many of the pearls are very similar in color. For this reason, when one says “cook Island” pearls, a particular shade of color in the rose-bronze category now comes to mind; mauve, dusty rose, aubergine. While very lovely, they are not considered the premier color, so they are considered less valuable than Tahitian black pearls.
Quality. Quality overall, in terms of shape, surface perfection and luster, is inferior to Tahitian cultured pearls. Nonetheless, the finer Cook Island pearls are very lovely and can make an excellent choice at an affordable cost. Avoid low luster pearls.
Size. Rarely under 8 millimeters, but the largest sizes are normally smaller than those being produced in Tahiti.
Treatments. No bleaching, dyeing, or artificial enhancements; minimal routine processing only.
Indonesia and Philippines: A golden future in South Sea cultured pearls
Indonesia and the Philippines have crated more than a ripple with their exotic creamy, yellow and golden pearls; in fact, they’ve created a wave!
For many years, the more traditional “white” pearl was clearly preferred to warm cream or yellow colors. That has changed. As pearl buyers have become more sophisticated, and conformity is longer the rule, color has moved center-stage. Fine quality cultured pearls from Indonesia and the Philippines are a wonderful choice fro many who likes “warm” tones.
Here is a glimpse of the exotic, tranquil character of the Philippine cultured pearl. (We regret that Indonesia, which has produced some magnificent deep gold pearls; as well as some lovely, if somewhat spotted, pink pearls, has suffered a major setback following a series of catastrophic natural disasters and production has been greatly reduced. For this reason, we are focusing on the Philippine pearl here, but barring any further setbacks, the near future looks very exciting for Indonesia.)
Quality. Philippine pearls produced by white lipped oysters as in other South Sea areas, and by a yellow-lipped oyster which can produce rich, deep, dark gold pearls. They are similar in quality to other South Sea pearls; softer luster with good orient, and thicker nacre than Chinese and Japanese cultured pearls, with a wide range of shapes and surface perfection. The overall size is also larger than Japanese and Chinese pearls and comparable to other South Sea pearls )Indonesian pearls are normally smaller than other South Sea pearls and often comparable to large Akoya pearls. In smaller sizes the Indonesian South Sea pearl is an attractive thick nacre alternative to large Akoya pearl). They should be evaluated as any other pearl. Beware of three-quarter pearls sold as round.
Color is the distinctive feature of Philippine and Indonesian pearls, although Indonesia is also beginning to produce some very white pearls in the smaller size range; 10 - 11 mm. Ranging from distinctive cream, sometimes with a strong yellow cast, to rich, deep gold, these colorful pearls can be a striking complement to tan and tawny complexions. The richer the color, the rarer, A fine “fancy” deep golden pearl can be more costly than a comparable white-pink South Sea cultured pearl; pale yellow or yellow-cream is less rare and costs less than comparable white pearls.
In evaluating color, keep in mind that you must develop your eye to learn what is most pleasing to you as well as what colors are most rare and costly, or least rare and most affordable. In addition to “body color” and “overtone,” remember that the “tone”; how light or dark the color appears, is particularly important in evaluating pearls in the yellow range; a shade of difference in tone can dramatically affect price. Remember: When comparing fancy-color pearls, view them in the same type of light whenever possible since their color will look different when viewed in daylight, indoor fluorescent light, incandescent light, or spotlight.
Japan: Home of “Akoya” and “Biwa” cultured pearl
Japan’s Akoya pearl is for most people the “pearl of pearls”; magnificent, lustrous, round, and white! While the finest Japanese cultured pearls are very costly, especially in sizes over 8 millimeters, they are much more affordable than the larger and even costlier South Sea pearls.
In freshwater category, Japan’s “Biwa” pearl (from Lake Biwa) set the standard for freshwater cultured pearls for many years. However, as a result of ecological requirements to protect the lake’s shore, production has now ceased almost entirely. (Many freshwater cultured pearls from China are now sent to Japan and sold as “Biwa” cultured pearl but they are not the same type of pearl, nor do they look like the true Biwa pearls.) Since few Biwa pearls are now available, Japan’s Akoya cultured pearls are our focus here.
