A Discriminating Woman’s Guide To Buying Jewelry, Part Two: Pearls

The Corporette Guide to Pearls || CorporetteHot on the heels of our post about the best splurges (in which I include my pearls), I thought now would be a great time for guest poster/Corporette commenter “Kanye East” to demystify buying pearls for us.  In real life,the author is an attorney at law, New York City ex-pat, sarcastic Corporette commenter, and amateur metalsmith. On the rare occasions she leaves the office, Ms. East slays dragons and makes jewelry with their treasures.

I only have a few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to purchasing jewelry. Rule One: know what you’re buying. (There’s also Rule One-And-A-Half—don’t get ripped off—but it’s really just a restatement of Rule One). Rule Two almost throws the other rules out the window: buy (and wear) what you like. That’s it. Two and a half rules. Still with me? Good. We’ve already covered metals, so now let’s talk pearl basics.

Pearls are organic, non-vegan gems produced by different varieties of mollusks, both salt water and freshwater. They’re created when an irritant (nucleus) is introduced and then covered by the mollusk in layers of nacre. When this occurs naturally, pearls fetch top dollar; when it’s achieved with the intervention of pearl harvesters, it results in “nucleated” or “cultured” pearls, which tend to be more affordable.

Generally speaking, saltwater pearls are more valuable than their freshwater counterparts. Why? In life, as in Econ 101, price depends on rarity, and most saltwater mollusks produce fewer pearls per harvest than freshwater mollusks. Other factors to consider are shape (perfectly round pearls command higher prices), color, surface, and luster, and many saltwater species excel in these areas as well. (Pearl Paradise has an excellent round-up of shapes and colors here.) The overwhelming majority freshwater pearls on the market today are grown in man-made lakes and reservoirs in China. Saltwater pearls (South Sea, Tahitian, and Akoya) are produced throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

Luxury Pearls

South Sea Pearl PendantRich ladies on Park Avenue and Chinese pearl dealers overwhelmingly agree on one thing: the best pearls in the world come from the South China Sea. A rope or double strand of round South China Sea pearls never goes out of style. White and golden are the most common colors.
Akoya Necklace
Akoya pearls, named for the akoya mussel that produces them, are another classic, and the most popular saltwater pearl. Akoyas are consistently round or near-round in shape, and most commonly available in white, black, peach, and gold.
Tahitian Black Pearl RingMention Tahitian pearls, and most people think of black, peacock, green, and chocolate pearls, all of which appear naturally in this variety. To jewelers and pearl dealers, the name “Tahitian” is reserved for pearls produced by the Pinctada margaritafera mollusk in French Polynesia, but be careful because “Tahitian” and “Tahitian black” are often used to refer to color, not the origin. Cultured Tahitians have been available for about three decades; before that, a strand of black Tahitian pearls could cost a fortune. Oh let’s be real: they still can.
Kasumi Pearl StudsKasumi pearls are named for Lake Kasumi, a freshwater lake in Japan. Characterized by a rippled or wrinkled surface, Kasumi pearls are usually available in varying shades of blush and lavender, frequently with metallic (golden or copper) overtones frequently called “pondslime.” If you like the look of Kasumi pearls but not the hefty price tag, look for “Kasumi-like” or “rosebud” pearls and you’ll find lots of other affordable variations.
Mikimoto Conch Pearl RingOne of the only truly natural pearls, conch pearls are among the rarest in the world. They’re produced by the queen conch mollusk (Lobatus gigas) and occur very rarely—you could search 10,000 conch shells without ever finding one. Their color always ranges from pale pink to orange, and the best specimens have a subtle flame-like pattern. Conch pearls were the darlings of Art Nouveau jewelers, but you’re unlikely to find them today due to their rarity. (Here’s another picture, this time from Sotheby’s.)

