How to Buy a Pearl Necklace

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How to Buy a Pearl Necklace

There was a period of time when every lady who owned a pearl necklace only wore it on special occasions. While modern society is far less formal than the days of yesteryear, pearls are still immensely popular due to their classic beauty and timeless elegance. Few pieces of jewellery are lovelier than a necklace of pearls glinting under the light, and are popular for women of all ages.

Upon entering a jewellery store or shopping through an online website such as eBay, a customer is presented with terms like cultured pearls, South Sea pearls, and coloured pearls. Understanding how pearls are made is the first step to buying the right pearl necklace. Whether it is intended to be a gift or the customer is purchasing a piece for herself, there are a few factors to consider with pearls such as their type, length of the necklace, and overall price.

The Origins of Pearls

Unlike other gemstones, pearls are actually produced by a living organism, in this case an oyster or mussel. Basically, an oyster gets a piece of dirt stuck between its mouth and shell. The oyster then tries to expel the dirt by surrounding it with a substance called nacre, the same translucent material used to build its shell. Over time, the layers of nacre grow and grow, forming a pearl that is just waiting for a diver to pluck it from the oyster's mouth.

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are quite rare because they do not always occur in oysters, which led to the enormously high price of many antique pearl necklaces. In fact, the rarity of pearls was the reason why pearl necklaces became associated with the wealthy and elite, since only members of this class could afford to own one. While there are still natural pearls on the market, they now compete with cultured pearls.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls are given a helping hand by man, though the oysters are still the ones doing all the work. A small bead is placed inside each oyster, and then is left alone until harvesting time when the divers can reap the rewards from the pearls. By growing cultured pearls through oyster farms, pearls became more readily available for the jewellery market.

Natural vs. Cultured Pearls

Sometimes customers assume cultured pearls are less valuable than natural pearls because they associate them with being synthetic. For example, in the world of gems, synthetic gemstones made in a lab are worth less than natural gemstones. However, this is not true of cultured pearls because they are created the same way as natural pearls. In fact, the only way to tell the difference between the two is to perform an X-ray. Cultured pearls became accepted in the pearl industry long ago, and the price points between the two kinds are the same. It is the type of pearls, not the fact that they are natural or cultured, that determines their overall price.

Types of Pearls

Pearls are produced by oysters, mussels and sometimes even clams in both saltwater and freshwater. However, the quality of these pearls varies immensely by location, with some of the best examples coming from the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Asia and Oceania. These pearls are prized for their lustre and thick nacre, earning them a rightful place among the elite gemstones.

Akoya Pearls

When people imagine the traditional white pearl necklace, it is typically the bright Akoya pearl they picture in their mind. Akoya pearls originate off of the coast of Japan and are known around the gemstone industry because they have the brightest shine and highest lustre, even more than South Sea pearls. True Akoya pearls are easily recognisable due to their bright white colour, though some may have a slight rose overtone to their nacre.

Akoya Pearl Size

Sometimes Akoya pearls are dyed black to resemble true Tahitian pearls, and a dishonest seller may even market them this way. However, Akoya pearls can always be told apart due to their size. They are about the same size as freshwater pearls, typically between 7 mm and 7.5 mm. Slightly smaller and larger pearls do occur, but it is very rare to find an Akoya pearl that is 10 mm or 11 mm in size.

Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian pearls come from the salt waters off the coast of Tahiti and are grown inside the Black-Lipped oyster. This is the only variety of oyster to produce black pearls, and they are very valuable because of their relative scarcity. A true black pearl is easily told apart from another pearl that is merely dyed black from its price. Other than black, Tahitian pearls come in white and cream colours.

Tahitian Pearl Size

Tahitian pearls are bigger than Akoya pearls on average. The smallest Tahitian pearl usually is 9 mm, while the largest is 16 mm. The size differences allow jewellers to create pearl necklaces using staggered sizes, with the largest examples usually on the bottom of the necklace.

South Sea Pearls

South Sea pearls come from the South Pacific around Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar. They are truly in a class all by themselves. While Akoya pearls are brighter, and Tahitian pearls alone can produce the black variety, South Sea pearls are the most desirable because of their extremely thick nacre. They come in silver and gold colours.

South Sea Pearl Size

The reason South Sea pearls are so expensive is their size. It is possible to find 20 mm South Sea pearls, something no other variety can achieve. Of course, it takes some time for an oyster to produce a pearl of this size, which is why South Sea pearls are relatively rare on the market. However, many buyers feel that these exceptional pearls are well worth the top-dollar price they command.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls are different from their saltwater cousins in more ways than one. While saltwater varieties come from oysters, many freshwater pearls originate in mussels. Most of the freshwater pearls on the market today originate in China. They are exceptionally colourful pearls, coming in all shades of white, pink, purple and orange. It is even possible to find black freshwater pearls, although they appear more grey than black.

Freshwater Pearl Size

On average, the freshwater pearl is roughly the same size as the Akoya pearl. 7 mm to 8 mm is the most common size, but depending on the type of mussel they can be larger or smaller. Some varieties are only 2 mm, while others reach sizes of 16 mm, comparable to large Tahitian pearls.

Pearl Necklace Lengths

Besides the type of pearl, the price of a necklace is also determined by its length. This is basic math, as longer necklaces use more pearls than shorter ones. The chart below outlines the average fit of different necklace lengths.

Length (inches)





around collarbone


below collarbone


above neckline


Below neckline

Sometimes buyers find multi-strand pearl necklaces. These are more expensive than their single strand counterparts and hang to different lengths.

Buying Pearl Necklaces on eBay

It is rare to find a website like eBay where all of the different varieties of pearls from all over the world are offered from a single place. Buyers can find some of the finest examples of pearls on the market, including South Sea pearls, from multiple sellers. In fact, savvy buyers can pick and choose between different listings to purchase a pearl necklace that fits their budget.

Finding Pearl Necklaces on eBay

Using the search engine is the easiest way to find pearl necklaces on eBay. From the home page simply type in 'pearl necklace' and  a lengthy list of results appears. It is worth just browsing this section for a moment so that you can get a feel for all the different pearls. Once you make up your mind about what type of pearls you want, you can narrow down your search terms by typing 'Akoya pearl necklace' or 'South Sea pearl necklace'. You can narrow the search even further by looking for specific necklace types, such as 'South Sea strand pearl necklace' or 'South Sea pendant pearl necklace'.

Natural Pearl Shapes on eBay

It is worth noting that eBay sells both natural and cultured pearls. One of the main differences between these types is that the natural pearl is not always completely round like the cultured pearl. In fact, many pieces of vintage pearl jewellery made from natural pearls are not uniform in shape. This is not a defect unless the pearl is truly deformed. Instead, it only adds to the character of natural pearls when compared to their cultured counterparts.


Anyone who is lucky enough to shop for a pearl necklace is in for a treat. Pearls are some of the loveliest gemstones produced, and this is truly compelling when a buyer realises that pearls are actually grown inside living organisms. It is common to see both natural and cultured pearls on the market, and both are equally valued by the gemstone industry. Instead, it is the type of pearl that is considered more important. Pearls such as the Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea varieties are typically more expensive than others because of their high quality.

eBay sellers offer pearls on many different necklace styles, and the amount of pearls used determines the overall price of the piece. Buyers should carefully evaluate factors such as the pearl type and necklace length, but they need to consider their budget so that they can be completely happy with their new pearl necklace.

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