All About Pearls: Luster, Surface Quality and Matching

Black Cultured Tahitian Pearl ringTahitian cultured pearl and diamond ring, Orb Collection, Yael Designs

Of the seven factors on which pearls are judged, luster, surface quality and matching are those important but subtle differences that may not be immediately obvious unless they are lacking. These are the qualities that lift pearls to "fine" quality!

Luster may be the most important of all the seven factors upon which pearls are judged. Luster is the magnificent luminosity which pearls are known for and judged by. Luster in pearls is caused by light traveling through translucent layers of nacre and reflecting back to the eye. The nacre's thickness, its degree of translucency and the arrangement of the overlapping nacre layers all contribute to luster.


Golden cultured pearl and akoya cultured pearl, MikimotoAkoya and South Sea golden cultured pearl earcuff, Mikimoto

However, the luster of South Sea and Tahitian cultured pearls should not be judged against the luster of Akoya cultured pearls because of the temperature of the regions they grow in. South Sea and Tahitian cultured pearls grow in much warmer climates than that of Akoyas. Oysters lay down nacre more quickly when the water is warmer, creating a softer, more satiny luster. Nacre deposited slowly tends to be more translucent than nacre deposited quickly, giving the pearl a more mirror-like luster. But no matter the region, cultured pearls are generally harvested during winter months when the water is coolest and the luster most pronounced. A pearl with excellent luster will show reflections that are bright, sharp and distinct.

The quality of the nacre is very important for the quality of a pearl, affecting many, if not most factors. Translucency and layer uniformity affects luster. The number of nacre layers affects size, just like the rings of a tree do. And, of course, the way the nacre is laid down affects surface quality.


Baroque Freshwater Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant, Yael DesignsBaroque Freshwater Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant, Yael Designs

Surface quality, or characteristics, refers to the blemishes or irregularities on a pearl’s surface. Just like any natural gem, a pearl’s growth is imperfect, with variations in growth becoming visible on the surface. However, as pearls have minimal treatment, these variations have different looks and names than those found on gems such as: “wrinkle” –an irregular ridge or crease; “flat” –a flattened section that is generally too small to affect the basic shape of an otherwise spherical pearl; and “abrasion” – a series of scratches on the surface.

Almost all pearls have surface irregularities that are visible to the naked eye. Pearls that are nearly spotless or contain only blemishes that are nearly invisible to the eye are very rare. But this feature in itself does not make for an expensive pearl; it is in combination with all the other factors upon which a pearl is priced and judged. However, if surface characteristics are numerous, and affect the durability of the pearl, they can severely depress its value. Minor characteristics would be those that are few in number or insignificant enough to be hidden by a drill-hole or mounting.


seed pearl tassel earrings Yael DesignsSeed pearl, diamond and black diamond tassel earrings, Leone Collection, Yael Designs

Matching is an interesting factor in that it applies not to a pearl but to a piece of jewelry, and there are multiple ways in which it might or might not apply to said jewelry. Matching does not apply to a single pearl. And some multiple pearl creations are intentionally mismatched. However, such a piece of jewelry must still have a harmonious and balanced design, which requires a different type of matching ability. To match pearls for a uniform motif, a sorter must begin with a huge quantity of pearls to end up with a well-matched group. It also requires a great deal of labor, time and skill.

As illustrated by the seven factors that pearls are judged by, choosing a piece of pearl jewelry can be a very complex process. But the most important factor is whether you love it or not!


Golden cultured pearl pendant, Yael DesignsGolden cultured pearl and diamond necklace, Orb Collection, Yael Designs


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