Attainable Pearls

Keshi Pearl NecklaceKeshi pearls (sometimes called “petal” or “Corn Flake” pearls) are non-nucleated pearls that are formed when a mollusk (salt or freshwater) rejects an implanted irritant or nucleus before the culturing process is complete, or when implanted material fractures and forms separate pearl sacs without nuclei. These pearl sacs eventually produce pearls that are 100% nacre, usually with a flat, irregular shape. Keshi pearls come in a wide variety of colors, and tend to have very high luster due to their solid nacre composition. Most keshi, in fact, have a greater luster than even the highest quality cultured pearls.
Biwa PearlsBiwa pearl” used to refer to pearls from the Hyriopsis schlegelii mollusk native to Lake Biwa in Japan, where freshwater pearl cultivation originated. Renowned for producing high-quality stick-shaped pearls, Lake Biwa ceased pearl farming operations in the 1970s. But you’ll still see similar looking freshwater pearls called “Biwa,” “Biwa style,” or “Stick” pearls.

Freshwater cultured pearls are available in virtually every shape, size, and color imaginable. Most freshwater pearl jewelry on the market has dyed or irradiated to enhance color, and depending on the quality of the materials and the skill of the pearl dealer, the colors should be safe and long-lasting without bleeding or fading over time. Spoiler alert: truly natural pearls are very rare, so if you see pearl jewelry described as “natural,” it usually just means the pearls have not been color-treated.

The “Fakes”

Carolee Gold-Tone Ombre Glass Pearl Double Strand NecklaceFinally, there are imitation pearls. Apart from being more affordable, glass pearls and shell pearls also offer uniformity of size and color, with far less environmental impact than pearl harvesting.
AA Grade South Sea Shell Pearl NecklaceShell pearls are created by repeatedly dipping a mother of pearl or shell nucleus into a solution of binders and crushed mother of pearl. They are polished and dipped again and again until they reach the desired size and color depth. Shell pearls will always keep their shine and color, and will not be affected by sweat, perfume or detergents, although they should be carefully cared for just like natural pearls.

Readers, which are your favorite kinds of pearls?  What length and size do you prefer, and where do you like to buy them?

Comments

  1. I wore my pearls (a wedding gift from my in-laws) back in the 80s and 90s, but once I had kids I stopped wearing them because they were too annoying (babies pull on them, etc). Now I’m in my mid-forties and I think they make me look older. I haven’t worn them in literally about 10 years. I’d sell them, but even though they are “real” I doubt I’d get a decent price for them.

  2. I don’t buy my own pearls because my grandmother told me it was bad luck! Old wives tale I’m sure but I still don’t do it for some reason (I have some I received as gifts). I do give them as gifts though.

  3. I’d be curious to hear your take on the differences between freshwater pearls, and Akoya and South Sea pearls. Freshwater are significantly cheaper, but since I’ve never seen them side by side with either Akoya or South Sea pearls, I’m not sure whether they have the same luster, etc.

    • Ya, I’d be interested on an honest take on this one too. I’ve seen recent Chinese freshwaters of quite good size and nicer glow than my old Akoyas, and have been told that the Chinese ones can now be produced with a much thicker coat of nacre around a smaller bead, than is the case with Akoyas.

    • Duchesse at passage des perles covers this in detail. I think she has over 50 pearl related posts.

  4. THREAD JACK – This is my first time commenting on Corporette, and I could use some advice! I graduated law school this past May and am currently clerking until next August. Next week, I have an interview for a one-year fellowship position at a small firm. The fellowship would start in September 2014. My question is – I’m getting married next September 13, and we’d love to go on a 10-day or 2-week honeymoon. Normally I don’t think I would bring something like this up during an interview, but I think there’ s a reasonable chance that the hiring committee will ask when my clerkship ends/when I’d be available to start. Would it be a mistake to tell them during the interview that I might not be available to start until the end of September 2014? Should I just wait to see if I’m offered the job and then work out the scheduling details? Thanks for the help!!

    • I would wait until you have the job. It’s just a matter of weeks, so not a big deal. If they explicitly ask when you could start, you could mention you are getting married and could start at the end of September.

    • I did this recently. I waited until I had an offer and then part of my negotiation was for time off for the wedding. I did not mention it in the interview. It was a non-issue. Firms are generally pretty understanding about taking time off for your wedding.

    • Yay! I love pearl’s and Grandma Leyeh has a beautiful set of pearl earings, necklace and a BROOCH that she said she is leaveing to me in her will. She said I could have it b/c I do not normaly wear alot of jewlery and this was from the old country, where pearl’s were very rare.

