Pearl buying tips: What you need to know before making a purchase

Ever since the first human pried open an oyster and discovered a pearl, this luminous gem has been prized for its unique beauty.

Once reserved exclusively for super rich, pearls are now widely available thanks to the process of culturing. That’s all well and good, but there are so many different types of pearls out there, not to mention a rainbow of colors and sizes. How do you know which one to pick?

You’ve probably heard of the four Cs when shopping for diamonds (color, cut, clarity, carat). Pearls have a similar system for assessing value: three Ss + C & L, meaning shape, size, surface, color and luster. Read on to get all the tips you’ll need to make the right decision for your upcoming pearl purchase.

Cultured versus natural pearls

As beautiful and rare as pearls are, they have a humble beginning. Pearls form as a result of an irritant inside an oyster. A natural pearl is one in which the irritant, often a grain of sand, got inside the oyster, aka, ‘naturally.’ Cultured pearls mean that humans introduced the object, usually a tiny plastic bead.

Culturing began about a hundred years ago in Japan, and the process brought the ‘Queen of Gems’ to the general public. While there is no difference in the look of natural versus cultured pearls, there is a major difference in price. Because natural pearls are extremely rare, cultured pearls are much more affordable.

If your budget allows, by all means go for natural, but most of us will find cultured to be the best choice. Either way, pearls make an excellent and unique gift for so many people, including yourself!

Saltwater versus freshwater pearls

Pearl oysters live in both fresh and salt water. As a general rule, saltwater pearls are bigger than freshwater, and come in more colors. South Sea pearls are the largest of the saltwater options and offer the widest variety of hues, including gold, silver, green, and peacock.

While saltwater pearls are usually round, freshwater pearls tend to have an irregular shape. Freshwater come in a range of delicately-tinted white hues including pink, cream, and ivory. Freshwater pearls are particularly beautiful in small, delicate pieces such as earrings, and when worn in clusters. They are a popular choice for their minimalist elegance and affordability.

Personal preference will be your guide here. If you prefer the classic look of smooth, round pearls, go with timeless, versatile saltwater pearls. If you’re the type to worry about fine jewelry, try freshwater as a fun, affordable option that you won’t have to stress about. 


The size of a pearl will directly influence the cost of the pearl. As a general rule, the bigger the pearl, the more expensive it will be, and current fashion trends are definitely leaning in the bigger-is-better direction.

As mentioned above, South Seas are the largest pearls with Tahitian coming in a close second. Akoyas are usually the smallest of the saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls tend to be smaller still, perfect for those who are testing the pearl fashion waters. 


Smooth, round pearls are more highly prized than irregularly-shaped ones, with the notable exception of baroque pearls. Baroque pearls are extremely popular at the moment as a means of personal expression.

The ultimate in sustainable luxury, baroque pearl pendants and earrings make a bold statement. When it comes to classic, round pearls, they may be matched or graduated in size, meaning the largest pearl is at the center of the strand and the remaining pearls get smaller toward the back. A perfectly matched set will tend to cost more than graduated.

If you’re looking to save, perhaps ask your mother or grandmother if she owns a necklace. Graduated pearls were must-have fashion in the 1950s. 


The smoother the surface of the pearl, the more valuable it is. However, it should be noted that even the most prized pearls will have a few imperfections, and these are part of their natural beauty. So long as the overall look appeals to you, minor variations in surface appearance only add to the pearls’ uniqueness.


As noted above, pearls come in a wide range of colors. Classic white pearls are often Akoya. Akoyas may have overtones of silver, rose, gold, or cream, and it is sometimes possible to find gray as well. South Seas pearls are beloved for their large size and subtle hues. South Seas pearls are white or cream with overtones of rose, cream, or gold, sometimes called champagne.

Tahitian pearls are the boldest when it comes to color. They are available in exotic hues including golden orange, eggplant, lemon, and ocean blue.

As for the correlation between color and cost, scarcity drives up demand, so a rare color will command a higher price. When it comes to deciding on color, there is no ‘right’ hue. It’s a simple matter of deciding which one most appeals to you.


The outer surface of the pearl is known as the nacre. As light reflects off the nacre, it produces a glow which is termed luster. The more layers of nacre, the richer the luster.

To assess luster, hold the pearl(s) up in front of your face. Quality pearls will reflect your skin back to you. Pearls have the amazing ability to flatter every skin tone, so there is no need to worry about picking one that ‘matches’ yours. It should also be noted that skin oil actually improves a pearl’s luster. The more you wear your pearls, the more beautiful they will become.

Besides being the official birthstone of June, pearls are a perennial favorite of brides, lady bosses, and fashionistas the world over. They coordinate with everything from business suits to evening wear to jeans and never go out of fashion. Properly cared for, pearls will last a lifetime and beyond, making them not only a great investment, but also a prized family heirloom. When it comes to buying pearls, pick what most appeals to you and is within your budget and you will get years of enjoyment out of them!