Luster and orient. Fine Akoya pearls can exhibit the most intense luster of any white round, saltwater cultured pearl, Look for pearls with high luster and avoid those with low luster, indicating thin nacre. When nacre is thick, you may also see the prized, soft iridescence called “orient” as you turn the pearl (as you “orient” it).
Buy the best quality you can afford, but never accept low luster. Insist on a lustrous pearl, even if this means the shape may be slightly off or the surface somewhat spotted.
Nacre thickness. The nacre coating is less thick on Akoya cultured pearls than on the South Sea Pearls, and the thickness can vary from one producer to another. Overall, however, it is thicker than most Chinese Akoya pearls, and very thick nacre can be found in the very finest cultured Japanese pearls. Nacre thickness generally averages less than 0.4 millimeters in very round pearls, and may be as low as 0.2 millimeters or less. The finest can measure 1.0 millimeter in thickness (on each side of a round pearl, equaling 2 millimeters of total diameter), and in rare cases, over one millimeter.
Color. Normally in the white family. The rarest is white with a surface blush of pink; cream shades are also pleasing, and can be very beautiful; those with a slight greenish overtone cost less but can be very lovely against certain complexions. Overall, “white” Japanese pearls tends to be whiter than the Chinese. Occasionally pearls occur in unusual colors including pink, blue, gold, and gray. Japan is also producing a natural color “black” pearl, which, while smaller than those produced in French Polynesia, is also produced by the “black lip” oyster and is similar in appearance.
Shape. Japanese cultured pearls occur in many shapes including round and baroque; symmetrical and asymmetrical. Rounder than the Chinese, Japanese Akoya pearls are typically more round than all other pearls. Remember, however, that “roundness” is not necessarily an indication of a fine pearl; cultured pearls with very thin nacre are always very round because they have not been inside the oyster long enough to become misshapen. So when selecting round Akoya pearls, be very sure to select pearls with very high luster.
Baroque Akoya pearls are also very desirable; and much more affordable than round, especially in teardrop or other distinctive shapes showing iridescence. Sometimes they resemble flowers or animals, truly unique creations of nature’s exclusive making!
Size. The range is 2 - 12 millimeters in diameter, although they rarely exceed 10 millimeters. There is a dramatic jump in cost after 7-1/2 millimeters, The price jumps upward rapidly with each half millimeter from 8 millimeters and up. Production of Japanese pearls is shifting away from sizes under 6 millimeters, focusing on sizes 6 - 8+ millimeters.
Treatments. The finest receive only minimal routine processing, but some are subjected to excessive treatments including chemical bleaching, tumbling and dyeing.
Tahti: Black pearls of paradise
Few things rival Tahiti when it comes to exotic beauty and romance, and this holds equally true for its pearls; naturally “black” Tahitian cultured pearls are among the most sought after and treasured of all gems. Today, the black cultured pearls of Tahiti set the world standard for black pearls.
Most black pearls are in the gray color range, but the term “black” is used to refer to the overall type produced by a large black lipped oyster. This particular oyster; which measures about 12 inches at maturity, produces a dark nacre that is responsible for the unusual colors seen in this varieties. Be careful not to confuse “natural”; black pearls with natural pearls; in this care, only the color is “natural”; the pearl is cultured. (Natural black, natural pearls also occur. These are rare and are typically a less intense, less desirable black to bronze color.)
Luster and orient. The lustrousness is normally more subdued than other varieties, almost velvety, but they can also exhibit luster so intense that it resembles the metallic sheen of a ball-bearing. Strong iridescence is characteristic, and helps to create the exotic character seen in many of these pearls.
Nacre thickness. Very thick (averaging about 2 millimeters in relation to the total diameter) as a result of a two to three years cultivation period in the oyster.