      As for the OP, I recomend you tell them you are getting MARRIED and they should be very receptive if you are any good, and after all, you NOT get married often and better you go BEFORE you start, rather then start, then go on a honey moon. Beside’s it’s only a 1 year fellowship and they should respect that you are getting MARRIED as oposed to just liveing with your boyfreind, which is what ALAN wanted to do. FOOEY on him, b/c I was told that he did NOT want to buy the cow b/c I was giveing him free milk. Unfortuneately that was true but I have gotten alot smarter from my experience, and I will NOT let a boyfreind live with me, burp and eat my food, clean his dirty clothe’s etc, etc unless we are at least engaged to be MARRIED. FOOEY on that. But You are very lucky. YAY!

  5. This post is really making me crave seafood.

    You better not be slaying my relatives Kanye.

  6. Truth Time :

    How many of you here are actually moderately excited about work? I want to understand how many of us here are ok with our work atleast 50% of the time.

    I’ll go first – (obviously) I hate what I do and there’s not a minute that goes by when I think I’m just not right for this job. I get to use none of my strengths and I don’t get to learn anything and there is absolutely nothing here I find challenging. One more ask to prepare decks and I am ready to jump off the building :( ade a huge mistake moving to this job few weeks ago. I must get out.

    • I love what I do. I am happy with my job 94% of the time. I would do this for free. I am pursuing my passion, serving the public, bossing people around, get mentored by all of my supervisors (whether I want to be or not) and I have a bright future here. I could be making a lot more money if I left but I really love this job and I’m staying put.

    • Anon truth teller :

      I like my (nonlaw) job most of the time, except for my horrific commute. I occasionally wonder if I should be doing something more “intellectual” (I have an advanced degree and don’t use it much in my work) or “important” (I’ve always wanted to do something to contribute positively to society, and dont know if I am).

    • Anonymous :

      I like my job 90% of the time. I wouldn’t saying I would do this for free, but I do like it.

    • Divaliscious11 :

      I have a great job. Are there days when I am tired, etc…? Of course. The only thing I wash is that my job was still on the East Coast…..

    • I’m not in law and I’m happy with my job at least 70% of the time. I’ve been here almost 12 years and sometimes I do get bored with the same type of work. I have a good boss and co-workers, flexible schedule, so that helps with the happiness factor.

    • Senior Attorney :

      When I first started this job I would have done it for free. I’m kind of over that now, but I am still pretty darned happy with it. There is one big flaw that keeps it from being my ideal dream job, but in every other way it’s great.

    • I would like my job a lot more if people around me did theirs. I like my general area of work, I like my company, but being surrounded by people who constantly drop the ball and come up with layers of red tape trying to pass the buck. *sigh* If I can just find the courage to take a significant pay cut and go elsewhere or even change teams within my company, it could be better but ugh monies. I dun wanna give up my comforts.

    • Diana Barry :

      Eh. I am not enthused about my job. I don’t hate it and generally like what I do, but I don’t have enough work and there is a bit too much mindless work in the work that I do have.

      • This is me, too. I am incredibly bored. I hate chasing billable hours. I have a degree that I am not using. Sigh.

        I have asked for more work/responsibilities and take on any and everything that I can.
        I have asked what training will lead to advancement for the work that I am currently not qualified to do.
        There are no mentors here, and my supervisor personally dislikes me, so my paths for growth are nonresistant.

        On the upside most of my commute is a breeze and I can do this work (when I have some) in my sleep.

        I am looking for a better job; one that challenges me professionally and intellectually, and has more of the personal satisfaction I get from public service.

        • I could have written the same post.

          I like my job, what I can do, when I’m doing it, but lack of mentors and while I like my bosses, not knowing where I stand with them is getting to me.

    • I’d say I like my job 80+% of the time. There are times it’s frustrating but I wouldn’t trade it for anything other than a promotion. I would say that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would still continue to do it.

