How To Buy Pearls
Fine pearls are one of the least understood and most niche gemstones in the jewelry world – even professional jewelers often run into trouble identifying pearl types, understanding grading scales and pearl value.
It’s not surprising then that there are a number of questions that need to be answered before taking the plunge and investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars into a fine pearl necklace or pair of earrings.
You probably already have an idea of what kind of jewelry you want to buy (i.e. pearl necklace, earrings, full set, etc.), so let’s focus on how to choose the right pearl type first before looping back into jewelry designs, budgetary issues and finally, selecting the right online vendor to make your purchase.
STEP 1: Choosing the Right Pearl Type
So, you’ve decided that you’d like to buy a fine pearl necklace (or a pair of earrings), but now you’re stuck: what kind of pearl necklace should you buy??
There are 4 main pearl types to choose from:
- Japanese Akoya
- Chinese Freshwater
- Tahitian Pearls from French Polynesia
- White or Golden South Sea Pearls from Australia and the Philippine Islands
Each one of these has its own unique beauty, size ranges, pearl color and budget parameters. Let’s deal with the most frequently asked question first as it deals with the two most popular (and easily confused!) white pearl types.
Should you buy Akoya pearls or Freshwater pearls?
- Your budget is $350 & up to purchase the Classic White Pearls you've been dreaming of
- Perfectly Round pearls and Bright, Excellent Luster matter a lot to you
- Only that traditional "Mikimoto" style of pearl jewelry will do
- You want elegant "high-end" pearls for special occasions
- Your budget is $350 & under but you still want a pretty white pearl necklace
- You want an everyday strand of pearls. Freshwater pearls can easily stand up to hot days, children's sticky fingers, perfume office meetings and more
- You're worried the pearls may be handled roughly and/or lost. Lower price points make these relatively easy to replace
- Slightly off-round shapes and softer glow don't matter as much as long as the jewelry gives an overall impression of fine white pearls
For a more in depth discussion about choosing between saltwater Akoya or Freshwater pearls, visit: Pure Pearls Ultimate Guide to Freshwater vs Akoya Pearls – Choosing the Right Pearl Type.
As mentioned earlier, the other main pearl types are black Tahitian pearls, and White or Golden South Sea Pearls – what I call our “Exotic Pearls”. Each variety is wonderfully distinctive, with its own traditional pearl colors, size ranges and unique beauty.
Use the tabbed section to read more about these beautiful pearls:
- Your budget is $200 & Up to purchase the exotic Black Tahitian pearls of your dreams
- You love the rainbow of color only Tahitian pearls can provide
- You own traiditonal white pearls but want to add something totally unique to your jewelry box
- You want elegant luxury pearls with an exotic twist
- Your budget is $400 & up for purchase the "Queen of Pearls"
- You want luxury pearls with an undeniable presence
- You adore the iridescence and deep glow of South Sea pearls
- Only natural, untreated colors and large pearl sizes will do
- Your budget is $400 & up to purchase the "Rolls Royce of Pearls"
- You love glamorous pearls with an unmistakable presence
- Only natural, untreated Golden colors and large pearl sizes will do
- You can't get enough of the iridescence and deep lustrous glow of South Sea pearls
To learn more about each pearl type visit: Pure Pearls’ Insider’s Guide to Cultured Pearl Types
STEP 2: Choose the Perfect Pearl Size
Pure Pearls offers TONS of advice and real-life pictures of our pearls actually being worn on models so you know how your pearls are going to “measure up” when they arrive.
Generally the most popular sizes are within the 7.0-9.5mm range, which are considered the most traditional and versatile pearl sizes to buy.
The larger the pearls get (all other attributes like Luster, Shape, and Surface Quality being equal), the more valuable they are.
Check out: Pure Pearls Ultimate Pearl Size Comparison Guide. Inside you’ll find a complete range of traditional pearl necklace and earring sizes modeled for you so you know what to expect, a “Pearl Sizes in Real Life” printable PDF you can keep, and a complete breakdown of each pearl type’s size ranges from Akoya to South Sea pearls.
