Kamala Thiagarajan of Solitaire Magazine reached out to me to help with an article she is writing on pearls. Since I am sure all of the info will not make it in her article, I thought ya’ll might be interested in some of my answers to her questions! This was for an article in Solitaire Magazine’s October/November issue on the Splendour of Pearls.
* I understand that there are two different pearl grading systems that are internationally accepted–the AAA-A system and the A-D system (also called the Tahitian system). Which in your opinion is better? What should the buyer be wary of? For instance, are there any vulnerabilities in these systems?
I want to start by saying that I am unfamiliar with the Tahitian System and I do not use any accepted grading system in my own business. That is my disclaimer because I do not put much weight in grading system. The truth is, there is no universally accepted grading system. Pearls are so incredibly subjective and I find various company debate over pearl grading. I have actually heard someone say, “You’re AA is my A-” There are 7 different quality factors that are looked at to grade a pearl and some of those factors can be subjective. For example, which is more important, the size of a pearl or shape of the pearl? Is nacre quality or luster more important? When choosing either or between the quality factors, it becomes a very subjective form of grading. We all can agree that the truly awful pearls are awful and usually unmarketable and the truly flawless pearls are completely enviable but in between, that is when the consumer needs to step in and discover what they find beautiful and worthy of their own jewel collection.
*What would you advise someone purchasing pearls for the first time? How do they make their purchase a good investment as well?
Most art dealers and collectors will advise you first to invest in something you love and I think this is very true with pearls. Everyone wants to make a good investment but never sacrifice what you truly love just because you think a pearl will increase in value. There are many different factors that play in the value of an investment in pearls and some of those include environmental conditions, supply and demand and other factors beyond the individual investor’s scope. I think the most important thing to know before investing in a strand of pearls is what style you are looking for, where and how you want to wear your jewelry and a reputable, trustworthy supplier that you can be open and honest with and who has the knowledge to answer your questions.
*What would be the biggest difference between freshwater and salt water pearls? Which is superior?
This is entirely subjective. Saltwater pearls are typically, but not always, more expensive. This is a reflection of their high production costs, though, and not necessarily of their quality. If you are just looking at the actual contents of pearls in comparing saltwater and freshwater pearls, they are chemically very similar except freshwater pearls have a slightly higher amount of manganese. Again, on the most basic level, this is not a huge difference. When you look at the way they are cultured, there are many differences. First, the water is different, freshwater versus saltwater. Saltwater farms rely on sea planes and boats, many technicians must be housed in remote locations, the waters must be patrolled and guarded. Freshwater farms are easier to maintain. Freshwater pearls can be very amazing because they are not nucleate with a bead, typically only with a piece of tissue. Freshwater pearls are, without a doubt, the closest to natural pearls. They are almost 100% nacre. This means finding a truly gorgeous strand of round, freshwater pearls is truly a miracle of nature.Freshwater pearls only come in white, mauve and pink colors. So, for the pearl connoisseur interested in black pearls, Tahitians are the way to go or creamy yellow or silvery white, South Sea pearls. Saltwater pearls offer more variety in natural colors than their freshwater counterparts.
*Which variety of pearl should you choose for long lasting durability?
I do not think their is one pearl that is more durable over the long term as long as the pearl has a good quality nacre and high luster. If you properly care for your pearls, their beauty can be enjoyed for many generations.
*Is there any way to tell how thick the nacre of a pearl is if you’re not an expert?
This is a fantastic question. Understanding the nacre thickness is very important when buying saltwater pearls. Because saltwater oysters are nucleated with a shell bead, you want to ensure you are buying more than just that shell bead. The problem is, some pearls have minimal nacre (or pearl making material) on top of that bead. One amazing trick to check nacre thickness is blinking. If you turn the pearl or necklace under a light, sometimes you get a glimpse of the shell bead within the pearl. It blinks. It is almost like the pearl is winking at you. The first time you see this it is just so amazingly obvious. If you can see your pearls blink, I advise avoiding them. One supplier actually said to me, “these pearls will last a good seven to eight years before the nacre wears off.” Pearls that will “rub away” in 7- 8 years, who wants that? Also, nacre thickness is important in rings too. Because of the wear rings can have, you certainly do not want nacre rubbing off of a pearl in your ring. Truthfully, for this reason I would avoid a Akoya pearl ring due to their typical low nacre thickness. If you cannot see the blink, I would ask your jeweler if they know the nacre thickness. Some supplier will document this thickness. Thickness is measured from the edge of that center bead to the outer edge of the pearl. In Akoya pearls, the nacre thickness ranges from 0.1 to 1.2mm, the minimum for Tahitians is .8mm and South Sea typically range from 1mm to 3mm. Two ways to accurately measure the nacre thickness of a pearl and to cut it in half or to xray the pearl. Candling is an old method of putting a pearl in front of a concentrated light source to look for a bead nucleus. It is not an accurate way to measure the nacre thickness however it can give you an idea of how much nacre is on the bead nucleus.
Now, keep in mind that a high amount of nacre does not equate to good quality nacre. You have to have enough nacre to offer a nice luster but good quality nacre helps both the luster and the surface quality of the pearls. Nacre quality is dependent on healthy mollusks, good quality water and environments and a uniform deposit of the layers.
*Can a strand of pearls (in a necklace) sold in a jewellers have different graded pearls? If someone owns a necklace like that, would you advise re-stringing it?
One of the seven quality factors in grading a piece of jewelry is matching. So, the pearls should be closely matched in coloring, condition, type of pearls, etc. It is possible to have a design where the pearls are meant to be different. Pearls can always be reknotted to suit the taste of the owner or certain pearls may be removed from one piece of jewelry to create others. This is entirely up to the owner and how they prefer to enjoy their pearls.
*What is the best way to maintain your pearls?
Pearls are very soft gems and require maintenance to ensure their long life. First and foremost, do not scratch your pearls. This means, keep them separate from your other gems. It is easy to keep them in a soft pouch in your jewelry box. Keep them clean and reknot them as soon as either your knots expand or the silk thread gets dirty. I advise avoiding any commercial cleaners and opting instead for mild soap and water to cleanse your pearls (always lay flat to dry) but there are some cleaners on the market that say they are safe for pearls.
I am a modern day treasure hunter who travels the world for gorgeous pearls and amazing adventures. I own a pearl jewelry and jewelry repair business, ThePearlGirls.com, with a cute retail store in Athens, GA. I also have a Pearl Travel business and travel blog at TheWorldofPearl.com.