Know Your Pearls

Akoya pearls, South Sea pearls, Tahitian pearls, saltwater and freshwater pearls, white pearls, pink pearls, black pearls and gray pearls. Our display cases offer more types of cultured pearls than ever before, which is terrific ? there are pearls to suit every taste and budget ? but the sheer number of choices can be daunting to the uninitiated pearl shopper.

No worries.

The following is a primer on this most singular of gems. The more one knows about cultured pearls, the better one can understand the differences among pearls and judge the quality of a specific piece of pearl jewelry.

A natural pearl forms inside an oyster as a response to an irritant ? a grain of sand or a worm ? that cannot be expelled. Today, most pearls are cultured pearls, which means that they are created by implanting a tiny bit of shell bead into an oyster’s mantle. In both natural and cultured pearls, the oyster secretes layers of a substance called nacre around the irritant, and over time a pearl is formed.

Akoya pearls are the classic round pearls that one associates with traditional pearl jewelry. They are harvested in saltwater and come in shades of cream and white, sometimes with pink or green overtones. South Sea pearls are newer to the jewelry business, but their distinctive charms have made them a favorite with jewelry designers and fashionable consumers. They are available in large sizes ? 10 to 13 millimeters ? and are most commonly seen in white, silver and gold hues.

Tahitian pearls are sometimes called Black Tahitian pearls, but they actually come in a variety of colors, including gray, bronze, black, purple and peacock green. The finest Tahitians also display a lively play of color on the surface of the nacre. In recent years, Chinese freshwater pearls have been produced in a wide variety of sizes, colors and qualities, which have made them more popular in the world jewelry market.

Pearl prices can vary tremendously. Depth of nacre, color, shape, smoothness of surface and size are a few of the determining factors, but it can be dangerous to generalize in this regard. Perfectly round Akoyas bring high prices, but some uniquely shaped Black Tahitians may be even more valuable. One can, however, be unequivocal about the value of luster ? the reflective glow unique to pearls. In all types of pearls, the deeper the luster, the more beautiful the pearl, and the greater its price.