The Elegant Woman’s Guide: How to Buy Pearl Jewelry

Fashion

PEARL JEWELRY

A Complete Buyer’s Guide

Pearls have been renowned for their status as a symbol of refinement and wealth for millennia. 

Pearls are produced by most molluscs, such as some species of clam and freshwater mussels. However, the gemstones produced by oysters have reigned most popular and valuable throughout history for their timeless charm.

However, before embarking on buying pearl earrings, it is imperative to first gain a comprehensive understanding of pearl terminology. This will enable you to differentiate between natural and cultured pearls, varieties of pearls, and their quality, particularly with respect to their lustre, nacre and surface quality. You can then be empowered to select the perfect pearl jewelry that harmonises with your individual style.

SECTION I

Natural Pearls vs. Cultured Pearls

It is important to firstly mark the difference between the two main classifications of pearls: natural (wild) pearls, and cultured pearls.

WHAT ARE

Natural Pearls

Bavarian crown jewels

Cultured pearls are real pearls formed following a similar process to natural pearls but involve human intervention on pearl farms. The five stages of cultured pearl production include oyster selection, nucleus implanting, nurturing, harvesting and then pearl processing, which involves nucleus implantation. A tissue graft is inserted from a donor mollusc, which initiates the formation of layers of nacre. 

Cultured pearls make up over 95-99 per cent of pearls sold worldwide. Chinese pearl production comprises 90-98 per cent of global cultured pearl production. The price of freshwater pearls ranges greatly, depending on the environment in which it is cultured. 

WHAT ARE

Cultured Pearls

Pearl production and pearl farming in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cultured pearls are real pearls formed following a similar process to natural pearls but involve human intervention on pearl farms. The five stages of cultured pearl production include oyster selection, nucleus implanting, nurturing, harvesting and then pearl processing, which involves nucleus implantation. A tissue graft is inserted from a donor mollusc, which initiates the formation of layers of nacre. 

Cultured pearls make up over 95-99 per cent of pearls sold worldwide. Chinese pearl production comprises 90-98 per cent of global cultured pearl production. The price of freshwater pearls ranges greatly, depending on the environment in which it is cultured. 

SECTION II

Saltwater Pearls vs. Freshwater Pearls

The primary determinant of cultured pearl quality is the type of environment in which the host mollusc is grown. Thus, both natural and cultured pearls can be subdivided into saltwater pearls or freshwater pearls. 

DIVING INTO EXCEPTIONAL QUALITY

Saltwater Pearls

Natural saltwater pearls are cultivated in oysters in saltwater environments (including seawater). They are prized for their exceptional rarity and high quality. In fact, pearl-producing mollusks were almost hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, these gems are extremely rare. Only about one in every 5,000 to 10,000 oysters produces a natural pearl of noteworthy size and quality. This rarity is reflected in their market value. Price per carat of wild saltwater pearls tends to soar at auctions from 10 to 20 times the price of their cultured counterparts. 

The organic formation process within oysters takes several years for wild saltwater pearls. This thereby contributes to the exclusivity of these pearls. 

Conversely, cultured saltwater pearls (which are cultivated with human intervention), are more available in greater supply. They are therefore marketed at a fraction of the price of wild pearls, albeit they retain their high quality. 

Notable Features of Saltwater Pearls

Renowned Varieties

Amongst the most renowned varieties are the illustrious Akoya pearls, Tahitian “black” pearls, and South Sea pearls.

Their supply predominantly originates from farms in Japan, Australia, Indonesia and China.

Exceptional quality

Saltwater pearls are celebrated for their unparalleled quality, durability, thick nacre and high lustre.

The growing duration of a cultured saltwater pearl is typically shorter than a wild cultured pearl, and can take 1 to 5 years.

  • This time allows for the gradual deposition of thick, well-structured nacre layers that contribute to their characteristic high lustre.
  • Wild saltwater pearls may exhibit varying nacre quality based on the mollusk’s natural processes. Nacre quality will be more uniform and consistent in cultured saltwater pearls. 

Precise, complex extraction

Saltwater pearls are much more difficult to extract than their freshwater counterparts.

  • Their extraction requires surgical precision, as saltwater oyster species like Pinctada spp. typically have thicker shells that are more sensitive. Their pearls are often grown deeply, resulting in more labour-intensive and hence costly harvesting. 

Premium pricing

The exclusivity of wild saltwater pearls is mirrored in their prices; they command high prices due to their rarity and high production costs. 

