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Pearls are one of the most beloved gemstones throughout the history of humanity, but they have a wide range of value from just a few dollars to tens of millions of dollars. Some of the more common questions we get are: “How much are my pearls worth?” and “why are these pearls worth so much more than those other pearls?”
In this blog post, we’ll examine how pearls are valued, what the most expensive pearls in the world are, whether pearls are a good investment and the different pearl type’s price ranges.
A pearl’s value is based off 7 Value Factors. These are:
Some pearl types are more valuable than others (more on that later), but each pearl is evaluated on these 7 criteria, and are priced based on how high each attribute rates on this scale.
Of all these attributes, the most important is LUSTER!
If a pearl has bright, crisp, sharp, and glowing luster then it is beautiful and therefore valuable. If a pearl displays low, soft or chalky luster then the pearl is not nearly as beautiful and is automatically downgraded in value.
Hanadama Akoya pearls versus AAA Quality Akoya pearls – the difference in Luster really stands out when comparing these two pearl qualities side-by-side.
The next most important attribute is Shape. Pearls that are perfectly Round in shape are much rarer and comprise only a tiny percentage of each annual pearl harvest. These pearls are more highly valued than any other pearl shape.
Other valuable shapes are Near-Rounds, smooth Tear Drops, Buttons and funky, totally asymmetrical Baroque pearls. For example, a perfectly matched pair of high-quality Drop-Shaped pearls (especially in the larger sizes!) are extremely hard to find, and so of course those pearls will be quite expensive.
This pair of 15.0-16.0mm White South Sea Drop-Shaped pearl earrings took over a month to locate and ended up selling for nearly $7,000.00
The next most important Value Factor is SIZE.
As long as all other factors are equal, larger pearls will be more valuable than smaller pearls.
South Sea pearls are known for being the very largest pearl types in the world. These stunning pearls range from 8.0-9.0mm up through 16.0-17.0mm in size routinely, and rarely, much larger than that. The largest White South Sea pearl necklace I’ve even seen had pearls topping out at 21.0mm!
The other attributes remaining are Color/Overtone, Pearl Matching, Surface Quality and Natural vs Cultured.
Obviously, pearls with cleaner surfaces are more valuable. Pearls with excellent matching with little to no variation in size, shape, color, overtone, or luster are much more valuable than pearls with poor matching within a necklace layout or a pair of earrings.
Pearls with fine color, intensely saturated Overtones that are not dyed are more highly valued than pearls with dull colors and Overtones or are dyed.
For more information on the 7 Value Factors and how they all work together to create our A-AAA Grading System, I highly recommend visiting our Pearl Education page.
One of the primary reasons a pearl could be extremely high value is if it is a wild, natural pearl and not cultured.
A natural pearl is a pearl that has formed within the oyster on its own, without any human intervention. Natural pearls have become extremely rare in today’s world and are usually only found at auctions and luxury estate jewelry stores. This is because the world’s wild oyster beds were massively depleted in the centuries-long search for fine pearls.
The “Lover’s Knot” tiara is a part of the Crown Jewels and features gorgeous natural, drop-shaped pearls and diamonds. The center pearl can be removed and worn as a pendant. The tiara was created in 1914 and used the Queen’s own pearls and diamonds to make it.
Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton is often seen wearing the Lover’s Knot tiara.
With the advent of the techniques to successfully culture pearls, the wild oysters were saved from total extinction. But culturing pearls allows them to be mass produced in a way that had never happened before in history.
Cultured pearls created a splash in the pearl world … and not exactly in a good way! People were concerned that cultured pearls weren’t “real” pearls, and natural pearl dealers were extremely concerned about the impact that cultured pearls would have on their businesses.
Some of the first cultured Akoya pearl jewelry in the world by Mikimoto.
After much scientific testing, both the FTC and the world’s leading gemologists agreed that the new cultured Akoya pearls from Japan had the same crystalline and chemical structures as natural pearls. Cultured pearls were ruled to be actual pearls, provided that the term “cultured” was always used in conjunction with the term “pearl” so that it would be clear to everyone what was being sold.
To be fair however, the rarity factor and the historical significance of natural pearls means that they will still be considered more valuable than the newer cultured pearls.
As noted earlier, natural pearls are the most valued and expensive pearls in the world … but that said, cultured pearls are certainly no slouches in that department! Both natural and cultured pearl jewelry can be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; but only natural pearls are fetching multi-million-dollar price tags at auction.
Here's a look at some of the most expensive pearls in the world …
Marie Antoinette’s Pearl and Diamond Pendant, sold at auction in 2018 for $36 MILLION
This stunning Drop-Shaped natural pearl measures an impressive 18.0 x 26.0mm in size and has direct provenance back to Marie Antoinette. This was one of the famous jewelry items that was packed up and smuggled out of the country before revolutionaries stormed Versailles.
La Peregrina “The Wanderer” Natural Pearl Pendant with Custom Pearl and Ruby Necklace by Cartier, sold at auction for $11.9 Million
Elizabeth Taylor received La Peregrina from her husband Richard Burton as a special gift. She wore La Peregrina on a simple pendant and pearl-studded chain for her role in Anne of a Thousand Days.
She later had this stunning pearl, diamond and ruby necklace crafted to showcase the storied gem by Cartier himself.
Cultured White South Sea Pearl and Diamond Wreath Necklace by Mikimoto, $700,000
This incredibly gorgeous wreath-style White South Sea pearl necklace features 17 pearls measuring 12.0-13.0mm in size, surrounded by 53.98cttw of sparkling diamonds.
Cultured Golden South Sea Drop-Shape Pearl, Fire Opal and Diamond Pendant $110,000
Even a single pearl pendant can be incredibly expensive! This Golden South Sea drop-shaped pearl measures 15.0mm in size, and is accented with a fiery crown of diamonds and oval-shaped Fire Opal.
