Pearls have fascinated our society for decades. What started as a mythological symbol for tears of joy by the goddess Aphrodite, pearls became the status symbol for wealth, luxury, and elegance – worn by royalties, nobles, and the elite. Even Cleopatra, as a display of her power and wealth to the Roman Empire, dissolved one of her pearl earrings (worth around $10 million dollars today), in a cup of vinegar and drank it.
Pearls, along with amber and coral, are organic gems, which means that they are created by mollusks
Because of the demand, natural pearls are over-harvested for years that it has now become one of the most coveted gems in the market. This drives businessmen such as Mikimoto to commercially produce pearls. Today, most of the pearls you see in the market are cultured pearls. But still, real, beautiful pearls do command a high price.
So what makes pearls so expensive?
How pearls are created – an overview
Pearls are created by mollusks, usually oysters, clams, mussels, or anything that have shells. However, not all mollusks produce the shiny lustrous nacre that makes pearls so valuable.
The process starts when an irritant, usually an organism, enters that mollusk and is trapped there, or has disturbed the cells on the mantle of the shell. To protect itself, it creates a pearl sac, and eventually covers it with a protective coating called nacre. Nacre or mother of pearl is what lines the inner shell.
Over time, the nacre builds up around that irritant which ends up being the pearl that we now know.
Natural Pearls vs. Cultured Pearls
The difference lies in how the irritant is induced. For natural pearls, the irritant enters the mollusks naturally, while for cultured, pearl engineers put a pearl nucleus to trigger the process.
A perfectly-round natural pearl is hard to come by, usually, 1 in 10,000 mollusks produce a saleable pearl. Also, only 1% of the total pearls in the market are natural pearls. and these are usually seen in vintage pearl jewelry.
Meanwhile, cultured pearls are what we normally see in the market today. The perfectly round pearls you see today are cultured pearls.
The only way to tell if a pearl is natural or cultured is via x-ray. The team in GIA has x-rays to see the composition of the pearl. Under the x-ray, natural pearls have rings (similar to that of a tree trunk). These rings are the layers of nacre that surrounded the irritant over time.
Cultured pearls usually have the nucleus at the center and a layer of nacre coating.
Saltwater vs. Freshwater
As to origin, there are 2 kinds of pearls: saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls.
As the name suggests, saltwater pearls are pearls produced by mollusks who live in seas and oceans. They can be both natural or cultured, and they command higher prices than their freshwater counterparts.
Freshwater pearls are pearls from mollusks that are bred in rivers and lakes. Most freshwater pearls are cultured pearls and are smaller in size.
Freshwater pearls come from mussels and are usually cultivated in China, being the largest producer of freshwater pearls. The pearls are similar to Akoya but are more affordable.
Unlike saltwater pearls where only one nucleus is planted inside the oyster, freshwater mussels can house more than one pearl. Instead of inserting a nucleus and a mollusk tissue in an oyster, only donor tissue is implanted in the mussel, thereby resulting in multiple pearls per oyster.
They are also cultured for a shorter time frame than saltwater pearls.
Saltwater pearls have 3 main “breeds”, which you may be familiar with: the Akoya Pearls, South Sea Pearls, and Tahitian Pearls. Most saltwater pearls are cultured pearls. They are more expensive because of two things: one, saltwater pearls are larger in size, and two, only one pearl can be implanted per oyster.
Akoya pearls come from the Akoya oyster mostly found in Japan, but can now be found in parts of Australia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. These saltwater cultured pearls are the first to be cultivated for mass production and the first to perfect the business model is Kasuchi Mikimoto. Because of this, his name has been synonymous with these variety.
Akoya Pearls are the classic white round pearls we see in the market. They are valued for their great luster and high reflective property. A good quality strand of Akoya Pearls can go anywhere from $2,000 to $35,000 depending on the size and quality.
While Akoya pearls are known for their white shine and luster, the black variety is also available in the market. These pearls are dyed by soaking them in solutions (usually silver nitrate) to darken the nacre and create that black shine, similar to black Tahitian pearls.
South sea pearls
Another type of saltwater pearl is the South sea pearl found and cultured in the waters of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. This pearl is the most valuable of all cultured pearls, thanks to its size. South sea pearls measure from 15-16mm in diameter
There are 2 colors for south sea pearls – white south sea pearl and golden south sea pearl (both pearls come from the oyster Pinctada maxima. These oysters are the largest pearl oysters in the world, and as a result, pearl farmers can use bigger nuclei to produce bigger pearls.
There are 2 varieties of Pinctada Maxima – the white-lipped and the gold-lipped oysters. The lip determines the pearl color.
While the white pearls are also priced by jewelers, the gold pearl variety is the most coveted color. The gold South sea pearl’s color can range from creamy white to deep gold, and the darker the color, the more expensive it becomes.
The third variety of saltwater pearls is the Tahitian Pearl. This variety comes from the oyster Pinctada margaritifera, otherwise known as the black-lipped oyster.
Found and cultivated in the waters of French Polynesia, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands, Tahitian pearls are known for their gorgeous dark color that ranges from steel to dark black with blue, green, and purple overtone.
Tahitian pearls are the only naturally-black cultured pearl (as other pearls are dyed to get the same dark color) available in the market. They are smaller than their South sea counterpart, but larger pearls are not impossible to find. Usually round, baroque shapes are also available.