  • Cultured saltwater pearls are more accessible and affordable, making them a popular choice in the market.
  • However, saltwater pearls on the whole are generally more expensive due to their high production costs and high quality from their exquisite lustre and nacre composition. 
FROM THE RIVERS OF RADIANCE

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls are grown within freshwater mussels that are typically found in freshwater rivers, lakes, or streams.

Similar to wild saltwater pearls, wild freshwater pearls are incredibly rare.

Though, whether they are wild or cultured, freshwater pearls take significantly less time to form than their saltwater counterparts. 

This means cultured freshwater pearls stand as the most prevalent choice in today’s market due to their accessibility and affordability. Their abundance is attributed to innovative cultivation techniques that involve inserting multiple irritants at once into freshwater mussels, prompting the formation of pearls.

Notable Features of Freshwater Pearls

Shape and Size

Cultured freshwater pearls are cultivated in more controlled environments that manage factors influencing pearl growth, such as size of the irritants inserted by pearl farmers.

Therefore, these pearls often exhibit larger and more uniform sizes to align with industry standards and meet consumer demand, such as that for spherical pearls.

As a result, cultured freshwater pearls generally offer a more consistent and desirable range of sizes for jewelry purposes. This can be from 2.0-3.0mm up and up to 11.0-12.0mm. 

Meanwhile, wild freshwater pearls often exhibit irregular shapes.

Traditionally lower nacre quality and soft lustre

Cultured freshwater pearls have had historically thinner nacre and lower lustre than saltwater pearls.

  • The shared space and resources competed for amongst the multiple pearls in one mollusc leads to slower nacre deposition, resulting in a thinner coating.
  • Thinner nacre can diminish the lustre of pearls. This is due to the light being reflected and refracted less effectively within the thinner nacre layers.

However, more recent advances in technology and pearl farming practices continue to narrow the gap between the nacre thickness and lustre of cultured freshwater and saltwater pearls.

Consider a minimum nacre thickness of at least 0.4mm in freshwater pearl varieties as an indication of good quality.

High accessibility

Freshwater pearl cultivation pearls dominate global pearl market supply due to their accessibility and versatility.

  • Their high accessibility comes from the ability of each freshwater mussel to produce up to 40 pearls per mussel. 
  • A single harvest can yield many freshwater pearls due to the nucleation of multiple irritants at once. The shorter cultivation period also leads to more efficient production and abundant supply.
  • These freshwater pearls are easier to extract due to the mollusc’s thinner shells. 
  • Their streamlined cultivation, ease of extraction and shorter production times makes freshwater pearls a more economically viable option for mass production.

Lower pricing than saltwater varieties

Wild freshwater pearls command high prices due to their rarity and high production costs. 

Cultured freshwater pearls are more accessible and affordable than their wild counterparts and saltwater pearls.

  • The cultured pearl industry benefits from economies of scale, making production more cost-effective.
  • However, their value can vary widely depending on their quality. 
  • Price range can vary widely depending on factors like size, shape, lustre, and surface quality, offering a broad range of options to suit different budgets.*
  • Their quality can be good when these factors meet industry standards. Though they may not reach the same level as some high-end natural pearls or saltwater pearls. 
EDITOR’S NOTE

Shopping Freshwater Pearls

Whilst pearl shopping, one will inevitably encounter the ubiquitous term “freshwater pearls.”

Wild freshwater pearls are incredibly rare. Hence, the vast majority of freshwater pearls available in their saturated market are cultured. They are widely available at much less expensive prices (compared to saltwater pearls) due to their high supply in the global pearl market.

Beyond the efficient, low-cost production model of freshwater pearls, cheap pearls may cost less due to lower quality supplies with low lustre, thin nacre, low matching, or may have non-uniform shapes.

To understand how to navigate the modern freshwater pearl market, let us first understand into the important historical context between Japanese and Chinese freshwater pearls, their main types, and where to source them.

COMPARISON

Japanese vs. Chinese Freshwater (Cultured) Pearls

Japanese Freshwater Pearls

  • These pearls have an intriguing history dating back centuries. Japanese pearl farmers pioneered freshwater pearl cultivation in the early 20th century. Biwa pearls, originally from Lake Biwa, and Kasumi pearls from Lake Kasumi-ga-Ura, are highly prized for their rarity and distinctive beauty. For example, Kasumi pearls are known for their metallic lustre and a range of natural colours, including pink, lavender, and gold. Each pearl is unique, with an irregular shape and variable surface texture.
  • However, due to environmental challenges and over-harvesting, the Japanese freshwater pearl industry declined over the years. They often command higher prices due to their limited production and quality.
  • Japanese pearls often showcase pastel hues and slightly irregular shapes due to the conditions in Lake Biwa.
  • However, other modern Japanese pearl types have emerged, including Edison and Kasumi pearls as described below.

