The Ultimate South Sea Pearl Jewelry Buyer's Guide

Your Guide to ALL You Need to Know About Buying South Sea Pearls

Luminous and lovely, White and Golden South Sea pearls are some of the rarest and most sought-after pearls in the world. They're known as the "Queen of Cultured Pearls" and the "Rolls Royce of Pearls" respectively ... and one look at these pearls confirms that they've earned their titles!

The South Sea Pearl Jewelry Buyer's Guide from PurePearls.com is here to give you the inside scoop on everything you need to know about purchasing these stunning and luxurious pearls. From their tropical origins and fabelled history to their natural colors and overtones, sizes, shapes and what kind of budget you should plan for. As always, this insider's Buyer's Guide to South Sea Pearls is filled with our trademark real-life pearl pictures and visual aids, so you'll always know exactly what to expect when shopping for South Sea pearl jewelry at Pure.

Use the Table of Contents below to skip to the parts of the article that interest you the most, or read the entire article and learn how to buy South Sea pearls like a professional.

Table of Contents

South Sea Pearl Basics - What You Need to Know
  • White and Golden South Sea pearls are primarily for their  stunning natural colors. The Golden body colors for Golden South Sea pearls are completely natural, with no enhancements or dyes whatsoever. Their most common overtones are Neutral Gold, Silver, Rose and Bronze. White South Sea pearls also feature a totally natural White body color, with classic overtones of Silver, Rose and Cream.
  • South Sea pearls are known for their softer, more “satiny” luster. Both White and Golden South Sea pearls feature incredibly thick crystalline nacre layers, which means that light penetrating and bouncing back at the viewer has much farther to travel before reaching the eye. The return trip of the light wave diffuses and creates that softer, satin luster effect for the viewer - the pearls display more of an inner glow versus the glossy, mirror-like shine of the Japanese Akoya.
  • White South Sea pearls are primarily farmed in the open ocean, off the coast of Northern Australia. The town of Broome, AU houses the headquarters of the most famous and oldest cultivation operations, Paspaley Pearls.
  • Golden South Sea pearls are farmed throughout the island chain of the Philippines, traditionally in the protected lagoons and atolls of these tropical islands. A large percentage of each yearly harvest is produced by small family or community-owned farms, but the most famous Golden South Sea pearl producer by far is Jewelmer, located on Flower Island. Other Golden South Sea pearling areas are Burma/Myanmar (famous for their 24K Golden pearls) and Indonesian islands.
  • South Sea pearls are cultured in the pinctada maxima saltwater pearl oyster  which is the largest of all pearl-bearing oysters, growing up the size of a dinner plate at maturity (12-Inches or more!). The silver-lipped p. maxima oyster produces the White South Sea pearls, and the gold-lipped p. maxima oyster creates the famous Golden South Sea pearls.
  • South Sea pearls are the largest of all cultured pearl types. Both White and Golden South Sea pearls range in size from the smallest 8.0-9.0mm pearls to 16.0mm– and much larger. The largest South Sea pearls seen in recent years measure over 21.0mm in size! These large pearls are absolutely the perfect choice for use in luxury high-end jewelry designs like one of a kind necklaces and diamond-accented pendants, earrings and cocktail rings.

So those are the basics - keep reading for a detailed breakdown of each attribute to learn all you could want to know about these gorgeous treasures.

Pearl divers in Australia early days

Early aboriginal oyster divers off the Australian coast. Pearl diving was done almost exclusively without equipment at first, as the native oyster population was so plentiful, that the oysters were situated in easy to get to locations in shallower waters. The divers primarily were after the oyster shells for the iridescent mother-of-pearl; actual whole pearls were initially considered a bonus find. 

Early peral diver's helmets from Australian pearling

Diver's helmets on display in an Australian museum. The first use of heavy diving equipment was brought to the area by Japanese divers, beginning around 1885, and they are credited with modernizing the pearl fishing industry.  

Japanese Pearl Diver's Graves in Australia

Australia has many graveyards filled with the graves of the early Japanese pearl divers. The Japanese divers were worked 20 days out of each month in the deeper waters of the open ocean, scouring the seabed for oysters. Japanese divers were paid per-piece, so incentives were high for them to collect as many oysters as possible; these divers often brought in nearly triple the shells over their native competition. But that volume came at a very dear cost: the rates of accidents, injury and death was extremely high for Japanese divers.

