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Pearls:  The Riches Merchandise of All, Buying Guide






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Jewelry and gems; The Buying Guide

The riches merchandise of all, and the most sovereign
commodity throughout the whole world, are pearls

Next to the diamond, there is no gem that has fascinated mankind more than pearlThe oldest known natural pearl necklace is more than 4,000 years old.  Today, pearl is the birthstone for June, the pearl was long believed to possess a special mystical quality, symbolized by the glow that seems to radiate from its very center.  This glow signified to the ancient world a powerful inner life.  In fact, Roman woman are believed to have taken pearls to bed with them to sweeten dreams!  Over time, the pearl has acquired strong associations with love, success, happiness, and the virtues of modesty, chastity, and purity, which it a popular choice for brides on their wedding day.
Pearls offer more versatility than perhaps any other gem; they go well with any style, in any place; they can be worn from morning to evening; they look smart and attractive with sportswear, add an “executive” touch to the business suit, or add elegance to even the most glamorous evening gown.  They are also available in a wide variety ot types, sizes, shapes, colors, and rice ranges. They offer limitless possibilities for creative stringing, which adds up to greater versatility as well as greater affordability.
Pearls have become an essential foe any well-dressed woman today, yet most buyers feel overwhelmed and intimidated by all the choices, and the widely differing prices.  But with just a little knowledge, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you can learn to see and understand variations in characteristics and quality.

What is a pearl?

A pearl is the gem produced by oyster (the non-edible variety) in saltwater, or by a freshwater mollusc.  In either case, a small foreign object (such as a tiny sea parasite from the ocean floor) finds its way into the shell, and then into the tissue of the mollusc. If the intruder becomes trapped, and the oyster can’t rid itself of it, the foreign body becomes an “irritant.”  To ease the discomfort this irritant creates, the mollusc takes defensive action, and produces a blackish substance called conchiolin, over which another substance, a whitish substance called “nacre,” is secreted.  The nacre is composed of microscopic crystals, each crystal aligned perfectly with others so that light passing along the axis of one is reflected and refracted by the others to produce a rainbow like glow of light color.  The pearl is the result of the build up of layer after layer of this nacre. The thicker the nacre, the more beautiful the pearl.

The pearl market is a “cultured” pearl market today

Most pearls sold today are cultured pearls.  Natural; or “Oriental” pearls, as they are sometimes called, have become one of the rarest of all gems, with prices to match.  Cultured pearls are much more affordable.
One way to understand the difference between a natural pearl and a cultured pearl is to think of the natural pearl as a product of the oyster working alone, and the cultured pearl as a product of humans “helping” nature. In the natural pearl, the “irritant” around which the oyster secretes the nacre and produces the pearl is a foreign object which accidentally finds its way into the oyster tissue. In the cultured pearl, humans implant the irritant; a mother-of-pearl bead called the “nucleus.”  After the initial implantation, however, the process by which the cultured pearl is produced is very similar to that in the natural pearl; the oyster produces “nacre” to coat the irritant, layer after layer building up and producing the pearl.  The oyster produces the “nacre;” the oyster produces the finished pearl.  The pearl producers washed the oyster periodically, and control available food, try to maintain constant water temperature and control pollutants, but the oyster itself still has control of the pearl product it produces.
The primary physical difference between the resulting products; natural and cultured pearls, is in the thickness of the nacre. Even though it takes several years to raise the oyster and produce a fine cultured pearl. the pearls are nonetheless harvested much sooner than comparable natural pearls, often when the nacre thickness reaches only 1/2 millimeter.  The nacre on natural pearl is much thicker because it has taken many more years to produce.
Natural pearls are often less perfectly round than fine cultured pearls, and in strands or jewelry containing numerous pearls, naturals usually appear much less uniform in color and shape than do cultured pearls.  The reason for greater uniformity in cultured pearls is that, given the larger quantity of cultured pearls available, it is easier to find and carefully match pearls.
Fine natural pearls are rare and valuable and, for the most part, always have been.  Never take anyone’s word that their pearls are natural, even “inherited” pearls.  Most of the time these inherited heirlooms turn out not to be natural, or even cultured, but fake.  Imitation pearls have been around for centuries.  Even Mrs. Harry Winston and the Duchess of Windsor owned and wore fake pearls. Of course, they also had “real” pearls in the safe!
If you are buying a strand of pearls represented to be natural, make sure they are accompanied by an identification report from a reliable lab.  Natural pearls must be x-rayed to confirm authenticity. Always be sure to have proper documentation, no matter who the owner or how wealthy, or how old the piece.

