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									Pearl Value Factors: Judging and Evaluating Pearls

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Choosing diamonds is easy: We all know about the 5 C's. But how do you
choose pearls? This article explains how to evaluate cultured pearls
using the seven value factors defined by GIA.

choosing pearls, evaluating pearls, grading pearls, pearl quality,
quality of pearls, buying pearls, freshwater pearls, cultured pearls,
buying cultured pearls, grading cultured pearls, pearls

Article Body:
Thanks to aggressive publicity campaigns sponsored by the diamond
industry, anyone buying a diamond can confidently go into the transaction
armed with enough information to ask the right questions. In the pre-
purchase stage, you’ll likely query the seller about the five C’s: carat,
cut, clarity, color and cost. As long as you trust the jeweler, you can
be confident about the value of the gem you’re interested in based on his
or her answers. But what about pearls? What questions do you ask? What
does a high quality pearl look like? What are traits to avoid? Here we’ll
tell you what makes a pearl valuable. We’ll also give you questions to
ask your jeweler and tools to judge these lustrous gems yourself.

Pearl Value Factors
While there is no international standard for grading pearls, there is a
system that is commonly used to evaluate these beautiful colored
gemstones. Developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the
world’s largest non-profit institute of gemological research and
learning, this grading system considers seven pearl traits when
determining value. They are: size, shape, color, luster, surface quality,
nacre quality, and matching. Let’s take a look at each one as it relates
to the beautiful cultured pearl.

Pearl Size
Pearls can be as small as a pinhead or nearly as big as a golf ball, but,
of course, somewhere between these two extremes is the norm.

Size is determined by many factors. These include the size of the animal
that produces the gems, the size of the implanted bead, the length of
time the oyster or mollusk was allowed to form the pearl, the climate and
conditions of the environment, and the health of the animal that produced
the pearl.

Different types of pearls have different expected size ranges. For
example, because they are produced in a relatively small oyster, akoya
cultured pearls are usually much smaller than their South Sea
counterparts, which are grown in one of the world’s largest mollusks, P.
maxima. This large animal can accept a larger bead nucleus and can lay
down nacre, the combination of organic substances that makes up a pearl,
much faster than its smaller cousin. Be sure to find out what type of
pearl you’re looking at (freshwater, akoya, South Sea or Tahitian). All
have different expected size ranges, and anything outside the range will
be reflected in the price. A guide: akoyas typically range from 2-11mm;
Tahitians from 8-14mm; South Sea pearls from 9-20mm, and freshwater
pearls from 4-11mm.

All other things being equal, a larger pearl will command a higher price.
Larger pearls typically take longer to grow, and are not as common as
smaller pearls. As in anything, however, beauty is in the eye of the
beholder. For some people, another pearl value factor, such as luster,
may be more important than size.

When evaluating size, keep in mind that high quality small pearls exist,
as do poor quality large pearls. Thus, pearl size is only one factor to
consider when judging pearl quality. Which brings us to…

Close your eyes and picture a strand of pearls. What do you see? Probably
a lustrous necklace of white round gems, right? That’s because the white
round pearl necklace is a timeless jewelry staple and traditional classic
in many cultures. As you can expect, round pearls are desirable due to
demand, but they are also valuable because they are rare. (Think about
it: Irritant enters oyster, oyster secrets nacre, nacre covers irritant.
Pearl comes out…round? Doubtful.)

Although pearl culturing techniques are improving all the time, a
perfectly round pearl is uncommon. (Akoya crops typically contain more
spherical pearls than other pearl types.) According to GIA, collecting
enough high quality round cultured pearls for a matched pearl strand can
take years. Round or near round pearls will command more money than other
shapes. That’s not to say that other shapes aren’t valuable. (Remember
again the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”) According to
GIA, drop shapes can sometimes match the value of rounds, especially when
they’re symmetrical and well-formed.

Not a traditionalist? Pearls come in many shapes, and, depending on what
you like, can be just as desirable, but less costly, than round. Pearl
shapes include button, oval, drop, semi-baroque and baroque. Some pearls
even resemble bars, crosses, and coins. Some, called circled pearls, have
grooves that go around the gems’ circumference. These beauties can make
wonderful jewelry.

