By Jennifer Heebner
Josef Caldaron loves pearls and assesses upwards of a dozen pearl jewels monthly, but he’s brutally honest about how many of his peers feel.
“They’re the bane of every appraiser’s existence,” concedes the owner of Josef C. Diamonds in New York City, who is a Graduate Gemologist (G.G.), a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, and a Certified Master Appraiser from the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers. “There are so many different types and combinations and factors to consider when describing them.”
That’s a bitter pill for dealers to swallow, especially given pearl’s current pop culture appeal and sky-high wholesale prices. The harsh truth is that pearls are not diamonds—aka more than half of all jewelry sold in the U.S.—so their niche status carries over to the industry’s embrace and understanding of them. Fewer pearl specialists mean fewer individuals who can identify pearls and understand how to care for them over lifetimes. Lack of proper care gives way to diminished resale values, which, depending on condition, can plummet after purchase.
“They usually drop in value, like a car that drives off a lot,” explains Heidi Harders, president of Chicago Gem & Jewelry Evaluation Services in Chicago. Harders is a Graduate Gemologist and ISA-CAPP, which stands for Certified Appraiser of Personal Property from the International Society of Appraisers.
Unlike diamonds, there’s no uniform grading system for them, which is a bittersweet reality. This means that pearls haven’t become commoditized like diamonds, but that lack of a grading system makes the category intimidating, despite acceptance of universally recognized value factors. Think of GIA’s seven pearl value factors—shape, size, color, luster, surface, matching, and nacre. The result is an industry that still struggles to identify pearl types, consumers who don’t take care of them, and some difficult conversations with pearl owners.
Jill Burgum’s biggest challenge in appraising pearls for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, where she serves as the executive director of fine jewelry and timepieces, is managing people’s expectations.
“Someone will bring us a strand of South Sea pearls that they bought for themselves at a fancy store and recall what they paid for them,” she explains. “But when they come to auction, there can be a great divide for the value of used pearls.”
Know Your Pearls
The first step in appraising pearls is determining what a client has. Finding nacreous-looking fakes involves some well-known tricks—running a pearl across the front of a tooth to feel for grittiness in real pearls versus perfectly smooth surfaces on faux. Another way is simply handling the pearls; real ones, because they are organic, may feel colder and heavier to the touch, whereas fakes can be warmer and lighter in weight.
Regarding real pearls made in a mollusk, most of which are cultured, there’s variety to suss out—saltwater or freshwater—followed by saltwater type, either South Sea or akoya. Most freshwaters come from China, though a small production exists in Japan.
Understanding natural colors of pearls is another way to identify types. Akoyas grow in natural shades of off white and light blue, while South Seas and Tahitian South Seas grow in natural shades of white, “black” (with overtones of pink, green, blue, or peacock), golden, silver, gray, brown, green, or pistachio. Freshwaters, meanwhile, grow in natural shades of off white, peach, pink, purple, and bronze.
Dyed pearls can complicate scenarios; some akoyas are dyed black, and some freshwaters are also dyed black or completely unnatural hues like turquoise and cranberry. In these cases, pearl specialists can recognize a color as nonnatural and inspect the drill hole for dye that tends to pool in that area.
While determining millimeter size is a no-brainer, that size is another leading indicator of type. Akoyas can max out in the 11 mm range, but South Seas and freshwater can grow bigger—sometimes more 20 mm. These giant sizes are rare but do occur.
Complicating sizes further are improvements in farming methods. Some Chinese freshwater pearls have gotten so large, smooth, and beautiful that even experts can struggle to determine the difference between high-quality freshwater and South Sea pearls. This is where paperwork comes in handy.
Caldaron encountered this scenario eight years ago when mixed freshwater and South Sea strands emerged on the market. A client brought him a strand of cultured gray, golden, and white pearls, and because of the pearls’ large size—15 to 16 mm—he assumed they were all South Sea. Dealer documentation showed the white pearls were freshwater. “I would have said South Sea based on the look,” he recollects.
Cultured or Natural Pearls?
Determining cultured versus natural, meanwhile, involves different tricks. First, look down the drill hole—can you see a bead nucleus? Ditto for holding up a pearl against a light source; sometimes you can see the bead, especially if the nacre is thin. Harders calls this candling. “The light can shine through the pearl,” she explains.
Family history and observing period jewelry accents—like a great Art Deco clasp—can also offer clues. Because Craig Lynch of Oullet & Lynch Jewelry Appraisal Service in Phoenix examines many estates, he knows that if a family came to the U.S. prior to World War II, there’s a chance their inherited nacreous pearls could be natural.
Two years ago, a family whose ancestors emigrated from France brought him two graduated 5–8 mm strands. “The nacre was so thick that I couldn’t see a bead in the drill holes,” he maintains. Because of this and the family’s origins, he insisted the pair be sent to GIA for analysis. One came back as cultured, and the other was natural.
In some cases, pieces can even feature a mix of cultured and naturals. Caldaron has seen reproduction pieces trying to mimic older designs that featured cultured nacreous pearls instead of naturals. And Lynch has encountered cultured replacement pearls in natural pearl strands that broke and were restrung.
“If a piece breaks or needs lengthening and the replacement pearls look similar, why wouldn’t you use cultured pearls?” he says. The move can be easier than finding natural replacements.
Also important: Never make assumptions. When in doubt, send it out to GIA for identification. Even auction houses aren’t all knowing. Caldaron was tapped by a big one to appraise a strand of pearls, which he recognized as slightly off round to baroque. According to the estate, the pearls were from about 1920. The auction house initially dubbed them akoya type and cultured—and for sure, pearls from the early days of culturing were far from the near-perfect ones of today—but Caldaron suspected otherwise and sent them GIA. They were natural.
