While the beauty of pearl jewelry is indisputable, how much pearls are worth varies greatly based on a number of factors such as pearl type, size, shape, color, and luster. Check out our quick pearl value guide to learn more about how much these briny beauties are worth.
For many people, their very first piece of pearl jewelry came from their mother or their grandmother. Maybe it was a gift for their sixteenth birthday as was the tradition for many years, or perhaps it was a wedding gift from a family member who wore it for their own wedding many years ago.
With so many items of pearl jewelry being older or inherited pieces, it’s natural to be curious about the value of these items. Do pearls age well, and do they retain their value over time? Will their value grow by the time we gift our jewelry to our children or grandchildren? Let’s explore the different value factors of pearl jewelry.
Both natural and cultured pearls are considered “real” by industry standards. Although the word natural is often mistakenly attributed to cultured pearl jewelry, the vast majority on the market today is made from cultured pearls.
Within cultured pearls, we have two main types: freshwater and saltwater pearls, named for the bodies of water that they are farmed in. Within the grouping of saltwater pearls, we have akoya (sometimes simply called saltwater), tahitian, and south sea pearls. This gives us our four cultured pearl families.
While each of these represents a range of quality and pricing, in general the most expensive type of cultured pearl is south sea, followed by tahitian, akoya, and then freshwater.
What Affects the Value of a Pearl?
When all other value factors are equal, larger pearls will be more valuable than smaller ones. However, a brilliant, top-quality pearl in a smaller size will almost always be more valuable than a larger, low-quality one.
Each pearl type has a different range of sizes:
- Freshwater pearls start at about 4mm wide and go up to around 15mm.
- Akoya pearls can range from 3mm to about 10mm.
- Tahitian pearls go from 10mm up to 18mm.
- South Sea pearls range from 8mm to, in exceptional cases, 20mm.
In all pearl varieties, perfectly round gems will be the most valuable. Even on pearl farms, there is only so much about the pearl’s formation we can control. Only about 3% of the total pearl harvest in any given year will be perfectly round.
Other shapes include off-round, drop, and baroque. Well-matched drop pearls can be very desirable in earrings, and certain Baroque Pearls command high prices when used in creative designs, but for the most part these non-round shapes will come at a significant discount.
For many people, color is the first thing that attracts them to a pearl. Whether it is the pristine ivory of a classic akoya strand, the elegant golden gleam of south sea pearls, or the soft-brushed lavender tones on a more contemporary freshwater necklace, the range of colors available in pearl jewelry means there’s something to suit every style.
Generally speaking, more unusual colors will be more valuable than more common ones. Gold south sea pearls always fetch exorbitant prices. Unique freshwater colorations such as purple and bronze always sell very quickly. Tahitian pearls, which come in a range of multi-colored overtones, command the highest prices for colors like cherry red and aubergine purple.
When looking at white pearls, yellow-hued overtones are considered less valuable than silver or rosy ones.
Luster is probably the single most important value factor in determining a pearl’s beauty. It’s the “glow” that comes from within the pearl, made up of thin layers of nacre reflecting light over and over again.
You can tell if your pearls have good luster by looking at the reflections on the pearl’s surface. Edges will be sharp and distinct and reflections will have high levels of contrast, which means that the brightly lit areas will be very white and the darker areas deep and rich. Akoya pearls are known for their sharp, mirror-like luster, while freshwater and south sea pearls tend to have surface reflections that are a bit softer.
Low-quality pearls will not show a lot of brightness or darkness, with the different tones blurring together.
If you’re familiar with diamonds, you might know something about the way they are graded for clarity. Pearls are graded in much the same way, although their clarity characteristics will be on the surface rather than internal.
Surfaces should be smooth and unblemished, so that light can travel across them unhindered. It’s natural for pearls to have some light surface markings, as they are formed organically. Many pearls will have minute blemishes that show that they are real and unique. It’s when the markings are numerous and prominent enough to detract from a pearl’s beauty that they become problematic.
Nacre quality is related to luster. In this instance, it refers to the thickness of the nacre around the central nucleus, or implanted irritant. Freshwater and natural pearls are nucleated with degradable irritants, such as skin tissue. This means that as the pearl grows, the nucleus dissolves and the entire pearl is left with nothing but nacre all the way through.
Saltwater pearls, on the other hand, are nucleated with a bead made out of shell or plastic which the nacre grows around. If the nacre is very thin you may be able to see a dark shadow where the bead is showing through — this is an indication of poor nacre quality. The nacre should be thick and substantial, which helps with the pearl’s durability as well as the play of light that we call luster.
This is a quality consideration in pearl strands as well as earring sets and brooches with multiple pearls. It is not considered for pearl rings or other items with only one gem, such as tie pins.
Because overtones can range so widely in pearls, it is essential to choose gems that are well matched. This is particularly true with Tahitian pearls, which display a wide array of tones. Pearls should have colors that are either the same or complementary, with sizes that subtly graduate rather than breaking off abruptly in step-like jumps, and be as close to the same shape as possible. In a pearl necklace, the color of the thread should match the body color of the pearls.