Pearl Grading Made Simple

It’s an unfortunate truth for pearls... There is no standardized Grading System used to evaluate pearls. Re-read that line and let it sink it, it's one of the most important things to understand about pearls when considering where to buy pearls.

Every vendor is different... Every farmer.... Every processing company... And every auction house. They ALL have their own grading systems they use to evaluate and price their pearls. One vendor’s AAA Grade is another’s AA or even A Grade.

In fact that's the dirtiest secret in pearls... An unscrupulous can take medium grade(AA) pearls, label them AAA and have enough margin left to price them $100's cheaper than the an honest seller. Unfortunately this is all too common with "discount" online sellers.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

It can be... but do your research and purchase from a brand you trust with clear details on how they grade pearls and you'll be fine. Just remember price and value are two different things!

The A-AAA Grading System uses all 7 Value Factors to evaluate our pearls and assign each strand or pair of earrings its spot on this easy to understand scale.

In this Grading Guide, you will learn what each of the 7 Value Factors are, what the A-AAA Grading System is and how it relates to the farmer’s A-D Grading System, and much more.

Learn About the 7 Value Factors in Pearl Grading

Pearl specialists use 7 value factors to grade and appraise pearls. These are:

    • Nacre Quality
    • Luster
    • Surface Quality
    • Size
    • Shape
    • Origin
    • Color/Overtone Strength

Below we’ll look at each of these factors individually and how they contribute to a pearl’s overall value.

Pearl Value Factors: Nacre Thickness

Pearl Nacre Quality and Thickness

Nacre thickness is possibly the most important Value Factor for pearls, as it is the foundation upon which all other characteristics rest.A pearl without thick, well-layered nacre will not look as beautiful as other pearls and will not last as long over the years.

Pearl types such as Tahitians and South Sea pearls have extremely thick nacre, often averaging between 2-4mm thick around the bead nucleus inside. 

Hanadama Akoya pearls from Japan also have minimum nacre thickness requirements in order to qualify for the coveted PSL Certificate. X-rayed pearls must have at least 0.4mm thickness, and often have deeper thicknesses than that.



Pearl Luster

More than any other Value Factor, Luster is by far the most important. A pearl without good luster is really just a chalky bead. Luster is best described as the glow that comes from within the pearl, which is produced by light entering the pearl and reflecting back at the viewer through the layers of nacre. The quality of the pearl's luster is directly related to how even and smooth the layers of nacre are.

Luster measures how bright and shiny a pearl appears. Jewelers also use the term luster to measure the sharpness of objects reflected on the pearl’s surface.

This can be quantified by how detailed that reflection is (i.e. you can see your entire face), or how sharp and defined reflected light sources appear on their edges. The sharper the edges of reflected light sources the better the luster is.

Pearl Value Factors: Luster

Pearl Value Factors: Surface Quality

Pearl Surface Quality

The next most important Value Factor, surface quality measures how clean, smooth and free from blemishes a pearl appears. Most all pearl buyers will notice a degree of surface imperfections. The key factors to surface quality imperfections are how noticeable they are and if they seriously affect the durability of the pearl.

Blemishes (also called inclusions) can be:

  • Abrasions- scratches or scuffs that affect the luster or color of the pearl.
  • Spots- minor color variations.
  • Bumps- tiny bubbles on the surface of the pearl
  • Wrinkles- where the nacre isn't smooth.

Serious surface quality issues are usually chips and gaps, which will lower the value of even the most lustrous pearls. Why? These particular imperfections can cause the pearl to crack or peel. Some surface characteristics are hardly noticeable, even to a pearl expert. A good example would be a minor flaw near the hole drilled in the pearl.

📢 Read More: Pearl Surface 101


Pearl Size

All other factors being equal, the bigger the pearls are the better. Cultured pearls can range in size from tiny 1.0mm seed pearls up to 21.0mm and rarely, even larger. To date, the largest cultured pearl in the world is an astonishing 29.65mm South Sea baroque.