Cultured versus imitation pearls

Both cultured and natural pearls are produced by the oyster or mollusc.  Imitation pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. They are entirely artificial, made from round glass or plastic beads dipped in a bath of ground fish scales and lacquer, or one of the new plastic substances.  The difference between real and simulated pearls can usually be seen when the two are compared side by side.  One of the most obvious differences is in the luster. Give it the luster test; the real pearl will have a depth of luster that the fake cannot duplicate.  The fake usually has a surface “shine” but no inner “glow.” Look in the shaded area; in the real pearl you see a clearly defined reflection; in the fake pearl you will not.

Use the tooth test to separate the fake

There are some fine imitations today that can be very convincing.  Some have actually been mistaken for fine cultured pearls.  An easy, reliable test in most cases is the “tooth test.” Rub the pearl gently along the edge of your teeth (upper teeth are more sensitive, and also be aware that the test won’t work with false teeth). The genuine pearl will have a mildly abrasive or gritty feel (think of sand at the seaside; real pearls come from the sea), while the imitation will be slippery smooth (like the con artist, slippery smooth signifies a fake!).  try this test on pearls you are genuine, and then on known imitations to get a feel for the difference.  You’ll never forget it!
The tooth test may be unreliable when applied to the Majorica pearl, however.  This is an imitation pearl which might easily be mistaken for genuine.  An experienced jeweler or gemlogist can quickly easily identify the Majorica for you.

The factors that affect pearl quality and value

Now that you understand the differences between natural, cultured, and imitation pearls, let’s talk about quality differences. regardless of the the type of pearl, or whether it is natural or cultured, five factors are evaluated to determine its quality.

