What makes pearls valuable? In 2011, I was invited by InStore Magazine, a trade publication, to write an article about why one pearl necklace costs $10 while another is valued at $10,000. It was such an honor to take on this article (my first!) and I was able to put together some great info for jewelry store owners. The value of pearls is a wonderful topic and as relevant as ever. And I want industry leaders, as well as shoppers, to understand what makes a pearl valuable. So, let’s dive in!
When my children ask me if I believe in miracles I tell them I look at them daily and know that miracles exist. In the same magical and divine way that babies grow from their parent’s seed, pearls are divine and organic creations.
How Pearls are Formed
Let’s look at how pearls are formed. An irritant enters the soft tissue body of a mollusk and, in order to protect itself, covers that irritant with the same material (mother of pearl) it uses to create its shell. Now, in nature, the mollusk does not wish to keep this pearl within its body. Some mollusks work those pearls out of their body and onto the ocean floor, while others simply can’t.
In the cultured pearl industry, a technician places the irritant into the mollusk’s body to encourage it to form a pearl. The mollusks are then placed into a net which both protects the mollusk from predators and keeps it from being able to open its shell wide enough to eject that pearl!
This sounds super easy, right? We should have pearls galore! Not so fast! Here is where the magic comes in… not all of these mollusks do as they are told and produce a pearl. Many of them die. Diseases may come through the water and kill the mollusks. Predators may still attack the mollusks, burrowing themselves through the shell and damaging them from the inside out. This is nature and a lot of natural events can occur to cause the pearl not to form.
A Pearl Is Born
But, let’s imagine the mollusks makes it. In 18 months (and up to 5 years!) later, a sweet pearl is born. What does that pearl look like? What does the surface of the pearl look like? Are there bumps, scrapes, and divots? What is the color? Is the color uniform throughout the surface of the pearl? What is the quality of the nacre, that mother of pearl that it used to coat the irritant? How big is it? Is it even round? Pearls can look many different ways and, depending on how good it looks, the value of the pearl can change.
Step one in what makes a pearl valuable is how it looks when it is harvested. Although there are post-production treatments that are sometimes done to pearls, usually the way that pearl looks when it is born cannot be improved upon much. Technicians are on hand to give a grade to the pearl. And what is that grade based on? Six different things: size, shape, color, nacre quality, luster, surface quality. Later, we also grade that pearl in how in matches in a piece of jewelry.
The Problem with Pearl Grading
Seems easy, right? Get a pearl, get the grade, and know the value of your pearl. Not so fast! The grading is subjective! This is an interpretive grade and there is no universally accepted standard to grading pearls. So, no one is handing out certificates for the valedictorian in the pearl harvest! If one company gives its pearl an A+ grade, I might disagree with them. It sort of reminds me of how I was a star student at my small town elementary school. But by high school, I realized I was just a really big fish in a very small pond. When the pond got bigger, my own A-pluses began to falter, too!
Good news for all of us. You can use this bit of knowledge to figure out the value of your own pearls. Let’s say you just inherited your grandmother’s pearls. Do they look chalky and pale? Have they lost their shine? That will affect its value. How is the nacre of her pearls? Is the surface of the pearls brittle and dry? Once again, your value just isn’t going to be there. Maybe they look amazing after many many years. Awesome! Pearls with great nacre and fantastic luster look better over time, they hold their look. So, keep that in mind when you inherit pearls or even when you go to buy your pearls.
What is in a Name?
Many of you may know my humble pearl beginnings. In 1984, I was 8 years old and my family and I traveled to Japan and my Dad purchased pearls for us. That is really the beginning of my passion for this gem. Even back in the early 1980s, he talked to people about whether to buy pearls from Mikimoto. Mikimoto is the oldest name in pearls. Their name is well known and their price tag is high.
Now, I have learned a lot since I first wrote the article on pearl value in 2011. Along with selling new pearl jewelry at The Pearl Girls, we run a worldwide re-knot and repair business. Therefore I get to see touch and feel pearls from all over the world. I see old pearls and new pearls and high-quality pearls and low-quality pearls. Lots of fake pearls, too! Mikimoto has its name on many different quality pearls. We have reknotted imitation Mikimotos, Tahitian Mikimotos, baby Mikimotos, stunning graduated strands that came from Japan post-WW2. So, I would say, across the board, having the Mikimoto name is a great name to attach to your pearls. And, I also know that there are many low-quality pearls that still bear the Mikimoto name. In this case, I do not think the name will elevate the value very much!
The same goes for Tiffany pearls. The Pearl Girls sells a 54-inch strand of freshwater round and beautiful pearls for $529. Last I checked, I found this strand online at Tiffany for $10,000. Are Tiffany’s pearls worth $9471 more than The Pearl Girls pearls? They certainly have a very noticeable and revered box. Does that mean the value is there? That is for you to decide.