Chinese Freshwater Pearls

  • In contrast, China emerged as a dominant player in the freshwater pearl market. Chinese pearl farmers embraced innovative techniques and cultivated pearls in a variety of freshwater environments. This shift led to the rise of Chinese freshwater pearls, which are now renowned for their diversity and affordability. 
  • Chinese freshwater pearls, on the other hand, can display a wide range of colours and shapes, reflecting the diversity of their cultivation environments, such as rivers and ponds.
  • Edison pearls are another modern Japanese freshwater pearl more widely available than Biwa pearls. Though, they are now more commonly linked with Chinese production.
    Edison pearls are known for their large sizes, round shapes, and vibrant colours. They often exhibit a high lustre and smooth surfaces.

The variations in nacre quality and surface characteristics are shaped by the distinct ecosystems and water quality in each region. These collectively contribute to the unique appeal of freshwater cultured pearls from Japan and China.

IMPORTANT NOTE

Sourcing Quality, Authentic Freshwater Pearls

Only 1-2 pearls out of every 100 freshwater cultured pearls meet the gem-quality industry standards that qualify for fine jewelry. 

Cultured pearls are more accessible, accounting for a significant percentage of the world’s pearl production. 99.99% of all cultured Freshwater pearls are farmed in China’s freshwater lakes and man-made aquaculture farms.

Due to their high accessibility in the pearl market and lower price ranges (from $30 and upwards), consumers must be wary when assessing the quality of freshwater cultured pearls.

To reduce your risk as a consumer, source cultured freshwater pearls from trusted pearl specialists, brands and reputable jewellers (that sell reputable pearl brands) for consistent high quality pearl jewelry.

SECTION III

How to Assess Pearl Jewelry Quality

The ‘unit base price’ in pearl jewelry represents the value of a pearl. It is determined by various factors to assess pearl quality, such as the 7 Pearl Value Factors™ framework established by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), a nonprofit organisation founded in 1931.

These factors encompass size, shape, colour, lustre, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching in determining the worth and desirability of pearls in the market. 

The vision of the GIA as a standardised grading system was to protect jewelry buyers through providing transparent universal standards to assess gemstone quality. The institution aids consumers in making informed choices whilst empowering jewellers and retailers to accurately represent the value of pearls they offer, thus contributing to the overall integrity of the pearl trade.

Let us now explore each factor that can be used to assess pearl quality.

Lustre

One of the most significant and desirable attributes of a high-quality pearl is high lustre. GIA Pearl Grading for lustre ranges from excellent, good, fair, or poor.

Low lustre refers to a dull, hazy or almost chalky reflection that appears dull or diffused on the pearl’s surface.

High lustre comprises three main components of i) brilliance, ii) inner luminosity, and iii) the measurement of the rate of reflected light. All three factors are essential to evaluate pearl quality and value. 

COMPONENTS OF LUSTRE

Graphic showing light ray reflection off surface to visually explain pearl brilliance

The smoother and more even the surface of the pearl, the better it can reflect light sharply at an equal angle to which it hit the surface. This results in high brilliance. This process is akin to the reflection of light off a mirror, where a smooth, polished surface ensures a sharp reflection.

​For example, Akoya pearls showcase great brilliance due to their spherical symmetry and consistently deposited nacre. Light dances uniformly across their surfaces, reflecting at equal angles. In contrast, the irregular contours of baroque pearls hinder this equilibrium, causing light rays to scatter and result in a softer glow and diminished brilliance. 

The layers of nacre in pearls are composed of microscopic crystals that disperse and refract light. This induces an interplay of refracted, reflected, and diffused light in different directions as it passes through the nacre layers that each have a different refractive index. The end result of these optical interactions is an illusion of depth or inner glow. The pearl appears to hold an alluring, ethereal light source within it. 

For example, the luminous inner glow of South Sea pearls stems from the interference phenomenon in the aragonite crystals’ layered structure within the nacre. The 3D, hexagonal close-packed arrangement causes incoming light to refract and reflect, resulting in constructive and destructive interference. This interplay produces a captivating iridescent ‘inner’ glow.

When electrons on the surface of the pearl reflect light rays back at the same frequency as when the light initially hit the surface, it results in a phenomenon akin to metallic bonding. When the frequency (colour) of the reflected light matches the incident light, it leads to constructive interference, enhancing the shininess and sheen of the pearl’s surface. 

