How to Tell the Value of Pearls-Shell Time

How do you know if you’re getting what you pay for or just some cheap bead or piece of calcium? Buying pearls can be a challenge even for jewelry designers and gem merchants, and deciding the value of pearls can be tricky unless one is a pearl grading expert (which requires schooling, hands-on training, and certification.) For a customer looking to buy, the vast array of pearls can seem overwhelming. But there are ways to tell. And I will tell you!

The first major distinction is the difference between natural or wild pearls and cultured or farmed pearls. Nowadays, nearly all of the pearls on the jewelry market are cultured pearls, for the simple reason that fisheries have declined as offshore waters have become more polluted with agricultural runoff and have seen a general downgrading of the habitat of the hundreds of pearl-producing species that are harvested around the world. Harvesting natural pearls is more expensive, labor-intensive, and so the resulting pearls are much more expensive as well. The vast majority of the market contains agriculturally grown sea or freshwater pearls (depending on the species and where they live) thanks to a process for culturing and farming pearls in live mollusks that was developed and closely guarded for decades in Japan.

Great. But how do we know if the pearl is what the label says it is? Rule 1: The more shell-time (time in the shell, in the water, inside a little mollusk trying its darndest to put layers of nacre onto its shell and everything in it,) Given that rule, really cheap pearls (with very little shell-time) look cheap. They have very little luster, tend to be dyed to make up for this (mollusks make blue, but not electric blue) and look like if you scratched them, you’d be looking at plastic. And in some cases, you are, since the little bit of shell inserted in culture can be a big shell, a glass or even a plastic bead.

Rule 2: Beyond Rule 1, the only way to truly tell the difference between cultured and natural pearls is with an x-ray, which would reveal all of the nacreous layers of pearly-ness deposited on the little bit of seed pearl at the center. So unless you are planning on x-raying your pearls (or think your friends will want to) you now have to decide how much you want to spend. Natural pearls will cost thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) not hundreds of dollars, depending the species and the size and quality of pearl produced. If spending money on wild or natural pearls, you’ll want a guarantee about where they were harvested, what type of pearl they are, and a valuation certificate of some sort.

If you go with a good cultured pearl, which is by and large indistinguishable from a natural one, how do you tell a good cultured pearl from a bad one? How do you know if a pearl is dyed or not? How do you know if it is a fake? How can you tell if those green pearls are the natural color, or that strand of silver pearls has been enhanced in some way? Using a very careful eye is the best way, feeling whether the pearls have a good weight for their size. What pearls are in style at the moment, what species they come from, and how large they are will all affect pricing.

But never ignore Rule 4: look at it in the light. The hallmark of a good pearl, however, is its luster (also spelled lustre.) To grow more layers takes the pearl grower more years in the shell, and so the longer the mollusk is in the water, the more luster it achieves and the more expensive it will be. so, on to Rule 5: price is an indication quality, but it is very subjective and can vary. A lot.

This luster is what pearl graders look at to determine price, along with uniformity, color, shape and size. The only way to be sure of what you are getting (short of an x-ray) is to buy from reputable dealers and designers. Many dealers deal only in pearls, and spend lifetimes amassing expertise, contacts, and knowledge of the market which gives them the ability to know what they are buying. Buying pearls from someone who knows pearls and the gem market in general is a big plus. By doing so, you guarantee that your designer or buyer has met the seller, knows the pearls’ provenance (or origin, treatment, and history) and has done the most important thing: touched them and examined them under good light.

Next Post: How to Buy Pearls


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