Pearls have been worn for centuries, and have been in demand for as long as we can recall. If you’ve ever browsed through real pearl jewellery, you’ll have noticed that some command much higher prices than others. What is it that makes some pearls so valuable that people happily part with hundreds of thousands of rands? It’s partly how beautiful they look when they’re on, of course, but there’s also lots of other factors to consider.
Here’s everything you need to know about how much pearls cost, and why.
Price of Pearls: Natural vs Cultured Pearls
Decades ago, all pearls were grown naturally. Over time, technology has evolved far enough that pearls can be cultured in oyster farms. These are completely real and authentic pearls and whether pearls are natural or cultured plays a big role in determining their price. Although human intervention is needed to produce cultured pearls, they shouldn’t be confused with imitation pearls. They are still completely authentic pearls and will command a good price. The majority of pearls on the market are cultured, as it is very rare to find pearls that have formed naturally.
However, whereas natural pearls occur in wild oysters when an irritant enters the shell, cultured pearls occur in farmed oysters where an irritant is manually inserted into the pearls. You can read more about how pearls form here.
Natural pearls are extremely rare, occurring in approximately one out of every ten thousand oysters. Of those, only a small percentage will produce a pearl that is uniform in shape and colour. Because they’re so rare, natural pearl jewellery can fetch 10 to 20 times the amount of cultured pearls and are usually limited to auctions and exclusive collections.
Natural pearls can range in price from around R500 right up to hundreds of thousands of rands for top quality South Sea pearls, for instance. A natural pearl pendant once owned by Marie Antoinette recently fetched a mind-boggling 36 million US dollars at auction, or approximately 539 million Rand!
How Are Pearl Prices Determined?
Because pearls come in such a vast array of shapes, sizes, and colours there are a multitude of things to consider when valuing any given pearl. Whether they are natural or cultured is obviously one of the major considerations, but it is most certainly not the only one. A huge amount of knowledge and experience is needed to put a price on a pearl. This is why only experts are responsible for grading pearls!
Types of Pearls and Their Value
Pearls come in lots of different types, depending on what area they’re grown and by which oysters. Often, the type of pearl will play a large part in determining their value. This is one the main reasons that certain pearl varieties are so sought-after. For instance, Tahitian pearls are considered one of the most valuable. Here are some of the most common types of pearls and their approximate values:
- South Sea Pearls
- Tahitian Pearls
- Akoya Pearls
- Freshwater Pearls
Size of Pearls and Cost
The size comes into play when determining pearl price, just as it does with other rare gems. Because pearls are grown inside a living organism, they take time to reach their full size. Size is also determined by the type of mollusc in which the pearl grows. Real pearls range in size from tiny ones of just 1mm through to 20mm or bigger. South Sea pearls are often particularly big.
A good general rule is that the larger the pearl, the longer it has taken to grow. With all other factors being equal, a larger pearl is rarer and more expensive. Commonly, cultured pearls are between 6mm to 7.5mm. Above this, the price of the pearl rises quickly with each extra half a millimetre.
Pearl Surface Quality and Cost
The surface quality of a pearl is one of the biggest facets of its value. A smooth, bright pearl with a reflective surface is the ideal. The more lustre visible on the surface, the better! This will also add to the value of a pearl.
Naturally, these perfectly even and smooth pearls with lustre are much harder to find than pearls with small imperfections like spots or abrasions, chips, or cracks. Lightly spotted pearls have small imperfections which a pearl expert would be able to pick up on, and are also highly valuable. Blemishes that can be seen with the naked eye will reduce the value of a pearl considerably.
Pearls that have obvious and severe spots and abrasions are also less likely to be durable, so their value decreases accordingly.
The Shape of Pearls and Their Value
Pearls come in four main shapes: round, semi-round or off-round, drop, and baroque. Round pearls are the most sought-after of all pearl shapes, and if all other factors are equal, will fetch a higher price than others.
Semi-round pearls are pearls which appear round to the naked eye, but which are not perfectly spherical when they are examined. They can represent good value for those who want the look of round pearls but don’t mind if they aren’t completely even. Baroque pearls are irregularly shaped and adored for their uniqueness. Drop pearls resemble a tear drop, and if they are completely symmetrical and classically shaped, can also command very high prices.
Browse Lullu’s Range of Luxury, High-End Pearls
We have a range of pearl jewellery to satisfy even the most discerning of buyers. From baroque to perfectly round Akoya pearls in a variety of colours and sizes, our collection is made for those who appreciate the finer things in life. Browse a selection of saltwater pearls here and freshwater pearls here.