High quality pearls often reflect objects sharply in an almost mirror-like manner. However, the degree of lustre is subject to the genetics of the particular oyster in which a pearl grows. Not all oyster species are able to secrete nacre in perfectly even patterns within a pearl, for example. This may result in a lower inner glow, lower brilliance and indicate variations in the surface’s reflective properties, which may overall impact perceived pearl quality.

Nacre Quality

Diagram showing the physical parts of a pearl including layers of nacre and nucleus

Nacre refers to the iridescent, organic material produced by molluscs in layers when cultivating a pearl. Nacre is made from a crystalline form of a calcium carbonate mineral called aragonite. When an irritant is introduced in the soft tissue of an oyster or mollusk, it secretes layers of aragonite which over time build up to form the nacre, or mother-of-pearl, and eventually the pearl itself. These layers are binded together by a strong protein named conchiolin. 

Nacre thickness, ranging from 0.1mm to over 2mm, directly impacts resilience and sheen. It allows for more intricate interactions of light within the layers, leading to a higher degree of constructive interference. Greater nacre thickness is associated with higher pearl quality and lustre. 

Thick nacre layers is also linked to increased durability, as it implies a longer cultivation period and meticulous care during growth. Conversely, sub-optimal environmental conditions, such as fluctuations in water temperature and quality, or inadequate availability of nutrients, can all impact nacre quality. Lack of nutrients can prevent conchiolin from adequately binding the aragonite crystals into a precise, resilient structure. This can lead to irregularities in the layers of aragonite, diminishing the even reflection of light and reducing surface sheen in the pearl.

Hence, cultured pearls grown in a controlled environment are more likely to have higher nacre quality. However, high-quality nacre is also characterised by a smooth surface, a high lustre, and minimal imperfections.

However, it’s worth noting that some pearl types, like Akoya often have thinner nacre layers due to the genetics of the oyster species cultivated in. In this case, the Akoya pearl’s characteristic high lustre compensates for its thinner nacre, rendering them exceptionally valuable.

Surface Quality

Surface quality refers to the condition of the pearl’s outer layer. It encompasses any imperfections or flaws that may be present on the pearl’s surface. These flaws can manifest as blemishes, spots, pits, or irregularities that are often the result of natural processes or handling during cultivation. 

To spot pearls with high surface quality, closely examine the pearl’s surface under good lighting. High-quality pearls will exhibit a smooth, clean, and lustrous surface with minimal blemishes, contributing to their overall visual appeal and value.

Virtually all pearls may exhibit surface flaws to some extent. However, the impact can vary depending on mollusk type, or the environment the pearl is grown in as outlined below.

COMPARING SURFACE QUALITY

Saltwater vs. Freshwater vs. (All) Cultured Pearls

Cultured Pearls (in general)

Cultured pearls, whether of freshwater or saltwater varieties, are more likely to have a smoother surface compared to natural pearls.

Nucleation of cultured pearls by farmers (who insert nuclei precisely) is a controlled process that minimises surface irregularities. Additionally, the extended cultivation period of cultured pearls also often results in smoother and more uniform nacre deposition.

Meanwhile, natural pearls tend to have more surface flaws. This is due to the irregular shape of the irritant that, in absence of human intervention, causes the pearl that forms around it to also be irregular in shape and size.

Saltwater Pearls

Saltwater pearl oysters, especially those used to grow Akoya or South Sea pearls, tend to have fewer surface flaws for a few reasons:

  • They are typically farmed in carefully controlled and pristine marine environments. This reduces the likelihood of encountering environmental impurities that cause surface flaws. 
  • Moreover, the larger size of these saltwater oysters allows for the formation of larger pearls. These often have smoother surfaces due to the greater space available for nacre deposition. 

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls tend to have a higher likelihood of surface imperfections due to the environment in which they are grown.

  • The rivers of freshwater lakes may contain a higher amount of natural particles, sediments, and microorganisms. These impurities may be encapsulated within the nacre layers of the pearl as the mollusk attempts to cover the irritant.
  • In the absence of human intervention, this can lead to uneven nacre deposition and surface imperfections like pits or blemishes as the layers of aragonite and conchiolin are laid down.

Pearl Size

Pearl size is measured by diameter length in millimetres (mm). Pearl size can generally range from 2 to 20mm. The average size of a pearl depends on its type, though saltwater varieties tend to be larger. 

Larger pearls are priced higher. Large pearls are more rare in nature, and often require specific, pristine conditions for culturing. 

Larger pearls also tend to be higher quality. Large size offers more surface area, along with extended growth periods, are associated with more substantial and well-developed nacre. This results in a smoother surface, enhanced sheen, and increased value. 

