Gems of the Sea: A Guide for Pearls and Coral

Image of Pearl Gem and jewleryAttractive gemstones are not always mined from the earth. Pearls and coral are two gemstones that come from the sea. Since they are produced by living organisms, they are classified as organic gemstones. Beautiful and desirable, these gems from the sea are not without controversy.

Is Coral Jewelry illegal?

Precious coral is a prime example of the detrimental environmental impact that humans can cause in their quest for a gem. Most often fashioned into beads, cabochons, or carvings, precious coral is made from the vivid pink or red skeleton of marine coral. The oxblood coral craze reached such dizzying proportions that delicate reef ecosystems are threatened by over harvesting of coral. Some forms of coral, specifically black corals have been associated with mystical powers, harvested and are now considered an endangered species. Many people do not realize that in addition to being a main feature of one of the biggest jewelry trends of the last decade, the red coral is actually an animal whose environment is being depleted and whose future is in danger. Some major retailers refuse to sell coral jewelry for this reason.

What kind of pearl is the most expensive?

Even wonder what the difference is between freshwater and akoya pearls? And why akoyas cost so much more? It’s simple. Freshwater pearls are grown in, well obviously, freshwater mollusks, while the akoya oyster is a saltwater inhabitant. Freshwater pearls are usually all nacre, but lack the deep lustre of their saltwater (akoya) counterparts. Furthermore, akoya pearls are round, or nearly round; a characteristic that freshwater pearls rarely posses. And finally, akoya pearls are much more rare, and therefore, more valuable (and more expensive!) Freshwater pearls have a beauty all their own, and are a great bargain when compared to their saltwater cousins. But in a nutshell, akoya pearls are rounder, rarer, and more lustrous, and so they command the higher price.

How to pick the best pearls?

Few gems evoke the qualities of mystery and seduction quite like the pearl.  From earring studs to opera-length strands, this is the vital information you need to know in order to purchase pearls with confidence.

Size: Pearls are measured by the millimeter. Typical sizes range from 2mm to 12mm. If all other factors are equal, the larger pearl will command the higher price. Large pearls take longer to grow, and therefore are more rare, and thus, more valuable.

Luster: The luster of the pearl is the glowing sheen of its surface. Luster is made up from the layers of nacre. Nacre is a substance made within the oyster that forms the pearl. Thick nacre will give the pearl a reflective surface. If you can see your own reflection on the surface of the pearl, this is a good sign. If the reflection is very clear and sharp, you are looking at a very expensive pearl. If the image is fuzzy or unclear, this indicates thin nacre, and a less valuable pearl.

Shape: Pearls are formed in nature and perfectly round pearls are difficult to come by. A perfectly round pearl will be more expensive than a slightly off-round pearl, even if the size and luster are equal. Pearls are generally categorized as round, semi-round, or baroque. While “baroque” might sound like a fancy way of saying, “misshaped,” this is not true. Baroque pearls have an organic shape and a distinct beauty of their own and may prove a good value against their highly priced round counterparts.

Surface: The surface of the pearl is also a determining factor when it comes to price. The pearls with the least amount of surface blemishes (small blisters or pits) will be the more valuable. Also, surface imperfections can interfere with the lustre even if the nacre is thick.

Pearls are not considered as controversial as coral because a pearl oyster does not necessarily have to die in order for a pearl to be harvested. Some pearl producing oysters can be implanted with an irritant that will stimulate pearl production multiple times throughout its life. How do you feel knowing the true source of gems from the sea?  Does it change the way you view coral and pearls? Would you give them as a gift?

If you liked this article, check out our guide to gemstones or compare prices on pearl jewelry at GemstoneGuru