Jewelry Guide

What are South Sea Pearls and Should I Buy Them?

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Often called the Rolls Royce of pearls, South Sea pearls are the most prestigious of all the pearl varieties. These stunning pearls also happen to be the largest and the rarest, making them the most valuable.  A strand of South Sea pearls, whether white or gold, is immediately eye-catching and makes for a statement look.

Because of their high price point and scarcity, purchasing South Sea pearls can be a little bit daunting. Let’s take a look at the how South Sea pearls differ from other varieties and if it is the right type for you.

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What is a South Sea Pearl?

South Sea pearls are produced by the largest pearl producing oyster, the pinctada maxima, which come in two distinct color varieties – the White-lipped oyster and the Gold-lipped oyster. As you might guess, the type of oyster influences the color of the pearl. Most South Sea pearls come from the north-western coast of Australia, while most of the golden variety comes from the Philippines and Indonesia.

The pinctada maxima oysters grow to very large sizes, often up to 30 cm (12 inches) from end to end. South sea pearl farmers generally use a mix of wild and hatchery-reared oysters to ensure that the stock is healthy and plentiful. These oysters are among the most closely monitored by various government organizations to ensure that they are well looked after.

Each South Sea pearl takes about 3 to 4 years to grow, which is the longest growth period for cultured pearls. The longer the pearl is allowed to grow, the larger it becomes.

Almost all South Sea pearls on the market have been cultured. The oysters go through a process known as seeding, where the nucleus, a bead, is placed inside them via a carefully executed surgical procedure. This is done with great care and by highly skilled technicians.

For the perfect South Sea pearl to form, conditions have to be just right. The pinctada maxima does not thrive well in conditions beyond its natural habitat, which is why the locations for South Sea pearl farming is restricted to a few regions.

South Sea Pearl Colors and Overtones

South Sea pearls are known for their stunning white and gold colors. The white variety come in silver, ivory, bright white and blue colors and makes up about 90% of the total South Sea pearl productions. Blue South Sea pearls are very rare and can be intense in color. The golden pearls comes in cream, champagne and deep gold hues and are much rarer.

Golden south sea pearl

Golden south sea pearl

Unlike some other pearl varieties, the overtones in South Sea pearls are not generally very striking. Rather, it is the body color of the pearl that is the most apparent. As these pearls are stunning in their natural color, the color is rarely enhanced.

South Sea Pearl Shapes

South Sea pearls come in a variety of organic shapes and perfectly round spheres can be quite rare. This means that a strand of perfectly matched South Sea pearls is quite difficult to put together and therefore very valuable. The main shapes the pearls come in are round, near round, baroque, circle and drop.

Round South Sea pearls are the most highly sought after but are the rarest shape. Irregular shaped ones are now more in demand as people choose unique and individual jewelry designs.

What Size are South Sea Pearls?

Because the pinctada maxima is the largest pearl producing oyster and is allowed to create the pearl for several years,  South Sea pearls are known for growing to very large sizes. Most range in size from 8.0 mm to 20.0 mm, although pearls over the size of 15.0 mm are quite rare.

South Sea Pearl Luster

Luster refers to the shine of the pearl and is one of the most important aspects to consider when purchasing pearl jewelry. All else being equal, a pearl with better luster will invariably be more valuable.

When light is reflected and refracted out of the pearl, we see this as luster. South Sea pearls tend to have a unique and highly reflective luster that is quite distinctive from other pearl varieties.

South Sea Pearl Value

These are generally the most expensive of all the pearls. They can be very costly to purchase, with an average sized necklace strand costing anywhere from $3000 to $30,000 or more. Of course, the value is impacted by the quality factors of the pearl. For example, baroque shaped pearls or pearls with lower luster are generally less expensive.

South Sea Pearl Jewelry

South Sea pearls are ideal for a statement look, due to their large size. A simple strand of large, uniform sized pearls are simply eye-catching and great for a glamorous occasion. However, this is not the only way to flaunt these pearls.