However, depending on specific pearl type and the type of mollusk it is grown in, smaller pearls are not necessarily lower quality. For example, the size of Akoya pearls ranges from 3 to 9mm. They tend to be small because the Pinctada fucata martensii oyster that produces Akoya pearls is the smallest pearl-producing oyster. However, Akoya are one of the most valuable saltwater pearls due to other factors undermentioned that contribute to their high quality. 

Pearl Shape

A pearl’s shape is often influenced by the type of pearl and the environmental conditions in which it develops. For instance, cultured pearls are intentionally nucleated to encourage a more symmetrical and round shape (especially Akoya pearls) in response to the strong demand for perfectly round pearls. 

However, it is essential to recognise that pearls can naturally take on various shapes. These include round, near-round, oval, button, and baroque, each possessing its unique charm and character. These specific, unique shapes are further influenced by the nucleation process, the shape and size of the irritant, and the mollusk’s natural tendencies during pearl formation. 

For instance: 

  • An oval nucleus or an ovoid irritant can lead to the formation of oval pearls. 
  • Button pearls often result from the mollusk’s response to a flat or irregular irritant. 
  • Baroque pearls form when the mollusk’s response to the irritant is irregular, resulting in unique and organic shapes. 

Ultimately, the choice of pearl shape comes down to personal preference and the design of the jewelry piece. Though, round pearls are traditionally considered the most valuable due to their classic elegance and universal appeal. 

Colour

The colour of pearls is a captivating aspect of their beauty and often a crucial consideration when assessing their quality.

Classic white pearls are reminiscent of purity and elegance. They are amongst the most highly sought-after in the jewelry world. As such, they are typically priced at a premium. In alignment with industry standards, the purest and most brilliant white pearls command the highest prices due to their timeless appeal. 

It is essential to note that the majority of natural pearls are not perfectly white; they often exhibit subtle off-white, cream, or champagne hues. These are caused by the presence of trace elements and pigments in the environment where the mollusk is cultivated. These elements can affect the coloration of the nacre layers as they are deposited, resulting in the subtle variations in hue. 

On the other hand, the world of pearls offers a breathtaking array of colours beyond white. Subtypes of pearls, such as South Sea pearls, Sea of Cortez pearls, and black Tahitian pearls, are celebrated for their unique and mesmerizing hues, ranging from lustrous gold and silver to deep, iridescent black. These distinctive colours, accompanied by enchanting undertones, add depth and character to the pearls, making them highly favoured for their exceptional beauty and individuality. 

Matching

The concept of “matching” pearls holds great significance for items like pearl necklaces and earrings.

Matching refers to the degree of uniformity and harmony in the size, shape, colour, lustre, and surface quality of the pearls used in a single piece of jewelry. A well-matched strand of pearls, for example, will exhibit consistent characteristics across all pearls, creating a harmonious appearance that impacts overall value. 

Achieving precise matches in all these aspects is rare and often reserved for high-end jewelry. Factors affecting matching include the type of pearl, the source, the quality of cultivation, and the level of human intervention. Cultured pearls are more likely to exhibit a higher degree of matching, as they can be intentionally nucleated and sorted to achieve better uniformity. However, unique and artistic designs may embrace slight variations in pearls, prioritising individuality over strict matching. 

SECTION IV

What are the best quality pearl types?

Each pearl type bears the imprint of its origin, a testament to the environment’s influence on their unique qualities.

Let us take a deep dive to the finest saltwater pearls: from the waters of Japan fostering high nacre and exceptional lustre in classic Akoya and Hadanama Akoya pearls, to the sun-kissed expanses of the South Seas yielding pearls of extraordinary size and radiance. We will also navigate the striking Sea of Cortez pearls and Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia.

We will also compare the characteristics of Japanese and Chinese freshwater pearls and pearl farms that have helped shape the global freshwater pearl industry.

MESMERISING LUSTRE

Pearl Type I: Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are revered for their timeless beauty and classic elegance. 

They are primarily cultured within the Pinctada fucata oyster. This oyster yielded the world’s first spherical marine cultured pearls by the Japanese in 1907. Today, they remain the most abundant saltwater pearl, partly due to their characteristic exceptional lustre.

Akoya pearl farms can be found in China and Vietnam, with Japan remaining the largest producer. 

JAPANESE AKOYA PEARL EXCELLENCE

Japanese Akoya vs.

Chinese Akoya

Japanese Akoya Pearls

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Akoya pearls exhibit an unparalleled, almost mirror-like lustre that sets them apart from all other pearls.  

