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Why we won't see a "pearl quality certificate" any time soon.

Posted: Aug 06 2014

One of the most frequent questions I get – from consumers and industry colleagues alike – is why there is no “official” grading system for pearls, such as exists with GIA grading of diamonds. (other certification organizations like IGI and EGL are the subject of a whole other blog post!)

Having spent most of my career in the overall jewelry-and-gemstones industry (including pearls as second-only-to-diamonds in popularity), and only focusing 100% on pearls somewhat recently, I feel I can comment across ‘the divide’.

My view is simple: “Grading” of pearls is far more complex, and thus far less subject to standardization than diamonds. It – in my opinion – effectively can’t be done. Not shouldn’t. Can’t.

Why? Because pearls are more complex than diamonds. Diamonds are just as “natural” as pearls, but one is created by a living creature in infinite variations, one is an elemental outcome of geological processes with far less variation.

Examples? You got it.

1)      Whiter is better.

  1. With diamonds, “whiter is better” covers the overwhelming portion of the market. Yes, fancy colors command different attention and premium pricing. But the overwhelming majority of diamonds exist on a white-yellow-brown color spectrum where whiter is better (or at least rarer and more valuable).
  2. Pearls, by comparison, exist in a much more ‘rainbow’ environment. How do you apply “whiter is better” to Tahitians? Is a white south-sea pearl better than a golden south-sea pearl? The market begs to differ… Goldens are more expensive, all else being equal. The profusion of colors available means that evaluating pearl color is by no means rote. Take Akoya pearls… From white to silver to rose, nobody even agrees on what is best. A slight pinkish overtone is often highly valued in Akoya vs. “pure white” and is taken by many to be a solid indicator of Japanese-grown Akoyas vs. grown-elsewhere-but-marketed-through-Japan Akoyas. So whiter is NOT better. How do you “cert” that?

2)      Symmetrical is better

  1. With diamonds, driven by their crystalline structure and the optics of refraction, symmetrical is better. A well-proportioned-cut will result in a more fiery, refractive stone. Period.
  2. With pearls, the play of light, the luster, the orient, the reflectivity… all are independent of the pearl’s symmetry. While “rounder is better” applies to many pearls, that has nothing to do with the pearl's appearance. Many would take an off-round but stunning-luster pearl over a perfectly-round-but-chalky pearl. In fact, there is a profusion of fancy non-symmetrical shapes that have no impact at all on the pearl surface’s eye-pleasing appeal. From baroques to fireballs, non-standard shapes have their afficianados, and some even command a price-premium from perfect rounds.

3)      Shinier is better

  1. With diamonds, more light-play is better. Everything about a diamond from cut proportions to flaws to color is all about returning the most light and fire out of the diamond to create that dazzle.
  2. With pearls, not so much. While a metallic/reflective sheen is certainly prized, we also talk about orient, about depth, about color overtones etc. You can’t simply point a meter at a pearl, measure the percentage of light input that it returns, and rate its “reflectivity” as a direct, linear measure of value or quality.

I could go on, but won’t.  I could talk about how to rate the ‘peacock’ multicolor value of a Tahitian pearl. I could talk about rating the rarity factor inherent in conch pearls… I think you get the point.

In the end, pearls probably have more in common with fine leather, fine art and fine wine than with geological gemstones. In each of those cases, there is such a huge element of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ combined with ‘appreciating the manifold variations of nature’ that it’s near-impossible to “rate” them objectively.  In the end, you’re not likely going to see a “GIA” type rating for wine, leather, cheese, sculpture, etc. nor for pearls.

And that’s for good reason. Pearls, unlike the cubic-crystalline variant of carbon, are more art than science.

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