If your birthstone is the pearl (June), you may want to learn more about what makes it such a special and sought-after gem.
Pearls, sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Gems,” have been prized since ancient times. Romans and Egyptians used them as early as the 5th Century BC, and there are even earlier records of the Chinese using pearls.
The major religions of Hindu and Islam have a special place for pearls in their history, using pearls as a symbol of purity and perfection.
When pearls became a part of European culture, some countries even passed laws saying that only nobility could wear them.
What truly makes pearls unique is that they’re the only gemstone made by living creatures. Pearls are created inside mollusks when they deposit layers of calcium carbonate around a microscopic irritant.
These mollusks use “mother-of-pearl” to produce the iridescent luster that’s so valuable in the jewelry community. The mother-of-pearl is the same material the mollusk uses to create its shell.
Today, many pearls are cultured, meaning that they are created with the help of a technician. However, it can still take between 18 months to 5 years to produce a single pearl.
Even after a pearl is formed, it may show imperfections. It may be misshapen, unevenly colored, or have poor quality nacre. This is one of the reasons a well-developed pearl is so valuable.
If you’re looking for pearls, it’s important to know that they’re not all created equal. To help you out, we’ve created a comprehensive buying guide to help you purchase the perfect set of pearls for you or your loved one.
Not all pearls are the same quality, and not all pearls are the same type. There are many points to consider if you’re looking to make a purchase including:
While some consumers and jewelers use the word “cultured” and “freshwater” interchangeably, this is actually incorrect.
Akoya, Freshwater, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls are all cultured pearls unless labeled “natural.”
The main difference between natural and cultured pearls is human intervention. A cultured pearl involves the same process as a natural pearl -- a clam coats an irritant with mother-of-pearl. For the cultured pearl, however, the process is initiated by a human instead of by nature.
Naturally formed pearls are exceedingly rare and could take up to 100,000 mollusks to produce one pearl necklace. They’re also far less likely to be uniform in size and color.
Almost all pearls on the market today are cultured pearls.
The size of a pearl is one of many considerations. Of course, as the size of the pearl increases, so does the price.
Traditionally speaking, as a woman matures and ages, so should the size of the pearls she wears. It’s generally regarded that adult women should have pearls at least 7mm or larger, and young girls and teenagers should be given anything smaller.
The color of a pearl is typically determined by the color of the mollusk’s shell. White is the most common color, but there is a large variety of naturally occurring colors.
These colors include black, golden, pink, and lavender.
In addition, these colors can have variations of overtones. For example, black pearls have overtones of purple, blue, green, rose, silver, and peacock, which is a mixture of green, gold, and rose.
Some freshwater pearls are also dyed in a variety of colors including black.
The most traditional version of a pearl is the ones that are perfectly round. They are the pearls that people are most likely to imagine when thinking of a string of pearls or a set of earrings.
However, there are some consumers and collectors who prefer what’s called a “baroque” or asymmetrical pearl.
The baroque pearls remind collectors of the pearl’s organic “from the sea” origins. Each pearl is unique from the other, giving a snowflake quality to a piece of jewelry.
In addition, baroque pearls are full of color-rich overtones and dimension. They’re able to reflect colors that are not possible with a round pearl.
One final reason that people may prefer asymmetrical pearls is the considerable price difference. You can expect to spend thousands of dollars on a strand of round pearls compared to hundreds of dollars for a similar baroque strand.
The surface of a pearl is another consideration when choosing your jewelry. When looking at the surface of the pearl you’re looking for a very clean appearance. Real pearls will always exhibit some signs of imperfection, but these imperfections should be minor.
The luster of the pearl may be one of the most important considerations when looking at a pearl. It’s really this quality that sets the pearl apart from other gems.
The luster of a pearl is related to its surface. If the surface of the pearl is too flawed it will negatively affect the luster of the pearl.
A high luster pearl will look almost mirror-like in appearance and it will make the pearl luminous.
The price of a pearl is determined by many factors including but not limited to type, rarity, luster, size, shape, and color. All of these items will have a fairly significant effect on the final purchase price.
One thing to keep in mind is if you don’t have to sacrifice quality by foregoing brand names like Tiffany’s and Mikimoto. While they are well known for their high-quality pearls, they’re far from the only suppliers of high-quality goods. In some cases, you may save thousands of dollars by simply dropping the brand name.
