How to Choose Pearls

What should I look for when I’m purchasing pearls?

Freshwater pearls are a beautiful jewelry component that add class and style to any design. They are also fun to use because the variety available today is incredibly vast and they are offered in a wide range of prices. So, with so much variety in size, shape, quality and price, how do we know what to look for in a pearl?

First, most freshwater pearls are offered in 16″ strands. This is a very standard measurement and pearls are only sometimes offered in other lengths or quantities. How many pearls are on one strand depends on the size of the pearl. For instance, a 16″ strand of 4mm pearls will contain about 100 pearls, while a strand of 8mm pearls will contain only about 50. Keep in mind that pearls are naturally grown and size will never be precise the way manufactured beads are, so the number of beads per strand are just estimated.

This precision, or consistency, of size is one of the many factors that influence price. Other factors include:

  • size
  • luster
  • surface quality
  • shape
  • and color

An example of expensive pearls might be large, round pearls with a very consistent size and shape, bearing a thick colorful luster, with a smooth, blemish-free surface. Let’s look at each factor idividually.

Size is an easy factor to start with. Freshwater pearls are grown inside farmed mussels (rather than the more expensive Oyster Pearls). A small item is placed inside the shell, and the animal forms a coating, or “nacre” around it as a natural, protective response. Most often with larger pearls, it took the mussell a longer time to create and more nacre had to be produced. This, of course adds value. Sometimes, however, the original implant is relatively large itself, making the nacre thin and growth time relatively short. This results in a large pearl, but one with a relatively dull luster and proprtionately lower cost.

This leads us to the luster of the pearl. When more nacre has been built up, you typically get a better luster to the pearl. A nice luster is the result of a longer growth period. A beautiful luster on a natural white pearl, for example, would show colors in its shine – pinks, greens, yellows, etc. – all very subtle of course, but certainly visible. A poor luster simply looks dull and lifeless.

Luster should not be confused with surface quality. You may find a pearl that has a beautiful luster but a lot of inconsistent pock-marks, holes, scratches or unattractive bumps on it. Some surface irregularities are desired. For instance Biwa pearls tend to have a really nice luster but a very bumpy surface. This bumpiness gives them a “baroque” look that many people love.

Another surface imperfection that many people appreciate is that of rings around the pearl. This is not to be confused with those bands of dull scratches that pearls sometimes have – looking like they have been poorly handled and rubbed against each other too many times! Rings or banding that don’t detract much from the price are like tiny grooves that maintain the luster of the rest of the pearl and are consistent with other pearls on the strand.
Ultimately, a really smooth, lustery pearl will fetch more than a pearl with bumps or imperfections, but surface variation should not always be considered a bad thing, as it is one of the factors that makes pearls so diverse and fun to design with!

The shape of a freshwater pearl has less to do with price than luster or surface, but is an important factor in knowing what you’re getting. Many companies have different names for each shape. What we’ll cover here is pretty standard terminology, and language that we use in our own products. Very round pearls, as close to a perfect sphere as possible is one of the more valuble shapes. A mussell is more likely to make a pearl that is a little off-round, so the really perfect ones are harder to come by and thus more expensive. As any designer knows, however, perfectly round can get boring and we’re in luck that pearls also show up in the following shapes:

Freshwater Pearl Shapes

Tying all of this together is the element of consistency. How much does each pearl look like the next? A more consistent strand will be more valuable than one that is very irregular. Again, sometimes a designer will want that irregularity, and sometimes the need for consistency is greater.

Once all these factors are taken into consideration, pearls can often be placed within a rating system. These will probably vary from company to company and here we will cover the rating system we use for our pearls. Keep in mind that this is a relatively subjective system and while accurate, consistent rating is the goal, one person’s A might be another persons A+. From best quality to worst, we use the following ratings for the pearls we carry in the shop:

AA   >   A+   >   A   >   B   >   C

So, there are a few things to consider when you decide to purchase freshwater pearls! All of the quality factors covered here will somehow influence the price and look of the pearl. The more you know, the easier it will be to choose the right strand for your design.

Related: Did You Know? About Pearls (Dec 2007)