Pearl Basics

And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck,
With whose radiant light they vie.


There is such a lot to say about pearls that I am just going to attempt to cover a few basics here and I will revisit this subject a lot more in the future. It really is a very extensive and truly fascinating subject. For example, did you know that pearl necklace lengths have their own individual names unique to pearl jewelry only? I am going to be exploring this soon as this is very relevant to us when looking at antique pearl necklaces.


Brooch, openwork gold, enameled in black set with diamonds and pearls, with pearls and diamond pendants
Paris, c. 1860-70
V&A Museum

Here are the ways in which pearls are commonly referred to and evaluated:


Natural pearls.

These can be freshwater or saltwater. The best known kinds are the saltwater oyster, the freshwater mussel and the freshwater conch.  It is very rare to find contemporary natural pearls for sale, particularly a matching set.

Cultured pearls.

These comprise the vast majority of pearls sold today.  They are ‘real’ pearls but created in controlled environments and grown at much faster rates that can occur in the wild. The only way to tell the difference between a cultured and a natural pearl is with an X-Ray

Types of cultured pearls commonly used in jewelry are:  Southsea and Tahitian or Black Pearls, Saltwater Akoya and Freshwater

Imitation pearls. 

Some imitation pearls are made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell and are referred to as ‘shell pearls’.  Others are made from glass coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d’Orient. Yet others are made from plastic, resin or stone. ‘Mallorca’ pearls are imitation pearls.

Color of Pearls

Pearls  can be all colors from black to white.  Commonly, pearls are white, champagne, aqua, green, golden or black. Some cultivated pearls can come in exotic colors such as brown.

Overtone of Pearls

Within each color group, the pearl will have a particular overtone. Generally, the overtone of pearls are referred to in the following way: Silver, Ivory, Rose, Silver Rose, Light Silver, Dark Silver, Green, Peacock and Copper

Shape of Pearls

The ideal pearl is perfectly round.  Few meet this ideal.

Pearl shapes are referred to in the following way: ringed, baroque, drop, button, off-round and round.

Size of Pearls
Pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. They can vary from smaller than 1 mm (referred to as ‘seed pearls‘) to as large as 20 mm.

Surface of Pearls

The highest quality pearls have a mirror-like reflection.  The level of perfection of the pearl surface is referred to as the ‘cleanness’.

Luster of Pearls

This is the measure of surface reflection.  A good quality pearl is bright and you can see your reflection clearly.  Less high quality pearls will dull and chalky. If it is too white, it is low quality.

The luster or quality is referred to as either: A, AA, AA+, AAA

Nacre of Pearls

This is the natural iridescent material that the mollusk secrets.  Pearl nacre is only measured in salt-water, bead nucleated pearls.

Sources / further reading:

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