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If you cannot afford an entire strand but still want to include a South Sea pearl in your jewelry collection, consider a single pearl pendant. These are often beautifully crafted in exquisite designs and are ideal for a fashion forward look. These can be worn alone or layered with other necklaces.

South Sea pearls are perfect for stud earrings and rings as well. These go beautifully with any outfit, whether casual or formal, and add a level of sophistication and chicness to any look.

For a unique look, you can choose baroque shaped pearls for your strands. These are also often much less expensive than perfectly round South Sea pearls.

How Do You Grade South Sea Pearls?

Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted industry standard for grading pearls. Compared to diamonds, which are methodically graded based on a number of measurable factors, pearl grading varies from vender to vendor. Although there are two commonly accepted grading systems for pearls, the standards tend to vary. A pearl graded as AAA on one site, could be an AA on another.

Method 1 – AAA to A Scale

AAA Almost flawless, this is the highest quality type of pearl. Features include: Perfectly round, virtually free of surface blemishes and defects with highly reflective luster. Up to 95% surface is blemish free. Nacre thickness should be at least 0.4 mm.
AA High luster, with about 90% of surface free of blemishes or defects. Good quality with near round shape.
A Low luster and 70% of surface free of blemishes and defects. Shape is off round.

Note that sometimes, some retailers add a fourth grade, AAAA or AAA+, to this scale. This is often just a marketing ploy, allowing the retailer to add a premium to the pearl.

The Tahitian A-D System

With this system, pearls are graded into four categories with A being the highest. While this system was originally used in French Polynesia to grade Tahitian pearls, it is now used to grade other pearl varieties as well.

A The highest quality pearl, with excellent luster and round shape. Less than 10% of minute surface blemishes.
B High luster and round shape. Some noticeable defects that may cover up to 30% of surface area.
C Medium luster. Surface imperfections may cover up to 60% of surface area.
D Over 60% of blemishes and defects cover the surface. Luster is not considered in D grade due to high percentage of defects.

How to Care For South Sea Pearls

Pearls are very soft, ranking only 2.5 to 4.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness. Reasonable care must be taken of the pearls to ensure that they remain lustrous and beautiful for decades to come. One of the easiest ways to keep them shiny is to wear them frequently. The body oils that they come into contact with keeps the pearls hydrated and polished.

Clean and maintain your pearls regularly to avoid grime build up. After every time you wear your South Sea pearls, give them a wipe before you store them away. When washing them, never submerge your pearls. Use a soft cloth to wipe away dirt and rinse them under running water. Avoid hanging up your pearls as this stretches the string and may cause it to break.

Once a year, have a professional jeweler inspect the integrity of your pearl strand. Most pearl strands require restringing every 2 to 3 years.

Avoid using any harsh chemicals or ultrasonic cleaners as these can damage your pearls. When storing your pearls, keep them in a breathable environment that allows air circulation and moisture as this will keep your pearls from drying out and becoming brittle and discoloured. Pearls are very soft and must be stored separately to avoid scratches from other objects.

Where to Buy South Sea Pearls

You can shop for South Sea pearls online or in-store, although shopping online will open up more options to you and offer you more competitive prices. Always choose a retailer that is specialized in pearls. Also check that they are reputable, licensed and have a solid return policy. If you don’t like the pearls you have purchased, or they aren’t what you thought they would be, you should be able to return them.

While you can find great pearl jewelry at branded retailers such as Tiffany’s, Bvlgari or Mikimoto, these come with a very high premium. Rather than splurging on a brand, you can find high quality South Sea pearl jewelry at a much lower cost at other more specialized retailers.

If you decide to shop online, almost all the popular pearl vendors sell via Amazon, meaning that you can easily compare and contrast the prices and quality of these vendors before you buy. Read our article on best place to buy pearls USA here. Also, check this article on best place to buy pearls UK.

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