GIA classifies pearls into three major shape categories:
1.    Spherical: Round or near round pearls
2.    Symmetrical: When bisected, these pearls have equal halves
3.    Baroque: Pearls with no discernable symmetry

Although pearl shapes vary, those that display some type of symmetry
typically cost more. But baroque pearls, either when set alone or grouped
with similar shapes into a necklace or bracelet, can be highly beautiful
and unusual. And baroque pearls often show orient, a desirable shimmering
rainbow-like effect that adds to the pearls’ value. Many designers prefer
to work with baroque pearls for their infinite design possibilities—and
many consumers buy them for their unique beauty.

Although white will likely always win the pearl color popularity contest,
pearls come in a wide array of gorgeous colors. From the aforementioned
white to grey-black, pearls can also be lavender, pink, orange and many
shades in between. The choice is up to you, but keep the wearer’s skin
tone in mind when choosing: Pearl color should complement the wearer’s

When describing a pearl’s color, jewelers talk about three traits: hue,
which is the overall pearl color—the one you see on first impression;
overtone, which is not always present but which is the secondary color
you see when you look at the pearl (i.e. a pinkish blush on a white
pearl) and orient, which is also not always present, but, as mentioned
above, can best be described as a colorful, rainbow-like sheen.

The popularity of pearl colors waxes and wanes; value is determined by
what’s in fashion. As can be expected, white is always “in.” Lavender
pearls are very popular right now too. And Tahitian cultured pearls,
which are typically dark gray, dark green, or dark blue/purple were,
amazingly, pretty much unheard of before the 1970s, but are now widely
coveted—and very costly. Sometimes, too, a model or celebrity will wear a
certain pearl color and that color will experience a surge in popularity.

As with size, pearl types display typical characteristics when it comes
to color. Akoyas, for example, are usually white or cream; Tahitians are
typically black, gray or brown; South Sea are usually silver, white or a
gorgeous golden color, and freshwater come in white, cream and a wide
array of pastels. Acording to GIA, if the desirable pearl color is rare,
fine pearls displaying that color it will command high prices.

Because pearls are known for their inner glow, a trait that sets them
apart from other gems, this value factor trumps all others. According to
GIA, “Luster is the most important of all the value factors to the beauty
of a pearl.”

Dependent on many factors, among them nacre thickness and growth
conditions, luster is only good when nacre is translucent and its plates
overlap in such a way that the pearl appears lit from within. Thick nacre
does not guarantee sharp luster, but it certainly helps. The sharper the
reflection on a pearl, the better the luster. GIA defines four categories
of luster:

•     Excellent: Reflections are bright, sharp and distinct
•     Good: Reflections are bright but not sharp, and slightly hazy
around the edges
•     Fair: Reflections are weak, hazy and blurred
•     Poor: Reflections are dim and diluted
Luster is one of the easiest pearl value factors to rate. Just hold an
object, like a pen, close to the pearl. (Be careful not to get ink on the
gem.) The sharper the reflection, the better the luster, and the more
valuable the pearl will be. Note, though, that each pearl type has its
own characteristic luster. Akoyas are known for their sharp, fine luster,
while South Sea cultured pearls, for example, have a subtler, softer

Surface Quality
Pearls are organic, and therefore “imperfect,” meaning they are not
uniform, shiny, perfectly round orbs every time they come out of an
oyster. Rather, as natural, layered objects, they show many surface
characteristics such as abrasions, bumps, chips, cracks, pits, scratches
and wrinkles. Most people will never see a perfect pearl in their
lifetime, and indeed, minor surface irregularities do not detract from a
pearl’s value.