Like diamonds, size can contribute to exponentially increasing prices with each millimeter size up. This is because larger pearls are much harder to cultivate, take much longer to produce and thus are much rarer.

Pearl Value Factors: Pearl Size

📢 Read More: Pearl Size Buyer's Guide


Pearl Value Factors: Pearl Shape

Pearl Shape

Perfectly round pearls are the “gold standard” when it comes to cultured pearl jewelry. These are the most conventional of all pearl shapes, and what almost every pearl shopper thinks of when they think of a classic pearl necklace.

After perfectly round pearls, the next most popular shapes are smooth Drops, then Buttons and finally Baroques.

The most important consideration is that the pearl features evenly symmetrical shapes, which are most pleasing to the eye and more easily used in most pearl jewelry styles.


Pearl Color & Overtone

This Value Factor looks at the strength of the pearl’s body colors and overtones. The more easily visible and saturated, the better. Certain overtones are rarer and thus more valuable than others, and will increase the pearl’s price.

For example, 22K Golden South Sea pearls are worth much more than Golden pearls with a 14K color. White South Sea pearls with a fine rose overtone are rarer than pearls with silver, and that will contribute to a higher price tag (all other factors being equal).

Pearl Value Factors: Pearl Color and Overtone

Pearl Value Factors: Pearl Matching

Pearl Matching

Matching measures how beautifully pearl necklaces, earrings, bracelets and sets are matched. Pearl matching should take into account:

    • Size
    • Shape
    • Surface Quality
    • Luster
    • Body Color
    • Overtone

Multi-colored strands should be matched according to all these factors, but Body Color and Overtones can be mixed. As long as the strand has a pretty overall tone and aesthetic, the mixed colors do not count negatively against the pearl’s overall grade.


A-AAA Pearl Grading for Akoya and Freshwater Pearls

The A-AAA Grading Scale has been adapted from the Tahitian and South Sea pearl A-D Grading systems that most pearl farmers use to evaluate their pearls. With the A-AAA Grading Scale, each grade has a specific range of Value Factors that a pearl has to meet in order to meet the requirements for that grade.

Value factors are weighted heavily towards Luster, Surface Quality and Nacre Thickness, with factors like Color, Size, Shape and Matching accounting for a lesser percentage of a pearl’s total grade within the A-D / A-AAA Grading System.

Akoya and Freshwater Pearl Grading: AAA Quality

AAA Grade / A Grade

  • Surface Quality is 95% Clean or better.
  • Luster is Very High to Excellent: Reflections on pearl surface should be Easily Recognizable.
  • Pearl Earrings are clean on front and sides.
  • Pearl Necklaces and Bracelets will be blemish-free for casual observers. Some tiny inclusions allowable, but nothing major.
  • Akoya pearls should feature Excellent matching for necklaces and bracelets. There should be virtually no difference between each pearl in a necklace, bracelet or matched set.
  • Freshwater pearl necklaces, bracelets and matched sets will have very little differences for matching for shape, size and surface quality.  
Akoya and Freshwater Pearl Grading: AA+ Quality

AA+ Grade / B Grade

  • Surface Quality is 90-95% Clean or better.
  • Akoya pearls feature thick nacre measuring 0.4mm or more. Freshwater pearls are solid nacre.
  • Luster is Very Sharp to High: Reflections on pearl surface should be Very Good, mostly distinguishable with some slight blurring.
  • Earrings are clean on fronts. One to two small inclusions allowable on sides or backs.
  • Pearl Necklaces and Bracelets will be mostly blemish-free for casual observers.
  • Akoya pearls should feature Excellent to Very, Very Good matching for necklaces and bracelets. There should be little to no difference between each pearl in a necklace, bracelet or matched set.
  • Freshwater pearl necklaces, bracelets and matched sets may feature some differences in matching for shape, size and surface quality.  
Akoya and Freshwater Pearl Grading: AA Quality

