buying pearls
Photography by Getty Images

How to Buy Pearls, According to a Jewellery Expert

The versatile stone can be classic and timeless, or chic and trend-forward.

Looking for an elegant way to accessorize your summer outfits? The pearl — as versatile as it is — may be just the thing. From cultured freshwater ones to baroque and saltwater varieties, jewellery expert Megan Kirkwood explains everything you need to know when buying pearls.

Q: The prices of pearls differ drastically. What should I be looking for in a good-quality piece?

A: Before the process of culturing pearls became mainstream in the 1920s (famed Japanese pearl farmer Kokichi Mikimoto was one of the first few to file a patent), natural pearls were often dangerously and painstakingly sourced by divers from the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Considered one of the rarest and most expensive gems at the time, they were hailed as the ultimate status symbol. Now, except for antique pieces, nearly all pearls are cultured — meaning they’re created with the help of pearl farmers who insert a “seed,” usually a small bead or piece of natural tissue (or both), into a living mussel or oyster. The seed is eventually coated in the same material that lines the mollusk’s shell: nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl. The smoother and more even the layers of nacre are, the more lustrous and valuable the pearl will likely be. With the prevalence of farming, pearls have gone from being accessible to only a select few to attainable by the masses.

While smooth, spherical pearls are still valued over flat, oval or other asymmetrical shapes, you’ve likely come across baroque pearls, which have become massively popular in recent years. These gems with wildly organic shapes were once considered happy accidents of sorts, which often occurred during the process of creating round pearls. This is something to consider when you’re perusing their often drastically varying price points, which have only risen dramatically in recent years due to the spike in demand. It’s also worth noting that all pearls, cultured or not, are classified as “organic” in the trade since they come from living things.

At first glance, most non-baroque pearls often look like they’re one and the same, making them one of the most enigmatic gems on the market. However, knowing their differences easily clarifies the great divide in their values. Freshwater pearls, which are sourced from mussels, are the most economical. This is largely due to the fact that they can be cultured with as many as 30 pearls per shell in as little as six months. While the freshwater pearls of the ’90s were often small and rice-shaped, they’ve come a very long way since then. Now, they can easily be found in perfectly round specimens measuring around 13 millimetres, which means you can potentially get the look of much-pricier South Sea varieties for a fraction of the price.

buying pearls
Photography by Getty Images

On the flip side, the best qualities of cultured pearls, which can go for as high as four or even five figures for a necklace, are saltwater varieties sourced from oysters, including Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian pearls. Unlike with freshwater pearls, it often takes years to culture a single saltwater specimen per shell. They are also subjected to stringent quality control and should feature the highest standard of this gem’s signature qualities: a uniform and nearly-blemish-free nacre, a pinkish overtone (versus green, which is much less desirable), a gorgeous shine or “lustre” and an eye-catching play-of-colour effect referred to as “orient.”

Of this group, Akoya pearls are the most common and often considered the entry level of saltwater varieties. They’re the most affordable due to their smaller average size of around seven millimetres, but their luxurious, mirror-like lustre makes them stand out over any freshwater pearl. The epitome of pearls are the South Sea and Tahitian varieties, known for their large size (sometimes more than 15 millimetres) and natural body colours (silver and gold for South Sea gems and grey and black with varying spectacular overtones for Tahitians). Since their signature colours make matching an entire bracelet or necklace especially challenging and time-consuming, their price points tend to be the highest of the lot. Still, they’re the closest any pearl lover might get to the extravagance and rarity of the natural pearl jewels of the past.

Below, pearly accessories to complete any summer ensemble:

Soma Mo Baroque Freshwater Pearl and Sterling Silver Bracelet

With their more modern feel and one-of-a-kind shapes, baroque pearls have been the in-demand accessory in recent years. This substantial bracelet is destined to become your fave summer standby.

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Tiffany and Co. Tahitian Pearl, Diamond and 18 Karat White Gold Pendant

Tahitian pearls are one of the most valuable pearl varieties on the market thanks to their large sizes and stunning, natural colours. As luxurious as it gets, this necklace is the ultimate prize for any pearl lover.

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Pandora Freshwater Pearl and Sterling Silver Hoop Earrings

You can easily sport these breezy-chic sterling silver and freshwater pearl hoops at the beach… and for post-sunset spicy margs.

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Dean Davidson Saltwater Pearl and 22 Karat Plated Gold Signet Ring

We love how a luxe saltwater pearl and 22-karat plated gold puts a fresh and feminine twist on this classic, sturdy signet.

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Mizuki South Sea Pearl, Diamond and 18 Karat Yellow Gold Cuff

When a basic bangle just won’t cut it, this epic diamond and south sea pearl cuff is for those who expect to inspire instant envy.

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Yoko London Akoya Pearl, Diamond, and 18 Karat White Gold Eclipse Ring

Every pearl used by UK-based brand Yoko London is hand-selected from pearl farms around the globe and hand-set in its London workshop. This pearl and diamond ring features saltwater Akoya pearls, known for their incredible mirror-like lustre.

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Bulgari x Lisa Mother-of-pearl, Diamond, Rose Gold and Stainless Steel 33mm Limited Edition Watch

In collaboration with Blackpink’s Lisa, this opulent watch is designed to be the star of your collection with its stunning rose gold bezel and creamy mosaic mother-of-pearl face.

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Cult Gaia Freshwater Pearl Nora Choker Necklace

A triple-stand pearl necklace that looks this posh but still won’t break the bank? Add to cart.

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Cartier Pearl, Onyx, Diamond and Platinum High Jewellery Earrings

These investment-worthy danglers would make for an epic bridal accessory and will undoubtedly serve you well over a lifetime of dressy occasions.

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Mejuri Freshwater Pearl and Gold Vermeil Bracelet

This gold vermeil and freshwater pearl bracelet might just be the *perfect* summer accessory you’ll never want to take off.

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Van Cleef & Arpels Mother-of-pearl and 18 Karat Yellow Gold Vintage Alhambra Earrings

A jewellery wardrobe staple, these instantly recognizable studs deliver on versatile sophistication with their classic shape and goes-with-everything mother-of-pearl.

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David Yurman South Sea Pearl, Diamond and Sterling Silver Cable Halo Pendant

Since pearl is a birthstone for June, this timeless South Sea pearl and diamond pendant would make a seriously special gift for anyone celebrating a major upcoming birthday.

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This article first appeared in FASHION’s Summer 2024 issue. Find out more here.

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