For a long time, pearls were shorthand for a certain kind of elegance. They were all about sophistication, class, and old-world charm. And we’ve all heard the idioms. Diving for pearls. Clutching pearls. Even Disney got in on it. Today, the beauty and fantasy of this aquatic gem are appealing to fiancé(e)s everywhere. So let’s check out tips to buy pearl engagement rings.
Pearl Engagement Rings Buying Guide
Pearls come from oysters and other shelled animals. They can grow in the wild, but some gem dealers breed mussels and other mollusks so they can grow their cultured pearls for sale. Here are fifteen factors you could consider when you’re shopping for pearl engagement rings.
Tip #1: Know How They Form
What exactly is a pearl? You might know it grows in shelled sea animals, but what is it? When a parasite or some unexpected irritant enters an oyster or any other pearl-bearing mollusk, the creature’s natural defenses are engaged. It produces a substance called nacre.
This ‘mother of pearl’ fluid is protein plus calcium carbonate and it encloses the ‘invader’ to protect the shelled animal. Over time, nacre deposits harden to form layers that we call a pearl. So when people dive for or harvest pearls, they crack open the animal’s shell to pry it out.
Tip #2: Check with Your Beloved
You may think everybody loves pearls. But once you know how they’re made, you (or your spouse-to-be) might have a change of heart. Just as an example, vegans and other animal activists may be uneasy about wearing these organic gems. On the other hand, pearls are technically a defense mechanism. They protect the mollusk against contaminants and germs.
So you and your future bride/groom may be entranced by the symbolism of these internal bodyguards. They’re just like our white blood cells but prettier. Either way, be sure your intended is ethically okay wearing pearls. Otherwise, they might get mad and hold it against you. Their discomfort doesn’t stop after you send back that pearl engagement ring …
Tip #3: Know the Jargon
Technically, all pearls are organic because they grow in a live animal. But in the wild, only one mollusk in ten thousand can bear usable pearls. Also, a pearl takes 3 years to grow on average, and even then, it may not be suitable for sale. So most pearls are cultured on farms. And no, you can’t visually tell whether a pearl is wild or farmed, so don’t pay more for that.
It would take an x-ray or an expert jeweler to know the difference, so it’s not worth the cost. Pear farms are underwater and can be freshwater (rivers, lakes, ponds) or saltwater (seas, oceans, saline lakes). Freshwater pearls are cheaper. Also, the irritant that triggered the nacre is called a seed. And the calcium carbonate content that forms the pearl is called aragonite.
Tip #4: Look for Orient and Lustre
You know how some pearls have these reflective rainbow colors? That’s called orient, and the more rainbows a pearl reflects, the more valuable it is. Luster is closely linked to orient, but it’s more about the gemstone’s shine and glow. ‘Sparkly’ pearls fetch a better price, so look for stones with a ‘pearly glint’. These factors are more important than size and shape.
Of course the latter two matter. The rounder your pearl is, the higher it’ll cost since round pearls are extremely rare. Flat, button, and blister pearls are cheaper while teardrop or pear-shaped pearls are the most expensive. Size-wise, the smallest pearl you should buy is 8mm. Check for smoothness, irregularities, and overtones, since they all affect the pearl’s orient.
Tip #5: Pick the Right Overtones
Colour is a crucial factor. White pearls are premium. But depending on the pearl oyster species, the type of seed, the condition of the water, and many other factors, you can grow pearls that are black, green, gold, lavender, silver, or peach. The priciest pearls are white, black, or gold. Ideal overtones are pink, cream, or silver. Yellow overtones are less desirable.
The shape of the pearl does influence the overtones. Particularly for baroque pearls, which can have odd, irregular shapes. You don’t see many of these on rings because they’re harder to set. But if your beloved enjoys quirky, customized jewelry, a baroque pearl could be perfect. It’ll cost a lot more though – both for the gemstone and for the tailored ring setting.
Tip #6: Consider the Intersections
Shopping for pearl engagement rings can be puzzling because the factors overlap so much. We’ve hinted at color and size. And we’ll soon talk about location. But first, let’s see where these issues overlap. Pearls farmed in cold water habitats (like Asia) are small and shiny – roughly 2 to 11mm. Black pearls range from 9 to 14mm. Warm water pearls are the biggest.
They’re also the ‘goldest’ creamy but will typically have low luster. Polynesian pearls can be black with blue or silver overtones. But they can also be brown, gray, aubergine (purple-grey), pistachio (yellow-green), or peacock (greenish-grey). Peacock pearls can sometimes cost more than black pearls. Buy undrilled pearls if you can – they’re better for ring setting.
Tip #7: Think About Type
We’ve touched on color and breeding medium, so let’s dive a bit deeper, pun intended. Freshwater pearls aren’t better quality, but they’re more common than marine pearls, so they cost less. They also come in more colors (orange and purple even!). But freshwater pearls are never black unless they’re dyed, so if you’re buying black, be sure it’s ‘salty’.
Akoya pearls from China and Japan are premium. The water there is colder so the pearls develop slower and sell smaller, which makes them more lustrous. Pearls from Tahiti and French Polynesia are the only naturally black pearls. South Sea pearls are the biggest and can reach 20mm because the water is warmer. They’re cultured in the Philippines and Australia.
Tip #8: Set it Smart
When you’re buying pearl engagement rings, you could decide to focus the bulk of your budget on the gemstone or the shank. And because of how pearls form, they won’t be symmetrical in their appearance or structure. Some sections may have bumps or dimples. Others may have scratches that dull the luster. Also, rhodium-laced settings harm the pearl.
