While the beauty of pearl jewelry is indisputable, how much pearls are worth varies greatly based on a number of factors such as pearl type, size, shape, color, and luster. Check out our quick pearl value guide to learn more about how much these briny beauties are worth.
“Why she is a pearl, whose price hath launched a thousand ships, and turned crowned kings to merchants.”William Shakespeare
Well, he’s not wrong. Pearls have a huge amount of cultural significance, not to mention monetary value. They’re something we associate with history and heritage, a link both real and symbolic to generations of women who have come before us.
For many people, their very first piece of pearl jewelry came from their mother or their grandmother. Maybe it was a gift for their sixteenth birthday as was the tradition for many years, or perhaps it was a wedding gift from a family member who wore it for their own wedding many years ago.
With so many items of pearl jewelry being older or inherited pieces, it’s natural to be curious about the value of these items. Do pearls age well, and do they retain their value over time? Will their value grow by the time we gift our jewelry to our children or grandchildren? Let’s explore the different value factors of pearl jewelry.
Which Kind of Pearl is the Most Valuable?
To start with, let’s talk about the difference between natural and cultured pearls.
- Natural pearl – one that grows in the wild as a miracle of nature and nature alone.
- Cultured pearl – one in which pearl farmers try to replicate the pearl formation process in controlled, standardized environments. They surgically implant a small irritant in the oyster or mollusk and encourage the pearlescent substance known as nacre to grow around it, much in the same way a wild oyster will grow layers of nacre around an irritant that finds its way into the membrane of the shell.
Both natural and cultured pearls are considered “real” by industry standards. Although the word natural is often mistakenly attributed to cultured pearl jewelry, the vast majority on the market today is made from cultured pearls.
Natural pearls are the most valuable type of pearl, and they are incredibly rare. They are usually only found in carefully curated collections or high-profile auctions. You can learn more about the differences between natural and cultured pearls here.
Within cultured pearls, we have two main types: freshwater and saltwater pearls, named for the bodies of water that they are farmed in. Within the grouping of saltwater pearls, we have akoya (sometimes simply called saltwater), tahitian, and south sea pearls. This gives us our four cultured pearl families.
While each of these represents a range of quality and pricing, in general the most expensive type of cultured pearl is south sea, followed by tahitian, akoya, and then freshwater.
It’s worth noting that a lot of pearl jewelry, particularly vintage, is imitation. While these can be quite lovely to wear, they have almost no financial value. You can learn more about the differences between real and imitation pearls here.
What Affects the Value of a Pearl?
Regardless of the variety, all pearls are graded by the same seven value factors laid out by the Gemological Institute of America: size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching.
When all other value factors are equal, larger pearls will be more valuable than smaller ones. However, a brilliant, top-quality pearl in a smaller size will almost always be more valuable than a larger, low-quality one.
Each pearl type has a different range of sizes:
- Freshwater pearls start at about 4mm wide and go up to around 15mm.
- Akoya pearls can range from 3mm to about 10mm.
- Tahitian pearls go from 10mm up to 18mm.
- South Sea pearls range from 8mm to, in exceptional cases, 20mm.
In all pearl varieties, perfectly round gems will be the most valuable. Even on pearl farms, there is only so much about the pearl’s formation we can control. Only about 3% of the total pearl harvest in any given year will be perfectly round.
Other shapes include off-round, drop, and baroque. Well-matched drop pearls can be very desirable in earrings, and certain unique baroque pearls command high prices when used in creative designs, but for the most part these non-round shapes will come at a significant discount.
For many people, color is the first thing that attracts them to a pearl. Whether it is the pristine ivory of a classic akoya strand, the elegant golden gleam of south sea pearls, or the soft-brushed lavender tones on a more contemporary freshwater necklace, the range of colors available in pearl jewelry means there’s something to suit every style.
Generally speaking, more unusual colors will be more valuable than more common ones. Gold south sea pearls always fetch exorbitant prices. Unique freshwater colorations such as purple and bronze always sell very quickly. Tahitian pearls, which come in a range of multi-colored overtones, command the highest prices for colors like cherry red and aubergine purple.
Luster is probably the single most important value factor in determining a pearl’s beauty. It’s the “glow” that comes from within the pearl, made up of thin layers of nacre reflecting light over and over again.
