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How To Select Fine Pearls

Tips for choosing only the finest pearls

Fine Pearls are very alluring. They hold a quality that both defines elegance and natural beauty. There are more varieties of pearls today and they're more available than ever before. “Cultured pearls” now rival fine diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. 

Most pearls available today are cultured, meaning that the mollusk is purposely inserted with an irritant or “nucleus” from which it creates a beautiful pearl.

An excellent way to understand the difference between natural pearls and cultured pearls is simply to think of the natural pearl as a result of the mollusk working alone, while cultured pearls are a product of nature being helped by science.

Cultured pearls aren't “fake” like many people may believe. The culturing process takes from two to three years and the process is a very delicate one. Pearl farmers have little control over what the finished pearl will look like or if the mollusk will reject the nucleus.

Not all pearls are of fine quality, or even desirable at all. The end result of the pearl culturing process is ultimately up to nature. 

A pearl's quality is determined by its size, luster, shape, nacre thickness and quality, color, and surface perfection.

The most important factor concerning pearl quality is nacre thickness and quality, which determines how long the pearl will last. Nacre thickness determines the longevity of the pearl and nacre quality determines how well light reflects through the layers of the pearls.

High luster and iridescence result from high quality nacre, and any pearl with these characteristics has quality, thick nacre.

When judging a pearl's nacre, look for uniform iridescence, cracks and peeling, and intensity of luster. Estimate the thickness near the drill hole between the nacre and the shell bead (nacre is lighter).

Pearls are very thick with at least .5 mm on all pearls, thick with at least. 5mm on most pearls, medium with between .35 and .5 mm on most pearls, and thin with .25 mm or less on most pearls. 

Luster is also very important and one of the first factors to consider when choosing pearls. Luster is an intense brightness quality that illuminates from within the pearl itself rather than just being “shiny” like in imitation pearls.

This intense brightness results from light being reflected throughout the numerous layers of the pearl's nacre. High quality pearls have a sharp contrast between the brightest area where direct light is hitting the pearls and the shaded area, which creates an illusion of a “ball within the pearl.”

Check for luster by examining the pearls under a fluorescent lamp and rolling them from side to side to examine the uniform luster. Examine pearls over a light gray or white material, but never black because it make it harder to see the true quality of the pearl.

The color of the pearl is also very important. When evaluating pearls, note their body color and overtones. The most desirable and rare white pearls have “rose” colored overtones.

Cream colored pearls are less expensive because they are less rare. Also, pearls can have tones rated in intensity. Pearls with darker tones are more desirable and expensive compared to lighter toned pearls.

Pearls are available in many natural body colors, including white, black, blue, pink, gray, gold, and green. Distinctive colored pearls are rarer and more difficult to find. Ask a qualified gemologist to check the pearls to make sure they haven't been dyed, especially for more expensive pearls such as the black or golden varieties.

Examine the pearls’ surface for blemishes. Although it's best to check for most pearl characteristics on a light background, you should check for blemishes on a dark background. Be sure to check in both intense and diffused light.

No pearls are perfect, and small blemishes are acceptable as a trade-off for a more important quality like nacre and luster. Pearls with higher luster conceal any blemishes more effectively. 

Also consider shape when choosing pearls. There are three pearl shapes: spherical, symmetrical, and baroque. Spherical pearls are the rarest and most desirable. Symmetrical pearls include teardrop or pear-shaped pearls. These are desirable, but usually less expensive than spherical pearls. Baroque pearls are irregularly shaped and usually the least expensive. 

Pearl size should also be taken into consideration. Larger cultured pearls are rarer and more expensive. Akoya pearls over 7 ˝ millimeters are much more expensive, and prices rise dramatically with each 1/2 millimeter over 8 millimeters. South Sea and Tahitian pearls also have a large increase in price when the size is over 15 millimeters.

One more factor to consider when evaluating pearls is the precision in matching the pearl quality in a string of pearls. It is very important to take all of the above factors in consideration when matching the pearls.

Graduated pearls also require careful matching. Pearl matching affects the value of the item because when pearls are not matched properly it detracts from the appearance of the jewelry. Also, check that the pearls are all drilled through the center so they lay properly. Pearls that were drilled off-center will not lay correctly which reduces the value of the piece. 

It is always very important to ask for an independent laboratory report when you believe that pearl enhancements may have been used to make the pearls appear more valuable than they really are. Make sure the person appraising the pearls is a Graduate Gemologist (GG), which is the Gemological Institute of America’s (GIA) highest award. 

Another important consideration when purchasing pearls is the merchant’s return policy. Make sure they have a 100% refund policy of at least 30 days.

About the author:

Amanda Raab is the owner of Pure Pearls. Pearls: Classic - Timeless - Luxury.

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