Investing in Pearls

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Just as with fine diamonds, price and quality vary greatly from pearl to pearl. Investing in a fine strand of pearls should involve much time, care and research. Look for:

  • Luster. The most prized quality is the glow within a pearl's shadow areas (best viewed away from direct light).
  • Size. The larger the pearl, the more valuable it is.
  • Shape. The greater the pearl's symmetry, the better.
  • Surface. This should appear satiny, but it may look irregular up close.

Saltwater pearls

  • Akoya pearls are the most prevalent, accounting for 85% of all cultured pearls sold. They are grown in Akoya oysters off the coast of Japan and are known for their intense luster, fine grain and warm color. Sizes: 2 millimeters-9 mm in diameter. Cost [circa 1980s]: $2,500 for a good 14-inch strand of 8 mm pearls.
  • South Sea pearls are among the largest pearls cultivated. Grown in South Sea oysters in the Southwestern Pacific, they are known for their silvery color, impressive size and grainier surface. Sizes: 10 millimeters-17 mm in diameter. Cost [circa 1980s]: $25,000-$100,000 for a good 14-inch strand of 14-15 mm pearls.
  • Burmese pearls, the elite, are grown in Burma. They have the same surface structure as South Sea pearls but are much pinker. Sizes: 10 millimeters-17 mm in diameter. Cost [circa 1980s]: $60,000-$70,000 starting price for a good 14-inch strand of 14 mm-15 mm pearls.
  • Mabe pearls, cultivated in western Japan, Australia and the Philippines, are best for rings, earrings and pendants. They are hemispherically shaped from growing against the oyster's shell (other pearls grow within the oyster's flesh). Therefore they cannot simply be strung but must be mounted in jewelry. Sizes: 10 millimeters-15 mm across the diameter of the hemisphere. Cost [circa 1980s]: One-third the price of a large Akoya pearl.

Freshwater pearls

Unlike saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls grow in clams that live in lakes and streams. The strong muscles of the clam produce a flat, elongated pearl. There are two varieties:

  • Chinese freshwater pearls, the most common freshwater pearls, are grown in mainland China. they are known for their crinkly surface, wide color range and opaqueness. Cost [circa 1980s]: $35 for a 14-inch strand.
  • Biwa pearls are lustrous and smooth, the more expensive freshwater pearl. They are grown in Japan's Lake Biwa and are sometimes cultivated to be fully round. Cost [circa 1980s]: $500-$600 for a good 14-inch strand.

Strand lengths: Choker, 14-15 inches; matinee, 22-24 inches; opera, 28-30 inches. Anything longer is called a rope or sautoir.

Caring for pearls

Pearls are organic gems that can be abused. However, wearing them helps maintain their luster. Other care tips:

  • Store pearls in a chamois bag or wrapped in tissue paper to prevent scratches.
  • Put on your pearls after you have completed your makeup. Perfumes, cosmetics and hair spray can affect the luster.
  • Wipe pearls clean with mild soap and water after wearing. Don't clean them with chemicals or abrasives.
  • Don't store pearls in a bank vault for years on end. The lack of humidity and ventilation can dull their luster.
  • Check the strong of a pearl necklace annually to be sure it is still strong.

Excerpt from: Book of Inside Information based on Alan Macnow, Cultured Pearl Association, 570 Seventh Ave., New York.

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