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How to Buy Pearls: Everything You Need to Know

Pearl Grading: How's your gem's luster?

Last Updated on July 24, 2023 by Carla Jonas

Everyone knows that pearls are gems of the sea. However, when it comes to understanding the value of a pearl or buying pearl jewelry, that’s about all you might know. However, it takes more than that to make an educated decision. Therefore, learning how to buy pearls is essential.

You may know that pearls come from oysters and yet have no idea how they’re formed. It’s obvious that these jewels are often of different sizes and colors. However, are you aware of the various types too? 

how to buy pearls

What are Cultured Pearls VS Natural Pearls?

There are two major types of pearls – cultured and natural ones. However, you should first learn about the difference between real pearls and fake ones. Also called faux pearls, these fake versions are generally made of plastic, glass or some other manmade material.

Both cultured pearls and natural pearls are 100% real gems. The difference between the two is based on how they were made. That usually affects the pearl’s price and becomes important when buying pearls online.

Check out our tips on how to tell if a pearl is real!

How is a Natural Pearl Made?

As an oyster floats around in the sea, an irritant may accidentally get inside of its mussel’s soft tissue. In response, a defense mechanism is launched. This causes the oyster to secrete a coating around the irritant known as nacre. It secretes layer upon layer of nacre until a natural pearl is created.

How is a Cultured Pearl Formed?

Cultured pearls form in a mollusk following exactly the same process. However, there are two main differences:

  • Cultured pearls are grown on farms.
  • Irritants are inserted inside the oyster purposely by pearl farmers.

Cultured pearls are formed by inserting shell bead nuclei inside the oysters using a very tedious, fragile process. This acts as an irritant and activates the oyster’s defense mechanism and the creation of layers of nacre. After a lot of care and nurturing, cultured pearls are born!

Natural Pearls vs Cultured Pearls
Natural Pearls vs Cultured Pearls. Image Source: vijay-hemmadi/LinkedIn

Cost Benefits of Buying Cultured Pearls VS Natural Pearls

There’s no way to “make” an oyster produce a pearl in the ocean. However, artificially implanting a nuclei makes it easier to manage the production of pearls, as well as market prices.

These days, it’s almost impossible to find natural pearls in the oceans and seas. Oyster divers risk their lives looking for the sea creatures, hoping to strike it big. However, there just aren’t many natural pearls being created anymore due to pollution and pearl divers.

With cultured pearl farming, the gems are made in secure and nurturing environments. Therefore, the oysters have greater chances of surviving and producing high-quality gemstones.

Freshwater cultured pearl grading
Freshwater cultured pearl grading. Image Source: China Dialogue

These days, cultured pearl jewelry comes in many different styles and can be found online. Natural pearl jewelry is extremely rare. If you find one, the piece is more than likely vintage. Additionally,  they are extremely rare to come around in online pearl jewelry stores. Either way, natural pearls are much more expensive than cultured pearls.

READ MORE:  From the Classic White Pearl to the Exotic Black – A Close Look at Pearl Colors

5 Different Types of Cultured Pearls

In today’s online retail market, all real pearls and real pearl jewelry sold are cultured pearls, unless they are specifically marked “natural pearls.” There are five main types of cultured pearl jewelry sold online in 2018:

Knowing some of the differences between the five will help you understand each one’s value better. That way, you know what you’re purchasing BEFORE buying pearls online.

1. Akoya Pearls

Shop for Japanese Akoya White Pearl Set
Japanese Akoya White Pearl Set from The Pearl Source.

If you’re looking for perfectly round white pearls, these are the ones. Akoya pearls are the classic gems we’re used to seeing on single strands of pearls. They come with the highest luster and shine of all the cultured pearls on the market.

  • Natural Colors: Cream, White
  • Sizes: 5 mm to 11 mm
  • Parent: Pinctada Fucata Mollusk

2. Hanadama Pearls

<img class=”wp-image-3624″ src=”” alt=”””

These pearls are commonly referred to as The Ferraris of the pearl world. They are actually cultured Akoya pearls that have been certified by the Pearl Science Laboratory (PSL) of Japan to carry the name. Cultured Hanadama gemstones feature the highest pearl luster of all cultured pearls on the market.

  • Natural Colors: Silver, Blue
  • Sizes: 7 mm to 10 mm
  • Parent: Pinctada Fucata Mollusk

3. Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls emerged as the new rivals to Akoya pearls back in the 1990s. They also come in the form of round, white gems, much like Akoya pearls. However, the Freshwater pearl jewelry offers the widest selections of pearl colors, shapes and sizes than any other cultured type.

  • Natural Colors: Cream, White
  • Sizes: 2 mm to 15 mm
  • Parent: Hyriopsis Cumingii or Hybrid Mollusk

4. South Sea Pearls

Yellow Gold & Diamond South Sea Bangle Pearl Bracelet
Yellow Gold & Diamond South Sea Bangle Pearl Bracelet

White South Sea and Golden South Sea pearls are the most sought-after cultured versions of the gems in the world. That’s because they are the rarest, and offer the most luster and greatest pearls sizes. Both Golden South Sea and White South Sea pearls are cultivated in saltwater.

  • Natural Colors: Cream, White, Silver
  • Sizes: 8 mm to 20 mm
  • Parent: Pinctada Maxima Mollusk

5. Tahitian Pearls

Gold Emerald and Black Tahitian Pearl Frog Ring
Gold Emerald and Black Tahitian Pearl Frog Ring. Image Source: Pinterest

If you’re looking for real pearls that are naturally black in color, Tahitian pearls are what you want. They are babies of the Pinctada margaritifera, which is the only oyster that naturally produces black pearls.

