Every woman should have a strand of pearls in her wardrobe. Classic and elegant, a pearl strand goes with every outfit and occasion, and brings out the princess in all of us. But if you are purchasing a strand of pearls for the first time, rows and rows of softly glowing gems in a jewelry store may feel a bit overwhelming. How do you tell what makes one strand of pearls better than another? First, become more familiar with the different types and origins of pearls. Better equipped with the fundamentals, it’s time to go shopping.
Pearls come in a myriad of colors and color is often the first thing you notice. From the dark and mysterious Tahitian pearl to the creamy and lustrous Akoya, the color of pearls is a result of the type and health of the mollusk from which it comes. All pearls have an overall bodycolor, but look closely: you may notice in pearls of higher quality a gentle, complementary overtone. In Akoya pearls you might see washes of rose, silver or gold, and Tahitian pearls often have overtones of plum and pistachio.
In strands, pearl size is often expressed as a range. Necklaces may be labeled as composed of pearls 6-6.5mm, which tells you that each pearl in the strand falls somewhere within that range. Strands of pearls with greater size ranges, say 5-9.5mm, are called graduated if each successive pearl is larger than the one before. Larger pearls are typically clustered to the front and center. If all other factors are the same, larger pearls command higher prices than smaller ones.
Now we’re making some progress: whittling down the options to that perfect strand of pearls for you. Ask the jeweler if you may see the pearls more closely. While we often think of pearls as perfectly round, pearls may also come in off-round and baroque shapes. Gently roll the pearls between your fingers or across a smooth, flat surface. Perfectly round pearls will command higher prices than off-round pearls.
One of the defining characteristics of a strand of pearls is its symmetry, or how well each of the pearls matches the others in the strand. This consistency and uniformity is a hallmark of an excellent necklace. Variation may be the aesthetic you are going for, but if not, aim for perfect symmetry. Strands are often composed of an odd number of pearls, establishing one central pearl and two sides that are mirror reflections of each other.
Now examine the pearls up close. The perfect pearl will have a smooth, clean surface, free of any bumps or blemishes. Because pearls are an organic gem, you may notice a few inconsistencies; these affect the value of the strand. Several spots or divots are common in pearls of lesser quality and unlike in diamonds, buffing, polishing, or cutting cannot hide these. Fewer imperfections are a sign of higher quality.
The defining characteristic of pearls is luster – that glossy, translucent, mirror-like surface. Luster is the reason pearls seem to softly glow from within, as the light bounces around each orb. The best pearls will have thick layers of nacre, which reflects like a mirror. The higher the luster and quality, the more distinct the reflection will be. Typically, pearls that have spent more time in a happy, healthy mollusk will have deeper, richer nacre.
By now, you’re looking at a strand of really excellent pearls, but there is one more factor to consider: how well the piece of jewelry is put together. The clasp should close securely and firmly. The silk knots that separate each pearl should be tight and close fitting, and the whole strand should drape fluidly around the neck. We recommend purchasing your strand of pearls from a reputable jeweler who understands the many unique characteristics of pearls, like Spey. A pearl strand may last for generations, so it always helps to tell the good from the bad and the ugly!