How Much Are Pearls Worth? Your Guide To Buying Quality Pearls

Nowadays, people may not realize that the ‘Queen of Gems' in the times of ancient Rome was the pearl. A beautiful string of pearls may be unfairly underrated compared to the attention diamonds tend to receive.

However, before the 20th century, pearls were the ultimate symbol of wealth and were reserved for society's elite and royalty. Not many people could afford pearls because they were extremely limited in supply and highly valuable.

In the mid-1900s, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly were among the glamorous Hollywood stars who showcased elegant pearl necklaces, turning them once again into one of the most coveted gems.

Even today, pearls can be worth a hefty price tag. But just like other gemstones, not all pearls are of equal value.

Factors That Determine How Much Pearls Are Worth

There are several factors to take into consideration before determining the worth of a pearl:

The Origin of the Pearl

Pearls can originate from 2 different areas: they can either be natural or cultivated.

Natural or Wild Pearls:

Pearls are the only gems found in living creatures. Pearls can come from both saltwater and freshwater mollusks. Mollusks are invertebrates (cold-blooded with no backbone) with soft unsegmented bodies and shell enclosures such as oysters, clams, and mussels.

Mollusks make pearls through a biological process to protect themselves from irritants or debris that try to enter their soft tissue. Mollusks do this by coating layer upon layer of shell material on top of the foreign substance that gets in. This material is called nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl.

Pearls found in the wild or nature are scarce now. While oysters, mussels, and clams can technically make pearls, only some of the mollusks produce nacre, which is the shell material that gives pearls their famous opalescent sheen.

On top of that, you might need to open thousands of oysters to find a single decent pearl of excellent quality that will have commercial value. For this reason, wild pearls are scarce and sell for a very high value.

Cultivated

Eventually, pearl demand became so high that mollusks supplies were compromised. Millions of creatures were forced open and discarded when no pearls were found, bringing them to near extinction.

The rarity of the natural pearl and its high value led to the advent of modern culturing technologies in Japan in the early 1900s. Most pearls on the market today are cultivated however this still requires specialized skill and precision.

Technicians open live mollusks and surgically implant a small nucleus, typically a tiny bead, after making a small incision. The mollusk can only be pried open a few centimeters, or else they will reject the nucleus.

Once cultivated in the mollusk, a pearl stays inside for two to six years while the pearl is forming. Technicians inspect the mollusk every two weeks. Harvesting pearls can still be labor-intensive. However, this technology allowed the supply of pearls available on the market to increase, which also helped make pearls more affordable.

Size

Millimeters are the unit of measure used for cultured pearls. The size of the pearl will vary based on the type of pearl it is. A pearl can be anywhere from 1mm in size to 20mm. Cultured pearls are typically 6mm – 7mm.

Generally speaking, the larger the pearl is in size, the more valuable it will be if all other factors are equal, including the type of pearl it is. Therefore, even just a 1-millimeter increase in pearl size will result in a substantial jump in value.

Shape

The more round the shape of the pearl, the more valuable it is. Perfectly round pearls are very rare. Why is it so difficult to find a round pearl? When the debris or irritant enters the mollusk, this is called the nucleus of the pearl.

When the mollusk starts the biological process of covering the nucleus with the pearl shell, it takes the shape of the nucleus. So if the nucleus isn't perfectly round, neither will be the end product.

Other factors that affect the ultimate shape of the pearl are the positioning of the nucleus. If it's leaning against the side of the shell, it could have a flattened side. The pearls could also develop with grooves or rings, which may occur if the nucleus is depressed while the pearl is developing.

Although the irregular-shaped pearls are still desirable, such as the baroque asymmetrical shape, generally, they are not as valuable as the perfectly round-shaped ones.

Color

There are three components to assessing the color of a pearl:

Body-color

Body-color is the overall dominant color of the pearl.

Overtone

Overtone is the translucent color that is on top of the body color.

Orient

Orient is the shimmer of iridescent rainbow colors on the pearl's surface. The orient only appears when there is more than one translucent color over the body color.

All pearls have a primary body color, but not all pearls overtone the orient. The color itself may not affect the value of the pearl, but color uniformity makes a pearl more valuable.

Surface Quality

The more smooth and clean the surface of a pearl is, the more valuable it will be. Conversely, pearls with imperfections on the surface will be lower in value.

Nacre

Nacre is the natural substance that the mollusk secretes to protect its soft tissue from the irritant that enters the shell. It is the same material that lines the inner surface of the mollusk shells. Generally, the thicker the nacre, the more durable and lustrous the pearl is.

Luster

Many consider luster the most critical factor in determining the value of a pearl. Luster refers to the intensity of the light that reflects from a pearl's surface. The more bright and shiny a pearl looks, the more valuable it is.

The quality of the pearl's luster is dependent on the nacre or the layers that coat the pearls. The thicker the nacre and the more uniform the construction of the layers is, the higher the luster.

Types of Pearl

South Sea

South Sea pearls are cultured in warm tropical waters and are usually white or gold. The South Sea pearls are revered for their large size and glowing luster and have a more of a satin-like surface. These pearls are the most expensive variety and the most treasured. Golden pearls can be even more costly than white pearls because they are rarer. The deeper the gold color, the more valuable the pearls are.

Tahitian

Tahitian pearls are known for their color, ranging from dark gray to black. They are the only organic dark-colored pearls on the market, meaning they are naturally black without any human intervention. They are also larger, typically 8mm to 16mm but generally smaller than South Sea pearls. Sizes larger than this are possible but rare.

Although one must assess the same factors listed above to determine the value of the pearl, one of the most significant indicators of value for the Tahitian pearl is the quality of the surface. The fewer imperfections there are, the more valuable the pearl.

Akoya

Akoya pearls are the classic, white round pearls that most people are familiar with when they think of pearls. Retailers and consumers favor these pearls for their perfectly round shapes, bright luster, and neutral colors. The Akoya pearl is the most abundant variety of pearls and tends to be smaller.

Freshwater

Freshwater pearls are the most commonly produced and are less expensive than saltwater pearls. The process requires less advanced surgical skills for cultivation than for saltwater pearls, making freshwater pearls less labor-intensive to cultivate and therefore less costly.

Also, freshwater mussels can produce multiple pearls with each production cycle. Freshwater pearls are more commercial quality which is why they are more economical. On the other hand, saltwater pearls are more of an investment.

Pearl Grading System

The most commonly accepted pearl grading system is the A-AAA Quality grading guide. The A-AAA grading system focuses on assessing the seven value factors of pearl grading discussed above: nacre quality, luster, surface quality, size, shape, origin, and color.

However, the pearl industry has not adopted a universal grading system. Since the system isn't standardized, pearl grading is subjective, and the determined value depends on the seller you are dealing with.

The Value of Pearls

So how much are pearls worth? The true worth of a pearl requires assessing the seven value factors to provide a proper valuation. However, overall we know that South Sea pearls are the most expensive, followed by Tahitian, Akoya, and freshwater pearls.

Large saltwater pearls with more luster, no imperfections on the surface, and are perfectly round will command the highest value. As minor flaws or imperfections in the shape and surface become visible, the worth of the pearl will decline.

More Articles From the Wealth of Geeks Network:

This article was produced by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: Pexels.


Nadia is an M.B.A. graduate and freelance writer. She also likes to write about all aspects of mom life, co-authors the blog This Mom Is On Fire, and advocates for better dementia healthcare for seniors.