STEP 3: Select the Right Necklace Length
DEFINITELY visit: Pure Pearls Ultimate Guide to Necklace Lengths to learn everything you could ever need to know about pearl necklaces – from the timeless classics to more modern styles!
Pro-Tip: The most popular and versatile pearl necklace length is called the 18-Inch “Princess Length” pearl necklace. This is considered the “Modern Classic” length, and should come to rest about 1.5 to 2.0-inches below the hollow of the throat – suitable for a wide variety of necklines and outfits.
STEP 4: Set Your Budget
For fine cultured pearl jewelry, you should set a baseline of $100 or so for even the smaller-sized Akoya pearl stud earrings mounted in 14K Gold, and the same can be said of fine Freshwater pearls.
Each pearl type has its own pricing tiers, and much like diamonds, you can expect prices to increase exponentially with every millimeter size increase. The price difference between a 7.0-7.5mm Akoya pearl necklace, and a 9.0-9.5mm size is quite large.
A good rule of thumb is to expect a 30-50% increase in price with each millimeter size up you go.
This pricing issue is due to a variety of factors, with rarity chief among them.
Larger pearls require much more time acquiring thicker nacre layers in the host oyster, and the amount of risk, time and labor that goes into culturing a single 15.0mm fine quality South Sea pearl (for example!) is quite a lot ...
Breaking Down Price Ranges by Pearl Type
Use the tabbed section below to see the pricing ranges for each pearl type and jewelry style:
STEP 5: Understand Pearl Grading and Pearl Value Factors (there’s 7 of them!)
This is CRUCIAL.
- Luster - this makes or breaks pearls as a gemstone. Luster describes the way light reflects off the pearl surface (Sharp and Highly Reflective or Soft and Blurry). The sharper the Luster, the more valuable the pearl.
- Surface Quality - pearls with smooth, clean surfaces are more highly valued than those with multiple inclusions.
- Symmetry of Shape - truly round pearls are the rarest shape of all, and the most valued. After that, we look for perfectly symmetrical semi-baroque shapes like tear-drops and ovals, then circled baroques and finally, free form baroques which are totally asymmetrical.
- Color - pearls come in every color of the rainbow (literally!). This value factor is weighted according to whether the color is naturally-occurring, the depth and saturation of the color, and the rarity of the color.
- Size - large, perfectly symmetrical pearls are RARE, taking many years to form inside the oyster. If all other value factors are equal, the larger pearls will be the more valuable ones.
- Origin - The value of cultured (farmed) pearls that dominate the industry today vary by pearl type: Freshwater (least expensive), saltwater Akoya (mid-range), black Tahitian (mid to high-range pricing) and South Sea (highest). We also factor in whether the pearl is cultured or natural / wild. Natural pearls - pearls that are formed without any human assistance - are extremely rare and command premium pricing.
- Matching - The meticulous matching of a fine pearl necklace layout can take many years depending on the pearl type. You're looking for a steady, smooth graduation rate from smallest to largest pearls in the center, with little to no variation from pearl to pearl in terms of Luster, Shape, Color, Overtone and Surface Quality (Multi-Color strands are given a tad more leeway but still must have an overall well-matched "tone").
To this date, there’s still no set, internationally agreed-upon grading scale for pearls. That means that pearl grading is subjective, depending on the seller you’re dealing with.
PurePearls.com uses the A-AAA Grading Scale, which is a simple and straight forward grading system based upon specific percentages for attributes like surface blemishing, luster rating (the sharpness of reflections), color/overtone and shape, among others. The A-AAA scale is used most commonly with Akoya and Freshwater pearls, but also converts easily from the Tahitian and South Sea grading scales.
If you don’t want to end up with an over-priced strand of pearls (or pearls that have heavy blemishing or a chalky appearance), then it’s important to understand what each pearl type should look like, and what benchmarks it needs to meet on the A-AAA Grading Scale.
If you see a strange grade like AAAA+, then buyer beware.
For an in-depth understanding on each pearl’s grading scales read: The Insider’s Guide to Pearl Grading
Don't Forget About Pearl Luster!
Lustrous pearls are prized pearls. The deeper and more intense the luster is, the more valuable the pearl.
Look for pearls that display reflected light sources as crisp, clean and delineated, with only slight blurring around the edges.