Will you Buy my Pearls?
This brings me to Resale Value. The value of your pearls may not be the same as the resale value. Since The Pearl Girls runs a big repair business, we are constantly asked about purchasing pearls. And my standard answer is “no.” Simply because, well, first, I love pearls and I think you should keep them and secondly, you will be disappointed by how much I offer you. So, when you come with your sweet blue box and $10,000 strand of pearls do not expect to receive what you paid for your pearls. But, if you wear the heck out of those pearls and prance around and love them, adore them and enjoy them well, suddenly, the $10,000 feels like it is worth it. I think in many ways, you need to find the value internally without looking for an external valuation. This feels like a good lesson for life!
Replacement value is very big. Can someone buy what you have for less… or even the same amount? Many times the answer is yes. There is a market value to pearls. You may have bought your pearls at a peak in market pearls. You may have bought your pearls for more money than they are worth. You may have bought your pearls for the beautiful box they came in. This does not mean you can resell your pearls for more or even the same price. I started The Pearl Girls in 2006 when the price of pearls was extremely low. Even I cannot offer pearls at the same price as I did when I first got started.
Unless your pearls are incredibly unique, most likely your pearls can be bought new somewhere else. And if you carry a name like Mikimoto, do not expect to get the money for your pearls unless there is a Mikimoto clasp on that necklace. And also know, Mikimoto pearls can only be authenticated by Mikimoto. There are plenty of “Mikimoto” pearls on eBay that simply have a clasp or clasp knock-off on a strand of pearls. Trust me, imitations are everywhere. In my own top drawer, I have a Faux-lex! They exist.
What Pearls Mean to Me
So, back to Japan in 1984. My Dad chose to purchase pearls from the Tokyo Pearl Company. I do not know much about this company or if they are even around anymore. What I do know is that I wore those pearl to every significant event in my life. They were with me when my grandfather died, when I graduated from high school, and when I got married. These pearls were with me at school dances, Sundays at church and when I made my debut. Yes, ack! I was a debutante! So, tell me the value of those pearls? In my mind, they are priceless! And ask me if I care whether they are Mikimotos or not.
This is how I think we need to approach the perspective of pearls and the value of pearls. What is the value to the wearer? Will my granddaughter one day cherish my own pearls knowing what they have meant to me? Or will she try to pawn them off for $20-$30? Because I cannot imagine she will get much more for them even though my Dad paid $495 for them in 1984. Which was WOW.. a lot of money!
Value of Pearls
I know you want to know about straight up value so let me transition into what I tell salespeople in jewelry stores. When jewelers first started carrying The Pearl Girls pearls, their salespeople would call me so I could teach them how to sell pearls. Just like them, I am sure you wander into a jewelry store and wonder, why does this strand cost this and this other strand cost this much?
When you want to purchase pearls, first, review our six grading factors.
Are the pearls big?
Do they have a lot of surface imperfections?
Get a sense of what they pearls look like. Decide if you like the pearls.
Is this a company you trust and want to work with. You know, you have to LOVE what you are buying and who you are working with so decide those things up front!
Next, and this is very important to know…. no one is in business to lose money. Can’t we all agree on that? At the end of the day, even if margins are low, people want to turn a profit. And pearl producers are no different. They are selling their pearls to make a profit. So, sometimes the price of a pearl is how much the seller needs to price the pearls for. It starts with the pearl producer and carries through the jeweler keeping their light on. Here’s more…
Now I have not touched on this but this is as good of a time as ever. If you recall at the beginning of this post I said the word mollusk, mollusk, mollusk over and over. What is a mollusk? It is a term for an invertebrate animal with a soft body, who lives in water environments. Most mollusks (although not all) have an external shell. This can be an oyster, a mussel, a clam, etc. And those animals that have an external shell can produce pearls. Period. Right? The same shell-making material is used to make a pearl. What kind of aquatic environment? Great question! Maybe lakes, maybe rivers, maybe oceans.
The point is, pearls can be formed in seawater (saltwater) or in lakes and ponds (freshwater) and where they are formed does not determine the value or quality of the pearl. However, where pearls are formed can affect how much it costs to form the pearl. And, given that pearl producers want to make money, they will price their pearls based on how much money it cost to produce them. So, the little thing we do not talk about when we sell pearls is sometimes they are priced just because they cost a lot to produce them, not because they have a big value to them.
Price Versus Value
The same way sometimes pearls are priced because of the box they come in, sometimes the value of the pearl has absolutely nothing to do with the pearl itself!
Thanks for tuning in!
India, Founder of ThePearlGirls.com