AA Quality / C Grade

  • Surface Quality is 75-80% Clean or better.
  • Nacre is solid for Freshwater pearls. May be thin in places for Akoya pearls.
  • Luster is Good to High: Reflections on pearl surface will be blurry.
  • Earrings are not clean on fronts.
  • Pearl Necklaces and Bracelets will feature multiple blemishes, and some deeper inclusions.
  • Akoya pearls should feature Very Good matching for necklaces and bracelets.
  • Freshwater pearl necklaces, bracelets and matched sets will feature differences in matching for shape, size and surface quality.  
Akoya and Freshwater Pearl Grading: A Quality

A Quality / D Grade

  • Nacre is visibly thin for Akoya pearls and nucleus will be visible under certain lighting conditions. Freshwater pearls are solid nacre.
  • Luster is Fair to Good for Akoya and Freshwater pearls. You should be able to see your face’s outline, but not any fine details.
  • Light sources reflected on pearl surfaces will be blurred with fuzzy edges.
  • Blemish free 60% of all pearl surfaces.
  • Pearl earrings will have marks on the front.
  • Necklaces will have blemishes easily visible to the casual observer with multiple deep inclusions visible.
  • Decent pearl matching; for Freshwater and Akoya pearls some variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size may occur.

Want to Know More? Watch Kevin Canning Explain Pearl Grading:  


View Our Favorite AAA Quality Freshwater Pearls:

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A-D Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Grading

The A-D Grading Scale is primarily used by farmers and processors for Tahitian and South Sea pearls. It easily corresponds to the more widely known A-AAA Grading Scale that Pearls of Joy uses. With the A-D Grading Scale, “A” represents the highest quality, and then moves down through B,C and D which represents the lowest, commercial grade.

Let’s look at these in more detail:

Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Grading: AAA Quality

A Grade / AAA Quality

Extremely thick nacre. For Tahitian pearls, nacre depth is a minimum of 0.8mm. White and Golden South Sea pearls average 2-4mm nacre thickness

Surface Quality is 90% clean of blemishes or better

Earrings, Pendants and Rings will set clean on front and sides. One small inclusion allowable on back.

Necklaces will present as mostly clean, with a few small, shallow blemishes allowable with up-close scrutiny. No deep inclusions allowed.

Luster will be Very High to Excellent. Reflections in the surfaces highly detailed, but some blurring is allowable.

Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Grading: AA+ Quality

B Grade / AA+ Quality

Extremely thick nacre. For Tahitian pearls, nacre depth is a minimum of 0.8mm. White and Golden South Sea pearls average 2-4mm nacre thickness

Surface Quality is 80% clean of blemishes or better

Earrings, Pendants and Rings will set clean on front. Small, shallow inclusions allowable on sides, and one or two inclusions allowable on back.

Necklaces will present as mostly clean, with small, shallow blemishes allowable throughout the strand. Up to 2 deep inclusions allowed.

Luster will be Very High. Reflections in the surfaces mostly detailed, but blurry.

Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Grading: AA Quality

C Grade / AA Quality

Extremely thick nacre. For Tahitian pearls, nacre depth is a minimum of 0.8mm. White and Golden South Sea pearls average 2-4mm nacre thickness

Surface Quality is 70% clean of blemishes or better

Earrings, Pendants and Rings will not set clean on front. Moderate inclusions allowable on front and sides, deeper inclusions allowable on sides and back.

Necklaces will present as spotted, with combination of small and medium-sized blemishes allowable throughout the strand. Up to 4-5 deep inclusions allowed.

Luster will be Good to High. Reflections are blurry.

Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Grading: A Quality

D Grade / A Quality

Extremely thick nacre. For Tahitian pearls, nacre depth is a minimum of 0.8mm. White and Golden South Sea pearls average 2-4mm nacre thickness

Surface Quality is 50% clean of blemishes.

Earrings, Pendants and Rings will not set clean on front. Moderate inclusions allowable on front and sides, deeper inclusions allowable on sides and back.

Necklaces will present as spotted, with combination of small and medium-sized blemishes allowable throughout the strand. Up to 8 deep inclusions allowed.

Luster will be Good to Poor. Reflections are very blurry.

*Pearls of Joy does not offer A Quality Tahitian or South Sea pearls.