You can tell if your pearls have good luster by looking at the reflections on the pearl’s surface. Edges will be sharp and distinct and reflections will have high levels of contrast, which means that the brightly lit areas will be very white and the darker areas deep and rich. Akoya pearls are known for their sharp, mirror-like luster, while freshwater and south sea pearls tend to have surface reflections that are a bit softer.
If you’re familiar with diamonds, you might know something about the way they are graded for clarity. Pearls are graded in much the same way, although their clarity characteristics will be on the surface rather than internal.
Surfaces should be smooth and unblemished, so that light can travel across them unhindered. It’s natural for pearls to have some light surface markings, as they are formed organically. Many pearls will have minute blemishes that show that they are real and unique. It’s when the markings are numerous and prominent enough to detract from a pearl’s beauty that they become problematic.
Nacre quality is related to luster. In this instance, it refers to the thickness of the nacre around the central nucleus, or implanted irritant. Freshwater and natural pearls are nucleated with degradable irritants, such as skin tissue. This means that as the pearl grows, the nucleus dissolves and the entire pearl is left with nothing but nacre all the way through.
Saltwater pearls, on the other hand, are nucleated with a bead made out of shell or plastic which the nacre grows around. If the nacre is very thin you may be able to see a dark shadow where the bead is showing through — this is an indication of poor nacre quality. The nacre should be thick and substantial, which helps with the pearl’s durability as well as the play of light that we call luster.
This is a quality consideration in pearl strands as well as earring sets and brooches with multiple pearls. It is not considered for pearl rings or other items with only one gem, such as tie pins.
Because overtones can range so widely in pearls, it is essential to choose gems that are well matched. This is particularly true with Tahitian pearls, which display a wide array of tones. Pearls should have colors that are either the same or complementary, with sizes that subtly graduate rather than breaking off abruptly in step-like jumps, and be as close to the same shape as possible. In a pearl necklace, the color of the thread should match the body color of the pearls.
Some pearl necklaces are made with multiple complementary colors. In these cases, the colors should be well-balanced and the necklace should look like a unified whole, rather than chaotic.
How Much is a Real Strand of Pearls Worth?
As you can see, each type of pearl represents a wide range of quality, grading, and value. The best way to find out the value of your unique pearl necklace is to take it in for an appraisal, but here are some broad ranges to give you an idea.
A natural pearl strand is difficult to find, and they start at a few hundred thousand dollars for a mid-quality strand. A well-matched strand of high quality natural pearls can easily climb into the millions.
- Freshwater pearl strands start at around $50 and go to about $3000, though they can be more for strands that are very long or use other gemstone details.
- Akoya necklaces range from about $300 to $10,000 or so, depending on size and quality.
- Tahitian pearl necklaces start at about $500 and can go up to $30,000.
- South Sea pearl strands can range from $2000 into the hundreds of thousands.
Should I Sell My Pearls?
Personally, I don’t know why anyone would ever want to part with pearl jewelry! However, if the piece holds some bad memories for you, if you don’t feel it fits your personal style anymore, or if you’re ready to trade up for a higher quality strand, selling it is a feasible option.
It’s important to understand that, like diamonds and other gems, you likely won’t be able to sell it for its original sale price. Pearls in particular are a bit tricky because they fell out of fashion for a long while and are just now starting to make waves in the jewelry industry again. As a result, there’s quite a lot of pre-owned pearl strands already on the market.
Your best bet for selling your pearl jewelry is to gather as much information about it as you can — this means appraisals, authentications, any certificates or packaging you have from its original purchase — and sell it directly to a new owner through a pre-owned jewelry site like Etsy or Ruby Lane.
Avoid pawn shops — they won’t give you a good price, and will probably have less experience differentiating high quality pearls from low-quality gems or imitations.
You could also try to sell it through a consignment boutique or a third party selling website. Pearls are a bit of a specialty item and some companies don’t accept them, but resellers 62Days and Diamond Estate both take on pearl jewelry.
Worth is What You Make It
Pearl jewelry represents an enormous range of color, quality, and value. One very real pearl may be worth only a dollar or two while another real pearl may be worth thousands.
However, some pearl jewelry might be worth more in sentimental value than it is in dollar bills – especially for vintage imitation pearls that may have been passed down through the family or thrifted from a special shop.
Whether you want to resell your pearl jewelry, hand it down to a family member, or just satisfy your own indulgent curiosity, now you have the tools and knowledge to begin exploring the value of your pearls.