There are four main types of pearls that make up the pearl market:
Japanese Akoya pearls are the classic round pearls that many people imagine when they picture a strand of them. Most Akoya pearls are white with overtones of rose, silver, or cream. They may also be dyed black after they’re treated.
The Akoya pearl’s most common size is 7.0 mm - 7.5mm, but it can range from 5mm to 11mm.
Akoya pearls are farmed in both Chinese and Japanese ocean waters. They’ve been cultured since the early 20th century which has allowed them to be one of the more affordable options.
One type of Akoya pearl that stands above the rest is the Hanadama pearl.Hanadama pearls are very high-quality and some consider them to be the best pearls that money can buy.
Some Hanadama pearls have something called “the aurora effect” which means they look similar to a soap bubble with a rainbow of color.
The Hanadama pearls are always going to be perfectly round, and they are the only type of pearl that allows you to know the exact nacre thickness.
Freshwater pearls are one of the less expensive options partially due to the way they are cultivated. Their cultivation process is able to produce a much larger harvest than other pearl types.
Freshwater pearls come in a variety of colors including white or cream with overtones of pink, lavender, or ivory. They can also be dyed a myriad of colors.
These pearls are available in many shapes like round, near round, button, and baroque. They have the widest range of size from 2.0 mm to 15.0 mm.
They originate in China, India, or Australia, but are most commonly sourced in China.
Tahitian pearls are most known for their color. Their rare black color makes them truly remarkable and hard to forget.
Tahitian pearls appear in a range of colors including brown, gray, blue, green, and purple. They also produce overtones of silver or steel, blue-green, and peacock.
Another remarkable thing about the Tahitian pearls is their size. Most of them range in size between 8mm and 21 mm, making them one of the larger pearl types available.
These pearls are primarily cultivated around the islands of French Polynesia.
These rare pearls do generally fetch a higher price point than the Akoya or Freshwater pearls.
South Sea Pearls are the rarest pearl making them come in at the highest price point.
They come in colors of white, silver or gold, with overtones of pink, green, or blue. Gold South Sea pearls are the rarest, but all color types are luminous with a beautiful luster.
Like the Tahitian pearls, they’re large in size. The South Sea Pearl ranges from 8 mm to 20 mm, but the most common size is 13 mm.
These pearls are primarily cultivated in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Naturally, with the high-value and unique nature of pearls, there’s bound to be loads of imitation versions.
Imitation pearls can be made from glass, ceramic, shell, or plastic. They’re often then coated with a varnish to replicate the luster found in pearls.
It’s easy to notice the difference between inexpensive imitation pearls and real ones, but it may not be the case with ones that are more carefully produced.
If you’re concerned a pearl may be fake, here is an easy way to distinguish between real and fake:
The tooth test: Take one of the pearls and gently rub it across your teeth. If they’re real, you’ll feel a grittiness like sandpaper. If they’re imitation, they’ll feel perfectly smooth.
Other signs that your pearls may not be real:
When you’re purchasing from luxury jewelry stores such as Tiffany’s, you’ll definitely be paying extra for the name and for the overhead costs.
While places like Tiffany’s certainly offer beautiful pieces, they’re also much higher in cost. With a direct to consumer business model like Pearls of Joy, the overhead costs are considerably lower. This business model offers the ability to pass on tremendous savings to customers -- up to 80 percent lower than luxury brands.
Mistakenly, sometimes people believe that the lower cost also means lower quality. However, the price point difference depends entirely on the business model, and not on the quality of the piece. In fact, you’ll be getting much higher-quality pieces with a direct-to-consumer business for less money than you would with a luxury brand.
Now that you’re ready to purchase that stunning string of pearls, there are just a few more things to keep in mind.
Especially when buying online, make sure that the retailer you’re working with has a solid return policy. When purchasing pearls you can expect to spend a fair amount of money on high-quality items. You’ll want to know that you can return or exchange anything that arrives that does not line up with your expectations.
It’s also essential to find a dealer that specializes in pearls. Many jewelers are misinformed or uneducated when it comes to pearls, so make sure that you find a retailer who really understands the market.
Finally, pick the pearls that really speak to you. You may be totally in love with the traditional string of perfectly round white pearls, or you may find that a string of black baroque pearls calls your name. Whatever you choose, make sure that it’s the set of pearls that you’re in love with because it’s your birthstone and you’ll be enjoying these pearls for life.