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Guide To Pearls

Guide To Pearls
Kseniya Burns

A symbol of purity and innocence, pearls are a naturally occurring “organic gems”. A pearl is formed when a foreign object like a grain of sand or other irritant becomes wedged in an oyster shell. The oyster deposits a layer of milky substance called “nacre” around the foreign object over and over again in an attempt to neutralize it. The deposited nacre eventually grows in size forming a pearl and giving it its luster. It takes years to create a pearl of a decent size and perfectly round shapes are very rare.

Due to decades of unrestricted harvesting natural pearls are becoming increasingly harder to come by. Today, most pearls that you see are actually cultured. An irritant is inserted into an oyster and then the oyster is cared for until the pearl is formed. Cultured pearls are not synthetic pearls, they are organic gems like the naturally grown pearls, the only difference is that a cultured pearl is not grown in the wild, but instead are grown on a farm.


There are a few different pearl varieties that are widely used in jewelry today: Akoya, Mabe, Cortez, Tahitian, and South Sea. All of these varieties differ in color, luster, size, and shape. The varying characteristic of these popular pearl varieties is dependent on the species of mollusk that the pearl originated from, how the pearl was harvested, and their growing conditions.


Akoya pearls are native to Japan and are characterized by their pink-ish overtone. These pearls are among some of the most popular among women with fair complexion. Akoya pearls can be white, cream, black or gray.


Cortez pearls are usually farmed in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. These oyster are produced by black lipped Pinctada mazatlanica and rainbow lipped Pteria sterna oysters. The pearls from Pteria sterna oyster will flounces bright red under ultraviolet light. These pearls are available in a variety of colors including high luster black.


The rarest of all pearls, South Sea pearls are available in white, cream, or gold. These pearls are among some of the largest cultured and naturally found pearls. South Sea pearls are produced by Pinctada Maxima oyster which are found near Paspaley along the North-Western coast of Australia. White and silver South Sea pearls usually come from the Broome area of Australia while gold color pearls are usually found around the Philippines and Indonesia.


These pearls are rare when compared to the rest of the pearl varieties. The black pearl oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera can only sustain producing one pearl at a time. These pearls are gray, silver, or black. The highest quality Tahitian pearl is black with a peacock sheen.


Pearls come in 7 colors and a number of overtones. Color refers to the general color of the pearl such as white, cream, yellow, pink, silver, gray or black. Overtone refers to the slight presence of a secondary color that is not outright visible. For example, a Tahitian pearl may appear black at first glance but upon closer examination in various light conditions, the pearl may seem slightly green-ish.


The term luster refers to the “shine” of the pearl. Pearls get their luster from calcium carbonate (nacre) crystals that the pearl is composed of. The larger the pearl, the more nacre it has and will appear more lustrous than the smaller pearl.

When choosing a pearl, look at the pearls surface. You are looking for sharp, mirror like reflection in the pearls surface. The crisper the reflection, the better the luster. Pearls with excellent luster will look like they are glowing from within.


The most highly prized pearls will appear perfectly round. Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls produce the roundest shapes. Freshwater pearls tend to be more elliptical or off-round and therefore are considered to be of lower quality.

  • Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, pear, oval, baroque, and circled.

  • As mentioned previously, round pearls are highly prized and are usually used in necklaces and bracelets.

  • Semi round pearls are used in piece of jewelry where the semi-round shape can be obstructed or hidden.

  • Button pearls have a look of round pearls but are slightly flattened. These pearls are usually used in pendants and earrings or in jewelry where on side of the pearl is hidden.

  • Pear shape pearls are usually used in earrings, pendants, and as necklace centerpieces.

  • Baroque pearls are highly irregular and are usually used in necklaces.

  • Circled pearls are characterized by the unusual ridges that are formed around a pearl.


Unlike regular, run of the mill necklaces, pearl necklaces have a special system of names. Most necklaces are categorized by their physical measurement, while pearl necklaces are categorized by their location on the neck and their length from the neck.

Collar: This necklace measures 10-13 inches in length, has multiple strands of pearls and is worn high around the neck. This style of necklace was extremely popular during the Victorian Era.

Chocker: this necklace measures 14-18 inches long and is very similar to the collar necklace but is worn lower on the neck.

Princess: This length is considered to be the classic length. Measuring 17-19 inches long, the necklace sits slightly below the neck, touching the collarbone.

Matinee: This length is considered formal. Measuring 20-24 inches, matinee necklaces are usually worn with suits and dresses.

Opera: Measuring 30-36 inches, opera length necklace falls below the bust line. This length is usual worn for formal occasions although it can be knotted or worn doubled over for a more casual occasion.

Rope: This necklace length is the longest of all measuring at 36+ inches. Much like the opera length, rope necklace can be knotted, doubled / tripped over.

Based on your wardrobe you should be able to find the perfect length necklace to match your everyday and formal occasions using the list of various length presented above.


AS mentioned previously, most of the pearls are cultured pearls. Understanding how the pearl is valued will help you narrow down the available selection of pearl jewelry. Below are some helpful guidelines:

Pearl Luster:

When shopping for pearls, luster should be your primary concern. High luster pearls are of better quality and will look better when worn.


Much like with the rest of the gems, the size of the pearl matters. Larger pearls are going to be more expansive and are usually better suited for necklaces. Rings with large pearls have a tendency of catching, while large pearls in the earrings tend to overpower the features of the wearer.

Are the Pearls Similar?

This is especially important if you are shopping for a pearl necklace. You want to make sure that the pearls are as close as possible in color, size, luster, and shape to one another.


If you are purchasing pearls as a gift, it is usually a good idea to consider the recipients style and wardrobe. Pearls should complement the wearer and their clothing while reflecting their personality.


Pearls are porous, organic gems and require special care and attention.  If stored or cared for incorrectly pearls are particularly subject to deterioration and erosion.

The surface of the pearl is soft and can easily be damaged if the gem comes in contact with chemicals, household cleaners, perfumes, cosmetics, and hair products. Pearl rings and bracelets are especially vulnerable to scuffing, scratching, and other damage.

It is a good practice to put on your jewelry last when you get done dressing and apply your makeup and take your pearl jewelry off as soon as you get home.

Storing your pearls:

Because of the soft, organic nature of these gems, storage can play a crucial part in the longevity of your pearl jewelry. Pearls should be stored separately from the rest of your jewelry in a leather envelope or satin bag. Pearls should never be stored in direct sunlight or in the safety deposit boxes of safes. Low humidity and high temperatures will eventually dry out the pearls resulting in cracks and surface imperfections.

Never store pearls in plastic bags or plastic containers. Certain plastics emit chemicals that can be damaging.


If you have to clean your pearls, we recommend that you take them to a professional.

We hope that with the help of this guide you will be able to purchase and care for your pearls with ease. Ermitage Jewelers offers a large selection of the finest pearl varieties at unbeatable prices. Our expert gemologists and jewelers will be able to assist you in choosing the perfect pearls for any occasion.

Browse our online collection or stop by our conveniently located Atlanta store.