Mother of pearl inlays and buttons

P. maxima oyster shells were used for their thick, iridescent Mother-of-Pearl interior. The mother-of-pearl would be cut out of the shell to create buttons, inlays for flatware, jewelry and musical instruments as well as other ornaments and decorations. At the height of the industry, p. maxima oyster shells accounted for 75% of the world's supply, and about 2,000 TONS of shells harvested per year. The advent of faux mother-of-pearl substitutes that were easy to make and more affordable, along with WWII brought the Australian mother-of-pearl industry nearly to a close near 1940. Actual pearliculture didn't begin in Australia until a decade after the end of the war.

William Saville Kent Australian Pearler

The famous biologist William Saville-Kent was passionate about Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and the issue of re-populating the p. maxima oysters that had been over-fished to near extinction. Using the Chinese method, he successfully cultivated blister pearls in the p. maxima, and founded the first successful pearl farm in Australia. He called it the Natural Pearl Shell Cultivation Company (est. 1906), and began producing whole, round cultured pearls - predating Mikimoto's . Today he is known as the Australian father of the cultured pearl industry (and quite possibly the unsung inventor of the most successful method for nucleating pearls - but that is a topic worth it's own page!).

Mother of Pearl History Pearl Queenie Dress

A "Pearly Queenie" princess dress from the 1800s, when mother-of-pearl buttons and accessories were in their heyday. The love for the iridescent shell was so great that people sewed mother-of-pearl buttons on dresses, jackets, trousers, shoes, hats and more! Photo courtesy of the London Museum

Cultured White South Sea pearls are relative newcomers to the cultured pearl markets - mainly due to the Australian governmental regulations that were created to protect the profitable mother-of-pearl industry. Pearl farming didn't begin in Australia in earnest until the 1950s.

Golden South Sea pearls have been fished by the native locals for hundreds of years, but like in Australia, the pearls were not highly prized and often given to children to wear and play with. The gorgeous iridescent golden shells were sought after however, and carved into intricate charms and jewelry.  

The discovery of these stunning shells and their pearls in the 1800's started a pearling rush in these areas, headed by the Dutch, English, French and Spanish ... the Japanese, Chinese and Arabians were also well-represented in the pearling rushes as well.

In all areas where p. maxima was fished, it was the mother-of-pearl shell that was the primary money-making export, with the valuable pearls being sold as rarities and treasures separately to private jewelers, collectors, heads of state and royalty.

The tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans are perfect for culturing these large sized pearls. The warmer temperatures increase the metabolism of the p. maxima oyster, and encourages a increased rate of crystalline nacre deposition.

Combined with the longer-than-average growth times for each pearl, this results in pearls with very thick nacre and beautiful luster and color.

South Sea Pearl Farming Areas Map

White South Sea pearls are cultured primarily on the Northern Coasts of Australia, andGolden South Sea pearls are mostly farmed in the Philippines.Indonesia cultures a mix of White and pale to light Golden South Sea pearls, and again the majority of the farms are smaller, family owned businesses. The largest operation for Indonesia is Atlas Pearl Company, near Kupang.

The Jewelmer Pearl Farm

In the Philippines, the majority of pearl farms are small family or community-owned operations, but the largest and most famous pearl farming operation belongs to Jewelmer, located on Flower Island. Photo courtesy of Jewelmer

Diver checking pearl farm long lines

Nucleated oysters are placed in wire baskets which are anchored to long lines which gently drift in place with the warm ocean currents, giving the oysters clean waters to filter feed while they mature and the pearls grow inside. Divers periodically pull the oysters up to clean them and ensure they're in good health.

The largest pearl producer in Australia is the famed Paspaley Pearl Company, which accounts for over 80% of each year's White South Sea harvests.Australia produces over half of all White South Sea pearls in the world, and they are known for their fine quality and clean, bright white colors.

White South Sea Pearl Harvest

A gleaming baroque White South Sea pearl is revealed at harvest. The silver-lipped pinctada maxima saltwater oyster is the largest of all pearl-bearing oysters, and creates the famous Queen of Cultured Pearls.