This remarkable lustre can be attributed to the unique environmental conditions in which Japanese Akoya oysters thrive. Found in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, these oysters experience reduced metabolic activity due to the lower temperatures. As a result, the nacre layer secretions, comprised of tiny aragonite platelets, are meticulously and densely distributed at 0.15 to 0.50mm around the nucleus bead. Akoya pearls generally have the thinnest nacre of all cultured pearls (apart from the highest quality Hanadama Akoya pearls).

However, the tightly packed aragonite structure within the nacre has an innate ability to reflect and refract light exceptionally well, thus giving rise to the exceptional lustre that Akoya pearls are celebrated for. 

Chinese Akoya Pearls

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In contrast to Japanese Akoya pearls, Chinese Akoya Pearls are cultivated in warmer waters with a higher degree of pollution. The warmer temperatures promote a faster pace of nacre secretion.

However, this accelerated growth comes at a cost; the resulting nacre layers in Chinese Akoya Pearls tend to be less densely packed than those of their Japanese counterparts. Consequently, the pearls produced in these conditions may possess less lustre and fail to achieve the radiant brilliance characteristic of Japanese Akoya pearls. 

Hanadama Akoya Pearls

Hanadama pearls are the most premium category within Akoya pearls through rigorous independent certification from the Pearl Science Laboratory of Tokyo, Japan. They showcase some of the thickest nacre layers amongst Akoya pearls due to extended cultivation periods, allowing for the deposition of more nacre. 

This thick, durable nacre creates mesmerising lustre and an enchanting shimmering effect known as the “Aurora effect” or “Orient.” Intricate interference patterns form as the light waves pass through the more consistently thick and superior nacre layers of Hadamana pearls. This produces a great range of vibrant and iridescent colours seen on the pearl’s surface. 

JAPANESE AKOYA PEARL EXCELLENCE

Japanese Pearl Grading System

AAA+ or Hanadama (Exceptional)

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This is the highest grade and represents pearls of exceptional quality. They have thick nacre, excellent lustre with the Aurora effect, minimal surface imperfections, and a perfectly round shape.

These pearls are incredibly rare and expensive, making them a top choice for collectors and connoisseurs.

Prices for AAA+ Akoya pearls can range from close to one thousand dollars to several thousand dollars per strand, with larger pearls commanding higher prices. 


AAA (Excellent)

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‘AAA’ grade pearls are of excellent quality and still offer outstanding characteristics. They typically have good nacre thickness, excellent lustre, minimal surface imperfections, and a round or near-round shape.

While not as rare as Hanadama pearls, they are an excellent choice for high-quality jewelry.

Prices typically range from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars, depending on factors like size and lustre. 


AA (Good to Very Good)

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‘AA’ grade pearls are of good to very good quality. They may have slightly thinner nacre layers, very good lustre, minor surface imperfections that are not easily visible, and shapes that are mostly round or near-round.

These pearls offer a balance of quality and affordability, starting from approximately $100 and above. 


A (Fair to Good)

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‘A’ grade pearls are considered fair to good in quality. They may have thinner nacre layers, moderate lustre, some visible surface imperfections, and shapes that can vary from slightly off-round to baroque.

While they may not meet the highest standards, ‘A’ grade pearls can still be quite attractive and budget-friendly, starting at under $100. 

EDITOR’S RECOMMENDATION

Which grade of Akoya pearl should I consider?

For an individual seeking a very high-quality pearl that offers an excellent balance of quality and price, The Redefined Feminine recommends at least AAA (Excellent) pearls (and above) as a solid choice. 

AAA pearls provide exceptional lustre, a mostly round shape, and fewer imperfections, making them a popular and accessible option in the gemstone market. 

Akoya pearls graded AAA (Excellent) can represent a potential investment, often priced at at least a few hundred dollars. Though, they also serve as a valuable enhancement to your everyday attire, as elegance is often found in the details. When incorporated as staple jewelry pieces, the extraordinary lustre of AAA (Excellent) pearls (and above) shines forth, elevating your daily look and style to new heights.

However, it’s essential to consider personal preferences and budget constraints when selecting the grade that best suits your needs and style.

PRIZED LUXURY

Pearl Type II: South Sea Pearls

South Sea pearls are a symbol of luxury, prized for their rarity, high lustre, large size, and the meticulous process required for their cultivation.

They are among the largest and most valuable pearls globally. The first successful attempts to culture South Sea pearls occurred in Australia in the 1950s, marking a significant milestone in pearl farming.

South Sea pearls are primarily cultivated within the Pinctada maxima oyster. They are often referred to as the “Silver-Lipped” or “Gold-Lipped” oyster, depending on the pearl variety. 

