Dark and exotic, cultured Tahitian pearls are the coveted black pearls from the tropical lagoons and atolls of French Polynesia. Introduced to the world during the early 1970s, these darkly shimmering gems rocketed to popularity and have maintained their place amongst the most treasured of pearls ever since.
Famous for their natural shades of black and their wide array of colorful overtones, Tahitian pearls are a staple for any pearl lover’s jewelry box. Their large sizes and eclectic mix of shapes make them extremely versatile; from classic round pearls to artistic, funky baroque shapes, these pearls have earned a place in the hearts of men and women around the world.
* Tahitian pearls get their name from the island of Tahiti, but are actually cultured in the French Polynesian islands, not the main island of Tahiti.
* The pearls are grown in the Pinctada margaritifera, or black-lipped pearl oyster which can grow up to 12-inches in diameter at maturity.
* The Tahitian pearl oyster can be used as a pearl host up to three times during its lifetime. If it survives the third harvest, it is returned to the ocean to live the rest of its life in the wild, providing genetic diversity for other wild stock. If not, then the shells are harvested for their mother-of-pearl, which is sold to create buttons, inlays and other beautiful items.
2. NACRE THICKNESS
* Tahitian pearls are bead-nucleated, meaning that there is a small mother-of-pearl spherical bead inserted into the oyster’s gonad during the grafting process. This round bead gives the oyster a template to lay nacre over, which increases the chances of harvesting a perfectly round pearl.
* Tahitian pearls take about two years to acquire their thick nacre layers. Nacre depth is always kept at a minimum of 0.8 mm. These strict standards are regulated and enforced by the Ministeré de Tahiti, which controls all pearl exports from the islands.
Tahitian pearls come in a variety of shapes, but the most popular by far are perfectly round pearls. The next most valued shape is a symmetrical drop, then circled pearls, then free-form baroques. Matched pairs have a higher value as they’re harder to come by.
3.1 ROUND PEARLS
* Perfectly round, tissue-nucleated Tahitian pearls are rare and valuable as the vast majority of any harvest will consist of baroque shapes.
* Perfectly round pearls represent less than 5% of each yearly pearl harvest.
* Pearls that feature slight variations (about 2-5% deviance) from a true round shape account for about 15% of each yearly harvest.
3.2 SEMI-BAROQUES: SYMMETRICAL DROP-SHAPES, OVALS AND BUTTONS
* Semi-baroque shapes such as tear-drops, smooth ovals and button-shapes account for about 35% of each yearly harvest. Symmetrical shapes always have a higher value.
* Symmetrical drop-shapes have a romantic appeal for many pearl lovers. The graceful shape makes for desirable pendant and earring sets that will always have a receptive audience.
* Button-shapes are an excellent option to add into necklaces to maintain a lower retail cost. They appear round to the eye from a distance of 6-inches or more, but are priced as baroques. Luster and color concentration is often superb due to the irregular crystalline formation of the nacre.
3.3 CIRCLED BAROQUES
* Circles are the concentric rings running around the pearl’s body. They can range from a single ring to multiple rings stacked on top of each other over the pearl’s entire surface.
* Darker colors like violet or midnight blue tend to concentrate in the rings, heightening the contrast of brighter hues like rose or green.
* Emphasize their unique shapes and features – no two are perfectly alike. Playful layouts that mix and match shapes like these offer a touch of whimsy unmatched by a traditional round strand of pearls.
3.4 KESHI PEARLS
Tahitian pearl colors are described first using the primary body color, then the overtone. Tahitian pearl body color can range from near-white hues to jet black, although the majority of pearls are medium to dark charcoal gray colors. The overtone is the secondary, iridescent hue that appears to ‘float’ over the pearl’s surface.
Overtones can be peacock, pistachio, silver, steel, bronze, green, aquamarine, rose and aubergine among many other colors and hybrids. The saturation or intensity of the Tahitian pearl’s overtones increases the pearl’s value. Some overtones such as peacock are prized above all others.
There is no internationally recognized grading system for Tahitian pearl colors, so you will need to rely on your own judgment when describing a pearl’s body color and overtone.
4.1 PEACOCK PEARLS
* Peacock is by far the most popular overtone for Tahitian pearls. Peacock can be described as an iridescent mix of blue-green, green, gold and rose hues. The more saturated and intense the color, the more valuable the pearl is.
* Tahitian pearls with peacock overtones can have body colors that range from pale silver to medium and dark charcoal gray. The peacock overtone will show up best on pearls that range from a medium to dark charcoal gray body color.
* The peacock overtone is traditionally paired with white gold clasps and findings, however yellow gold can often enhance the secondary rose and golden hues, giving the pearls a warm sparkle.
4.2 SILVER PEARLS
* The silver overtone can help Tahitian pearls appear larger and brighter than their actual measurements. This is because light reflects off their surfaces at a higher rate.
* Silver is an excellent selection for women that have pink or reddish undertones in their complexion, as the pastel hues won’t clash with their skin tone. Older women with silver or gray hair will appreciate Tahitian pearls with silver overtones as well.
* Silver is also excellent for showing off the pearl’s iridescence, which will often show up as a faint tinge of rose or aquamarine color shifting over the pearl’s surfaces.
4.3 GREEN AND BLUE-GREEN PEARLS
* Green and blue-green overtones are the most prevalent of all overtones.
* True blue colors are considered rare and ‘fancy’.
* Blue overtones can occur on pearls with pale gray to nearly black body colors, but the darker pearls with more intense saturation of color will be more highly valued.
4.4 FANCY AND EXOTIC OVERTONES
* Pistachio is a color combination of silver, green and yellow colors. It is most commonly observed in pearls with light to light-medium gray body colors.
* Aubergine (French for ‘eggplant’) is a mix of rose and midnight blue hues. Pearls with more rose than blue are termed ‘Cherry’.