    • I hate my job 99% of the time. The person who hired me misrepresented to me the type of work involved, the work environment, and pretty much everything about it. My own team is a great group and I really admire them (they’re the 1% that’s good) but most of the people I work with are not very bright and have standards for their work (and mine) that are shockingly low. It’s completely demoralizing and I spend my days either completely indifferent and surfing the web, or else fighting back tears because something else I’ve actually put effort into has been completely ruined by the people I work with and the horrifically inefficient structure of this office. I realize I sound entitled and narcissistic. Believe me, I have worked with amazing, wonderful people doing engaging and challenging work. This job is not that, and I regret every day that I accepted this job in the first place. I’m trying to get out, but the economy, especially in my field, is still terrible.

    • I dislike the majority of my job and the people I work for, and am actively looking for something different. There are occasional days when I think “If every day went like this, this’d be a pretty good gig” – but those days come around about once a month. Should have listened to my gut a year ago when it said taking this job was a bad move.

    • Manhattanite :

      Big law. Used to like my job. Moderately like it now. Wish I hadn’t gone to law school. My one year old prefers her father bc he spends more time with her because I’m working too much. But I’m not at work enough to get everything done at work or to the quality level it should be. (He makes more money and works fewer hours. Law is not a great occupation.)

    • I’m a litigator in a small law firm, and I like my job. It’s usually interesting and often fun, and I get to use my brain all day long. I am lucky, too, that I work for very respectful people who have excellent ethics about how they practice law.

      That said, I do it because I get paid good money to do it. If I won the lottery, I’d retire to Vermont and write novels about a crime-solving corgi.

    • Anon for this :

      Ugh, I am not. I like my job roughly less than 10% of the time. Like Diana and Ashley, I don’t have nearly enough to do (esp recently). On top of that, I’m not motivated to finish the little work I do have.

      I find it much harder to wake up in the morning, and I feel fatigued throughout the day. I think a large part of it is that I’m dreading work.

      On the bright side, I’m in beginning stages of pursuing a masters degree in a field totally different than what I’m doing now (and I know many of you will say not to get the degree, but it’s in one of the fields that still makes the degree totally worth it). In fact I’m taking the GRE this evening :0

  7. Wondering :

    I really dislike pearls. They look/feel so old fashioned and fuddy duddy. Black/dark gray pearls can be nice, however.

    • I like jewelry made with pearls – I especially love the necklaces that are a big glob of (probably fake) pearls – but a single strand also seems kind of dated and old to me. I guess I just remember the preppy style from the 1980s too much.

      But pearls themselves are beautiful.

    • TO Lawyer :

      I feel like that’s one of the beauties of pearls – they can stodge up certain outfits that are less conservative. I also really like the look of dark grey pearls.

  8. This is a really great and informative post. Thank you!
    It also reminded me I need to have my great aunt’s strand of pearls restrung so I can wear them again. Judging by this analysis, they are probably less fancy then my others but they’re by far my favorite.

  9. Taking care of pearls :

    Can someone chime in with how you take care of pearls? I have a bunch of different kinds – I bought them in the Philippines for cheap so I’m not sure if they are worth much, but I love them. I want to know how to take care of them and what to expect to pay for, say restringing. Where do you go for restringing and how do you know they can do a good job? I’m in a small town for reference.

    • It’s best to store pearls in something breathes but protects them from scratches or abrasions, like a mesh bag or soft jewelry pouch. Oils and liquids (especially detergents and acidic substances) can dull their lustre and even change their shape over time, so it’s also good to wipe them gently with a soft cloth or chamois after wearing them against your skin.

      I restring my own pearls, so I’m not sure what the going rates are, but if they did a good job, each pearl to be snug against the knots (as opposed to sliding around on the cord a little).

    • The Philippines is one of the best places to buy south sea pearls…..

  10. Wildkitten :

    I got a strand of pearls as a gift from a friend who purchased them while travelling in China. I’d kind of want to get them restrung but am afraid that I’ll take them in to a jewelry shop and get laughed at because they are fake/cheap. Is there a way to know if my pearls are worth restringing without getting laughed at by a professional? I don’t want to inquire as to their value with the gift-giver.

    • Why not just go in and explain how you came by them and ask if they can tell you whether they’re real and, if so, what their value is? Most jewelers offer appraisals.

