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Useful Guide to Choosing Quality Pearl Jewellery

  • By Julia Littlewood
  • Published 03/13/2012

Pearls have traditionally been highly fashionable, and this year they are making a major comeback for trendy fashionistas.

Whether freshwater or cultured (see my previous article titled ‘Essential Guide to Pearl Jewellery’ for an explanation of the difference), pearls have a lustrous gleam that many women swear gives their complexions a radiant glow.

To start with – let’s explain the term Biwa pearls. These originally came from a freshwater lake near Kyoto in Japan, which was once the main region for producing these entirely nature-made Japanese pearls. Although production in this region came to a halt in the 1980’s because of the pollution from Japanese industry, today Biwa is a generic name for all freshwater pearls. As explained in my previous article, the quality freshwater variety is very rare and thus highly pricey.

The following guide will give you some important advice to help you choose pearl jewellery that stands above the crowd for its quality.

Pearl Grading

Do beware of pearl dealers who have overstated grading charts as there is no international rating system – the only country to have a government controlled pearl grading system is Tahiti, which is famous for the Tahitian black pearl.

Nevertheless, with this in mind the ‘usual’ grading system for pearls is measured from A to AAA ratings but this can vary widely depending on the supplier. AAA+ and AAAA grades would describe the beast quality of pearls.


The shape of a pearl is extremely important and will drastically affect the price. For instance, ‘round’ pearls can be double the price of those that are near-round, and up to ten times the cost. Here are some tips regarding pearl shape:

· Round pearls are not common, thus they can be very expensive.

· Off-round pearls are roundish to the eye with a slightly oval, flattened shape. Nevertheless, if they have few blemishes they can have excellent lustre.

· Oval pearls, which originated in China, are also known as rice pearls. They were once mockingly called ‘rice crispies’ after the cereal when the Chinese dumped large quantities of low quality pearls onto the market at one point.

· Baroque is the name given to pearls that are an off-round or irregular shape. These are usually found in natural wild pearls, the most valuable being from Tahiti and the South Sea. Most wild pearls that are harvested are in fact baroque in shape.

· Bead nucleated pearls are seeded with a round shell bead and can often have a tail on one side.

· Button pearls are round on one side and flat on the other side. This shape is formed in an oyster or mussel.

· Free form pearls are created when an accident occurs in nature – the mollusc rejects the nucleus and thus grows a ‘free form’ pearl.


A pearl’s size will also greatly affect its price. Here are some tips in this area:

· Freshwater and Akoyo pearls are usually found in half millimetre bands, such as 7 to 7.5mm and 7.5 to 8mm.

· The Tahitian and South Sea pearls come in bigger sizes of one millimetre bands, such as 9 to 10mm and 10 to 11mm.

· The range of 7 to 7.5mm pearls can be 20% to 40% less expensive than their larger counterparts.

· The large baroque or ringed pearls cost less than smaller symmetrical shaped pearls.


Pearls can be found in a range of colours. Natural pearls are influenced by the breed of the mollusc, its diet, the water temperature and pollutants. The colour of pearls when produced in a hatchery cannot be controlled.

Black pearls are in fact very rarely true jet black – they more often come in a variety of dark shades – from blue, grey and aubergine to an array of greens (which is the predominant colour). True natural black pearls generally come from the pearl farms of Tahiti, Indonesia and the Philippines, while the majority of other so-called ‘black pearls’ are treated by dying or irradiating the pearl.

Lustre and Blemishes

The lustre of the surface of a pearl will also play a large part in how it is valued. Lustre basically describes how pearls glow – the sharper their reflection, the higher their lustre.

Most pearls actually have a few blemishes (chips and cracks), and even ‘Best Quality’ pearls can have minor flaws. The difference between a virtually blemish free surface of up to 1% however and a pearl with surface marks of up to 4% can have a price difference of 50% to 100%.

If you’re buying online, always ask for a written description of the pearl’s surface. Also be aware that necklace pearls often have more marks than pendant or earring pearls.

Region of Origin

In addition to the points above which affect a pearl’s price, its final cost can also be graded from low to high depending on the region it originates from. For example, Tahitian and South sea pearls can be very pricey, and Japanese Akoyo pearls are more expensive than Chinese Akoyo pearls.


Quality pearls will be priced according to its shape, size, weight, colour, luster, region of origin and the amount surface blemishes it carries. Using the above tips, you will be well on your way to choosing pearl jewellery that never fails to impress.

About the Author: Julia Littlewood is a stylist and jewellery designer.



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