SUMMARY

Key Features of South Sea Pearls

SizeOne of the most distinctive characteristics of South Sea pearls is their size, ranging from 10mm to 20mm. The P. maxima oyster is the largest pearl-producing oyster genus. In turn, it is capable of producing significantly larger pearls than other oyster species due to greater space available for pearl formation.
Nacre ThicknessSouth Sea pearls, both White/Silver and Golden varieties, are known for having some of the thickest nacre layers among cultured saltwater pearls of 2.0-3.0mm.

This thickness is achieved through a longer growth period during which the oyster continuously deposits layers of nacre onto the nucleus. The favourable climate conditions in the South Pacific, where these oysters are cultivated, stimulate their metabolism and secretion of crystalline nacre.
Lustre and LuminosityThe P. maxima oyster secretes a very luminous and iridescent nacre, which contributes to the captivating lustre of South Sea pearls.
– White/Silver South Sea Pearls exhibit a classic, bright lustre, creating a soft, reflective glow on the surface.
– Golden South Sea Pearls are renowned for a warm, rich lustre that adds a distinctive and luxurious quality.
Shape: Perfectly RoundPerfectly round South Sea pearls comprise less than 5% of each annual harvest.
Due to their rarity and symmetry, they are amongst the most valuable and command premium prices in the market. This ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 or more per pearl, depending on size, lustre, surface quality, and overall quality.
Shape:
Near-Round
Around 20% of each harvest exhibit a “near-round” shape but may have slight irregularities. While not as rare as their perfectly round counterparts, near-round South Sea pearls are still highly desirable and fall into the upper price range of $500 to $5,000 per pearl due to their attractive shape and overall quality.
Shape: Symmetrical Drop-ShapesAbout 50% of South Sea pearls feature symmetrical drop or baroque shapes. These pearls have unique and organic shapes, which can include drops, ovals, and other irregular forms. While they are not as rare as round or near-round pearls, they still offer exceptional lustre and size. Pearls in this category can vary in price from $300 to $3,000 or more per pearl, depending on their size, lustre, surface quality etc.
COMPARISON

Types of South Sea Pearls

White/Silver South Sea Pearls

Cultivated primarily along the Northern Australian coasts, White/Silver South Sea pearls are celebrated for their ethereal luminance and silvery sheen.

Due to genetic variations and environmental conditions, their colour palette ranges from radiant white to enchanting silver, imparting a timeless elegance to jewelry pieces. These pearls owe their brilliance to the tranquil waters of their cultivation region, allowing for steady nutrient sources and consistent pearl development. 

White/Silver South Sea Pearls generally have a slightly wider price range than Golden South Sea Pearls, but the price difference can vary based on factors like colour intensity. These pearls may be priced at $500 to $10,000 or more per pearl, depending on size, shape, lustre, surface quality, and colour.

Golden South Sea Pearls

Cultured in the Philippines, Golden South Sea pearls are coveted for their resplendent golden hues that span from delicate shades to deep, captivating copper tones. The rarity and value of Golden South Sea pearls increase with the intensity of their golden colour, making them highly sought after. Their cultivation environment benefits from high volumes of tidal variations, ensuring a continuous supply of nutrients that contribute to the lustrous allure of the Golden South Sea pearl. 

Prices of Golden South Sea Pearls can range from $700 to $15,000 or more per pearl, with darker, more intense golden hues commanding higher prices. 

TRUSTED PEARL RETAILERS

Where to Buy South Sea Pearls

Pearl production and pearl farming in Halong Bay, Vietnam
ORIENT QUEEN OF PEARLS

Pearl Type III: Tahitian ‘Black’ Pearls

Tahitian “black” pearls are often referred to as the “Queen of Pearls.” They are cultivated within the Pinctada margaritifera saltwater oyster in the pristine waters of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. Their alluring dark, iridescent hues have earned Tahitian pearls their rightful place among the world’s most coveted gems. 

To qualify for export, these pearls must boast a minimum nacre depth of 0.8mm, ensuring their durability and quality. 

Notable Features of Tahitian ‘Black’ Saltwater Pearls

Intriguing Iridescence

Tahitian pearls possess a mesmerising iridescence, also known as the ‘orient’ or ‘overtone,’ which is a hallmark of their quality.

Their thicker, non-uniform nacre layers allows for more intricate interference patterns, scattering light of different wavelengths that results in an interplay of colours and pronounced iridescence.

These features, combined with their high shine, exceptional lustre and luminous depth when viewed under natural lighting, elevates their allure.

Price Range

Tahitian pearls can range from approximately $200 to $10,000 or more per pearl.