Better Than AAA? Gem Quality Pearls Made Easy

Out of each AAA Grade pearl harvest, there are pearls that are just better than the rest. These are pearls that have luster that is so bright and reflective, surface quality that is so eye-clean and nacre that is smooth and noticeably thick that the pearls are set aside from the rest of the AAA lots.

Hanadama Akoya Pearls

Japanese Hanadama Akoya pearls are hands-down the most lustrous pearls on the market. Loved for their intense mirror-like luster, iridescent "Aurora" effect, certified thick nacre depths and classic, timeless appeal, Hanadama Akoya pearls are one of the pearl world's rarest pearls.

All Hanadama Akoya pearlsare chosen from AAA quality Akoya pearl harvests.These are the pearls that have the highest luster, Aurora effect and thickest nacre of all the pearls after harvest. The farmer or processing facility then sends their highest quality pearls to the Pearl Science Laboratory in Tokyo. The PSL is the organization responsible for testing and certifying Hanadama pearls.

What are Gem Grade Pearls: Hanadama Akoya
  • Minimum certified nacre thickness of 0.4mm or better.
  • Surface Quality is 95% Clean or better.
  • Visible "Aurora" (orient) effect.
  • Luster is Very High to Excellent: Reflections on pearl surface should be Easily Recognizable.
  • Hanadama Pearl Earrings are clean on front and sides.
  • Hanadama Pearl Necklaces and Bracelets will be blemish-free for casual observers. Some tiny inclusions allowable, no major blemishes.
  • Hanadama Akoya pearls should feature Excellent matching for necklaces and bracelets. There should be virtually no difference between each pearl in a necklace, bracelet or matched set.

For More About Hanadama Pearls Watch:


Gem Grade Freshwater Pearls

Gem Grade Freshwater pearls are pearls sourced from the top 1% of each annual pearl harvest. These pearls are identified by the pearl sorters as having the highest luster, cleanest surfaces and nearly perfectly round shapes … typically these pearls are set aside for use in pearl earrings, pendants and pearl rings.

Gem Grade pearls are not certified like the Hanadama Akoya pearls are, but we do guarantee that our Gem Grade Pearl Collections represent the very highest grade of Freshwater pearls available in the world today.

  • Solid nacre.
  • Pearl shape is near-perfect round, with less than 3% variance from perfect rounds.
  • Surface Quality is 95% Clean or better.
  • Luster is Very High to Excellent: Reflections on pearl surface should be Easily Recognizable.
  • Pearl Earrings are clean on front and sides.
  • Pearl Necklaces and Bracelets will be blemish-free for casual observers. Some tiny inclusions allowable, but nothing major.
  • Gem Grade Freshwater pearl necklaces, bracelets and matched sets will have little to no differences for matching for shape, size and surface quality.  
What are Gem Grade Pearls: Gem Grade Freshwater Pearls

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Pearls of Joy vs. The Other Guys?

We know it: shopping for pearls online isn’t a picnic. Attempting to compare pearls among all the vendors out there, with different grading scales for each pearl type … sounds like a daunting task. We have a few tips to make your choice easier when comparing vendors and making your decision of where to buy your pearls.

  • Check for helpful guides like this one that will clearly and succinctly explain how their pearls are graded.
  • Watch out for pearls graded with strange grades like AAAA or AAA++. This is evidence that their grades are inflated.
  • Compare prices. Wildly expensive pearls, or pearls with prices that seem too good to be true are a red flag.
  • Make sure that your vendor has a generous Return Policy if your purchase didn’t go the way you planned.

Many pearl shoppers feel that sticking with well-established brand names like Tiffany’s or Mikimoto’s is the safest route. And yes, you will end up with some beautiful pearls for sure … but you might not get the bang for the buck you were hoping for. Brand names often charge 300-500x mark-ups for that prestige, and as you can see below, going off the beaten path can save you hundreds to thousands of dollars, and you’ll have a wider selection of high quality pearls to choose from.  

Comparing Pearls of Joy to Tiffany jewelry

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