4.5 CHOCOLATE PEARLS
* Natural chocolate-colored Tahitian pearls are a rarity, and come from a mixture of brown, red, golden and sometimes green overtones. A prevalence of rose and gold will create a “milk chocolate” appearance, and the presence of greenish overtones will give the pearl a “dark chocolate” cast.
* The majority of chocolate Tahitians available today are color-treated, usually with dye. Dyed Chocolate Tahitian pearls can have reddish, golden or subtle greenish tinges to their surface however they lack the iridescence of naturally-colored chocolate pearls.
One of the larger pearl types, Tahitian pearls range from 8.0 mm to 16.0 mm and sometimes larger.
* Tahitian pearls are measured in 1.0 mm increments for pendants, earrings and rings.
* Most Tahitian pearl necklaces are graduated within 2.0 to 3.0 mm, sometimes more. This gives the sorters a wider range of pearls to work with when matching color, luster and overall tone for a whole necklace.
* Pearl necklaces that are graduated within 1.0 mm, for example a 10.0-11.0 mm necklace, are called ‘non-graduated’ and are more expensive as the pearl sorter has a reduced pool of matching pearls to choose from when creating the strand.
* The most popular and versatile sizes are 9.0-10.0 mm, 10.0-11.0 mm and 11.0-12.0 mm.
* Smaller-sized pearls will display more intense color and luster. This is because they are cultured in younger, healthier oysters.
* Large pearls are cultured in older oysters which can accommodate the larger bead nucleus required of these sizes. Older oysters are often unable to impart the compact crystalline structure needed to display intense colors and luster.
* Tahitian pearls measuring over 13.0 mm with very intense color and luster are rare, and command premium prices.
Tahitian pearls are known for their ‘satiny’, touchable luster, which is less intense than the saltwater akoya pearl. This is due to their thicker nacre layers, as light must travel through many layers of nacre before being reflected and refracted back at the observer.
* Tahitian pearls with ‘Excellent’ luster will exhibit luster that is almost as sharp as that of the saltwater akoya pearl. You will notice little to no blurring of reflected light sources on the surface of the pearls.
*Typically it will be the smaller size pearls that display higher rates of luster. This is due to the tighter formation of nacre layers, which compress the crystalline aragonite platelets together, creating a denser, harder surface for light to strike and penetrate.
*Tahitian pearls with ‘Very Good’ luster will display a high degree of reflectivity. You may not be able to distinguish specific facial features reflected in the surface of the pearls and reflected light sources will appear softly blurred around the edges.
*Tahitian pearls with ‘Good’ or ‘Fair’ luster will reflect a good amount of light, but reflected light sources will have a blurriness around the edges. Reflected objects will not be recognizable when viewing their reflections in the surface of the pearls.
*Often semi-baroque and baroque pearls will feature a higher, crisper luster and more pronounced orient than perfectly round pearls. This is due to the irregular placement of crystalline aragonite platelets, which cause light to reflect and refract at a higher intensity in some areas.
7. COMMON INCLUSIONS
Tahitian pearls display easily recognizable blemishes and features that you can refer to determine whether the pearls are genuine cultured pearls. Inclusions are natural occurrence, markings imparted on the pearl’s surfaces by the host oyster during the pearl’s formation.
As an ‘organic gem’, all cultured pearls will display inclusions of some form or other, whether you can see them with the naked eye or not. Romancing this aspect of the pearl’s appearance lies in affirming the pearls’ connection with the natural processes of the living world, and establishing the markings as a built-in identification system from nature – no two pearls will ever be exactly alike due to their unique features.
*Pin-pricks are the most common inclusion observed on Tahitian pearls. They are usually quite small, and will not affect the durability of the pearls. Often the intensity of the pearl’s colors and luster will overpower them and they’ll be easy to miss.
*Mottling is not technically considered an inclusion, and does not count into factoring the pearl’s quality grade where inclusions are concerned.
*Knobs and tips can take on many different aspects; they can be long and pointed, short and rounded, appear bubble-like and so on. Often features like these will not affect a pearl’s durability.
*As with unusual shapes or colors, these characteristics contribute to a pearl’s individual character. Extolled as playful, artistic aspects of a pearl or a necklace as a one-of-a-kind creation, they can come to be the defining attribute that sells one strand over another.
8. GRADING TAHITIAN PEARLS
Tahitian pearls are graded in French Polynesia using the A-D grading scale, with ‘A’ representing the very best pearls and ‘D’ being the lowest grade. The A-D scale can easily be translated to correspond with the A- AAA grading scale to explain Tahitian pearl grades to customers.
Currently, there is no universally recognized grading system for any cultured pearl type, which can make it difficult for buyers to equate a pearl’s beauty with its value. For an easy to understand visual guide on Tahitian pearl grading, visit the PurePearls.com Tahitian Pearl Grading Guide.
9. SELLING SECRETS – EMPHASIS ON RARITY AND UNIQUE BEAUTY
While classic round strands and traditional pearl studs should be the mainstay of any fine pearl jewelry collection, it is important to offer variety in both design and pearl types. The range of colors, shapes and sizes that Tahitian pearls have to offer are sure to dazzle even the pickiest of pearl lovers.
Since their introduction in the 1970s, Tahitian pearls have become the black pearl to own. Maintaining a selection of black pearls will encourage clientele to look beyond basic white and discover a rainbow of possibilities. Experimenting with baroque Tahitian pearls can open the door to new customers that are looking for something with a modern edge.
Ashley McNamara, CEO of Purepearls.com. Ashley has been working in the jewellery industry for over 14 years and is a GIA graduate who has extensive experience grading and appraising cultured pearls.
You can contact her at Ashley@purepearls.com or through her blog.
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