The price increases with larger pearl sizes, roundness of shape, intensity and uniqueness of colour, high lustre, and overall quality.

Exceptionally large, perfectly round, and intensely coloured Tahitian pearls command the highest prices. 

Colour Variety

Tahitian pearls captivate with their stunning array of dark hues, ranging from deep black to shimmering grey. The most sought-after Tahitian pearls exhibit the coveted “classic peacock” overtones, showcasing lustrous shades of deep green, gold, and rose that dance beneath their surfaces.

  • The primary factor that gives Tahitian pearls their dark colouration is the presence of pigments, a type of melanin, in the mantle tissue of the P. margaritifera oyster.
  • When the pearl sac forms around an irritant and nacre deposition begins, these pigments are incorporated into the growing layers of nacre, contributing to the unique, dark body colour of the pearl. The interference patterns tend to emphasise the darker colours present in the pearl. 

Impressive Size and Shape

Tahitian pearls are renowned for their generous size, typically ranging from 9 to 20mm in diameter. While they are often round, some Tahitian pearls display unique baroque shapes, adding to their individuality. 

RAINBOW-LIPPED IRIDESCENCE

Pearl Type IV: Sea of Cortez Pearls

Sea of Cortez pearls, also known as Cortez Pearls, are amongst the world’s most rare and captivating cultured pearls from saltwater varieties due to the incredible range of rich hues they are available in.

These exquisite gems are the product of the ‘rainbow-lipped’ Pteria sterna oyster, an oyster species exclusive to the waters of Baja, Mexico, and northern Peru. 

Notable Features of Sea of Cortez Pearls

Extreme Rarity

These pearls have a low annual production of only around 4,000 pearls.

The Pteria sterna oyster was once over-harvested to the brink of extinction, leading to efforts to conserve and protect these unique mollusks.

Today, sustainable pearl farming practices in Baja, Mexico, have allowed for the careful cultivation of Sea of Cortez pearls while ensuring the survival of their oyster host. 

Thick Nacre

Cortez pearls’ nacre quality rivals that of some of the most coveted saltwater pearl varieties.

The unique environment in which the P. sterna oyster thrives contributes to the formation of these thick, well-formed nacre layers. They reflect and refract light beautifully to create a captivating, mirror-like shine and a play of colours that is often described as “rainbow-like”. As a result, Cortez pearls exhibit a remarkable depth of colour and a durable, resilient surface. 

Most Diverse Colour Variety

What sets Sea of Cortez pearls apart is their remarkable display of colours, which is unlike any other pearl variety. The distinctive colouration of Sea of Cortez pearls can be attributed to the P. sterna oyster and its interaction with the surrounding marine environment. As the oysters create their nacre layers, they incorporate elements and minerals from their habitat into the pearls. 

  • Their iridescent play of hues, ranging from deep blues and greens to shades of rose, creates a mesmerising visual spectacle. 

Quality and Price

Cortez pearls on the market are typically of very high quality (especially surface quality), as their limited production allows for careful selection. 

Generally, Cortez pearls fall into the mid-to-high range of pearl pricing, with individual pearls and strands ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars or more, depending on several factors that impact quality along with their low supply. 

SECTION V

Sourcing Quality, Authentic Saltwater Pearls

CONTEMPORARY EXCELLENCE

Yoko London

Yoko London, founded in 1973, is a family-owned brand that has become a symbol of luxury and innovation in the pearl industry. With a rich history spanning over four decades, the brand has established itself as a leading name in high-quality pearl jewelry, blending traditional craftsmanship with contemporary design.

FAMILY-OWNED AND OPERATED

Yoko London was established by the Hakimian family, who brought their extensive knowledge and passion for pearls to the forefront of the jewelry market. The brand quickly gained a reputation for its innovative approach and dedication to quality. Over the years, Yoko London has remained a family-operated business, ensuring that their original values and commitment to excellence are upheld.

Yoko London sources its pearls from the finest farms across the globe, including regions known for their superior pearl production such as Japan, French Polynesia, and Australia. The brand works closely with these farms to ensure that each pearl meets their stringent standards for quality, colour, and lustre.

Collections

Yoko London offers an extensive collection of pearl jewelry, featuring South Sea, Tahitian, Akoya, and freshwater pearls. Notable collections include the “Classic Collection,” which emphasises timeless elegance, whilst the “Trend Collection,” known for its modern and bold designs.

Yoko London’s jewelry ranges from moderately priced pieces for everyday wear to high-end, luxury items. Entry-level pieces can start at a few hundred dollars, while more elaborate and rare designs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, reflecting the quality and rarity of the pearls used.

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