      • Yep, we took in a 3-strand pearl necklace of unknown origin and our jeweler (politely) let us know that we had a nice piece of costume jewelry. A professional won’t laugh when you ask about something like that.

    • Do you like them, and want to wear them? Then they are worth being restrung regardless of $$$ value.

      My BF brought me back pearls from China. I doubt they are the highest quality, but I love them, and I will continue to care for them as though they cost eighteen trillion dollars.

      • Wildkitten :

        I don’t want to get them restrung if the restringing would cost more than they are worth – like, if they’re fake. But between you and Taking Care of Pearls I am reassured that this China-purchasing might be legit.

    • Real pearls also have a rougher texture, so my mom taught me at an early age that if you run your pearls across your teeth, they should not feel smooth. Fakes will. That could be your first step.

      • I saw this on a TV episode of M*A*S*H back in the seventies. I think it’s an urban legend or just a joke.

        • I can feel the difference in my strands of real pearls and my strand that’s mother of pearl…

        • Anon for this :

          My mom taught me this, too! Pearls are a bit of a family tradition for the women in my family, so I have lots. I also have some fun, costume-type jewelry and can definitely tell the difference between the two. Glass pearls will be smooth between your teeth; real pearls will feel gritty.

      • My mom always said this, too. She said real pearls will feel gritty against the flat side of your teeth. My field research is pretty limited, though–because pearls are porous, I try not to expose them to liquids or anything abrasive.

        Also, I don’t think people want to buy something I had in my mouth.

      • DC Wonkette :

        It works — and it’s the only way I can tell my real earrings from my fake ones when I get lazy and through everything together. The fake ones are like smooth plastic and the real ones are gritty on the teeth. So strange, but it makes sense.

    • Related question :

      I have a strand of pearls that were given to me as a graduation gift, but they’re way too short (i.e., barely fit me as a choker, which isn’t my style to begin with). Would it be possible to have them re-strung in some creative way, almost like a station-style necklace? Any thoughts on how much something like this could cost (I’m in NYC, for reference)?

      • Anyone who knows how to do basic wire-wrapping could use make a “Tin Cup” necklace (dumb name, but just google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about) with lengths of chain between your pearls. Or you could add some chain or ribbon at the back to extend the ends of the necklace. I’d try Etsy, but if you want someone local, you could start by asking for recommendations from independent jewelry shops. (The people at The Clay Pot in Brooklyn know a lot of local artists.)

    • anon-oh-no :

      Im in the same boat. Does anyone have a rec for someone to restring pearls in chicago?

    • I can second that they won’t laugh at you– and if they do they are very unprofessional.
      My parents bought me a gigantic gem while on vacation. They wanted to have it set in a very expensive setting and I wanted to check to make sure it was worth it– I brought it to our nearby jewelry district & just by holding it the guy new it was synthetic & in about 2 seconds and did not really say anything else other than that.
      Also, my e-ring is synthetic & I was worried about the same thing when I needed to get it re-sized, the jeweler knew right away that it was synth but just quickly asked so that he could mark it down on his intake form– no comments other than that.
      To them, it’s potential business & they are a lot more likely to get it if they are not judgmental.
      Mall jewelry people on the other hand… is one of the reasons I bought a synthetic ring to begin with.

  11. Anonymous :

    TJ! How do you deal with paper at work? I’m drowning in it. In finance. I prefer hard copies for a lot of my work, versus reading off a screen. I have a number of banker boxes (generally organized by subject) and several stacks of paper at least 12 inches high each (not organized at all, except by time). This dates back several years. I probably won’t ever need most of it, but I may need to retain some of it. It would be a big investment of time to go through it, and it feels wasted since I don’t really refer to most of it at this point. Chief issues are when I get busy, I don’t go through it; when it’s slow, I don’t want to go through it. I’m not good by nature at “doing a little all along”. Tips/tricks?

    • You could do what my finance bf does: ignore it for 6-7 years, and then poof, it ALL goes into the recycling because it’s no longer relevant.

