Okay folks, I'm back with another Q&A session to help along your seasonal shopping! Today's questions focus on some useful information to keep in mind when shopping so you don't end up on some morning television's Buyer Beware feature. This will be a lengthy post, because I feel that an educated consumer is a good consumer. "Are these natural pearls?"
Ah, such a seemingly simple question with such a complicated answer. We really, really love our pearls around here, and thanks to that
addiction passion we tend to know a whole lot about them -- which is a darn good thing, considering the huge breadth of pearl jewelry on the market right now.
First things first: almost all pearls are cultured. This means that the oyster that housed them as they formed was grown alongside thousands of others on a pearl farm. It also means that a person most likely took a bead, piece of shell, or even another small pearl and inserted it into the oyster to nucleate (or "seed") the pearl or pearls that grew inside. In the wild, a pearl occurs when some kind of irritant (like sand) enters the oyster's shell, and the critter inside builds up layers and layers of nacre (pronounced NAY-ker) around it to stop it from bothering the delicate mollusk. On a pearl farm, it's the humans that cause the irritation, but what else is new. Zing!
Pearls are judged on the quality of luster, overall shape, surface smoothness, color, and matching (on a strand). The luster is that particular combination of opaqueness and translucence that gives the pearl its soft but reflective appearance. Because pearls are organic, their surfaces are often marked with dimples, pimples, lines, striations, and all manner of varying nacre thicknesses; baroque pearls are unusually and irregularly shaped and therefore have a more uneven surface, while round or off-round pearls should be smooth with few marks. On a strand, pearls should either match as closely as possible (one color) or maintain a similar overtone (mixed colors).
Freshwater pearls are the most widely available, and are often the least expensive because they are grown fairly inexpensively by the thousands (China in particular has developed amazing and innovative techniques, including growing hundreds of tiny pearls inside just one oyster). The most common color is white, and they tend to be smaller than their saltwater cousins. They are also sometimes dyed, a treatment that is not at all permanent and will fade or discolor over time. Dyed colors range from fun brights like purple, pink, and blue to colors that mimic those found naturally in more expensive pearls. A trustworthy jeweler will be upfront about which pearls are dyed and which are not, and they should be priced accordingly.
Saltwater pearls are larger and generally more rare than freshwater, and are frequently referred to by their signature growing locations: Tahiti and the South Sea region. Tahitian pearls have become interchangeable with "black" pearls, though the colors within that category range from bright peacock green and purple to grey-silver or even brownish. South Sea pearls are white, pinkish, greyish, or even a greenish pistachio color. Finally, my personal favorite, the golden South Sea pearl, is a beautiful gold-yellow color that often seems to gleam with its own inner light.
All of the colors mentioned above are absolutely and completely natural -- the pearls formed with that color. In fact, that beautiful golden South Sea pearl comes from the Golden-Lipped Oyster! White pearls of both fresh and salt water are typically placed in a bleach solution to ensure evenness of tone, but this treatment is both perfectly common and permanent.
Tahitians and South Seas are more expensive than most freshwater pearls because they take almost twice as long to form, and they are only grown individually -- one pearl per oyster at a time. With their variety of natural colors they can be very difficult to match, making beautiful strands difficult to find.
Bottom line: most pearls are cultured, which means farmed (or, as I like to say, grown on purpose!). They are strung on silk and knotted in between each pearl. As an organic gem, they are extremely sensitive to chemicals, changes in temperature, and rough handling, so they should be the *last thing on, first thing off* when worn. Dyed pearls should be far less expensive than naturally colored. Pearls are a beautiful accessory that can be dressed up or down, and have such incredible variety that I can absolutely find a pearl for anyone and everyone.
"Why do I see ruby rings for $99 in some department stores?"
The short answer here is that you're not looking at a natural ruby, you're looking at a composite formed with crushed red corundum, colored glass, and lead. You might even be looking at a piece of glass with a thin coating of red lacquer. Is it a ruby? No, it isn't, and a trustworthy store will be telling you that right up front, both verbally and in visible print.
Aside from the obvious deceit and fraud factors, these composite stones are bad news because they can't be handled like regular gems. Stick one of those rings in a hot ultrasonic cleaner and watch it disintegrate. Try to size the ring or fix a prong and watch it crumble away or turn all kinds of ugly colors. Hit the stone in just the right place with enough force and watch a huge chunk fly away.
Bottom line: when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Disclosure is a constant industry focus topic, and the good places will be happy to educate you on exactly what you're buying.
"What's a synthetic stone? What's a simulant stone?"
A synthetic stone is formed in a laboratory but otherwise possesses the identical properties as the naturally-formed version. A gemologist can perform tests to determine whether it was naturally formed or lab-created, but otherwise the two are the same. Natural gems are more expensive due to their rarity and costs associated with mining and cutting.
Example: synthetic color-change Alexandrite is popular because the natural version is rare and difficult to obtain. The lab-created version is much less expensive but still possess the beautiful color-change properties
A simulant is any material that is meant to look like a particular gemstone but is in no way related or comparable to it.
Example: anything that looks like a diamond, but pretends to be: cubic zirconia, glass, moissanite, or even white sapphire is used to mimic the look of a diamond. To be clear, it's a synthetic if it's trying to be something it isn't, like a CZ and silver ring that looks suspiciously like something that would usually come in a little blue box. It's not a synthetic if it's a step-cut green tourmaline -- you might mistake it for an emerald, but it's not trying to be one.
Bottom line: when in doubt, ask! Forgive the broken record, but full disclosure policies ensure you'll never think you're getting one thing but end up with another. Also, keep price in mind as you shop to ensure you're really comparing like to like.
Once again, hit me with your burning questions and I'll do my very best to answer. No query is too small!