How to Choose Pearl Jewelry

For an especially romantic wife, a pearl jewelry gift shows your love and appreciation for all the woman she is. Pearls radiate a soft inner blush that communicates enduring love like no other gem. Their lustrous sheen against your wife's skin creates a display of unmatched elegance. Pearl jewelry adds a serene, luxurious aura to anything a woman wears.

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Before gem cutting existed, pearls actually had a greater value than diamonds and were not only used for decoration but also for their reputed healing powers. Pearls were so prized that Julius Caesar limited wearing them only by rulers of the Roman Empire and in the early days of the British empire, only royalty was permitted to wear pearl jewelry.

Pearls are created by an irritant inside a mollusk which protects itself by producing an iridescent coating around it. A much bigger irritant is not getting the quality pearl jewelry you wanted for your gift. Read on, so you don't have to weep!

Jump to Cultured Pearls | Freshwater Pearls | Pearl Rating Systems

Types of Pearls

Pearls are the only gem created by a living creature. There are three types of pearls: natural, cultured and imitation.

Let's deal with the easiest one first—you don't want imitation or faux pearls, these are cheap costume jewelry with no value. They appear too perfect and feel very light in your hand. Always perform the Tooth or Friction Test: Gently rub pearls along the bottom edge of your upper front teeth. If they feel slightly rough, sandy or gritty, it's likely they are cultured or natural pearls. If they feel smooth, they are probably imitations.

Real pearls are rarely perfect, so look for minor imperfections such as small blemishes or shape irregularities. Fake pearls look perfectly round and don't show imperfections. They have the same amount of luster on every surface. A necklace with pearls that all seem to be exactly the same is almost certainly fake. Perfectly round real pearls are rare, and a necklace will almost never be made only from them. Perfectly round real pearls are priced much higher.

Pearl jewelry sold as Majolica (Mallorca) pearls, Atlas Pearls or Kultured Pearls are man-made imitation pearls: they've never been near an oyster. If you can't afford saltwater pearls, freshwater pearl jewelry is a beautiful and very affordable alternative. Here are how to buy pearl jewelry tips and avoid getting scammed.

Saltwater Cultured Pearls

The art and science of culturing pearls was invented in Japan by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893, who introduced a tiny bead of mother-of-pearl (found on the inside of the mussel's shell) and found that the oyster began to cover the irritant with nacre, the pearly substance secreted by the mollusks to form a pearl. Saltwater pearls come in several varieties, the major types of pearls are Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian. They all are cultivated in oysters that produce only one pearl, which is why saltwater pearl jewelry is more expensive.

  • Akoya pearls are cultivated in various types of oysters mostly around Japan and China. Akoya is the Japanese word for "saltwater." The Akoya's overall quality is very high; it is known for its consistently round shape, has relatively few blemishes and a rich, high luster. The color range includes white, cream, pink, green, silver and gold. They are the smallest pearls, averaging 7mm, and their uniformity lends itself to creating well-matched pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
  • The South Sea pearl comes in white and golden colors, produced by two different oyster types. They are large, averaging 11mm–13mm and grow as large as 20mm. South Sea pearls are produced from larger oysters in Australia, Indonesia and the Phillipines.
  • The creamy rich luster of the white pearls has silver overtones.The golden pearls glimmer with an exquisite, delicate gold tint and command a high price.
  • The famed black Tahitian pearl averages 8–15mm and are naturally black with blue, green or violet overtones. It can take up to a dozen years to collect enough black pearls that match well enough to create a single necklace. Because of their rarity, Tahitian pearls are more expensive. However, a stunning pair of earrings or a ring can appease your desire to own majestic black pearls.
  • Other varieties of saltwaters include mabe pearls, which have a hemispherical top and a flat back. These are set mostly in rings or earrings that conceal the flat part. Keshi pearls, also known as poppyseed pearls, are created by accidents in both fresh and saltwater mollusks. Their unusual shapes are favored by custom jewelry designers. Pearl jewelry designed with keshis make a distinctively unique anniversary gift.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls

Freshwater pearls are produced from mussels, not oysters. Their shapes are varied and include nearly round, oval, baroque, drop, button and the familiar rice seed shape. They are cultivated mainly in China in lakes, rivers or ponds and unlike oysters, a single mussel can yield ten to fourteen pearls, and even up to twenty pearls, at a time.

Since the 1990s, China has revolutionized the freshwater pearl market. Freshwaters are becoming a strong competitor of saltwater pearls. Larger 9mm–16mm pearls are now produced that are comparable to South Sea pearls in size, but at a fraction of the cost. They come every hue of the rainbow: whites, creams, yellows, salmon, pastel pinks, rose, lavender, purples, blues and greens.

A high quality, round freshwater can have strong similarities to an Akoya. If you're on a budget, you can give your wife a very beautiful pearl jewelry gift at nearly one-quarter to one-fifth the cost of Akoyas. You'll need to do a little searching for higher quality freshwater pearl jewelry, but it is worth the search.

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are the rarest; they are formed entirely by nature with no human intervention except to harvest them. Because of their rarity, they are so expensive that cultured pearls are the only option for the rest of us.

Extremely rare, naturally formed Conch pearls are harvested from the Queen conch, which lives in the salt waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The finest quality conch pearls give the appearance of a fire burning on the surface, known as a "flame structure." They come in strong tints of pink and orange.

Both natural and cultured pearls originate in either saltwater or freshwater mollusks.

How Pearls Are Rated

Different types have their own rating systems. There is no internationally recognized standard for grading pearls, ratings are subjective, so if you're seeking high quality pearl jewelry, buy only from a reputable jeweler.

The A–AAA Pearl Grading System

Akoyas and freshwaters are graded by the A–AAA system by most retailers—AAAA is not used by fine jewelers. Akoyas are graded by their shape, size, luster, surface quality, color and how easily they can be matched.

AAA A gem quality pearl, virtually flawless. The surface has a very high, mirror-like luster with at least 95% of the surface free from defects. It is perfectly round and for Akoyas, a nacre depth of at least .75mm.
AA The surface has a very high luster with at least 75% of the surface free from defects. For Akoyas, a nacre depth of at least .5mm.
A The lowest grade pearl, which has a low luster, chalky appearance and more than 25% of the surface showing defects. This type can be mounted to hide the defects. For Akoyas, a thin nacre of .25mm or less.

The A–D System (Tahitian System)

This pearl grading system is used in French Polynesia and is based on strict government standards to grade Tahitian pearls. However, many jewelers use the A–AAA system with Tahitian pearls to not cause confusion.

The French Polynesian government sets a minimum nacre thickness of 0.8mm. Any pearls with less than that thickness can not be sold.

A The highest quality, has a very high luster with minor imperfections, 90% free of surface defects. These imperfections are used as drill hole marks.
B High or medium luster with surface 70% free of defects.
C Medium luster with surface 60% free of defects.
D Many slight defects or several deep ones, or a combination of defects over 60% of its surface. If the most lustrous pearls show this amount of surface defects, they are graded D.
<D Pearls below D grade are considered not acceptable for use in jewelry.

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