    • Umm…what I am hearing from you is that you want to deal with this, don’t have time to deal with this, and don’t want to do this in small batches. Thus…if you are going to deal with this at all, go in on a weekend and use the FAT method–FILE, ACT or TOSS. Be ruthless. If you want to keep stuff, binder clip it by subject/redweld and then arrange for those files to be scanned and named with useful file names. Then, if you need it later, you can print it out, so it’s in the format you need.

      Also, and I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but when you’re slow, you do need to muster up the motivation to chip away at this. People talk about you office and how overloaded it is. They do. You know they do.

    • Not sure if you are still reading, but here is my method. If I’m done with a project, I put a rubber band around a stack and put a post-it note on it and write: Discard ___________ (date 1 year from now). Put it aside somewhere (like in a cabinet) where it can’t be seen. After a year, I put the whole stack in the shredder since it’s not important anymore. If it’s publicly available stuff (like 10-Ks, etc.) then you can just recycle them earlier since you can always access it again whenever you need it.

  12. Thanks for the great info, Kanye! I will be heading to Manila for work next week (and doing some pretty intense pearl shopping) so this is very timely indeed :)

  13. This post is wrong in one respect: Tahitian pearls can have bronze overtones but chocolate colored pearls are always dyed.

  14. My favorite pearls are the studs my husband bought me on our honey moon, and a 100″ 10-12mm strand I bought off etsy of imperfect pearls.
    I’m usually wearing one or the other.

  15. I inherited my grandmother’s pearls – she had. 40″ necklace, 7mm and my mother had them re-knotted/strung and had two separate necklaces made (one for my sister). I’m just having trouble wearing them – I can’t tell if it’s too long AND small (7mm) that it will look unsophisticated in my firm where I meet HNW clients almost daily but I don’t want to just shelve them. Do they really at 7mm look immature? (I’m in late 30′s and have an avg/semi-large shoulder frame.). :(

    • Anonymous :

      40″ is more the trouble length I think then the 7mm. the 7mm will let you do more things than I can do with my monsters, and really isn’t small enough to be twee.
      If/When you get them restrung, maybe see if they can do a 36″ necklace and bracelet instead? Depending on the way things are knotted, you can probably get that done. The 40″ eliminates the possibility of a princess length, which is the most versatile option.

      In the meantime- consider wearing them knotted, finger crocheting them into a torsade, draping them into a tiered layer, pinning them, add a grosgrain ribbon and lengthen them a bit, braid/twist them with another color of pearls ribbon or a chain necklace, hang them down your back like Princess Diana did in the 80′s (and starlets are doing now), twist the strand together to shorten it and tie it behind your neck, wear them as a belt, etc. Go look on youtube for examples of how to wear pearl necklaces. Treat your pearls irreverantly when you wear them and they’ll look less mumsy. Just treat them well when you get home. :)
      Really, the more you play with your pearls the more you’ll find ways to wear them.

      • MissDisplaced :

        Good advice! I often “mix” my pearl necklace with a harder, edgier slightly longer necklace in matte silver. Think something spiky or punk, and/or something primitive and earthy. In the sumer, I mix them with a silver and aquamarine “fish” necklace I have to make a light and bright nautical/ocean theme.

        The thing is, a nice pearl necklace can go with anything.

  16. Oops I should have in luded that when my mother made two separate necklaces out of them. They became 20″ necklaces, one each. So I guess that is the issue with them being 7mm

    Thanks! (And sorry for that missing piece!)

    • Have you considered adding in a few larger pearls to the strand to visually bulk it up? Any good place that does restringing should be able to get the pearls. Go with a different color to avoid trying to color match. Five 10mm gold or black pearls spaced into the 7mm whites would probably be enough to give it the illusion of size you want without being horribly expensive.

    • No worries. Many of the same things I mentioned above will still work. The other recommendation I have for a 20″ is this- if the necklace has a discrete clasp- go to etsy and have a pair of tassels made that will work with your clasp. From there, you can use them as a tassel necklace (similar to a lariat) which is a newer fashion that’s been out lately for pearls.
      Those California girls who think they’re matronly don’t know the fun their missing. You can’t play with diamonds like you can with pearls!

  17. Nope but mine are heavy enough I could likely turn them into a mace to break the glass and knock out the baddies. :)

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