Here are some South Sea Pearl Farming facts for pearl lovers to know:

  • South Sea pearls are "bead-nucleated", meaning that a spherical mother-of-pearl bead nucleus is surgically grafted into the oyster’s gonad to spark pearl formation. A 1.0mm square of donor mantle tissue from another oyster that has previously produced pearls of a very fine color is placed on top of the nucleus and the incision is sealed. The tiny pieces of donor tissue will influence the pearl’s resulting color and overtone.
  • South Sea pearls are harvested after a 2 year growth period,and the oysters are allowed to recuperate and then are nucleated again with a larger bead. South Sea pearl oysters are nucleated up to 3xs in their lives, and then are returned to the open ocean to replenish wild stocks and contribute to high quality genetics in the native population.
  • The oysters can secrete nacre at about 1.5-2.0mm per year, so average nacre thickness is 3.0mm to 4.0mm.
  • After harvest, the pearls are washed and scrubbed in a salt slurry which removes left over organic material, and are gently polished in a tumbler filled with waxed bamboo chips.
  • There is no additional processing to be done, as the pearls are naturally beautiful and colorful.*

South Sea pearl colors are famous for their un-enhanced, natural beauty. Most of the farmers for both White and Golden South Sea pearls belong to the South Sea Pearls Consortium (SSPC), which forbids any of their pearl-producing members from selling treated and/or color-enhanced pearls. This policy protects both its members and their pearls reputations on the world market, but is also a 30-year old guarantee of quality and natural, organic beauty for pearl buyers around the world.

Click here to learn more about Pearl Farming.

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Both White and Golden cultured South Sea pearls are available in a stunningly beautiful array of pearl shapes that are sure to please pearl lovers of all tastes. From the classic True Round shapes, to Buttons and Baroques, the luxurious South Sea pearl type offers a unique beauty that pearl lovers of all stripes are bound to appreciate.

Common South Sea Pearl Shapes

 

For all pearl farmers, the mission to produce as many perfect "True Round" pearls is of the utmost importance.

Despite that, "True Round" pearls still only account for a small percentage of each year's harvests ...

This often means that building a South Sea Necklace layout of perfectly round pearls, matched for body color, overtone, luster and surface quality can take years to accomplish, while the appropriate pearls are located and slowly added to the building necklace layout.

  • True Round pearls are less than 5% of each yearly harvest on average
  • Near-Round South Sea Pearls account for 20% of each yearly harvest (approximately).
  • Symmetrical Drop-Shapes are about 50% of each pearl harvest.
  • Baroques and Circled Baroque pearls make up the rest of the yearly yield. 
Golden South Sea Keshi Pearls

Keshi pearls (pictured above) are a little-heard-of "Collector's Item" that are quite lovely and unique in their own right. Keshi pearls are not strictly considered "Cultured pearls" ... these pearls are actually a by-product of the pearl growth process.

Occasionally, a tiny piece of nacre will break away from the main body of the pearl while it's forming, and begin acquiring its own pearl sac. When this happens, the irritant begins to become an independent pearl on its own. Keshi pearls are 100% solid crystalline nacre (having no bead nucleus), and are generally small in size and Free-Form Baroque in shape.

South Sea pearls display natural colors of White or varying shades of Gold.

The White South Sea pearls from Australia are primarily a bright, even Silver-White body color, and White South Seas from Indonesia often feature a warmer, more creamy White body.

The range of natural Golden colors is quite wide, and can roam from pale, lemony yellows to nearly orange/copper hues.

South Sea Pearl Colors

Common South Sea Pearl Body Colors (primary colors):

For White South Sea Pearls

  • Neutral White
  • Blue-White
  • Cool White
  • Warm White

For Golden South Sea Pearls

  • Pale Yellow
  • Lemon Yellow
  • 10K Light Gold
  • 14K Medium Gold
  • 18K Medium-Deep Gold
  • 22-24K Deep Gold

White and Golden South Sea Pearl Overtones

There are many Primary Body Color and Overtone combinations when it comes to White and Golden South Sea pearls – this will just be a short list of the most common. The intensity of the primary color and saturation of Overtone does vary from pearl to pearl - this is where a skilled eye for color matching become very important.

