Pearl Jewellery Buying Guide

Pearls are a symbol of purity, virtue and modesty, and exceptionally popular. Technically known as "organic gems", pearls are harvested from shellfish as they have been for over 4,000 years. To get a strong understanding of what to look for when shopping for jewellery like pearl earrings, bracelets and earrings, let's consider the basics of pearls.

Pearl Jewellery Basics

Pearls are clearly one of nature's great treasures, but with a wide range of colours, shapes and sources it's easy to get confused about what to look for in pearl jewellery. Starting with the basics we'll look at how a pearl is formed, the sources and types of pearls, their valuation and how this affects the value of pearl jewellery.

How a Pearl is Formed

The creation of a pearl is remarkably simple to understand, but fairly complex and lengthy process to create. A pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a piece of sand, becomes lodged in the shell of an oyster. Sensing the object, the oyster deposits layers of a semi-translucent substance called "nacre" around the intrusive piece, where it builds up over time. It commonly will take years to create a pearl of decent size and perfectly round shapes are extremely rare. In fact pearly jewellery made with perfectly round pearls is quite expensive.

Natural vs. Created Pearls

The majority of pearls used today are farmed and not naturally grown. Sadly natural pearls are becoming less common due to years of over-fishing and the great demand for perfectly round pearls. During the start of the 20th century, a new process for growing pearls was developed resulting in what is now known as cultured pearls. Essentially the process involves inserting an irritant into an oyster and then caring for that oyster until it has developed a pearl. Today, almost all pearl jewellery uses cultured pearls.

Types of Pearls Used in Pearl Jewellery

Pearls differ in colour, size and shape based on the variety of the mollusc, growing conditions, harvesting techniques and other factors. Akoya, Cortez, Mabe, South Sea and Tahitian pearls are some of the most popular varieties, each of which has its own set of qualities. Akoya pearls are typically white or cream, but they can also be grey or black. Cortez pearls are available in a range of colours, including a shimmering black pearl. Mabe pearls possess a very high lustre, while South Sea pearls are among the largest cultured pearls and can be white, cream or Gold. Tahitian pearls are naturally grey, silver or black. The most sought-after Tahitian pearl is black with peacock green overtones.

Classic Pearl Jewellery: Necklaces

Pearls have always been popular in history but in 1961 with the release of Breakfast at Tiffany's, pearl necklaces reached their pinnacle of popularity. In this movie, Audrey Hepburn defined style with a stunning pearl necklace that would raise the status of the pearl necklace in American pop culture history. Ever since, the necklace has been the favorite piece of pearl jewellery.

How to Buy Pearl Jewellery

Here are some guidelines that will be helpful when selecting pearl jewellery:

  • Pearl Lustre
    Lustre is the sharpness and intensity of reflections on the pearl's surface.This is the most important feature of a pearl. Look at the reflection of images on the pearl's surface. The closer to a mirror image you see, the better the lustre. Pearls with fine lustre also seem to glow warmly from within.

  • Pearl Size
    The size of the pearls used in any piece of jewellery is important for both aesthetic and financial reasons. The larger the pearl the greater the cost, so balance the size of the pearl with the expected cost.

  • Pearl Similarity
    When searching for pearl jewellery, look at how well matched the pearls are when combined in one piece of jewellery. With many subtleties in colour, shape and finish, even a slight difference can create an unbalanced look. Look for pearls that are similar in shape, size and colour but keep in mind that those more closely matched will be more expensive.