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Buying Pearls

Five factors determine pearl value, regardless of type: Luster and orient, color, surface cleanliness, shape and size. To really understand differences in quality compare a variety of pearls (of the type you are interested in) within various price ranges.

Luster and orient refer to the sharpness and intensity of the images reflected from the pearl's surface and its underlying iridescent play of colors: the higher its luster and richer its orient, the finer the pearl. Color, both body and overtone, are also important. Very white pearls with a rose overtone are considered the rarest and most expensive. Although there are certain colors that command higher prices, beauty is subjective. Also, consider a pearl's freedom from blemishes such as pits, spots or cracks: The cleaner the skin, the better.

Shape in pearls is divided into three categories: spherical, symmetrical and baroque. Spherical pearls are judged on their roundness. Symmetrical pearls (such as button, oval and drop) are judged on their evenness and symmetry and are considered more valuable than baroque pearls that are irregularly shaped, but not necessarily less appealing. Size in pearls is measured in millimeters (1mm = 1/25 inch). Large pearls are rarer and are more expensive.

In addition to quality and size, value is also based on availability. Saltwater cultured pearls usually command higher prices than freshwater cultured pearls. One of the main reasons is that a saltwater oyster can produce only one or two sizeable pearls at a time, while a single freshwater mussel can produce up to 50 pearls at a time. Fine natural pearls command the highest prices, at least 10 times their cultured counterparts.

Natural and cultured pearls are commonly bleached to achieve uniform color. Some pearls are also dyed and/or irradiated to produce rich black, gray, blue, rose and golden hues. Chemicals and heat treatment are sometimes applied to create gray or black. These processes are all considered very stable.

Pearls are also imitated. But simulated pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. They are entirely artificial, made from glass or plastic beads dipped in a bath of ground fish scales and lacquer or plastic substances. They do not commonly have the luster and orient fine natural or cultured pearls possess, although there are some good imitations. A fairly reliable way to check for imitations is to run pearls gently along the edge of your top teeth. Cultured and natural pearls will feel mildly gritty on natural teeth, while the imitation will feel smooth.

 

 

 

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