Pearls with pronounced iridescence and saturated colors are considered more valuable, all other factors like Luster, Shape, Surface Quality and Size being equal.

The Most Popular and Famous White South Sea Pearl Overtones are:

  • Silver – Extremely popular, this is a bright white with a hint of ephemeral Blue to cool the overall tone.
  • Rose – The most rare. Rose is a hint of pink over the warm or cool white body color.
  • Cream/Ivory – Fairly common, the Ivory Overtone adds a touch of French Vanilla warmth.
  • Silver-Blue – Somewhat rare. The Silver Overtone has so much Blue is in it, that the pearl appears Blue to Blue-ish Grey.

The Most Popular and Famous Golden South Sea Pearl Overtones are:

  • Rose – A hint of iridescent pink over the primary Golden body color.
  • Silver – Very common overtone for Golden South Seas. This is a soft, shimmery whitish sheen over a Gold body color – almost “neutral”, but lightens up the pearl a bit.
  • Neutral Gold – Incredibly common. The Neutral Gold overtone is exactly what it sounds like - additional Gold over the primary Golden body.
  • Bronze – A unique overtone that can make the pearls really "pop", but can be difficult to wear. Bronze is actually an iridescent Green that can be pale or saturated, laid over the Golden body color.
  • Champagne - Very rare. Champagne is a mix of Silver and Rose, with strong flashes of iridescent Violet colors. It's a complex color-combination and very visually appealing - excellent  
Champagne Golden South Sea Pearls

The photo above features one of my favorite, most colorful overtones for Golden South Sea pearls: Champagne. Champagne is a very rare overtone, and an unique combination of very pale Yellow/Gold body color with a mix of Silver, Rose and Purple-Violet flashes.

Learn more about the rainbow of pearl colors in available all pearl types today, visit: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Pearl Colors

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The South Sea pearl oyster, p. maxima,  is the largest of all pearl-bearing oysters, growing to about a foot in diameter at maturity. This allows the oyster to be nucleated with large mother-of-pearl beads, producing the largest pearls in the world.

Size ranges for South Sea pearls range from 8.0-9.0mm through 16.0-17.0mm and larger. 

The pearls ranging from 9.0-10.0mm through 13.0-14.0mm sizes are the most popular pearl sizes to buy.At their largest, pearls measuring up to 21.0mm have been cultured.

South Sea Pearl Sizes
South Sea Pearl Sizes

Each whole millimeter increase in pearl size equates to a 20-25% larger pearl on average.

So a 11.0-12.0mm South Sea pearl will be twice as large as a 9.0-10.0mm pearl.

South Sea Pearl Necklace Sizes

Typically, most White or Golden South Sea pearl necklaces - both round and baroque shapes - are laid out in a “Graduated”  design.

This means that the pearls will begin near the clasp at their smallest size, and gradually increase throughout the layout, culminating in nice large center section.

Traditionally, these graduation rates span 2.0-3.0mm on average, so you'll often encounter necklace descriptions with measurements reading 10.0-12.5mm, or 9.0-12.0mm and so on.

South Sea Pearl Neckalces - What is a Graduated Strand?

This Light Golden South Sea Pearl Necklace had a typical graduation rate of 10.6-13.2mm

“Non-Graduated” Necklaces  are layouts featuring pearls that do not increase in size more than 1.0mm from the smallest to largest pearls. These layouts would read 11.0-12.0mm, for example.

As mentioned in the Pearl Farming section, “Non-Graduated” South Sea Pearl Necklaces take much, much longer to assemble, and so are rarer and more expensive. The pearl sorters at the farms have a narrower range of pearls to work with while creating a "Non-Graduated" layout, and a full strand of perfectly matched South Sea pearls can take years to create.

For more information on pearl size visit:  Pure Pearls Ultimate Guide to Pearl Sizes 

Our Pearl-Necklace-on-Model pictures are sure to be a helpful visual guide for anyone who wants to see how these larger pearl necklaces look when worn.

Pure Pearls employs the ‘A-AAA’ Grading System for all our South Sea pearl jewelry. With the A-AAA Scales, ‘A’ denotes the lowest, commercial grade pearls, and ‘AAA’ represents the finest pearl quality of each yearly harvest.