  1. Luster and Orient.
    This is the sharpness and intensity of the images reflected from the pearl’s surface (luster) and the underlying iridescent play of colors (orient) which distinguishes the pearl from all other gems. The degree of luster and orient is one of the most important factors in determining the quality and value of the pearl. High luster is perhaps the first thing one notices when looking at a fine strand of pearls.  The higher the luster and orient, the finer the pearl.  Luster usually judged from “sharp” (high) to “dull” (low).  When judging luster and orient, look at the shadow area of the pearl, not the shiny, reflective area (don’t confuse “shine” with the deep iridescent glow created by the combination of luster and orient).
  2. Color.
    Color is usually considered the most important factor affecting value and cost.  There are two elements involved in evaluating color: Body color and overtone. The pearl “body color” refers to the basic color, i. e., white, yellow, black.  The “overtone” refers to the presence of a secondary color (its “tint”), such as the “pinkish” overtone in the fine white pearls.  Color refers to the combination of the body color and overtone.  Very white pearls with a rose-colored overtone (tint) are the rarest and the most expensive. The creamier the color becomes, the less costly they are.  However, today the “rose” tint is often imparted to the pearl through artificial means.  If you use a loupe to examine the drill hole, you may be able to detect the color enhancement if you can see the line of demarcation between the mother-of-pearl nucleus and the nacre; if the pearl has been tinted, the line will show a pinkish coloration.
    Cultured pearls are available in many colors; gray, black, pink, blue, gold, but often these colors have been produced by surface dyes or irradiation techniques.  White pearls that have been drilled for jewelry use (as in a necklace) and then tinted or dyed can usually be detected easily by a qualified gemologist. With rare black pearls it may be necessary to send them to a gem testing laboratory with sophisticated equipment in order to be sure.
  3. Cleanliness (surface texture or perfection).
    This refers to the pearl’s freedom from such surface blemishes as small blisters, pimples, spots, or cracks. Imperfections may also appear as dark spots, small indentations, welts or blisters, or surface bumps.  While occasional small blemish are not uncommon, if large or numerous they are unsightly. A pearl with sizable or numerous blemish may also be less durable. The cleaner the skin, the better.  Also, the closer the blemish to the drill hole, the less it detracts from both appearance and value.
  4. Shape.
    Shape in pearls is divided into three categories: spherical, symmetrical, and baroque.  The rarest and most valuable is the spherical or round pearl; these are judged on their degree of “Sphericity” or roundness. While perfectly round pearls are extremely rare, the closer to perfectly round, the finer and more expensive the pearl. Button pearls and pear shaped pearls are symmetrical pearls, and are judged on evenness and good symmetry, that is, whether they have a nice, well proportioned shape.  Symmetrical pearls are less expensive than round pearls, but much more expensive than baroque pearls, which refers to irregularly shaped pearls. Any strand of pearls should be well matched for shape, and when worn give the appearance of uniformity.
  5. Size.
    Natural pearls are sold by weight. They are weighted in “grain,” with four grains equal to one carat. Cultured pearls are sold by millimeter size (one millimeter equals approximately 1/25 inch): their measurement indicates the number of millimeters in the diameter of the pearl.  Two millimeter dimensions; length and width, may be given if the pearl is not round. The larger the pearl, the greater the cost.  A 2 millimeter cultured pearl is considered very small, whereas those over 9 millimeters are considered very large.  large cultured pearls are rarer, and are more expensive.  There is a dramatic jump in the cost of cultured pearls after seven and a half millimeters.  The price jumps upward rapidly with each half millimeters up.

Another factor affecting the value of any pearl item which has been strung, as in a necklace, is the precision which went into the matching of the pearls; this is called the “make.” Consider how well matched the strand is in size, shape, color, luster, and surface texture. Graduated pearls also require careful sizing.  failure to match carefully will detract from both the appearance of the item and its value.

Types of Pearls

The best known pearl is the round pearl produced by saltwater oysters. The most famous of these is Japan’s Akoya pearl.  The finest Akoyas are more perfectly round than other pearls and have the highest luster, which makes them very desirable. Unfortunately, for those who prefer very large pearls, they rarely exceed 10 millimeters in diameter, and when they do, they command a stellar price.

Biwa and other freshwater pearls

Biwa Pearls are grown in fresh water (lakes and rivers) and derive their name from lake Biwa in Japan, where very fine pearls are cultivated.  Until recently, the term “Biwa” was often used for any fresh water pearl. Today it is used only for those from Lake Biwa.
Fresh water pearls are grown in many countries, including the United States Japan, China, and Ireland. Common mussel-type molluscs are used. The process does not require the insertion of a mother-of -pearl bead, so the pearls grow much faster and, unlike the saltwater oyster, which normally produces only one or two pearls, each mussel can simultaneously produce many.  As a result, most freshwater pearls are much less expensive than their saltwater counterparts.
The most familiar freshwater pearls have long, narrow, rice shaped outlines, generally wit a “wrinkled” surface, although the surface can be smooth. They can also be round, but these are rare and expensive.
Some of the world’s most prized; and most beautiful, pearls are natural freshwater pearls. These are very expensive and can compare to the price of natural saltwater pearls.  Frequently whiter than the natural natural saltwater pearl, these are the pearls that were so cherished by the Romans; pearls found in the rivers of the European countries they conquered. The only reason the Roman legions ever ventured into England, it is rumored, was to search for the rare and beautiful pink freshwater pearls found in Scotland!
Cultured freshwater pearls also occur in interesting shapes, as do the natural; in fact, natural “angel-wing” pearls from Mississippi River and other nearby rivers and lakes are very collectible.  Cultured pearl producers are experimenting with culturing freshwater pearls in special shapes, such as “crosses.”
Freshwater pearls occur in a wide range of colors; a much wider variety than round, saltwater pearls, which give them a special allure.  Colors include light, medium, and dark orange, lavender, purple, violet, blue, rose, and gray.  Large natural freshwater pearls in unusual colors can be very expensive.  Freshwater pearls may also be dyed. Be sure to ask if the color is natural.
Another interesting feature of freshwater pearls is that they can be worn singly or grouped in alternating colors, either hanging straight or twisted for an even more interesting effect. In addition to the versatility offered by the many color options, freshwater pearls (with the exception of round) are very inexpensive, so one can afford to buy many strands and create in almost endless variety of looks.