Golden South Sea Pearl and Diamond Wreath Necklace by Mikimoto
Well, the answer to that is … you guessed it! It Depends!
I know. You all must get so sick of hearing that from me. I’m sorry, lol!
If you are purchasing a natural pearl necklace with impeccable provenance and history, rare sizes and fine quality, then YES. These are investment pearls, by all measure. They will never make another pendant or gorgeous natural grey pearl necklace from direct Marie Antoinette’s jewelry box!
This extremely beautiful and surprisingly modern necklace was created using natural grey pearls from Marie Antoinette’s smuggled pearls. A final valuation has not yet been reached on this treasure, but you can be sure that whatever it ends up turning out is will never decrease.
For cultured pearls, things get a bit trickier.
In my professional opinion, in general, I would say no in most cases.
I’m sorry … again.
Happily, I have a few caveats.
In general, cultured pearls are not investment-grade gems like Burmese Rubies or Kashmiri Sapphires. This is because they are farmed, and so a big factor missing here is rarity; the pearl markets in general are very stable.
In addition to that, most cultured pearls are not 100% solid nacre – there is a bead nucleus inside of the pearl, with an outer thick coating of nacre. Some cultured pearls have thicker nacre than others … think South Sea and Tahitian pearls, which often have nacre measuring between 2.0-4.0mm thick. These pearls have staying power!
If you’re looking to purchase an investment grade strand of pearls, then I would investigate very large, Gem Quality South Sea pearls with very thick nacre layers, or other very rare pearl types like Conch pearls, or Sea of Cortez pearls. And I would recommend going with a unique, high-quality design that will retain its value with a timeless appeal.
Pearls with particular brand names will also retain (and even increase) their value over the years; vintage Mikimoto Akoya pearls that still have their original clasp, box and papers to establish provenance are very highly sought after today and continue to fetch premium resale values.
There are 5 major cultured pearl types. These are Japanese Akoya, Chinese Freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia, White South Sea pearls from Australia and Golden South Sea pearls from the Philippines. Each one has its own price ranges based upon its unique pearl type and attributes. Typically, you can order the pearl types in value from lowest to highest:
Cultured Akoya pearls are cherished for their timeless appeal. They are known for their perfectly round shapes, impeccable matching, mirror-like, metallic luster and classic white body with flattering overtones of Rose, Silver and Cream/Ivory.
*** Did you know? *** The Akoya pearl oyster is the smallest of all pearl-bearing mollusks, growing up to just 6-inches at maturity. The small nature of the mollusk means that the Akoya pearl is one of the smaller pearl types, ranging in size from tiny 1.0-2.0mm seed pearls up through the largest 9.5-10.0mm sizes.
Additional Akoya pearl resources:
Expert’s Guide to Akoya Pearl Grading
The Expert’s Guide to Hanadama Pearls
Cultured Freshwater pearls are loved for their colorful, affordable beauty. Famous for the variety of shapes, colors and sizes, Freshwater pearls offer a dazzling variety of styles at a wide range of price points.
*** Did you know? *** Chinese Freshwater pearls are the ONLY cultured pearl type that is 100% solid crystalline nacre. This makes the Freshwater pearl incredibly durable, but also extremely similar in composition to a natural, wild pearl! Freshwater pearls range in size from small 3.0-4.0mm up through 14.0-15.0mm in size for some newer, bead-nucleated "Edison" varieties.
Additional Freshwater pearl resources:
Expert’s Guide to Freshwater Pearl Grading
The Freshwater Pearl Buyer’s Guide
Cultured Tahitian pearls are the world’s most famous naturally colored Black pearls from French Polynesia. They range in size from 8.0-9.0mm up through 15.0-16.0mm, and sometimes larger. Their black body colors range from Pale Dove Greys to Dark Charcoals and very near True Jet Black hues, overlaid with a tantalizing iridescent array of Overtones that these pearls are known for. Whether perfectly Round or artsy Baroque shapes, Tahitian pearls offer something for every pearl lover to admire.
Tahitian Price Ranges:
*** Did you know? *** Tahitian pearls have a minimum nacre thickness of 0.8mm, which must be measured via X-ray before qualifying for export. This means that the average Tahitian pearl can range from 0.8mm to 2.0mm nacre thickness (so very thick!), making these pearls very durable. The colors and Overtones are all 100% natural, with no treatments or enhancements of any kind.
Additional Tahitian pearl resources:
Expert’s Guide to Tahitian Pearl Grading
The Tahitian Pearl Buyer’s Guide
Cultured South Sea pearls are the rarest and most luxurious pearl type in existence today. The South Sea pearl type is split into two varieties: White South Seas and Golden South Seas.
White South Sea pearls are known as the “Queen of Cultured Pearls”. Golden South Sea pearls are nicknamed the “Rolls Royce of Cultured Pearls”. Both White and Golden South Sea pearls feature sumptuous natural colors, and range in size from 8.0-9.0mm up through 16.0-17.0mm, and larger. These regal pearls are available in all common shapes from perfectly Round (most valued) to Near Round, Buttons, Drops and Baroques.
South Sea Price Ranges:
*** Did you know? *** South Sea pearls have the thickest nacre depths, measuring between 2.0-4.0mm on average. White South Sea pearls are primarily cultured in Northern Australia. Golden South Sea pearls are usually cultured in the Philippine Islands. The colors and Overtones are all 100% natural, with no treatments or enhancements of any kind.
Additional South Sea pearl resources:
Expert’s Guide to South Sea Pearl Grading
The South Sea Pearl Buyer’s Guide
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