help me get some pearls
September 27, 2011 5:42 PM   Subscribe

My wife has been dropping hints (like anvils on my toes) that she would like a string of pearls for her birthday, and I'd like to oblige. I know nothing about buying pearls. I can probably afford it, but don't want to break the bank.

I'm in Austin TX. I'd appreciate recommendations for local jewelers, or online sources if that's a reasonable alternative, and some idea of how much is a reasonable amount to spend on a decent-quality strand.
posted by adamrice to Shopping (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help you with Austin specific sources, but people love Blue Nile and they seem to have a good selection of pearls. I bought all of my pearls in China, where they are much cheaper, so I also can't help on price...sorry!
posted by echo0720 at 6:08 PM on September 27, 2011

On second thought, I wish I could delete what I wrote, Blue Nile seems WAY overpriced.
posted by echo0720 at 6:09 PM on September 27, 2011

Do you know whether she prefers creamy, sort of off-white or ivory pearls or whiter pearls? Depending on her coloring one will look better (much) on her than the other.

Find out!
posted by jgirl at 6:51 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: You might look at this thread.
posted by Houstonian at 6:54 PM on September 27, 2011

Actually, I don't think those pearls on the Blue Nile site are overpriced at all, if they're good quality. But like jgirl points out, I also think it's better to see which shade looks better on your wife before you buy online. Since you understand Japanese, I'll link to this Q&A thread with a good answer.

On preview, wow, Houstonian, those are some great answers in that other thread.
posted by misozaki at 7:15 PM on September 27, 2011

In my city....current Groupon for "My pacific Pearls". I checked it out, seems legit...

Look it up, I bought one...haven't gotten it yet... we'll see.
posted by pearlybob at 7:38 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: IANYJ. I am formerly a jeweler. I sold a lot of pearls. Miles of pearls. I love Austin - was married there even - but don't know any jewelers there, and I haven't priced pearls in years.

Prices, though, are apples and oranges, as when I used to give this lecture at the high-end places where I worked, people would take the information to the low-end store, and come back with what they thought was comparable - then when put it next to the items they didn't buy from me, they'd see the differences. Look up and down, and take your time. Ask to see the $6000 pearls next to the $600 pearls.

And, I always suggest buying estate jewelery, if you can find a source. They'll be sold at a percentage of the retail or replacement value, and if cared for well (because perfume, body secretions and swimming degrades pearls terribly) necklaces from days gone by are likely a better quality than some modern Japanese cultured pearls, due to environmental factors.

But I can help you choose the pearls once you get the recommendations.

Here is how anyone can choose a nice strand of pearls:

First, understand how they're graded - first by size, then by qualities such as lustre, colour/Orient, nacre thickness etc. Japanese cultured pearls are priced differently than freshwater pearls, the difference being one pearl from one oyster versus factory farmed multiple pearls per oyster. They are both beautiful, and with the advances in pearl farming these days, I'd buy freshwater any day. There is no guarantee that anyone in the future will want to inherit pearls that may be unflattering to them. They may not hold their value, and while they're a classic item, fashions come and go and sometimes they sit in drawers for years.

For these purposes, the way of looking at quality will do for either, though the price difference is based on how they're produced. There are disproportionate leaps in cost when going above certain sizes.

Matched strands vs. graduated strands have different prices, of course. On a mature person, matched strands where all the pearls are the same size are generally more flattering. Since one strand can become a signature piece and last a lifetime, a matched strand will suit an older person as much or better than a younger person. 18" is the standard length, I'd suggest getting a clasp that lets her shorten it to 16", if she has a thin neck and wants them to look younger and more fun or to suit different necklines. As people age, their necks may grow as well, and if sixteen inches is fine now, it may not be later on. It's better to have pearls that already match than to try to find some years down the road if you anticipate needing to add length.

Ask her, first, to try on a bunch for fun - look first at lengths, then pearl sizes, then colour. This is so you can go from store to store saying "I'd like to see 18" strands of 6.6-7mm pearls etc." Most jewellery store employees understand this tire-kicking, because it does lead to sales if they offer good help. Or, make sure where you buy the pearls has a good refund and exchange policy, buy a strand, then bring her in to tailor her choice.

Once you get to the size and length she prefers, ask the salesperson to use a gauge of some sort to show you that they are, indeed, that size and comparable to each other. If you're paying for 5-5.5 mm, you don't want any 4.7s in there.

Are they round? Off-round? These things will make for different prices as well. Round is, of course, better. Roll them, like you'd roll a rolling pin with the flat of your hands - you'll feel differences if there are any, in size and roundness. And, in a minute, you'll use that to see a few other things, which is called looking at the "make".

Then, look at them against a sheet of white paper. First, look at the match both along a straight line and then bunched in a cluster - do any stand out as being more colourful or dull or odd than others when you look along the strand? A well-matched strand is more expensive than one that's got some goofballs. Look at the strand itself - are the knots clean and tight and even, but not too tight? These are to prevent the pearls from scratching each other, and from being lost if broken. Last time I checked, it cost about $15 per inch to have a strand knotted if you're buying from a "hank", which is the unknotted strand that jewelers get from their suppliers. It's nice, if you can, to do that and to choose your own clasp. If you do so, count your pearls, as knots add length and you want all the pearls you pay for. Pearls also should be cleaned and re-knotted every few years as they're organic and are affected by various factors, so you should always know how many you have.

