Ah, I'm so glad you asked. You see Pearls have a rather special place in the halls of "The Jewelry World". Worn and adored by Royalty and the Rich and Famous through the ages. The lustrous Pearl conjours up ideas of sophistication, glamour and style. Known for their symbol of purity, love and truth, they have also been the gem of choice for many brides - naturaly!
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So, what really distinguishes one pearl from another, first of all, ask, what kind of pearl is it? is it a Tahitian "Black Pearl", a Freshwater Pearl, A South Sea Pearl or an Akoya Pearl. Now bear in mind we are only talking about cultured pearls here, that is one that is farmed as the majority of pearls on the market today are!
Of all the above pearls the South Sea is the most expensive, because it tends to be the biggest, often around 12mm, for this reason they tend to be used in pendants or earrings and less so on strands as the cost for a strand of south sea pearls is much much higher than it's freshwater pearl or akoya pearl cousins. But as in life biggest does not always mean best.
Pearls are graded by (mainly, but not only) color, size, lustre, shape, flaws.
Pearls come in a rainbow of colors, although typically South Sea pearls have a golden color, Freshwater and Akoya pearls a cream color and Tahitian pearls a deep black blue appearance. These colors would be what is called the primary color of the pearl, however pearls give off a glow which is known as the overtone, mostly rose, silver and cream and with South Sea pearls add golden, to Tahitian add peacock.
So, once you take into consideration a pearls size, look for the lustre, you know the glow that seems to come from deep within the pearl. Lustre is created by the oyster layering it's initial irritant with this natural chemical which hardens over time, well the more nacre evenly deposited the better the lustre.
The shape of pearls help to really define its worth, for example take a South Sea pearl, if you are making it into a wonderful pendant you want that pearl to do a lot of work and look fabulous so it's shape is must work very hard as it stands alone, the shape is super important.
However when creating a strand of pearls, consider this, for a strand to look great from end to end, all of the pearls must be of similar high quality. And it is with strands that most people get confused with the pricing. A strand of freshwater pearls is cheaper than a strand of akoya pearls, however akoya pearls are often graded between an A, AA, AA+, and AAA. Whilst there is no real grading system currently in place this will give you an idea of the quality of the pearl with AAA being the best, that is the quality of each pearl, color, size, shape and matching.
As you can see there is a lot to take in when considering purchasing pearls, but the most important is compare like for like, i.e. a 7.5-8mm strand of pearls will vary in price depending on the type of pearl, i.e. freshwater or akoya, the same clasp, is it silver, gold or platinum, is there a diamond or other precious gem in the clasp.
Hopefully this will answer some of your questions, but most of all love your pearls and treat them with care and they will last you a lifetime.