The Color of Pearls

(Freshwater pearl bracelets, photography by Harrison Jones)

As one of nature’s most prized and sought-after gems, pearls can materialize in a wide variety of colors. And with cultured pearls, colors can span every hue!

Pearl Types and Value Factors

Did you know that the type of pearl influences its value in the market? One value factor can contribute more to a pearl’s value than another. For instance, the value Tahitian pearls have are strongly influenced by their color because the color is such a highly distinctive property. In comparison, size matters to the value of Akoya cultured pearls. The most common size of Akoya pearls are 6mm to 7mm. So if an Akoya cultured pearl is 7mm or greater, that makes them a rarity, and therefore much more valuable.

Overtone is another important aspect of a pearl that can have a great effect on the value of a pearl. For example, a rosé (pink) overtone on white Akoya cultured pearls is highly desirable, so it increases their value. On the other hand, green overtone on white Akoya cultured pearls is less desirable and decreases their value. Rosé to purple overtones on dark green-gray to blue-gray Tahitian pearls creates a color known in the trade as “peacock”. That color is among the most highly valued in Tahitian cultured pearls, and it wouldn’t exist without overtone.

There are a lot of different factors that go into ascertaining the value of a particular pearl. In this piece, we’ll dig into those specifics and help you become a pearl expert!

The Components of a Pearl’s Color 

While size is a simple and straightforward measurement of value, color is more complex. The three basic components of color are:

  • Hue – The basic color of an object.
  • Tone – The degree of a hue’s darkness or lightness.
  • Saturation – The strength or intensity of a hue.

 A Rainbow of Hues

 (Freshwater pearl bracelets, photography by Harrison Jones)

The broad range of hues that pearls can occur in can resemble a rainbow. You’ll find warm hues like yellow, orange, and pink...and cool hues like blue, green, and violet.

Setting the Tone 

Tone is the degree of a hue’s darkness or lightness. Pearls have a wide range of tones, from light to dark.

Total Saturation

As a rule, pearl colors tend to be low in saturation, which means that they are most often muted and have a soft subtle quality to them.

The Characteristics of Pearl Color

 The outer layers of pearls are composed of nacre, the same substance that forms the mother-of-pearl inside a pearl-bearing mollusk’s shell. Nacre layers are translucent. As light penetrates them, it bends and reflects back to your eyes. The combination of the effects of refraction and reflection create complex optical effects.

 Most of the time, the color of a pearl can be influenced by the mollusk’s lip, also known as the outer part of the shell. Pearls can also get their color from microscopic pigments that lay inside of the conchiolin layer, which acts like the “glue” that holds the internal layers together. The layers that the conchiolin cements together strengthens them like cement.

The Components of Pearl Color 

The three components of a pearl’s color are:

  •  Bodycolor – The dominant, overall color of a pearl.
  • Overtone – One or more translucent colors that lie over a pearl’s bodycolor.
  • Orient – The iridescent rainbow colors that shimmer on or just below a pearl’s surface.

Pure Color

Bodycolor is a component that all pearls display. But, what varies between them is the fact that some will show overtone or orient or both.

Intriguing Translucents

Overtone is one or more of the translucent colors that lie over a pearl’s bodycolor. Research has shown that overtone is caused by the diffraction of light around the fine edges of the area where nacre crystals overlap.

Rainbows and Ripples

Orient results when a pearl’s surface interferes with the passage of light and breaks it into its component colors, which produces the rainbow effect. Orient occurs most often when the pearl’s surface is irregular, such as when the surface of the shell looks as if it has little ripples all around it. Orient increases the value of pearls for three reasons:

  1. Orient usually indicates thick, high-quality nacre
  2. It’s rare and very desirable
  3. It’s beautiful!

Communication about Color

When describing the bodycolors of pearls, it’s typically easier to group them into ranges using standard color terminology to provide a consistent way of understanding and sharing information about the pearl’s color. Pearl bodycolor ranges generally fall into three categories:

  • Neutrals – White, gray, and black
  • Near Neutrals – Silver, cream, and brown
  • Hues – All other colors

 Many factors influence the popularity of different pearl colors at different times. Some pearl colors complement certain skin tones better than others. Plus, fashion trends can also affect pearl color choices.

The science and study of pearls and how they evolve is ongoing, but we do know a lot now about the factors that determine a pearl’s ultimate color...such as environment and the hosting mollusk. Lastly, always remember that pearls come in a plethora of amazing colors, and whether they materialized naturally, or were color cultured, there’s a pearl for every preference and persona!





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