You should also be able to recognize some of your facial features reflected in the surface of the pearl. AAA quality pearls feature the best luster, AA+ quality pearls should have Very High luster and so on.
STEP 6: Finding the Right Vendor
Fine pearl jewelry is a gift that’s meant to touch the heart. The vast majority of the time, these gems are going to be a very special surprise for a birthday, anniversary, graduation or Holiday event.
Because this purchase is such a special one, there are a few considerations to take into account before settling on a vendor to purchase from. A few Dos and Don’ts to remember before taking the plunge:
Choosing the right vendor should balance pearl selection, quality, price and above all, excellent Customer Service.
While Mikimoto definitely does carry beautiful quality pearls, doing a little bit of homework can save you THOUSANDS by avoiding the high premiums charged by luxury brands without sacrificing quality.
On the flip side, shopping by price alone without knowing what you’re buying (or whom you’re buying it from!) is a one-way ticket to frustration. Taking the plunge on an anonymous overseas vendor could net you a strand of potato pearls for way more than they’re worth and no way to return them.
Case in point: I found these on the FIRST page of a popular auction site, total search time: 1 min. The top strand is DEFINITELY not worth even $10.00!
Consider whether you want your pearls plucked off some warehouse shelf, or tailored to your preferences, with all the care that entails.
Hi there! That’s me: Ashley McNamara, CEO of PurePearls.com. I’ve specialized in pearls for nearly 15 years.
Pure Pearls makes all of our fine pearl jewelry by hand, to order here in our Los Angeles workshop.
We hand-select and match all pearls for size, color, overtone, luster and surface quality (there’s those Value Factors again!).
Other advantages to choosing PurePearls.com are:
- FREE Shipping and FREE Returns
- Generous 90-Day Return and Exchange Policy
- Generous Lifetime Pearl Care with Flat Rate Restringing Services, Deep Cleaning and Polishing, Clasp Replacements and More
- One-on-one Customer Service and Attention
- We are one of the Oldest, and Most Trusted Pearl Specialty Companies Online, in Operation Since 2003 with an A+ Rating from the Better Business Bureau.
- Every Team Member is a GIA Graduate in Pearls with Highly Specialized Pearl Knowledge
- Foundation Member CPAA – the Cultured Pearl Association of America
STEP 7: Choose the Perfect Pearl Jewelry Style
Now that you’ve read a bit about the most popular pearl sizes and selecting the perfect necklace length (and what you can expect to spend), it’s time to start shopping around for pearl jewelry!
A Few Last Minute Pearl Buying Tips
- Choose a higher quality over size. We recommend that if you're choosing between an Elite Collection 7.0-8.0mm strand and a AA+ quality 9.0-10.0mm necklace, you'll find that the higher luster, smoother surface quality and all around prettier pearls will be the better value.
- Brands have premiums attached to them that can add as much as 300-400% to the price. PurePearls.com sources from the same pearl farms as many big name brands without the costly overhead associated with big box store names.
- The most popular necklace length is the 18-inch, Princess Length. This necklace will drape over the collar bones, and hang about 1.5-2-inches below the hollow of the throat.
- The most popular pearl earring sizes range from 6.0-8.0mm – stick within 7.0-8.0mm sizes for adult women, and 6.0-7.0mm sizes for petites and “first pearls” gifts.
I hope this short article was helpful in illuminating the ins and outs of buying cultured pearls online today. If you have any questions, always feel free to email us – we are ALWAYS happy to help out!
Now my new Pearl Ninjas: go forth, and Buy Some Beautiful Pearls!
About the Author
I’ve been with Pure Pearls for well over 10 years and am incredibly passionate about what I do! My 15 year career in the jewelry industry spans working in the precious colored gemstone wholesale sector, as well as stints in diamond bridal jewelry manufacturing division. I earned my GIA Pearls certificate in 2004.
I’ve written extensively about pearls for many online trade publications including Jewellery Net Asia, the CPAA (Cultured Pearl Association of America), and of course, Pearl-Guide.com on all things pearl-related.
Feel free to email or call me at (310) 455-5258 with any questions or issues – I am always happy to help!