You could opt for a cheaper, flawed pearl then hide its faults in the basket or bezel, leaving the prettiest part exposed. Or you could pick a metal that plays on your pearl’s overtones. These are soft gemstones and are susceptible to scratching, so pick a protective setting. The stone sits on a needle but avoid the spin. Try wire baskets, high-claw halos, or bowl settings.
Tip #9: Ask About Enhancement
Freshwater pearls offer the widest color variety … but a lot of this is dye. If it’s drilled, you can spot the globs of color around the hole. But it’s harder to tell with undrilled pearls (which cost more). They can also have a metallic sheen because they have darker nacre.
Radiation (via gamma rays) is another common treatment for freshwater pearls and Akoya. Silver nitrate works as well. These two treatments ‘beat’ the pearls black or blue. And don’t even look at synthetic pearls, because they’re mostly painted plastic. Or sometimes glass.
Tip #10: Last on First Off
If your betrothed has an active lifestyle, a pearl engagement ring may not work. Pearls are as soft as fingernails. They can be damaged by anything from loose spinning settings to make-up, perfumes, and even sweat. And you really don’t want a high show-offy pearl setting.
So your beloved will definitely need a cloned costume ring for daily wear, leaving their precious pearl for special occasions. Only put on the ring once you’re dressed, and remove it before anything else or you’ll damage the stone. And avoid airtight storage – it’ll dry out.
Tip #11: Know Your Letters!
Pearls don’t have a standard grading system like diamonds. You might see them rated A to D or A to AAA, but these aren’t standardized across the gem world. That said, here are some markings you might spot on the jeweler’s report, certificate, or even the gemstone’s label:
- B = Bleached, mostly for white pearls
- D = Dyed, mostly for freshwater pearls
- E = Enhanced, which can include bleaching or other treatments
- R = Irradiated to darken the stone to grey, blue, black, or bronze
Pearls aren’t generally graded for color, but gold pearls are valued for their creaminess, not their luster. For white pearls, the lighter the better. And for black pearls, it’s all about orient.
Tip #12: Consider Going Flush
A flush setting is when the gemstone is completely tucked into the metal of the ring. It’s deeper than a bezel and the stone is surrounded with a bit of the face poking out. So it’s the best way to protect a soft gemstone. It’s not popular for engagement rings because it makes the stone look smaller. But it can be a great way to preserve pearl engagement rings.
So consider buying your beloved an eternity engagement ring. This is a ring where the entire shank is encrusted with jewels and there’s no center stone. It’s a perfect choice for pearls. But whether it’s an eternity ring or a bowl-set one, the pearls will get damaged. So you might have to start a complex anniversary tradition of replacing the pearls and resetting the ring …
Tip #13: Think About Style
What kinds of jewelry does your fiancé(e) wear? Do they like loud statement pieces or quieter subtle ones? Look at the rings they wear every day and peek in their jewelry collection as well. This could be a useful hint on the kind of pearl engagement ring to buy.
For simple tastes, you could go for a single pearl set on a fancy shank. But avoid raised solitaire settings, since the gemstone can easily pop off if it’s worn every day. If your beloved likes bling with a buzz, an elaborate split shank, double band, or twisted ring is better.
Tip #14: Combine the Pearl with Other Stones
Pearl engagement rings are more affordable than crystalline gemstone rings. So you have a lot more room in your budget. Meaning even if the center stone is a pearl, you can add pavés, clusters, or even Channel bands of other gemstones. Pick a stone that goes with your pearl.
Colour could be a good way to choose this. Pink freshwater pearls could be flanked by pink or purple sapphires or garnets. Tahitian pearls can be set with emeralds for pistachio or peacock pearls. Blue Akoya can be paired with topaz, turquoise, tanzanite, or aquamarine.
Tip #15: Caress the Surface
Pearls can never be perfect because whether they’re cultured or natural, they grow in layers. Picture the process of pearl growth. A parasite (for natural pearls) or a bead (for cultured pearls) slips or is placed into the shell. The mollusk – usually an oyster, mussel, or clam – releases the mother of pearl (aka nacre) to trap the outsider. This gradually coats the seed.
So while some sections of the nacre will pile on smoothly, others may form ripples, dimples, or blemishes. And pearls aren’t sanded or polished like other gemstones. They’re only enhanced for color. So when you’re buying pearl engagement rings, look at it from all angles. And if you’re shopping in person, touch the gemstone to see if you can feel any bumps or ripples.
Tip #16: Cuddle the Stone
We’ve mentioned several times that pearl engagement rings do best when they have protective settings. Yes, Emma’s pearl is a solitaire, but she’ll probably only wear it for press events. So if you plan to wear your ring every day, consider buying a shank that coils around the pearl. There are lots of different styles, from
Tip #17: Look at Alternative Settings
If your bride or groom to be is artsy or creative, you have a lot more wiggle room on their pearl engagement ring. You’re not restricted to standard styles like three-stone rings or side stones. You could – for instance – get an open circle ring with smaller pearls. The pearls have a lower profile, keeping them more protected and reduced their chances of popping off.
Or you could get a crescent ring – the mooning metal offers partial cover. An option that is both stylish and pearl preserving is to coil the actual shank around the ring. Another way to do it is to build a curled projection around the center stone. Finally, you could just nestle the pearl in a metal weave. These styles are often used for birthstone rings, but they still work.
Some say every lady (and even some gentlemen) should own a string of pearls. But whether or not you want to adorn your neck, pearl engagement rings are a true treasure. What’s your favorite style for pearl engagement rings? Show us your top ring photos in the comments!