Though pearls may have a creamy base or a silvery-white base or body colour, they'll have coloured overtones, or the "orient". Since pearls, when worn close to your face, call attention to the whites of your eyes and your smile, you'll want to consider that a bit. "Simpatico" is important, as was mentioned. As well, they'll reflect a bit of your skin tone, so creamy pink pearls on a ruddy person are going to blend; silvery-green pearls on an olive-skinned person will look dingy. In the various markets, pearls are priced differently. For a while, North Americans were taught that creamy/rosy pearls were more desirable - in the world market, they're not really; white with silver will command a better price. But, since they're meant to be worn and enjoyed, choose what looks best on the wearer, but confirm it against white paper so you know what you're getting.

After you've checked size, roundness, match, and colour, check the nacre. This is what the pearls are made up of - calcium carbonate that is formed in scaly-like layers around a round centre (usually a mother of pearl nucleus). Rub two cultured or natural pearls on each other and they'll feel gritty (forget the teeth thing from the movies - teeth have ridges, silly people). Better quality pearls come from cold water, where the formation of the surface is finer. You're looking for blemishes. The more blemish-free, the better. Blemishes are just that - little dings, ripples, nipples, pimples, whatever. Once you're happy that no blemishes jump out at you or truly mar the beauty of a pearl (few are perfect) you then look at the thickness of the nacre.

Thicker nacre, is of course, better. The way to look at the nacre is a little woo-woo. You put them on the white paper (I used to show them on tissue) with the light source below (usually the glass jewellery case is lighted, so it's not hard). Then, you stare at them. Your eyes will discern the centre of the pearl - a dark shadow with a pale ring around. As you roll them around and focus on this, you're looking for an even, thick coating of nacre (the pale ring) around the nucleus (the darker centre).

This determines the all-important LUSTRE (in big capital letters with shadows coming out), the most important value beyond all of the above factors, which is how the pearls refract light or, so to speak, shine. If the nacre is thin, they'll look dull and chalky or you'll see "winking", which is the light going straight through to the mother-of-pearl nucleus and flashing back at you as you roll them. Lustre is the mirror-like surface, the glow, the beauty.

So there - that's how you find nice pearls. All in all, they should be flattering, matched, even and pleasing.

And then you should buy the matching stud earrings at the same time, whether she gets them at the same time or you save them for another occasion, because it's a pain in the butt to try to match them later on. Sometimes, if it's a nice store, they'll come with as part of a special purchase.

Last, though there are many basic clasps available, this is something that's easily changed as a great upgrade/gift later on. But, if you have a choice, choosing a ball clasp makes the creeping thing, you know, where the clasp slides around to the front all the time, less of an issue. My favourite clasps are the ones where a same-sized pearl is drilled and fitted with such a closure, so the necklace is seamless.

And, even more last, when she has them, she should not spray perfume on them, and should clean them with a soft cloth after wearing them, every time. Because though the oil from your skin can impart a lustre to them, that organic surface will become yellowed, dull and pitted with lotions and perfumes and skin oils and hair products. Never swim in them - the chlorine in a pool will dissolve them over time. The string, which is usually a silk and nylon blend, should be brushed with a clean, dry, soft cosmetic brush after wearings to keep it clean, or it too will become dingy. If it gets wet, it may stretch. Re-stringing every few years means the pearls get moved around so that the ones at the back of the neck don't always take the most wear. And, they need light and air - safety deposit boxes are not great places for pearls. A cloth bag will protect them from being scratched other jewellery, and promote years of happy wearing. Good luck!
posted by peagood at 8:25 PM on September 27, 2011 [344 favorites]

If you're just starting to shop for pearls and you've got a mall nearby head to your local Zales/Gordon's/whatever-other-shop-owned-by-the-same-umbrella-company. Look at the "Blue Lagoon" brand of pearls.

Blue Lagoon is Mikimoto's brand of consumer pearls. These will be about as good as you can pick up in any typical jewellery shop. They're not the best pearls out there, but they're decent. Use them to start training your eye. Compare those strands to the other strands in the store that will likely be cheaper.

As has been said above, pearls come in many shades. Some are whiter, some are pinker and some are greener. Different coloured pearls suit different skin-tones, so either try to get a sense of which colour your wife prefers, or have a sales clerk with a similar colouring try on pearls of various shades.

(There are pearls that are grey or black, but I get the impression that your wife is after a classic necklace and not a strand of Tahitian or South Sea pearls, so we'll skip those for now).

Even though the typical sales clerk will usually deny it, pearls can be graded like diamonds. Of course just because they can be graded doesn't mean they will be graded. If you want to see some really good pearls look at some top graded Mikimoto strands. (AA+ or ideally AAA). For the record Mr. Mikimoto was the man who discovered how to insert a bead into an oyster and create "cultured" pearls. See here for the company that bears his name (although I think now its owned by some giant multi-national).