As defined by GIA, there are four classifications of pearl surface

•     Clean: Pearl can be blemish-free, or spotless, or contain minute
surface characteristics that are very difficult to see when examined by a
trained observer
•     Lightly blemished: Pearls show minor surface irregularities when
inspected by a trained observer
•     Moderately blemished: Pearls show noticeable surface
•     Heavily blemished: Pearls show obvious surface irregularities,
which can compromise durability

The pearl’s overall appearance will determine its value. Obvious or
multiple surface characteristics or large blemishes that affect the gem’s
durability will detract from its value, while a more clean-looking pearl
is worth more. Most of us cannot afford a perfect strand of pearls, but,
luckily, small bumps and blemishes can often be hidden by a drill hole.
According to GIA, “…a completely clean pearl is a rare treasure. Since
rarity influences value, the prices of such pearls run extremely high.
Most consumers must settle for some degree of surface irregularity in the
pearl they purchase. Even the finest pearls can contain minor surface

Nacre Quality
Directly tied to luster, nacre quality/thickness is a very important
value factor which, fortunately, can be judged by the naked eye. It’s
better, of course, to evaluate thickness with an x-ray machine or by
cutting the pearl, but most of us don’t have such a machine, nor do we
want to wear pearls that have been chopped in half. (Picture that for a

Take a look at the pearl you wish to evaluate. A chalky, dull appearance
means that the nacre is probably thin. In some cases, the nacre is so
thin that the bead nucleus shows through. Do not purchase these pearls—
they won’t last!
GIA classifies nacre into three categories:

•     Acceptable: The pearl’s nucleus is not noticeable and the gem
displays no chalky appearance
•     Nucleus Visible: The pearl shows evidence of its bead nucleus
through the nacre. The pearl shows strong “blinking” (a flickering of
light and dark) when it is rotated across a light source
•     Chalky Appearance: The pearl has a dull, matte appearance

Thin nacre has a negative effect on a pearl’s value, although thick nacre
does not guarantee sharp luster. Thin nacre can crack, peel or otherwise
deteriorate and the pearls won’t last very long. (Unlike other gems,
polishing a pearl does not restore its original beauty.) Pearls with
thicker nacre are more durable and more valuable. Ask about nacre
thickness if you have the opportunity.

Interesting fact: Many freshwater cultured pearls are cultured with
mantle tissue only, rather than a mother-of-pearl bead, and, as a result,
are nearly solid nacre. Many pearl experts say that today’s freshwater
cultured pearls from China now rival the beauty of Japanese akoyas!

As you can imagine, this pearl value factor only comes into play when a
piece of jewelry contains more than one pearl. Some designers
intentionally mismatch pearls for aesthetic effect, but when a strand is
meant to be uniform, how well the gems match is an important
consideration. Fortunately, this is easy to determine. Just look at the
strand and note any obvious differences in the gems. (Some jewelers will
try to hide small or imperfect pearls near the clasp, so check this area

When evaluating a matched strand, keep in mind that cultured pearls are
organic, not poured from a factory mold. No two are exactly alike,
therefore it is impossible to make a perfect match. This does not detract
from the jewelry, though, as long as, on a whole, the piece is uniform.
To test, look at the strand, hold it up close and also view it at arms’
length. Are the pearls the same overall size? Color? Shape? Luster? Nacre
quality? If they look the same, they’re well-matched.

GIA defines three categories of matching:

•     Excellent: Pearls are uniform in appearance and drilled in the
•     Good: Piece shows minor variations in uniformity
•     Fair: Pearls are noticeably different from one another

According to GIA, “It takes an enormous amount of skill and labor to sort
harvested pearls. The time and effort involved in producing a well-
matched strand of pearls will reflect its market price.”

Because they are produced in different animals in different environments
under unique conditions, each pearl type has its own expected
characteristics. When the traits shown for a certain pearl are outside
the norm for its type, the pearl will be more valuable.

Each pearl is unique, and uniquely beautiful. Which pearl and pearl type
is the most beautiful? It’s up to you. (This author is partial to white
baroque freshwater pearls and golden round South Sea pearls.)

Go Shopping!
Congratulations! Now you know what to look for and what questions to ask
when shopping for pearls. Remember, a pearl’s worth depends on its
overall look--how well it combines the seven value factors. Keep in mind
that not all value factors are important to all people. You may be more
interested in pearl color than pearl size, for example. As with anything,
individual tastes reign supreme. Now, go forth and buy with confidence.

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