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SINGAPORE: Pearls, now beloved of young trendsetters, are no longer the exclusive domain of turtlenecked tai tais.
This season, the lustrous little orbs are much in demand. As anyone who has been shopping the high street or binge-watching Netflix’s The Crown will tell you – you can’t throw a crumpet on that show without hitting a female royal dripping in pearls. And who could forget how formidable the Queen looked in that standout green dress and pearls?
Even if you don’t have courtly aspirations, the allure of pearl jewellery is clear: The way it reflects light off your face makes it the perfect accessory for subtle elegance. And for the professional woman who wants to up her game, it might be time to splash out on some real pearls.
But with so many varieties of pearls and wannabe pearls out there, how should a self-respecting fashionista go about selecting a really good piece of pearl jewellery? The options can be confusing.
Thankfully, we got a crash course in the subject from gemologists Loke Hui Ying and Tay Kunming, director and managing director of educational gemstone and mineral museum The Gem Museum.
Hopefully their tips come in handy. Just in case you get that invite to Princess Charlotte’s brother’s christening or Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding…
Q. What factors should I look at when buying pearls?
Consider the shape and lustre of the pearl. The rounder and more glowing the pearl, the more valuable it is. With a really good lustre, Loke says, you can even see your face reflected on the surface.
Then there are colours. Even pearls that appear white to the eye can have silver, cream, blue or pink tones. The whiter the pearl, the more expensive.
Q. How much should I be paying?
There is no real answer to this one – prices range vastly because of the various types of pearls that exist. You could get a strand of freshwater pearls for a couple of dollars, or a better quality one for S$100. You could also fork out upwards of a few thousand for a strand of South Sea pearls.
South Sea pearls, which tend to be rounder, are more expensive because they are grown from oysters. The oysters require a sheltered bay with just enough current, and these exist only in a few places in the world, including in countries such as Australia, the Philippines and Myanmar. They are also at the mercy of natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to jellyfish invasions.
An example of a South Sea pearl is the Akoya pearl, which is found mostly in Japan and China and is known for its lustre, as “there are processing methods that the Japanese are very good at,” Tay says.
Freshwater pearls, which are more affordable, are grown from mussels, which have a higher survival rate than oysters. Also, each mussel can yield up to 10 times as many pearls as an oyster. Freshwater pearls are largely grown in China, where advancing technology is increasingly producing rounder and more lustrous pearls.
All the pearls in the market are cultivated pearls, Tay says. Natural pearls from the Arabian gulf do exist, but you are unlikely to be able to purchase them thanks to their extreme scarcity.
Q. How do I choose a good seller?
Firstly, make sure the jeweller has credentials, Tay says. They should have a diploma in gemology. Secondly, consider their reputation – if you’re not sure, ask around.
Is it worth paying more for brand-name pearls? Tay thinks so. You aren’t just paying for the brand, he explains, but for the uniformity and symmetry of the pearls in your necklace, which takes time and labour to achieve. Established jewellers such as Mikimoto or Tiffany “do a lot of selection. One harvest takes about 18 months to complete. Sometimes, one harvest is not enough to find pearls of the same size.”
You are also paying for an established brand’s decades of research, reliability and history. Remember how US First Lady Melania Trump visited the Mikimoto store during the Trumps’ official visit to Tokyo in November? The brand receives support from the Japanese government because it is a part of the nation’s heritage.
Q. Is it important to have a certificate for my pearls?
Generally, the answer is no. “Diamonds are certified so that you know if they are natural or synthetic. But pearls are cultivated,” Tay says – so the certificate would not be giving you any useful information.
Q. How can I tell the difference between real and fake pearls?
At costume jewellery stores, the pieces are often made from “shell pearls”, which are carved out from the shell of the giant clam. A strand of these can cost around S$30 or S$40 dollars. “When you hold it in your hand, it feels very heavy,” Tay says.
Other costume pieces can be made of plastic or glass. “You can tell by looking at the surface,” Loke says, which may look as if it has been painted. Most real pearls have natural blemishes, but these are not evenly distributed. “Another trick is to look at the hole that has been drilled in. The paint usually accumulates around the drill hole.”
Q. Any other tips?
Ask the salesperson to show you the most expensive piece in the shop, as well as the least expensive piece, Tay suggests. Comparing these will give you an idea of their quality. “When it comes to gems and jewellery, our eyes often need to be trained. Take the best and the worst, and then find something in between.”