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The timeless elegance of pearls.

Summary: Forever fashionable, pearls are symbolic of wealth and class but what separates a good pearl from a great one and are they a good investment? WEALTH investigates...

The enchanting pearl has represented beauty and perfection since their discovery many thousands of years ago. Ever since, they've been the subject of countless tales of history, myth and elegance.

Part of a pearl's appeal is its organic origins. It is the only gem created from a living animal, a mollusk. Natural or cultured pearls grow in mollusks that can live in either salt water or fresh water. They are made up of layers of calcium carbonate most popularly in the form of nacre, a natural substance produced by pearl oysters that coats the inside of the animal's shell. This beautiful, lustrous nacre is the essence of a pearl and because pearls are slightly porous, they warm up against the skin.

Today, the array of choice in colours, sizes and shapes is endless. As with any gem purchase though, you need to understand the basics before you buy or risk paying too much for something of lesser quality that's perhaps been treated to enhance its appearance. You also need to decide whether you want natural or cultured pearls; what to look for in terms of size, lustre and colour; and what price range you're interested in. Here are some basics to get you started:


Natural saltwater pearls: Extremely rare, the Arabian Gulf is the most important source for natural saltwater pearls, which come from the Pinctada radiata and Pinctada margaritifera oysters and range in colour from white to dark cream.

Saltwater cultured pearls: An akoya pearl is a white, round, lustrous gem cultured in Japan and China in Pinctada fucata (martensii). Most are white or cream and some have hints of rose (pink) or green. The akoya oyster is relatively small, so its pearls are no larger than nine mm. Tahitian cultured pearls have only been on the market since the 1970s and come in colours including eggplant purple, peacock green, metallic gray and grayish blue. The mollusk that produces them (Pinctada margaritifera) is native to French Polynesia and is farmed there and in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.

South Sea cultured pearls come from one of the world's largest pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima), which produces cultured pearls 15 mm and larger. They are farmed in Australia, Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia. Most common colours are silver, white and yellow (aka 'golden' or 'champagne').

Freshwater cultured pearls: Produced mainly in China, these pearls vary widely in colour and are more affordable than saltwater cultured pearls. Sizes range between 2 mm and 13 mm, although larger sizes are now available.


The Gemological Institute of America has created a system to evaluate the quality of pearls. The seven value factors include Size, Shape, Colour, Lustre, Surface, and Nacre. Size: As with other gems, a larger pearl (measured in millimetres) is typically more valuable. The larger the pearl, the more rare and costly it tends to be. But fine quality pearls can be small, and low quality pearls can be large, so a pearl's ultimate worth depends on the mix of value factors.

Shape: While round is the most familiar shape, pearls come in many forms (round, near round, oval, button, drop, semi-baroque, baroque). No matter what its shape, a symmetrical pearl is more valuable.

Colour: A pearl's colour is a combination of its dominant body colour, overtone, the subtle colours that seem to come from within the pearl, and orient, the 'play of colour' you see when the pearl moves. Cultured pearls range from warm (yellow, orange and pink) to cool (blue, green and violet).

Lustre: The intensity of light reflected from or just below the surface of the pearl, its lustre, contributes the most to the beauty of a pearl. The effect is an inner glow from the heart of the gem. A pearl with excellent lustre will look bright and shiny, while one with poor lustre is dull and less valuable.

Surface: A completely clean pearl is a rare treasure. Since rarity influences value, the prices of such pearls run extremely high. The number, nature, and location of surface characteristics (abrasions, bumps, chips, cracks, etc.) can affect the value of any pearl. Numerous or severe surface irregularities - such as chips or gaps - can threaten the durability of the pearl and cause it to break or peel and considerably lower its quality and value. If a surface characteristic is minor and located near a pearl's drill hole, where it's less noticeable, it will detract less from the pearl's appearance and value.

Other value factors can minimise the effect of surface characteristics on a pearl's worth. If the pearl is large and highly lustrous, for example, these pluses can outweigh a slight surface characteristic or two. In fact, excellent lustre makes some surface characteristics less noticeable.

