If you’ve ever attempted to buy pearls, you’ll already understand the muddle you can soon find yourself in. Purchasing pearls isn’t an insurmountable task, but for those just starting out, it would be nice to have someone with a little expertise guiding one through what can and should ultimately be a pleasant time. For more in-depth coverage into buying pearl jewelry you will need to consult other sources, such as our Learning Center, but read on for some basic hints to help you through your first pearl buying experience.
First thing to know
Unless a set of pearls is labeled as natural, you can assume they are “cultured pearls.” If you’ve ever thought of freshwater pearls as cultured, and any other pearl not cultured, well, that’s not correct, since Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea and Freshwater pearls are all cultured. Consult a knowledgeable dealer or jeweler who will refer to pearls by their correct pearl type if you want to avoid confusion.
Figure out your parameters
You’ll need to decide what sort of pearl you need before you begin looking. Think about how you’ll be wearing them, whether at formal affairs or to the workplace. Your personal style will inform you, as well as how much you want to spend. A strand of pearls can range from thirty-five dollars, to thirty-five thousand dollars, so you’ll want to look among the choices you can afford.
Cultured pearl types
• Akoya: These are the classic white pearls which are known for their metallic, almost mirror-like luster, and their perfectly round shape. Although they are usually thought of as white pearls, they are also offered in dyed “black” versions, in a range of hues. They range from sixty-one to three thousand dollars.
• Tahitian: The only naturally “black” pearls, which range in color from silver to dark green, with multicolored peacock hues being the most popular choice. They can be seen in perfectly round to more commonly off-round shapes, and are mostly larger sized, from eight to sixteen millimeters. They can go for one hundred twenty to more than ten thousand dollars.
• South Seas: These large pearls, which range from nine to eighteen millimeters, can be anything from a silky silver to a deep gold, and are the most expensive of all the cultured pearls. Since they are so large and so valuable, they are often showcased in pendants, rings and earrings. They range from four hundred to thirty thousand dollars, the latter being for a full strand of them.
• Freshwater: Because of their long history and their recent rise in popularity as their culture has evolved this past century, this category of pearls is perhaps the most interesting. Long considered costume jewelry, due to inferior farming methods, they were widely available, but poorly regarded. Since the Chinese have improved culturing techniques, we now find Gem Grade Freshwater pearls commanding the prestige of Hanadama grade Akoyas in quality, and South Sea pearls in size. People who know and love pearls now consider high quality Freshwater pearls to be the cultured pearl of choice. They come in sizes from two to eighteen millimeters in size, and they can have colors from natural lavender to pink to bright white, so there can be one style found to suit anybody. They range from forty-five to fifteen hundred dollars.
Think about colors
Now that there are so many colors to choose from, this aspect of how to buy pearls can be a challenge. Anything from white to lavender, gold, pink, green, blue, purple, and every shade in between can be seen in natural and in treated form. If you only purchase one pearl necklace, then many think it should be the classic white. It goes with everything, and can go everywhere with you. It’s a good one to start out with. So-called “black” pearls aren’t really black, but their dark surface reflects with shades of gray, green, and blue, working well with darker skin tones and lending themselves to an exotic look. The pink, peach and lavender shades are always fun, and can be both appropriate for the younger flirty style, or matched well with an outfit, transform themselves into a sophisticated look for an older woman.
Color is such a personal choice, and since it doesn’t affect the price of the pearl, you can let your imagination and taste lead you to any color you desire. Check out our pearl color page to see some of the choices.
You’ll be wondering what factors determine a cultured pearl’s value, and there are a few things to consider.
• Shape: Round pearls are more expensive, but that doesn’t mean the unique oblate shape of a baroque or off-round pearl isn’t also cherished.
• Surface: If there are few imperfections, the pearl is more valuable. Since a pearl is a natural gemstone, it is expected to have minor dimples or rings, but these shouldn’t be perceptible when it’s worn.
• Luster: The hallmark of a pearl, this quality defines what most people think when they think of the word. You want it to be shimmering, not dull, and its surface quality can impact this happening. You will be looking for a pearl with almost a mirror-like appearance, as this is what makes a pearl jump out at you and look amazing.
• Size: Unlike some things in the world, when it comes to pearls, size matters. This is the most important quality when considering what you want. Traditionally, larger pearls must be earned as a right as a woman matures, with smaller pearls reserved for young girls and teenagers. Anything larger than seven millimeters will be appropriate for an older woman.
Some handy tips when buying pearls
• Purchase from a company with a solid return policy. While pearls may look great in a catalog photo or even a showroom, when you get them home and try them on, you don’t want to be disappointed and not be able to return or exchange them if you want.
• Purchase from a retailer who specializes in pearls and only pearls. So many jewelers are simply uneducated, misinformed or merely ignorant about the subject of cultured pearls. You don’t want to be part of their learning curve.
• You may think a better brand name will mean a better pearl, but not only Tiffany’s and Mikimoto carry quality merchandise. If you want to save a few thousand dollars, you’ll probably want to shop around and do a little research.
• The tooth test can be a useful method to check if a pearl is real or imitation. If you slide a pearl against the front of your tooth and it’s real, it will feel gritty, due to the minor imperfections we mentioned before. If it feels like glass, lay it back on the table and walk away.
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