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How To Buy Pearls

The good news is there has never been such a bountiful variety of cultured pearls on the market as there is today. One can choose from pearls of just about every size, shape and color, and there are attractive and high-quality pearls available in just about every price range. There are Chinese freshwater cultured pearls in a stunning array of body colors and bright overtones never seen in the traditional round Akoya pearl strands. Small, attractive baroque fresh water cultured pearls can be found for under $10 a strand at the major wholesale trade shows. Even South Sea and Tahitian cultured pearls, the largest, rarest and most expensive of them all, are relatively affordable just now as increased supply has softened wholesale prices on these items.

Whether your budget is $20, $200, $2000 or $20,000, here are some general guidelines in shopping for pearl strands.:

In pearls, quality differences can be seen with your own eyes--you don't need a laboratory. It's important to shop around for a good selection before making a decision, however. Many stores will stock only one quality, and it is by comparing a variety of colors, shapes and qualities that you will develop an "eye" for pearls and a sense of your own preferences--and where to buy for the best value.


There are actually two colors to consider when looking at pearls, the body color and the secondary overtone color that is usually, but not always, present. The overtone color isn't always obvious, especially when it is similar to the body color itself. It can sometimes be seen as a sheen or a "pool" of secondary color on the crest of the pearl or pearls.

The most common naturally occuring body colors in Akoya cultured pearls are white, cream and pink. (In pearl parlance, "rose'" is often used for the word "pink".) A silver, cream or pink overtone is considered most desirable in these colors. In black pearls (whether dyed or natural), including grey and blue hues, blue and green overtones are considered most desirable. A yellow body color in pearls has traditionally been considered undesirable, probably due to a cultural preference for pink pearls on the part of the Japanese, but these pearls can look absolutely smashing on certain darker skins. Color preference is subjective, and there's no such thing as a "bad color". Most people choose the color they feel flatters their natural skin tones. Whatever the body color and overtone may be, the pearls within a strand should match one another.

When examining and comparing pearl strands, lay them flat on a white or champagne-colored non-reflective surface, such as a velvet-covered tray. The best vantage point for comparing color is to hold the tray just below eye-level with the strands next to each other. Diffuse full-spectrum light is best for judging color. A black background is dramatic but obscures the fine quality points. I once attended a seminar where I was advised to "buy pearls on white, sell them on black". Enough said.


A pearl should have a bright, even, reflective surface. Examine several strands. How clear is the reflection of your own image in the surface of the pearls? The clearer the reflected image, the higher the LUSTER. High luster is high quality and it often (but not always) indicative of good nacre thickness.


This refers to the amount of nacre on the nucleus. Most commercial pearls these days are "thin coat", meaning they were not left in the oyster long enough. Thin coat pearls are not as lustrous, and may chip or even peel. To check for thin coat, hold a length of strand just under a strong light source and roll it back and forth between your fingers. If you see the "wink" of the mother-of-pearl (shell) bead through the nacre, the coating is thin.


A pearl with a "clean" surface will reflect light more evenly and is therefore more highly valued than a pearl with a blemished surface. Most pearls have blemishes, and the smaller and closer to the drill hole a blemish is, the better. Blemishes on the crest of a pearl are least desirable. SHAPE:

Round pearls should be just that: ROUND. Even the best strands may contain the occasional off-round bead, however. Pearls are described as being round, semi-round, off-round, or baroque, in order of descending desirability (and price). As with color preference, a preference for round vs. baroque-shaped pearls is a personal thing.

Good news for those who prefer round pearls: In recent years the Chinese have successfully cultivated near-round white fresh water pearls. You really have to look closely to notice that they are not absolutely spherical. At this writing these pearls are not readily available in sizes above 6 or 7 mm. They typically have a softer, diffuse luster and are quite white with little overtone. But they are very good looking and also very inexpensive compared to their Akoya cultured pearl counterparts.


In strands, pearl sizes are expressed as a size RANGE--e.g., 7 X 7.5 mm means that every pearl in the strand will fall somewhere in that range. The pearls will generally have been graduated so the ones closer to 7.5 mm. are in the front. All other factors being equal, the larger the pearl, the more expensive it will be. Strands 9 X 8.5 mm. or larger will be significantly more expensive.


The look of a strand can be spoiled by the inclusion of pearls that have been drilled off-center. "Eccentric drilling" gives a pearl a slightly askew look that is worse when a strand is freshly (tightly) strung. To check for eccentric drilling, roll sections of a strand between your fingers. The eccentrically drilled beads will bob up and down like pistons.


These are pearls that have been made round by the grinding off of a knob or bump near a drill hole. Oftentimes the grinding will remove the nacre and leave the nucleus exposed. Because the integrity of the pearl is compromised, worked pearls are undesirable.


All cultured pearl strands have been color enhanced to some degree. In the industry it's called "color stabilization", and it supposedly compensates for changes caused by oxidation following the drilling of a pearl. In simple fact, color stabilization is the bleaching and dying of the body color of pearls. This treatment doesn't have to be disclosed, but I thought you'd like to know about it. It has no effect on the value of a pearl strand because it is universal and the overall color improvement potential is very slight. OVERTONE COLORS CANNOT BE ENHANCED.

Most strands of black pearls are dyed Akoya cultured pearls (the notable exception being the incomparable Tahitian black pearls). Irradiated black pearls have recently entered the marketplace. These have a very deep, uniform black body color that accentuates their lovely natural metallic overtone colors.


You will find a vast array of mixed characteristics when you are shopping for pearls. What's more, you will never find a "perfect" strand--one where every bead is exactly a blemish-free pink sphere with mirror-like luster. Expect to find a couple of "clunkers" in most strands, usually near the clasp.

Pearls are supplied in bundles of matched, unclasped lengths of 16". I generally advise my customers to purchase two 16" lengths, remove any "clunkers", use 6" for a bracelet and use the balance for a stylish 24 to 26 inch necklace, varying the length by the stringing style (knots between each bead can add inches to a strand's length).

One can usually find pearls to match and extend the length of an existing strand if one has patience. Getting a good match is often difficult because pearls darken or yellow slightly with age and wear, a color change that can't be reversed.


Pearls should not be put in an ultrasonic cleaner, nor should they be steam-cleaned.

-------------------------------------------- Specific questions about consumer issues related to pearls and other jewelry can be addressed to Hanna Cook-Wallace via email: