How to choose pearl jewellery? South Sea, Tahitian or Freshwater Pearls ?
1. Which pearls are best? Your quick pearl guide
What are the different types of pearls? Which ones are the most precious? When looking to treat yourself to some of these magnificent glow balls it's good to go by an established pearl guide. Traditionally five criteria determine the quality of the pearls, which in accordance with the most authoritative pearl grading system are graded between A and AAA, AAA being the best quality. These five criteria are:
- Shape, perfectly round pearls are still the most expensive, though many more beautiful shapes are formed
- Lustre, the surface/nacre of the pearl, the more metallic and mirror like the surface is the better-quality pearl
- Colour, the evenness in colour of the pearl surface
- Size is a highly determining factor for price, the larger the pearl generally the more expensive
- Thickness of nacre, the metallic lustre covering the pearl. The thicker the greater the quality of the pearl
Which pearls are best and the most precious is to a large extent subjective in my view, heirloom pearls carry great value albeit not necessarily monetary. Irregardless of the grading criterion regarding shape, there has been a greater appreciation in recent years and an increasing love for the perfectly imperfect shaped pearls, accordingly these have increased dramatically in value. However, that said the latter four criteria still apply on how to choose pearl jewellery with regards to lustre, colour, size and the thickness of the nacre, when deciding which pearls to go for.
I hope you enjoy the read of my little pearl guide : )
2. How are pearls formed?
Before moving on to describing the different types of pearls, here's a quick overview of how pearls are formed.
Pearls are hard shiny treasures produced within the soft tissue of a living bivalved shell, mussels and oysters, and like the shell, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form. Pearls are formed when a foreign object enters the mussel, either by accident in wild pearls, or manipulated by pearl farmers. Pearls date back to 500 million years ago.
Although there are thousands of different species of shells, only a few of these can actually produce pearls. The female oysters tend to make the best quality pearls.
On average it takes about 2 years for a pearl to be developed and ready for harvest, some shell types can produce pearls multiple times, and accordingly the pearls are removed with surgical precision before it gets ready to grow a new pearl. Some shells can only develop one pearl at a time whilst others can develop up to 30 pearls at a time.
Oysters are ancient and very sensitive creatures that live in great harmony with their environment when undisturbed. Accordingly, pearl farmers work hard to keep the water around their oysters clean by preventing pollution. The tiniest upset or change in the environment or temperature can have detrimental impact on the pearls, and pearl farming is therefore under treat with global warming and increasing pollution levels.
3. Your Pearl Guide to the Different Types of Pearls
There are many different types of pearls. You have cultured and farmed pearls vs natural and wild, the difference being that the former is intentionally man made. Natural pearls are rare, highly prized and often very dangerous to harvest. Most pearls today are now cultured.
You also distinguish between freshwater pearls and saltwater pearls. Most freshwater pearls are cultured in China. You have cultured saltwater and freshwater pearls, as well as wild saltwater and freshwater pearls.
Until about 20 years ago, good quality pearls were all almost exclusively saltwater grown. Today, however, you can get freshwater pearls that can compete with saltwater pearls in terms of look and quality and not least price. However, South Sea, Tahitian and Akoya Pearls remain stunning, albeit very expensive.
3.1. Freshwater Pearls
Now freshwater pearls are largely dominating the pearl market. The quality of freshwater pearls has improved remarkably in the last 20 years, and grade AAA freshwater pearls now are greatly challenging the more traditionally treasured saltwater pearls. All freshwater pearls are almost exclusively cultured in China, with a few exceptions in Japan. Freshwater pearls come in all shapes and sizes. Most freshwater pearls also have a bead nucleus to improve the shape and quality of the pearls. Cultured freshwater pearl mussels can harbour up to 15 pearls on each side, and accordingly making freshwater pearls more affordable than some of the saltwater pearls. See the picture of the freshwater pearl mussel below.
3.2. Akoya Pearls
Mostly white and round pearls, however Akoya Pearls also come in blue, gold, grey, green and purple in colour. Traditionally the first pearl type to be farmed, and most classic saltwater white pearl strings are akoya pearls. Top quality akoya pearls have the most amazing metallic lustre, mostly grown in Japan, China and Sri Lanka.
3.3. South Sea Pearls
These types of pearls are the most valuable of the cultured pearls, simply because they are so gorgeous and rare in number, they are characterized by their beautiful golden colour, though also available in beautiful white, and occasionally in blue, black, green, purple and pink. Unlike other pearls oyster, the South Sea oyster can only develop one single pearl at a time, which takes 2 – 4 years before it can be harvested. These pearls are cultured in Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
3.4. Tahitian Pearls
The name of the most beautiful black or rather peacock and green pearls with a most amazing metallic lustre. White pearls are formed as well, but are a rarity. Mostly grown in French Polynesia, Cook Islands and Fiji. See the picture of a Tahitian pearl below, where you can see the beautiful black and deep blue colours of the shell on the outer rim of the inside of the shell, which is also the colour on its outside.
4. Why do pearls vary in their natural colour?
Scientist are not fully certain about why shells have different colours inside them, which is what affects the natural colour of the pearls. However, whereas white pearls before were the only type held in high esteem, black Tahitian pearls as well as golden South Sea Pearls are now also highly sought after. Pearls are found in all shades of white and cream to pink hues, bright pink, gold and yellow, to peacock, green, purple, grey and black.
5. How to grade pearls?
The most established pearl grading system rates pearls between A and AAA, AAA being the best quality. Some pearl sellers use a grading system up to AAAAA, this system however, is not commonly shared. The higher the grade the better lustre, smoother surface, less flaws in the lustre, and more perfect shape (usually round), and vice versa. Great quality pearls have an almost metallic shine, lustre, on their surface. Interestingly, the glorious Tahitian peals have their own official grading system from A to D, A being the finest.
6. Pearl shapes: What shapes do pearls come in?
Pearls now come and are treasured in all kinds of shapes. Though round pearls remain the most expensive, modern interpretation of pearl jewellery have tended in the latter years to fall in love with the perfectly imperfect shaped pearls. So here is a list of a few more shape. Also, with cultured freshwater pearls, all imaginable shapes can now be created.
6.1. Round Pearls
Round pearls are traditionally held to be the most sought after and regarded as the most beautiful as worn by Jackie O, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and now Kamala Harris to name but a few style icons and female role models, who love pearls.
Perfectly round pearls tend to remain the most expensive pearls, and should roll easily across a flat surface in a straight or almost straight line. For a string of pearls, make sure they roll evenly when rolling it back and forth in front of you at the jewellery shop.
6.2. Semi-Round Pearls
Pearls are classified as semi-round, if they have even just a minor deviation from the perfect round shape. To the naked eye semi-round pearls will often appear round. Semi-round pearls are more affordable than perfectly round pearls, but can be equally beautiful. The pearls I use for my Modern Muse Earrings and Necklace are semi-round to round freshwater pearls, see picture below.
6.3. Rice an Elliptical Pearls
Rice shaped pearls are oval in shape like a rice corn, though they can come in many sizes well beyond a rice corn. Rice shaped pearls are cheaper than round pearl, but are perfect for creating more modern looking pearl choker like the RAW Boho Shine Pearl Choker, Make a Wish or Boho Girl Pearl Bracelet and Necklace (see below). I use rise shaped freshwater pearls for these designs. Rice pearls tend to look more effortless chic and contemporary, than classic round pearls..
6.4. Button Pearls
Button pearls are pearls that are flat on ether one or both sides, as if they have been squished slightly. They are a lot cheaper than round pearls, but are perfect in particular for bracelet making as they lie flat against your wrist when wearing. I use button freshwater pearls to play around with contrasts in shape for my RAW Surfer Girl Bracelet, see the picture below.
6.5. Double Pearls
Double pearls are two pearls that have grown together inside the shell. I love these funky pearls, find them full of character and use them in my Sisterhood Necklace and Bracelet as well as my Celebrate your Curves Necklace (see below), the pearls I use are double freshwater pearls. These pearls have so much swung and personality.
6.6. Cluster pearls
Pearls that have grown together into one in a number higher than two.
6.7. Blister Pearls
A blister or mabe pearl is a natural pearl that has perforated the mantle of the mollusk inside the shell. They are round or irregular in shape. And for lack of a better comparison they look a bit like a ufo or fried egg. Fabulous funky for rings in particular or a single pearl pendant.
6.8. Drop Pearls
Drop pearls come in many different shapes, anything from the perfect teardrop to pearls that look as if there are almost a big round and with a small pearl on top. This type of pearl is particular beautiful as earrings or for a simple single pearl pendant necklaces. I love working with drop shaped freshwater pearls for earrings and have used this shape for many different designs.
6.9. Fireball Pearls
Fireball pearls are seriously trendy and have been for the last couple of years. They are the most common type of freshwater pearls, however, the quality vary greatly. As the name says, the pearl basically looks like a fireball burning its way through the atmosphere. The shape of these freshwater pearls is centered around a round bead inserted by pearl farmed and the shape of the pearl has then developed very organically. They tend to be very big and rather heavy, but oh so gorgeous for statement earrings and cool pendants for a necklace, definitely not your old school perception of what pearl jewellery looks like.
6.10. Baroque Pearls
Baroque pearls used to be regarded as very low quality, as they tend to be very non-symmetrical in shape, hence the value of the pearls was low. However, jewellery designer and jewellery lowers have fallen in love with this shape of pearl, so the prices of these beauts are steadily increasing as is the quality of these. I have used baroque freshwater pearls in my Femme Fatale Pearl Necklace and Femme Fatale Pearl Earrings (see picture below), and they are one of my very fave shapes of pearls, so unique, organic and full of character. Baroque freshwater pearls grade AAA now compare to fine saltwater pearls.
6.11. Nugget Pearls
A nugget pearl tends to be flatter in shape than a potato pearl, see below, and cheaper in price. Nonetheless nugget pearls can still make glorious jewellery pieces, just make sure you get some with a beautiful lustre.
6.12. Keishi Pearls
Keishi pearls are wild pearls, though grown in farmed shells. Keishi pearls is another personal fave of mine. Keishi pearls are flat and don’t have a nucleus, they grow independently and basically develops as a, for lack of a better word, coincidental byproduct, or more flatteringly - by magic: ) They are often quite big and can have petal or flat teardrop like shapes. As they are flat, they weigh a lot less than say baroque or fireball pearls, and hence are perfect for bigger pearl earrings that you want to wear all day. The pearls I use for my Freedom Pearl Earrings and Necklace are keishi freshwater pearls. See the picture below.
6.13. Stick Pearls
Stick pearls are long mostly freshwater pearls that may resemble Biwa pearls, see below. They can come in many different stick like shapes. I must admit I love all the perfectly imperfect shaped pearls, including these, and use them in my Holiday Pearl Necklace designs, see the picture below. The stick pearls used in my designs below are freshwater pearls.
6.14. Biwa Pearls
Is a category that is only allowed to be used for freshwater pearls from Japan. Once very popular, now extremely rare due to pollution. They can vary in shape, but mostly look like small teeth, many stick freshwater pearls are sold as Biwa pearls, though the name is preserved for specific Japanese pearls.
6.15. Ripples Pearls
Ripple pearls are pearls with what looks like folds or lines in the surface. They tend to have a great lustre and reflect the light beautifully, rare shape in cultured saltwater pearls, whilst common in freshwater pearls. I use ripple freshwater pearls in my Aphrodite Necklace (see the picture below), and the RAW Beach Babe Bracelet, and simply love their individual shapes. So beautiful and full of character.
6.16. Potato Pearls
The so-called potato pearls not unexpectedly look a bit like potatoes in shape, just a lot more shiny and fabulous. They are amongst the cheapest type of freshwater pearls and are cultured in great numbers. However, you can still find potato pearls with a glorious lustre. These types of pearls and are a great inexpensive alternatively to the other shapes of pearls.
6.17. Coin Pearls
Coin pearls is a common name used for pearls that have grown from different shaped objects incerted into mussels, this type of pearl is getting increasing popularity in trendy and less extensive pearl designs. They come in the form of hearts, moon, crosses, - you name it. Coin pearl are generally freshwater pearls.
6.18. Tokki Pearls
Tokki is a Tahitian specific pearl grouping referring to pearls that have a small pearl or multiple small pearls attached to them and which form part of their outer nacre. These types are pearls are quite funky and definitely not your old-school perception of a pearl, they are best used for pendants, or a serious statement string of pearl necklace as well as for funky mismatched earrings.
6.19. Souffle Pearls
Souffle pearls, which have all but disappeared now, are grown a bit like a souffle, where the bead nucleus is manipulated to stretched the pearl sac and grown into a big hollow pearl. Then tended to be quite big but lightweight due to the specific growth process.
6.20. Gas Pearls
Gas pearls are souffle like pearls grown organically, where the souffle chamber contain a horrid smelling gas. Once cleaned though they are pretty funky.
7. What Type and Shape of Pearls Should You Go For?
So, to sum up. Which pearls to buy is not just dependent upon your budget, but also on what shape of pearl you are attracted to and what type of message you wish to send with your jewellery. And if you want your pearl to be in their natural untreated colour, do you then mostly love white freshwater pearls, black Tahitian pearls, golden South Sea pearls or white Akoya pearls?
Are you a modern classic, contemporary boho and free-spirited person style wise?
The bottom line is, go for the pearls you love, and not whether these are objectively regarded as the most valuable or currently on trend.
However, do look out for getting the best grade pearl possible to ensure you get the pearls with the most beautiful lustre.
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