You see a pearl, its beauty is beyond description and that is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with appreciating an object of beauty based solely on its physical properties and on face value – art for art’s sake. However, for a deeper appreciation of what really makes a pearl valuable and why people are willing to pay astronomical sums for a single exemplary stone, it is wise to consider the factors that distinguish the value of a higher quality pearl from one of not as high a quality.
Pearls are complex stones. They are the only precious stone that emanates from a living organism, either in the wild or under somewhat controlled positions, and as such there is a confluence of factors that affect a pearl’s value.
Following are the six factors that determine the value of a pearl:
Size: Don’t let anyone tell you that size doesn’t matter – it does. The bigger, the better. And for every millimeter increase in size of a pearl, there can be a significant increase in price.
Shape: There are seven basic shapes of pearl (round, near-round, semi-round, oval, button, drop, baroque, semi-baroque) which fall into three broader categories – spherical, symmetrical, and baroque.
Color: The color of pearls run the gamut from white to black and contains three elements – hue, tune, and saturation. Hue is the color’s first impression, tone is how light or dark the pearl is, and saturation is the intensity of its color. Pearl color characteristics include its body color (its dominant overall color), overtone (other color/s that appear on the body color), and orient-iridescent (rainbow colors visible just below the pearl’s surface). Rainbow iridescence is extremely rare. There’s no single most valuable color;, however, color enhancement detracts from the natural element of the stone even though it may increase its beauty.
Luster: If there is one factor that really distinguishes a pearl from other precious gems it is their luster. A pearl’s luster is determined by how it reflects, refracts, and diffracts light from its nacre, which is translucent. The nacre is the material secreted by the mollusk when irritated by a foreign body. The thinner and more layered the nacre, the finer the luster. There are four categories of luster – Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor. The highest quality and most valuable pearls have a mirror-like luster and reflection.
Surface Quality: There are four surface quality classifications – Clean, Lightly Blemished, Moderately Blemished, and Heavily Blemished. The cleaner the surface of the pearl and the smoother it is, the more valuable.
Nacre Quality: Nacre quality has three classifications – Acceptable, Nucleus Visible, and Chalky Appearance. Nacre may be thick or thin but this in and of itself does not determine nacre quality, although factors such as water quality, irritant type, food, and general health of the mollusk all affect nacre quality.
As you can see, there are many variables that influence the value of a pearl. Will factors that can only be assessed under specific light conditions affect the value of a pearl? Yes, however this gives you an opportunity to find great value in pearls which may be just as beautiful to the eye as more costly pearls.
All other factors being equal, a natural pearl will be considered more valuable than a cultured pearl, as wild pearls are rarer than cultured pearls. Even pearls that may not tick all the boxes of “pearl perfection” are valuable as there is beauty in imperfection and are we truly able to judge what are nature’s perfections and imperfections?