The A-AAA Grading Scale converts easily from the A-D Grading Scale used on the pearl farms in Australia and the Philippines, and takes into account the seven major pearl attributes. These are:

 

Surface Quality (blemishing)

Luster

Color / Overtone Depth

Symmetry of Shape

Pearl Size

Matching

Origin / Cultured or Natural

A-D South Sea Pearl Grading Chart

The Pure Pearls “AAA Quality Only” policy for South Sea pearl earrings, pendants and rings has been in place for nearly two decades. This ensures you’ll always receive only the highest quality pearl jewelry with every purchase.

To dive deeper into South Sea pearl grading, and learn about the detailed benchmarks for each pearl grade, examine examples of common surface inclusions and more, visit: Pure Pearl's Ultimate South Sea Pearl Grading Guide

Great question! The answer is that you'll want to balance beauty with budget.

Both our AA+ Quality and AAA Quality South Sea pearls will feature:

Very High to Excellent Luster

Perfectly Round and/or Symmetrical Baroque and Drop Shapes

Excellent Matching Throughout

Beautiful, Even Color Saturation and Overtones

Fine Presentation When Worn

South Sea Pearl Necklace Value: AAA Quality
South Sea Pearl Necklace Value: AA+/AAA Quality
South Sea Pearl Necklace Value: AA/AA+ Quality
South Sea Pearl Baroque Necklace Value: AAA Quality

Every South Sea Pearl Necklace listed on PurePearls.com is a totally unique, one of a kind necklace. Ashley herself selects each necklace in this highly curated collection. Pearl necklaces are hand-picked for stunning colors or overtones, particularly bright luster or an artistically arranged layout. Our South Sea Pearl Necklace collections are continually updated, and we do our very best to provide new pearls for everyone to admire at a range of price points for every budget.

While shopping for a pearl necklace, it's helpful to keep in mind that cultured pearls are the result of a natural, biological process. As such, pearls can never be completely, flawlessly perfect.

The goal is not to find perfectly characterless round beads - that's what Swarovsky crystal pearls are for! With pearls, we aim to bring you precious gemstones that sparkles with character and personality that will become yours and yours alone. Our standing recommendation is to always look to find pearl Luster and Colors that you can fall in love with first, then consider other factors like Size or Surface Quality.

If you'd like help finding the perfect Pearl Necklace, feel free to Contact Us anytime - our pearl experts are always happy to help.

South Sea Pearl Necklaces and Jewelry Design Guide

Luxurious South Sea pearls have been used to create some of the most beautiful and impressive pearl jewelry designs the pearl world has ever laid eyes on. Our South Sea pearl jewelry collections include styles from the traditional classics like pearl stud earrings to more couture designs sparkling with diamonds and precious colored gemstones. Every design is created by hand, to order here in our Los Angeles, CA production offices.

High quality South Sea pearl jewelry should all be matched to near-perfection with very little to slight variation in size, shape, body color and overtone (Multi-color layouts are excepted here), luster and surface quality.

Pure Pearls has curated a stunning collection of White and Golden South Sea pearls to suit every desire and price point. We truly do have something for everyone to fall in love with.

South Sea Pearl Necklace Styles

South Sea Pearl Jewelry Styles: Necklaces

The majority of South Sea Pearl Necklaces will knot out to 18-inches (including the clasp), but we can build custom layouts and alter existing designs easily (in fact, it’s one of our favorite parts of the job!). All strands are individually double-knotted between each pearl using fine matching silk thread, and we finish all of our strands with matching 14K Gold clasps and 14K french wire-wrapping to ensure the ends withstand daily handling.

South Sea Pearl Pendant Designs

South Sea Pearl Jewelry: Pearl Pendants

South Sea Pearl Pendants will never go out of style! From simple, classic Solitaire pendants to more ornate designs sparkling with VS1 diamond accents, Pure Pearls offers a pendant design for everyone to love. All of our South Sea Pearl Pendants are chosen from our AAA Quality Only lots, and mounted in your choice of solid 14K and 18K Gold.

Bigger is usually better with South Sea Pearl Pendants, so don't be afraid to go for some glamour! These pearls balance beautifully against the expanse of chest and the body as a whole.