How are pearls graded?
Just like diamonds, pearls are also graded according to 7 characteristics. The higher the grade is, the more expensive it becomes. While all characteristics do increase the value of a pearl, a few drives the prices up. The following is listed down according to significance.
The pearl size is one of the important factors that drive the pearl’s value.
A round pearl is measured in millimeters and is rounded off to the nearest 0.5mm. For baroque, oblongs, or any other shapes, length, width, or depth is measured.
The size of the mollusk determines the potential size of the pearl. This is because the bigger the nucleus implanted in the mollusk, the higher the chances that it is rejected. Therefore, pearl farmers or engineers cannot just insert a big nucleus inside a mollusk.
That is why South Sea pearls are considered the most expensive variety of pearls in the market. However, size alone does not determine the value of the pearl. If an Akoya pearl the size of a small South sea pearl is valued, it will command a higher price because of its rarity.
Another important factor to consider when valuing pearls is Luster, which, together with nacre quality, is one of the most difficult characteristics to value.
Luster refers to how “shiny” or reflective a pearl is. It should have sharp bright reflections, some even describe it as mirror-like.
GIA grades a pearl’s luster between Excellent to Poor. To do this, they compare a pearl to different strands of pearl in their collection, and different varieties of pearl have different luster qualities.
Another tricky to grade is a pearl’s color. Apart from different shades of white, black, and gold, there are overtones and orient to consider. And the only way to measure them is to compare them with different strands of pearls.
A pearl is usually described by its dominant, overall color – also known as the body color. When a pearl has a good and thick nacre, two additional colors may be present: the overtone or as GIA describes “the translucent color on top of the body color”, and the orient or that translucent secondary shimmer. Note that when all three are present, then what you have is an expensive pearl.
Apart from the ranges of white, black, and gold, pearl can also come in different colors such as pink, green, champagne, chocolate, blue, and, lavender.
Pink pearls are more coveted than pearls with green hues, and blues are expensive because of their rarity. Naturally-colored pink and lavender pearls are freshwater pearls, while naturally-colored blue pearls are saltwater pearls.
Naturally-colored chocolate or bronze pearls come from black-lipped oysters, where Tahitian black pearls also come from. Colors can range from light bronze to deep chocolate and can have wonderful overtones and orient. Chocolate-dyed freshwater pearls are also available in the market and are produced in China.
Currently, there are lots of available colors in the market. These are usually dyed-freshwater pearls.
A perfectly round shape is rare, even for cultured pearls. For a pearl to be classified as round, the difference in diameter on all sides should not exceed 2%. For a gem that is grown inside a living species, that is hard to come by and difficult to culture.
GIA classifies pearls according to these seven basic shapes: round, near-round, button, drop, oval, semi-baroque, and baroque.
Round and near-round shapes are more common in saltwater pearls than freshwater pearls, thanks to the nucleus that is implanted in oysters. Therefore, between an Akoya and a Freshwater pearl, all qualities having the same, the freshwater may command a higher price than its saltwater counterpart.
As a naturally-occurring gem with a Mohs hardness scale of 3.5-4.5, it is common for pearls to have bumps, scratches, spots, and uneven surfaces. Since surface quality affects the durability and the luster of the pearl, the more severe the imperfections are, the more devalued a pearl becomes.
GIA grade a pearl’s surface quality as Clean, Lightly Spotted, Moderately Spotted, or Heavily Spotted.
Clean, smooth, or nearly-smooth pearls are hard to find. That is why, saltwater pearls, especially the South sea and Tahitian pearls are expensive. They boast clean smooth pearls at such big sizes.
When it comes to nacre, the thicker it is, the more expensive the pearl is valued.
Nacre thickness affects the durability and luster of the pearl and tells how long a pearl has been cultivated. The thicker the nacre, the more durable and lustrous a pearl is. Think of nacre thickness as the layers that form a pearl. The longer the pearl is left untouched, the thicker the nacre becomes.
Freshwater pearls and natural pearls are pure nacre, while saltwater pearls use seed pearl or nucleus that the oyster coats. That is why unlike freshwater and natural pearls, when cultured saltwater pearls are dull and chalky, it means that the nacre is thin and the pearl is less durable.
Finally, we have Matching. This characteristic is more towards pearl jewelry than individual pearl characteristics.
Similar to a person’s fingerprint, no two pearls are the same, which is why getting matching, very similar pearls is hard.
For pearl jewelry, especially those that feature multiple pearls (such as a pearl necklace or bracelet, and pearl earrings), the size, luster, color, and shape should match, otherwise, it will be very noticeable. Matching pearls is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that requires years of collecting and comparing pearls. This is the reason why the more uniformed the pearls are in a piece of jewelry, the more expensive it is.
Real pearls… all the time
When buying, especially investing in, pearls, always choose real pearls, whether natural or cultured. Always opt for the best grading in all of the criteria above. Saltwater pearls are always a good investment but can command a high price tag. If you are working within a certain budget, always choose size and luster, especially for long-strand pearl jewelry.
When you are ready to splurge on that gorgeous piece, you can always trust AaLAND to help you get the perfect perfect pearl jewelry that is right for you and your budget. You can visit our showroom or you may call us to book an appointment or for further inquiries.