For Your Staff:Selling Pearls
What a Shape!
A cultured pearl's shape plays a key role in assessing its value and
BY DEVIN MACNOW
CULTURED PEARL INFORMATION CENTER
Close your eyes and describe a pearl. That's what consumers were asked
to do in a recent poll by the Cultured Pearl Information Center.
"Round" was the first thing that popped into the minds of the
vast majority. That's not surprising. In fact, throughout history we've
always associated "pearl" with "round." But before the
invention of cultured pearls, natural pearls were almost always anything
but perfectly round.
Perhaps this obsession with spherical perfection can be blamed on the
media - paintings, that is. When you stroll the galleries of major museums,
you find many paintings done after the 1400s depicting notables adorned
in pearl jewelry. The pearls are almost always round, because artists from
the early Gothic to Impressionist periods tried to optimize the character
of their subjects. Remember that before the 1930s, pearls were reserved
for the rich and famous, therefore, artists took great care to glorify any
piece of clothing or jewelry worn by their subjects.
There were round natural pearls available before the advent of spherical
pearl cultivation in 1907, of course. But finding one was uncommon. In those
days, a jeweler needed several months to several decades to find enough
natural pearls of the same color to create a necklace.
Today, round pearls are considered the norm, and deviations from this
norm tend to be treated without the same reverence and appreciation reserved
for their symmetrical counterparts.
Many conditions can affect the shape of a pearl. Though exactly how an oyster
secretes nacre onto an irritant or nucleus to form a pearl is still somewhat
of a mystery, shape generally can be attributed to the manner in which this
The best conditions for growing a reasonably round pearl exist when the
creature is healthy and internally passive. Remember a pearl starts to form
when a piece of foreign matter lodges in the body of an oyster. This nucleus
is a constant source of irritation, and the oyster is almost always trying
to eject it.
As the nucleus shifts inside the oyster during this struggle, nacre crystals
may begin to form in an irregular pattern around the nucleus, creating concentrations
of the lustrous material in certain spots. Over time, these concentrations
or bumps of nacre grow larger. At harvest time, the pearl is no longer round.
However, if the oyster is at relative peace with the intruder and there's
less internal activity, the likelihood of an even nacre coating and a round
pearl is far greater.
Cultured pearls always begin their formation with a perfectly round nucleus
inserted into an oyster's body. But after many months and years of growth,
they can end up in a variety of shapes.
These shapes range in descending order of value from round to semi-round,
from off-round to oval and from drop to baroque. It's important to understand
that in pearl industry lingo, generally the shapes from round to drop are
pretty symmetrical, while anything baroque denotes a pearl that is completely
asymmetrical or free-form. The aforementioned shapes usually occur in Japanese
akoya cultured pearls as well as Tahitian, South Sea and freshwater pearls.
With Tahitian and South Sea pearls, we add another series of shapes:
circle or ringed pearls and button-shaped pearls. The former are pearls
that may be round to drop-shaped that contain a series of concave circles
or rings around the body of the pearl. The latter can best be described
as pearls that are round yet have an almost flat side to one end, resembling
a mabe pearl or button.
Freshwater pearls also have several different categories of shapes in
addition to rounds and baroques. They are stick shapes, which tend to be
elongated and flat; angel winged (self- explanatory); and/or button shaped,
where the pearl resembles a true button or pancake-like shape.
Shape and Value
In terms of quality, shape doesn't matter all that much. But when it comes
down to price or value, which is a quantitative assessment, round pearls
fetch the highest prices because they are the hardest to grow. But don't
be completely fooled by roundness. Keep in mind the nucleus inserted into
an oyster to start the growing process is always perfectly round. Usually
thin-skinned pearls or pearls with very thin nacre are round because they
haven't been inside an oyster long enough to develop enough nacre to form
irregular crystal concentrations.
As far as appreciation values are concerned, though almost everyone desires
a round pearl, semiround or slightly off-round pearls can be a way for price-conscious
consumers to achieve a round pearl look (especially at a viewing distance
of greater than two feet) at a significantly lower price.
Baroque pearls also are an ideal jewelry add-on for the woman who already
owns a strand of round pearls and wants a unique "fashion" look.
And in certain jewelry categories - such as earrings, rings and pins
- drop, button and baroque pearls bring out the creative artistry in many
of today's top designers.
|Round, Semiround, Off-Round & Drop Pearls
||Usually pretty symmetrical|
(Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, freshwater)
||Assymetrical, free-form |
(Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, freshwater)
|Circle or Ringed Pearls
||Concave circles or rings on the body or a round, semiround, off-round or
drop pearl (typically Tahitian, South Sea) |
||Round with an almost float side to one end - resembling a mabe pearl (Tahitian,
South Sea, freshwater)|
||Elongated and flat (freshwater) |
Here are examples of a range of cultured pearl shapes. The
pearl at left is round, followed by off-round, drop (circled or ringed),
semi-baroque and baroque.
This is the third in a series of articles on how to determine pearl quality.
Previous articles examined surface quality (April 1998, p. 109) and luster
(March 1998, p. 106)Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.