South Sea Pearl Earring Designs

South Sea Pearl Jewelry Designs: Pearl Earrings

South Sea Pearl Earrings can be as luminous as the full moon - their radiant glow and shifting, shimmering iridescence is guaranteed to get noticed. Choose from Pure Pearls' tastefully curated collection of earring designs from a timelessly classic pair of South Sea pearl stud earrings, to adding a touch of modern glitz and glamour with chic dangle earrings and sparkling diamond-accented designs.

Pro-tip: Because South Sea pearls are on the larger side, we recommend sticking with dangle styles once pearls reach over 13.0mm in size to avoid .

South Sea Pearl Ring Designs

South Sea Pearl Jewelry Designs:  Pearl Rings

We always say: A Pearl Ring is never, ever an ordinary ring ... And that goes double for a South Seas pearl ring! Whether you're dazzling with diamond accents, or prefer a sleek, minimalist solitaire style, Pure Pearls offers something for every taste and budget. All of our South Sea Pearl Rings are chosen from our AAA Quality Only lots, and mounted in your choice of solid 14K and 18K Gold. Many of the designs you see here are exclusive to PurePearls.com and hand-cast by our goldsmith to order, here at our Los Angeles, CA workshop.

To learn more about which pearl necklace length or size is right for you visit: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Perfect Pearl Necklace. This helpful guide features photos of every classic pearl necklace length you can imagine, and a primer on how to properly measure pearl necklaces and bracelets.

Got questions about selecting the right South Sea pearl earring, pendant and even ring sizes? Click to read Pure Pearl's Ultimate Guide to Pearl Sizes.

Featured inside are TONS of photos, tips and charts to help you understand how these pearls “measure up”, and which South Sea pearl size is right for you.

PurePearls.com has for many years specialized in Custom Design pearl jewelry; with hundreds of loose White and gorgeous Golden South Sea pearls in our Vault to choose from we revel in the creation process! All South Sea pearl designs by hand, to order. With our on-staff goldsmith and years-long relationships with high-end findings suppliers, we can make almost anything you can dream up.

View some of our most recent work:

Custom Design Golden South Sea Pearl and Diamond Pendant

Customized Golden South Sea Drop-Shape Pearl and Diamond Lily Pendant, 14.0-15.0mm size. Mounted in 18K Yellow Gold with a sparkling 0.10cttw VS1-GH Quality diamond accent.

Custom White South Sea Pearl Pearl and Blue Sapphire Pendant

"Blue Moon” is a custom-design White South Sea Pearl and Blue Sapphire Pendant, mounted in 14K White Gold. Pearl measures 15.0-16.0mm in size, Sapphires measure 3x5mm each

Custom 14.0-15.0mm White South Sea Tear Drop-Shape Pearl and Diamond Hoop Earrings

A tribute to "The Girl With The Pearl Earring" by the painter Van de Meer, and an Anniversary present for a very lucky wife, this large 16.0mm pair of White South Sea tear-drops were mounted on our diamond pavé hoop earrings.

Custom White South Sea Pearl and Diamond Bangle Bracelet

A Pure Pearls FAVORITE, this Custom-Design Bracelet features a stunning AAA Quality White South Sea pearl measuring 12.0-13.0mm in size. The South Sea Pearl and Diamond Bangle Bracelet is accented with 0.10cctw of bezel-set VS1-GH Quality diamonds, mounted in 18K Yellow Gold.

Custom Golden South Sea Pearl and Diamond Necklace

Adding a sparkling Diamond Clasp or Diamond Rondelles to a South Sea Pearl Necklace in various configurations is a stunning way to customize a strand of pearls (and a specialty of ours!). This stunning Golden South Sea True Round Pearl Necklace was created for a very special event.

Baroque White South Sea Pearl Rope Necklace

We LOVE building custom South Sea Pearl Necklaces from scratch using loose pearls - the possibilities are truly endless. This stunning strand features Free-Form Baroque White South Sea Pearls graduating from 10.5-13.4mm and measures a full 36-Inches in length.

To get started creating the South Sea pearl jewelry you’ve been dreaming of, simply Contact Us by email for pricing, photos and more.

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