Baroque Pearls

A baroque pearl, technically, is any pearl that is not “round” and has an interesting irregular shape (don’t confuse a with round pearl that is simply “out-of-round”; it must have a distinctive enough shape to be interesting and attractive).  They are produced by both saltwater and freshwater molluscs and can be natural or cultured.  They have a distinctive appeal because of their very beautiful tints of color and iridescent flashes. Their irregular shape renders them far less valuable than round pearls.  Nonetheless, they make beautiful versatile fashion accessories.

Today’s pearl market is filled with variety

In addition to these general pearl classifications, there are many other interesting varieties of pearls from which to choose. Here are some of the most popular.

  • Button pearls.
    Button pearls is type of saltwater pearl which has a shape that resembles a “squash” or the pope’s cap.  With a shape that can be distinctive and interesting, they are always peg-mounted or glued into settings and are usually used for earrings or rings. They are expensive than fine, round pearls.
  • Tear drop pearls.
    Tear drop pearls sometimes called “pear shaped,” these pearls are very lovely and highly desirable.  In large sizes, especially in matched pairs, and when truly symmetrical, these pearls can be very expensive.
  • Half pearls.
    Half pearls are usually small pearls (two to three millimeter) which have been cut in half to use for border decoration, as in a continuous row of pearls surrounding a cameo or center stone. They are inexpensive, but create a lovely effect.
  • Three-quarter pearls.
    Three-quarter pearl is a round pearl which has had approximately one quarter of it cut off due to blemish or imperfect shape. These are mounted in cups to conceal the bottom and create the illusion of a full round pearl. Be suspicious of any pearl set in a cup that seems disproportionately large; it may contain a three-quarter pearl.  These are frequently used in earrings. They are much less expensive than a full round pearl.
  • Seed pearls.
    Seed pearls are very, very tiny round, natural pearls, usually under tow millimeters in size. Seed pearls are often seen in antique jewelry.
  • Keshi pearls.
    Very small pearls which are a by product of producing cultured pearls. They resemble seed pearls in appearance, but are less expensive.
  • Mabe (Mobe) pearl.
    Mabe (Mobe) pearl, a dome shaped, available in a variety of shapes, the most common being round or pear shaped.  This is an assembled “blister” pearl (a hollow blister that forms on the side of the interior of the oyster, which is removed and then filled).  It has a very thin nacre coating, an epoxy center, and a mother-of-pearl backing. these pearls are produced very inexpensively, and require extra care, but they provide a very large, attractive look at affordable prices, compared to other pearls of comparable size. They are especially popular for earrings and rings.
  • Solid blister pearl.
    Solid blister pearl, a dome-shaped pearl similar to the mabe but not assembled, this type of pearl is produced in freshwater lakes in Tennessee. It’s available in several shapes, and has a distinctive look created by a mother-of-pearl background, retained from the shell lining when the pearl is removed.  these pearls also have an unusually high luster and a lovely iridescent play-of-color across the surface.  They are more expensive than mabe pearls, but also more durable.
  • South Sea Pearls.
    Most are produced in the waters off Australia, Indonesia, and Philippines in saltwater oysters A much larger variety than the Japanese oyster, many exceed a foot in diameter. South Sea pearls usually start at 10 millimeters in size, and go up from there.  Pearls from 11 to 14 millimeters are average. Pearls over 16 millimeters are considered very large.  The South Sea Specimens are often less perfectly round and have a less intense luster than their smaller Japanese counterpart, but they are very beautiful and very expensive.  The rarest, most expensive color is a warm pinkish-white, but the silvery-white is perhaps more in demand and therefore also expensive.  Yellow-whites also exist, but these are the least popular and sell much less.  “Fancy” intense yellow (truly rich yellow, not in any way to be confused with off-white or yellow-white) and a wide variety of hues including many “golden” tones, are now in great demand. These are less expensive than the finest whites, but they can still be expensive.  South Sea pearls are rare in fine qualities, and more expensive than most other pearls.