“They didn’t look cultured to me, and there was no way to unequivocally know on the spot without testing,” he says.
Other natural pearls, meanwhile, can be nacreous and found in any body of water, saltwater or freshwater, or non-nacreous, à la conch, Melo Melo, quahog, and more. Freshwaters from the Mississippi River are rare to find and natural when they are sourced.
Pearl values are based on type and recognized value factors. In general, natural-colored pearls are worth more than dyed, freshwater pearls cost less because they are easier to grow, and saltwater pearls cost more because their culturing process is more laborious. Pearl shape, millimeter size, and surface imperfections are easiest to gauge, while color and luster are more subjective.
There are three different categories of pearl prices—retail value, replacement value (which reflects current market prices should a client’s pearls be lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair), and resale value.
“Insurance replacement value is not the resale appraisal price,” confirms Blaire Beavers, G.G., pearl specialist, and Applied Jewelry Professional (AJP). “Pearls are harder to appraise if you don’t see a lot of them.”
Shawn O’Sullivan, appraiser, pearl specialist, and co-owner of Earth & Sea Gem Co., agrees. He acknowledges that price guides are helpful, but there’s no substitute for eyeballing merchandise firsthand. “I look at pearls, I know what they’re going for at wholesale,” he explains.
Tracking auction prices, too, can provide an understanding of values. “Auction comps can be helpful if I were to buy pearls,” notes Chaya Udinsky, appraiser and stringer at Carolina Jewelry Appraisers in Carrboro, N.C. “Deduct 30% for the auction commission to get an idea of what value should be.”
Experts reveal that in the resale market, pearls can command as little as a tenth of their original value. Exceptions are branded pieces (think Van Cleef & Arpels) and pearls that have been meticulously well cared for.
Appraisers reveal that many clients come in with average sizes of cultured akoya strands thinking they’re worth thousands of dollars. That’s typically not the case. “Most won’t get more than a few hundred dollars,” observes Lynch. Larger sizes can be an exception. Basics, though—fuhgeddaboudit.
“Commercial quality doesn’t hold value, it’s like 80% off,” remarks Charles Carmona, G.G., a member of the American Society of Appraisers, and owner of Guild Laboratories in Los Angeles.
Databases of prices paid for inventory are helpful here, as is a plan. O’Sullivan doesn’t buy many secondhand pearls but if the condition is decent and he knows the market prices, this is his go-to formula: if the new wholesale value is around $1,000, he’ll offer about $300 and try to sell it for between $600–$700.
Of course, the difference between cultured and natural pearls is massive. Remember Lynch’s family treasure sleuthing on the cultured and natural strands? He valued the former at $300, while the latter sold for $25,000.
Finally, luster is the number one value factor that affects prices, confirms Carlos Chanu of PCD Pearls, who sells loose and finished goods, though he used to appraise pearls. “There’s a much different value to a luster that’s electric versus a luster that’s soft to nonexistent,” he says.
Burgum knows this firsthand. Many of the strands that clients bring her fall into the seen-better-days category. “Many are really dull and have lost value,” she notes.
In the past year, Burgum met with a client who had collected five South Sea strands and wanted to sell them. All with pearls ranged from 14 to 16 mm—nice sizes. But they were lusterless. Perhaps worse, some looked like they had warts. “They were peeling and nubby and yellow—not white and bright,” she cringes.
Tips & Tricks
Caring for pearls is the number one way to ensure they look good for a lifetime (or longer). Pearls are organic, they come from a living creature, so they absorb makeup, perfume, and body oils over time. O’Sullivan calls this “taking on a client’s vibe,” or their unique chemistry by wearing them. “Pearls will take on the flavor of a person.” Ew—but true confirms Chanu. “Makeup, sweat … schmutz buildup … it all collects in the nooks and crannies of the pearl and silk,” he points out. “Restringing and wiping that stuff off is part of caring for your pearls.”
Udinsky is a firm believer in cleaning and restringing to retain beauty and investment value. Turns out that restringing isn’t just about eliminating gaps in necklaces or thwarting strand breakage; it’s the time for thorough pearl cleanings to occur.
“I clean individual pearls with light soap and warm water for a minute or two, and in between each pearl, wiping them down with a soft cloth,” she says. “This process helps restore them and retain value.”
Finally, keep up with industry pricing changes by reading the jewelry trades, and take a pearl class. [This association offers Pearls As One, a 10-module online education that you take at your own pace, for free. Sign up at pearlsasone.org and use the coupon code tahitifree.]
“The more you look at pearls, the more you’ll know,” recommends Harders. For her own appraiser certification, she must take 100 hours of continuing education every five years to ensure she puts proper values on pieces.
It’s easy for Carmona to stay on top of pricing as he’s located in a jewelry center with easy access to dealers. If that’s not a retailer’s or appraiser’s reality, attending trade shows is a good idea. “Go,” urges Beavers. “See what they’re selling for.”
“There are all kinds of new pearls out there,” adds Carmona. “When I started business in the 1980s, I was buying books to understand them. Nowadays, learning about jewelry and prices is so much easier—have you heard of the Internet?”
Cultured Tahitian South Sea pearl
Cultured golden South Sea pearl
Cultured white South Sea pearl
Cultured white akoya pearl
Cultured natural-color blue akoya pearl
Cultured natural-color pink freshwater pearl
Natural conch pearl
Natural Melo Melo pearl
Photo: TARA Pearls