Don't let the sales clerks confuse you with the language. Formerly pearls were typically referred to as "cultured" or "freshwater." Today you're hearing about "cultured freshwater" (mainly in an attempt to make the cheaper freshwater pearls sound more expensive). Now there is nothing wrong with freshwater pearls, but they are definitely on the lower end of the price scale. Over the past number of years, they have gotten much better looking and do a much better job of impersonating salt-water cultured pearls.

So what you want is an akoya cultured pearl. (And again, be careful. I've even heard somebody trying to sell "akoya cultured freshwater pearls" whatever the hell those are.)

The other term you may hear thrown around is "Hanadama." It is a designation that is supposed to be given to the best quality salt-water cultured pearls, but its use can be inexact at best.

A top-quality cultured akoya pearl should be smooth and blemish-free with a deep nacre. It should be as perfectly spherical as possible (unless you are looking to buy baroque pearls, which are off-round).

A classic strand of pearls is usually 18" in length. Pearls are measured in millimetres, and usually you'll see a strand that is categorized in a spread of sizes, say 6.5 -7 or or 7 - 7.5, etc. Ideally you want the pearls to be as similar to each other in size as is possible. Again if your wife is looking for that classic strand look for a 7-7.5 or 7.5- 8 necklace. Those are a nice size of pearl. You can get away with a slightly smaller size 6.5 - 7 if it helps you with your budget issue. Going much bigger than 8 is going to start driving the price up dramatically.

If you can give us some idea of your budget, I'm sure we can steer you in an appropriate direction.
posted by sardonyx at 8:28 PM on September 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

PS - and, despite my novel, I agree with Houstonian's recommendations in the previous thread and would say, just get something like those, they're absolutely great.
posted by peagood at 8:29 PM on September 27, 2011

Seconding Houstonian's recommendation for Pearl Paradise, which is where the bulk of my pearls come from. The prices are quite reasonable, and if the freshadamas are out of your range, the AAA freshwaters are virtually indistinguishable. That said, the pearls I get the most compliments with are my Jackie Kennedy replicas from Kenneth Jay Lane/Camrose & Kross -- go figure.
posted by evoque at 8:35 PM on September 27, 2011

Apparently peagood types faster than I do, and can provide a better answer as well. Follow the advice above.
posted by sardonyx at 8:37 PM on September 27, 2011

I bought a pair of akoya hanadama studs for my girlfriend from pearl paradise recently. Service was excellent, shipping prompt and packaging was good as well. But for a pearl necklace, being able to try them on in person and perform the battery of tests described above may be a good idea. You should check out the price scope forums for more recommendations and advice.
posted by nihraguk at 4:42 AM on September 28, 2011

Well, now that earrings have been brought up, consider getting the pearls in a visible setting in a stud. Or a drop.

Here's why: pearl studs that are just the pearl next to the ear lobe start easing out of your ear even if you are not talking on the phone or have hugged someone or whatever. They just do that. Many times I've told a woman her pearl stud was coming out. Even costume ones do that.

I found a beautiful large pearl stud earring between sidewalk bricks one day. I was saddened for the owner.
posted by jgirl at 6:14 AM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I'm still taking it all in. For whatever it's worth, the intended recipient has red hair and a pink northern European complexion, and sort of a permanent sunburn around her neck from a sunblock-free childhood in Texas. She's petite and athletic.
posted by adamrice at 9:17 AM on September 28, 2011

I went through this a couple of years ago. Grab some of the jewelry she loves to wear and take it to a Lee Michaels. They will help you find something to her tastes. I suppose you could do that at any ewjelry store, but their collection is classy and not gaudy.
posted by jander03 at 10:44 AM on September 28, 2011

Given that colouring, I think I'd avoid the greenish ones and try the whiter ones. Pink may or may not work depending on just how pink they are.

In case they're not absolutely perfect for her, make sure the place you buy them from has a fair return/exchange policy (ideally one in writing).g
posted by sardonyx at 12:20 PM on September 28, 2011

Gotta toss this in ... and it's a true story, absolutely. (I clipped the item from the newspaper at the time, but it got lost in the shuffle over the years.)

This was back in the late 80s; there was an ad in The Japan Times for one of the local pearl companies. And I guess their staff member who was given the assignment to put together the ad for the paper wasn't quite as good at English as he/she thought. The 'punch line' of the ad?

"Casting pearls in front of our customers for more than two decades!"
posted by woodblock100 at 4:11 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I love pearls. While peagood's answer is brilliant, I would take exception (as a pearl-wearing lady, not a jeweler!) to 2 points: I think shorter (16"-18") strands are more matronly, as are graduated pearls. I would go for as long as you can afford, and I myself would even trade off mm size or super-duper highest possible quality for a longer rope.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:44 AM on September 29, 2011

Response by poster: I wound up ordering from, as Houstonian suggested in the thread she referenced. Peagood's advice made me a much more informed consumer when I went poking around. Anyhow, my wife has received her birthday present and is very happy with it. Go AskMe.
posted by adamrice at 11:14 AM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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