  • Burmese pearls.
    Burmese pearls, very large cultured pearls (10 millimeters and up) grown in a particular type of large oyster found only off the coasts of Burma. They are classified as “South Sea” pearls, and for many years these oysters produced the rarest, finest, and most valuable pearls in the world.  The best possess an exceptionally high luster, unmatched by any other South Sea pearl, and a fine pink-white color.  In recent years the quality of Burmese pearl has been deteriorating, however, because of complicated political situation reducing availability of skilled technicians and disrupting quality control.  Very few fine Burmese pearls are being produced today, and most are mixed in with other “South Sea” pearls.
  • Tahitian Black Pearls.
    Tahitian Black Pearls, large pearls produced by a black-lipped saltwater oyster unique to the waters of Polynesia.  They range from gray to black in color, and the color is natural; both natural pearls with natural black color, and cultured pearls with natural black color have been found.  These varieties are distinctive because of their unusual shades of color, including tones of gray, blue gray, gunmetal gray, brown black, or greenish black. The color in the Tahitian black pearl, however, is often not uniform throughout.  The stone can be black on one end, and much lighter on the other end. The rarest and most expensive color for Tahitian black pearl is black with an iridescent peacock green overtone. Tahitian black pearls are seldom smaller than eight millimeters.  they are rarely perfectly round.  Teardrop shaped baroque pearls are more common. As with other South Sea pearls, these are rare and expensive. Remember, however, not to confuse “natural” black color with being a “natural” pearl; most are cultured. In addition, beware of “irradiated” or “dyed” black pearls, which are common and inexpensive.

Choosing your pearls

When buying pearls, it’s important to take the time to compare various types, sizes, and qualities to develop an eye for differences. Here are some suggestions you might find helpful:

  • Compare the pearl quality factors as you shop.
    Pay attention to differences in luster and orient. color/tint, cleanliness, roundness, and size. Pay special attention to the luster and orient. This is the most important quality factor you should learn to judge.
    You should also weigh the innumerable variables in quality against each other: if luster is good, roundness may be poor; if roundness is good, luster may be poor; if luster and color are good, they may not have clean surfaces; shape may be good but matching in the strand may be poor.  You can learn a great deal about pearl quality simply by looking.
  • Examine pearls against your own neck and face to be sure the color of pearls suits your skin and hair coloring.
  • Ask whether or not color is natural,
    especially when considering colored pearls (gray, blue, black, etc.).  Pearls of natural color often sell for much more than white pearls, whereas dyed pearls should sell for much less. If color is natural, be sure it is so stated on the bill of sale.
  • Compare the pearl size.
    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 create and equally lovely look, and cost less than a single strand of larger pearls.
  • Be sure to ask whether or not 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 teat;” if 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 ranges; it will also develop your eye to distinguish quality differences, and help you decide what color, size, and shape is best for you. If you take the time to follow our advice, your pearls will give you unending pleasure and pride.

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