Black Tahitian pearls are unmistakably vibrant and extremely rare. Therefore, these “Pearls of Queens” are quite expensive when buying pearls online. They offer almost perfectly round shapes, brilliant luster and sizes generally larger than other cultured pearls.

  • Natural Colors: Gray, Brown, Green, Blue, Purple
  • Sizes: 8 mm to 21 mm
  • Parent: Pinctada Margaritifera Mollusk

4 Main Factors That Affect the Value of a Pearl

How much pearls cost is based on the various pricing systems of individual online pearl jewelry stores. But, knowing how to use the four main factors behind a pearl’s value can help ensure you don’t pay more than what the gem is worth.

READ MORE:  What Is an Oyster? How Do Oysters Make Pearls?

Note that no one factor determines a pearl’s value of the price of a pearl. When judging the value of pearl jewelry, use these factors in conjunction with each other, along with asking questions from the jewelry retail store when buying pearls online.

1. Pearl Shape

9-11mm South Sea & Freshwater Off-Round Multicolor Pearl Necklace
9-11mm South Sea & Freshwater Off-Round Multicolor Pearl Necklace

When it comes to the shape of a pearl, the rounder the gem, the more valuable. Because oysters rarely create (almost) perfectly round gemstones, round pearls are the rarest, making them higher in price than other pearl shapes.

2. Pearl Surface

Pearl Surface Quality Guide
Pearl Surface Quality Guide. Image Source: Nina’s Jewellery

No pearl’s surface is 100% without flaws because each one is created by a living creature. However, the least number of visible flaws, nicks, cracks or other imperfections, the more valuable and pricier the pearl.

3. Pearl Luster

When buying pearls online, be sure to contact the jewelry store directly to get information about the gem's luster.
When buying pearls online, be sure to contact the jewelry store directly to get information about the gem’s luster.

The luster of a pearl is the mirror-like sheen and shine visible on the pearl surface. High-quality gems will possess high luster, making the gemstone stand out and “pop” when viewed by the naked eye. High luster means great value.

4. Pearl Size

Pearl Size Chart from The Pearl Source
Pearl Size Chart from The Pearl Source

Once all of the other three factors have been judged, this is the most important factor in the end. Pearl size definitely matters when it comes to these gems. Traditionally, larger pearls were for more mature women back in the day. But, these days, all adult women are flocking to the larger sized gems. Smaller pearls are being used in jewelry trending for little girls and teenagers.

How to Buy Pearls Online

The Pearl Source creates custom pearl jewelry using loose pearls purchased online or at home and Facebook pearl parties.
The Pearl Source creates custom pearl jewelry using loose pearls purchased online or at home and Facebook pearl parties.

Buying pearl jewelry online means making a high-end purchase without actually touching the product first. Therefore, you need to take certain measures to protect yourself when shopping online for pearl jewelry:

Cultured Pearl Experts

Always make sure the online jewelry store is owned and operated by pearl experts. If not, they may be misinformed, ignorant of uneducated about cultured pearls.

Solid Return Policy

Make sure the online pearl jewelry store offers a reasonable return policy. Remember, you’re buying a high-end piece of jewelry without trying it on first. What if you don’t like it once it arrives?

Direct Customer Service

Only shop with an online pearl jewelry retailer that’s willing to answer your questions via email and by phone. Never spend thousands of dollars with a company that won’t share a reliable phone number with you, and doesn’t have someone available during business hours to answer your calls. If you can’t reach them directly before buying pearls online, you definitely won’t be able to reach anyone if there’s a problem with your order.

Tips on How to Buy Pearls Online

In the age of online shopping, where finding a beautiful set of pearls can be as simple as the clicking of a button, there are some important questions to ask before making such a big investment online.

READ MORE:  Diving for Pearls: Interesting Investment or Waste of Precious Time?

Does the Seller Have Enough Options?

If a seller only has a few strands of mismatched pearls to offer, there should be a definite doubt as to whether the pearls are authentic or just being sold secondhand. Do your research and check if the seller has a good range of pearls, consisting of different types in various styles. If a wide range is offered, you are also more likely to find a selection that best fits your style and budget.

Is the Seller Offering Good Discounts?

If the prices are the same as to what you would find at your local jewelry store, it’s hardly worth the convenience of shopping online. Ensure that the seller is offering competitive prices along with a wide variety to get a good deal.

What About Quality Checks and Certifications?

Purchasing jewelry online can be risky, especially for high-value transactions, so be sure that the seller is disclosing all relevant information about the grading of the pearls. In the case of exclusive varieties, some additional authentication by an expert would be advisable before purchasing. For very special occasions, stick to the highest grades, such as “AAA” or “AAAA”, to receive the most flawless and lustrous pearls.

Does the Seller Have Customer-friendly Policies?

Look for online reviews and testimonials about the seller, as well as detailed information about any return or exchange policies they might have. An efficient shipping system, including free shipping for high-value items, could also be a significant factor. Products can sometimes be ruined by inefficient packaging, so you’ll want to make sure that the seller is reliable.

There are also a few other general factors to be taken into account when shopping online, not just for pearl jewelry. These include ease of payment in different currencies, the security of the transaction, the time taken for order processing, and the efficiency of the customer support helplines.

How to Buy Pearls: Pearl Grading Chart

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