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Pearls: What to Know Before You Buy
by Amanda Raab

There’s no doubt about it, buying jewelry on-line can be a daunting task. Who do you trust? How do you compare the qualities from countless vendors without actually having the piece in your hands? Will you personal information remain private? The list of questions can go on and on! Knowing some of the basics about pearls, jewelers and the grading systems their monetary values are based on can help set your mind at ease about the process of selecting the perfect pearl jewelry to make on-line shopping an easy, convenient and rewarding experience

. Pearl Types- An Overview The first step is to decide what type of cultured pearl you’re interested in, and to establish a budget for yourself based on your choice. The most popular pearls used in jewelry today are the Akoya, Black Tahitian, White and Gold South Sea pearls and Freshwater pearls. Each of these pearls exhibits their own unique characteristics that make them beloved the world over. Akoya pearls are treasured for their breathtaking luster, traditional elegance and infinite versatility. They are the hallmark of the pearl world, exemplifying all that we prize about pearls. With their consistently round shapes, reflective luster and subtle shades of rose, vanilla and ethereal silvery-blues, they will always be the ideal for pearl jewelry. Whether you’re purchasing a new family heirloom, or just trying to find a way to express your love for the special person in your life, Akoya pearls will always signify grace, style and timelessness. Tahitian pearls are the exotic newcomers to the world’s pearl markets, surprising the international audience with a tantalizing array of bold colors, shapes and sizes. From peacock-like hues to bronze, pistachio green to silvery greys, Tahitian pearls cover a startling spectrum. Unique, free form shapes inspire designers to new heights in jewelry and fashion, and the large sizes can always be counted on to make a bold statement! If you’re looking for something truly one of a kind, a pearl that’s as individual as her owner, look no further than these rarities from the deep. White or Golden South Sea pearl jewelry from Australia and Indonesia is sure to capture everyone’s attention. Available in a subtle array of tones from the palest moonlight to molten gold, these pearls display soft, satiny luster that just begs to be touched! Celebrated by collectors all over the world for the amazingly large sizes these pearls attain – nearly twice the size of the biggest Akoyas - pearl jewelry made with these wonders from ‘Down Under’ are a distinctive and sophisticated choice, indeed! Cultured round freshwater pearls are the latest addition to the pearl world and receiving the biggest nod from pearl aficionados today. Although the Chinese have been culturing freshwater pearls for centuries, only through recent technological innovations in farming techniques have these pearls begun to garner the attention they deserve. Freshwater pearls come in an assortment of soft pastel colors suggestive of spring, vibrancy and youth. Peach, lavender, pink and white shades are primary hues with dramatic black and peacock colors bringing up the other end of the spectrum. They are a fresh and very affordable alternative to the traditional Akoya pearl. Ultimately, the jewelry you choose to purchase is completely up to you. Find out what is it about a pearl that draws you, that stimulates you. Is it a flawless surface quality? The luster of a truly fine gem? Or is it the rare and striking orient that only certain pearls possess? An interesting shape or color that catches your eye? The type of pearl you choose should be based on your aesthetics. Each pearl is a unique treasure with its own look and qualities, just like you! GRADING SYSTEMS MADE EASY Unfortunately, the pearl world has yet to come up with a universally accepted grading system that takes into account all the different types of pearls; the origin, shape, size, color and luster. A Tahitian pearl is quite different than an Akoya pearl, so how can they be valued or graded on the same scale? Because pearls are a very diverse group of gems, most of them need to be evaluated on an individual basis in order to determine true worth. Think of it like comparing a diamond to a rare Pigeon-blood Burmese ruby – the colors, cuts, inclusions will all be described according to what is relevant to the gem species. Many pearl vendors have come to rely on the basic A-AAA structure with A+ and AA+ to denote slightly above average qualities in a specific class and apply that standard to all the different types of pearls. This grading system shares some similarities in terms of qualifying surface quality, luster and shape, so it can be used with some reliability. We will go into some of the details that make up the grading system, so that when you’re shopping for pearls on-line you’ll be more comfortable making an informed decision about what to buy. Also while shopping keep in mind that pearls, like any other gem, are created by nature and as such are imperfect and will have inclusions in some form or another. The chances of finding a completely clean pearl anywhere is rare, and if you do find them, expect to pay a premium. A/A+: “A” quality is the lowest quality that is still commercially available. Yes, you can still have the bad luck to get saddled with one of these, especially if you’re not sure of the integrity of your vendor! They will usually be somewhat off-shape, close to round but not quite, and if in a strand, only moderately well-matched. Typically these pearls will have a somewhat chalky appearance due to their thin nacre or in the case of freshwater pearls will have poor nacre deposits, and will exhibit very little reflective capability. The surface quality will have wrinkles, small cracks, white or brownish spots, dimples and other undesirable characteristics that can affect the long-term wearability of the pearl, causing the nacre to peel and wear away over time and expose the bead nucleus beneath. Even so, with an ‘A’ quality pearl the surface inclusions should not cover more than 30% of the pearls’ surface. AA: This is a much nicer pearl. This quality is typified by less than 15% surface inclusions, and will have fair to good luster, which means that you should be able to see a hazy reflection of yourself when looking at the surface. The shape will be round or in the case of freshwater pearls, near-round and the matching job should be well done. AA+: The luster in this quality will be slightly sharper than the AA pearl, you should be able to see your reflection in the pearl as well as some background detail. Surface inclusions will be down to 10%, and typically these will take the form of small wrinkles, flat areas or small whitish or brownish spots where the conchiolin (the organic glue that binds the crystallized aragonite platelets together) may have accumulated under the surface of the nacre. These pearls will be true rounds in shape and well-matched. AAA: This is the ‘gem-quality’ pearl, exemplified with less than 5% inclusions over the surface of the pearl, and sometimes completely free of inclusions. Luster will vary slightly from pearl to pearl, but it will be slightly sharper than the AA+ qualities; you might be able to make out some of the facial features in your reflection. The nacre will be at its’ thickest and should present a luminescent surface that is captivating to behold. The shapes and matching of a strand of rounds should be excellent with little to no variation. *HANADAMA PEARLS: Hanadama Akoya pearls, or ‘Flower’ pearls as they are known in Japan represent one huge leap up in the grading process. These are NEVER considered ‘AAA+’ quality, or ‘AAAA’ quality, so never trust a vendor who tries to manipulate the grading system in this way. Hanadama are simply in a class of their own. These are the cream of the crop and represent a specialized effort on behalf of the farmers to produce the most perfect pearls available on the market, and are painstakingly collected one by one until they are put up for auction to be bid over. Literally, these pearls will radiate light, usually with a silvery-rose overtone, and also display orient, which is the rainbow iridescence that shimmers on the surface of the pearl. It is considered by some to be the most valuable attribute for fine pearls. These pearls display little to no surface characteristics and their reflective properties are mirror-sharp. *BAROQUE PEARLS: Baroque pe