Nacre: Nacre is the very essence of the pearl itself and nacre thickness does affect the value. Quality cultured pearls have ample thickness to allow the pearl to display its beauty.

Matching: The uniformity of the appearance of pearls in strands and multi-pearl pieces is called matching.


Now that you've got your pearls, you should know how to take care of them. To retain their beauty, they need a certain amount of moisture, so avoid storing pearls in an airtight or overly dry environment, such as a bank safety deposit box. The human body conveniently provides just the right amount of moisture. Worn often and properly cared for, pearls can look as good in 50 years as they did the day they left the store.

Pearls are not the most durable of gems. Most everyday items at home and in the office are tougher than pearls, so careless contact can cause damage them over time. Chemicals are the primary threat. Perfume, makeup and hairspray contain ingredients that can eat away the nacre, permanently dulling it. Many cleaning products contain chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine, which can pit gold alloys and quickly damage pearls. Chlorinated swimming pool water is also hazardous. Avoid wearing pearl jewellery when cleaning the house or doing yard work.

The best way to clean your pearls is with a soft damp cloth, ideally after each time you wear them.

Information courtesy of GIA (Gemological Institute of America).


With 22 pearl farms in a remote part of northern Australia harvesting about one million pearls per year, Paspaley is the world's largest source of the finest quality South Sea Pearls. Stephen Francis is the company's UAE Regional Manager Retail. Choosing pearls, he says, is about matching colour with skin tone and pearl shape and size with body composition. "Try different shapes and colours; see how they look against your skin and on your throat. Oval pearls look better on some women than perfect round ones. While some women may find a baroque pearl, one that is completely irregular with a wonderful texture that throws off the light, suits their personality more than a classic round."

Also, different pearls suit different types of jewellery, for example, a button pearl is a better shape for ear-rings than a round pearl because it sits flatter against the ear but still looks round from the front.

Paspaley has outlets in Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.


Can a strand of rare pearls offer a return on investment? Certainly there are very valuable pearl jewels in existence, for example, La Peregrina is one of the most famous pearls in the world, its size, lustre and colour make it a 'once in a lifetime' gem. Its history spans almost 500 years and it has been prized by European royalty including Queen Mary I of England. Most recently, the pearl belonged to Elizabeth Taylor - a gift from Richard Burton. It sold in December 2011 for a record price of $11 million.

In June, the Cowdray Pearls fetched more than $3.35 million at Christie's, setting a world record price at auction for a natural grey pearl necklace. The Cowdray Pearls comprises a single row of 38 graduated natural grey pearls and was from the collection of the late Viscountess Cowdray, Lady Pearson. More recently, a conch pearl Cartier bracelet which once belonged to Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain (1887-1969) sold for $3.4 million in November.

Paspaley has several rare jewels including The Vivian, named after the wife of Paspaley's founder, which comprises 26 perfect round white pearls of 17 to 21 millimetres. Worth $1.128 million, the strand was completed in 2011.

However, pearls are the only gems produced by a living creature. As such, pearls are not a finite resource like, say, diamonds or gold so do not have the same investment potential. So, with the exception of the extremely rare jewels with remarkable provenance, these gems are more of an emotional investment than a financial one.

Want to learn more?

Learn about pearls and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) Seven Pearl Value Factors used to describe their quality. Or, take a one-day instructor-led GIA Pearl Grading class to learn to evaluate the quality of freshwater, South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

GIA offers grading and education services to gem and jewellery professionals and businesses throughout the Gulf region. The Institute conducts courses in major trade centres including Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Course topics include diamonds, coloured stones, pearls, jewellery design, jewellery retail and more.

For more information on GIA in the Middle East, email or visit www. GIA in the Middle East is located at Building No. 6WA, Office 801, Dubai Airport Free Zone, Dubai.

2012 CPI Financial. All rights reserved. 2011 CPI Financial. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 13, 2013
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