Prized by the Emperors of Rome for their rarity…
Admired by Queen Victoria for their purity…
Featured by Coco Chanel for their elegance…
Worn by Harry Styles because… Pearls are for everyone!
Our love affair with pearls has lasted through the centuries and even now, our hearts are true. Each pearl is unique in shape and luster. The emperors of ancient Rome would be outraged by the egalitarian nature of modern day pearls but today more than ever, pearls really are for everyone.
Choosing pearls is as personal as choosing perfume, and the pearls that call to your heart may not be the strand or style you expected. Look around, take your time, and try on lots of colors, sizes and lengths, especially if you plan to make your final purchase online. You’ll want the experience of feeling the weight of the pearls against your skin and catching a glimpse of the length with your favorite blouse. That way you’ll know the right color and size of pearl, in the right shape and strung to the right length, when you find it. When you’ve met your match, save up, or splurge on the spot because pearls are timeless; If they speak to you now, they will speak to you in 20 years like the very best of dear old friends.
So your time, love and money are well invested in pearls, but it’s fair to wonder if the pearls you love are priced correctly. Oddly enough, artisans and retailers use the exact same collection of attributes to determine value that you considered while shopping.
Natural vs. Cultured vs. Costume
Back in the 1800s when pearls were first cultured, “natural” pearls referred to pearls that were found in the wild, as they had been for centuries. In the modern marketplace, terms have changed. Cultured pearls made a gem of organic design and infinite variety available to a vast community of artisans for a reasonable price. Accordingly, modern strands are all cultured pearls. The only strands of natural (or shall we say “wild”) pearls you’ll find will be at the antique auction. Antique matched wild pearls will be very, very expensive; Maybe not “Roman Emperor” expensive, but close.
As natural (wild) pearls faded from the market place and costume pearls began to achieve finer quality, the term “natural” began to shift. Sometimes people mean “genuine” as opposed to “costume.” Other times people mean “baroque” or natural in shape as opposed to perfectly round. When in doubt, ask the speaker to clarify so you’re both on the same page. Both wild and cultured pearls are natural in the sense that the pearl came from a mollusk and the outer surface is nacre. Pearls have a luster that can never fully be captured in a costume piece.
Luster is a key factor in value. Luster is used as a descriptive term but in a practical sense, it’s a measure of how much light is reflected from the surface of the pearl. The tighter and more compact the layers of nacre, and the thicker the coating of nacre over the “seed” used to culture the pearl, the more intense the reflection of light.
Luster – the reflection – can be damaged over time by wear, exposure or improper cleaning. The luster can also be restored, but as with any gemstone, there is a cost. You can re-cut or re-polish the surface of ruby or sapphire to “remove” chips or surface wear, but what you are really doing is removing the area of stone around the chip to reveal a new, chip-free surface beneath. You spend a tiny portion of the stone to gain a “restored” surface. The same can be true of pearls, but at the same cost.
When choosing pearls that are perfect for you, examine your heart. When paying for pearls that are perfect for you, examine their luster. Luster is one of the attributes that determines value, and it will help you determine if you’re being charged a fair price.
Roundness, Shape and Size
Imagine you’re a Roman noble with a strand of wild pearls. Imagine that they are round in shape and matched in size and color. Now imagine how many pearl divers from around the world were needed to find that many pearls of the right size and shape. Imagine the trade routes needed to transport them, one by one, to the one artist who strung them. Now imagine what that artist would charge you for such a rare and exquisite adornment…
Pearls that are round in shape and matched in size are still the most popular and are considered the most valuable in the marketplace. It’s just a memory. In a world where pearls are for everyone, and everyone is unique, this parameter will evolve in time.
Pearls are measured by the grain (weight) or by the diameter at the narrowest point, in millimeters. One jewelers’ grain is roughly .25 carats. This specific weight is one way that professionals can verify an antique wild pearl vs. a modern cultured one even if all the other attributes are the same.
The 7mm-8mm round pearl is the most in demand, and pearls rise in value along with size. A string of matched round 10mm pearls with fine luster would be an investment. Going forward, I think we’ll see similar investment being made in baroque pearls where the nacre is deep and the luster is fine. Perhaps one day, even mother of pearl will receive it’s due appreciation.
Length of the Strand
The length of the strand is the easiest attribute to measure. If all the luster and size of the pearls are equal between two strands, the longer strand is more valuable. In this case, the value comes not just from the greater number of pearls, but also from the greater versatility offered by a matinee or opera length strand. The price for a rope of quality pearls (greater than 33 inches) can rise sharply as the length increases.
Knotty or Nice
One last thing to consider is construction. Pearls are generally strung on floss with knots used to space the pearls and secure them in case the necklace breaks. Finer quality pearls mean more frequent knots. The finest strands will have a knot between every pearl, and a knot between the pearl and any other element such as crystal or earth mined stone. There are exceptions, for example fine wire can make knots unnecessary but it’s much harder on the pearls themselves.
Over all, the knots and the clasp will tell the tale. A maker who knots each pearl and uses a gold or sterling silver clasp is telling you about the quality of the pearls they’ve used. If the maker shows you that their pearls aren’t worth knotting, you should probably believe them.
Pearls are for Everyone
With all of that said, the only real test of any strand of pearls – just as it is with any piece of art or craftsmanship – is you. Do you love it? Embrace your choice and know that true style will never go out of fashion!