Color. The colors are dramatic and range from light “dove” gray to a medium deep “gunmetal” gray. Other colors include the rare “peacock” (a vivid green with magenta overtone), “eggplant” (magenta with a green overtone), green, olive-green, blue magenta, and occasionally “sea-foam” green (a silvery green with pale blue overtone). The browner, and bronzier shades are less costly, but can still be very pleasing.
The color in the Tahitian black pearl is often not uniform throughout. The pearl can be subtle gradations from one part of the pearl to another. This also adds to their dramatic appearance and allure. Each is individual. The more uniform the color, the rarer and, in most cases, the costlier.
Surface. Virtually flawless surfaces are exceptionally rare. Minor blemishes are characteristic, but given the darker color of these pearls, they are usually less noticeable, even when somewhat extensive. Most naturally black cultured pearls will exhibit small surface imperfections that can be noticed with close scrutiny; pearls with large, clearly visible imperfections may still be attractive, but should cost less. You must take time to examine a wide selection of Tahitian pearls to develop your own eye to recognize what is or is not acceptable.
Shape. Perfectly round pearls are exceptionally rare, and even rarer in fine quality ( again, as a result of the longer than average cultivation period inside the oyster). Other shapes to consider are near round, button, teardrop, and increasingly popular Tahitian “ringed” pearl which is very affordable and very popular with leading jewelry designers.
Size. Rarely less than 8 millimeters, the average size is 10 - 12 millimeters; 14 - 17 millimeters is considered very large, and these are rare. In fine quality, a single pearl over 14 millimeters is very rare and very costly; a matched strand is exceptionally are and exceptionally costly.
Treatments. Minimal routine processing; no bleaching, dyeing or artificial enhancements as part of routine processing.
Occasionally off-color South Sea and Tahitian pearls are artificially colored black through dyeing, exposure to radiation, or silver nitrate solution, and sold as natural black. While not common, these continue to surface from time to time. For this reason, and in light of their very high cost, when buying fine blacks pearls it is recommended obtaining a laboratory report confirming “natural” color if they are represented as such.
With so many variations in color and shape, we recommend searching several fine jewelers before selecting any Tahitian cultured pearl to be sure you have viewed a wide enough selection to make a choice that best meets your personal taste and desires.
United States: A old new look in pearls
It should come as little surprise that the “new world”; the land known for modern innovation, would be the land to give birth to a daring new type of pearl: the American freshwater cultured pearl. There is no other pearl quite like this American beauty, produced exclusively on pearl farms in the waters of Tennessee. Look for unusual baroque and fancy shapes; if considering a “mabe,” American freshwater solid blister pearls such as the dome make attractive, much more durable alternatives.
Luster and orient. Intensely high luster and rich orient.
Nacre thickness. The thickest nacre of any cultured pearl in relationship to the size of the nucleus.
Color. Wide range of neutral colors including white, silver, gray, cream; natural fancy colors in pink, peach, and lavender shades.
Surface. Virtually flawless surfaces are exceptionally rare as a result of remaining in the mollusc so much longer than any other cultured pearl; minor blemishes are more likely to be present, and are more acceptable than in other cultured pearls.
Shape. Predominantly baroque and “fancy shapes” including bars, drops, pears, coins, ovals, navettes, marquises, and cabochons. Round, heart, and teardrop shapes are available in solid blister type. (Round pearls are available in limited quantities, but dramatically increased cultivation efforts now promise much greater availability in near future.)
Size. Ranges widely depending upon shape; can be as small as a 9 x 11 millimeters cabochon, or as large as 40 x 10 millimeters.
Treatments. Routine cleaning only. No bleaching, dyeing, or artificial enhancements.
Pearl Prices: Some guidelines
Comparing prices is always a complex issue for which most people seek a simple solution. Many would like to have a simple list of pearl types and prices, by quality and size. Unfortunately, with market conditions constantly changing, and without a universally accepted quality grading system, this is not possible.
But this does not mean that one can not be provided with some general guidelines that will help you understand how different types of pearls compare to one another in terms of cost, and how size and quality can affect pricing.
Customer Satisfaction is of paramount important to The Jewelry Hut.
Buy with confidence at The Jewelry Hut.
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