The Pearl Liberty Bell, Courtesy of Mikimoto America
As the inventor of cultured pearls, Mikimoto embodied Japan’s reputation for quality goods and helped to build the country’s global trade. Upon his death at the age of 96, Mikimoto was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. Today, his brand and his vision live on in the company’s superb quality and elegant designs.
So, Mikimoto was the first to craft the cultured pearl, why does that matter?
Real vs. Fake
It’s important to note that Mikimoto angered a lot of people during his quest to develop the world’s finest cultured pearls. Think about it, at the time, the world’s pearl market consisted mainly of natural pearls which were expensive to extract and even more expensive to purchase. When cultured pearls were introduced to the market, they were more beautiful, consistently round, and less expensive than their rarer counterparts. Mikimoto sent a message to other dealers in 1932, by shoveling inferior pearls into a fire in front of the Kobe Chamber of Commerce. Foreign journalists based in Kobe communicated his message to the world. Mikimoto was then sued by other dealers for advertising his pearls as “natural pearls”. The lawsuit led to the creation of the term “cultured pearl” to help differentiate his pearls from the rest of the world.
Ironically, now, when someone asks “Are those cultured pearls?” they are really asking, “Are they real?” Originally, the term was meant to denote Mikimotopearls as not natural (and thus not as prestigious) but the definition has changed over time due to the overwhelming number of fraudulent pearls on the market. Mikimoto continues to uphold its founder meticulous eye for detail and guarantees that all of their pearls are truly authentic. In other words, you are guaranteed excellence when purchasing a piece of Mikimoto pearls.
The 5 Factors that Contribute to a Pearl’s Worth
There are 5 commonly known factors that help jewelers to determine a pearl’s worth: luster, shape, color, surface blemishing and size. Only the finest quality pearls with the highest ratings in each of the factors can carry the Mikimoto name.
The biggest factor in value, so pay close attention. Luster measures the rate of reflection on a pearl’s surface and the amount of light reflected. A good question to ask is “How crisp and detailed is my reflection in these pearls?” Luster makes or breaks pearls as a precious gemstone – pearls without brilliant luster can end up looking like painted beads. The bottom line, the brighter, sharper and more reflective a pearl is, the more valuable it will be.
This is one of the easiest factors to see with the naked eye because generally the more perfectly round in shape a pearl is, the more rare it is. However, some pearl connoisseurs enjoy the uniqueness of baroque pearls which are often off-round, drop and asymmetrical in shape, and are graded according to symmetry.
While many prefer the classic white “Audrey Hepburn” pearl, they actually come in a variety of colors based on the type of oysters that produce them. The rarer the shade, the more valuable the pearl. Colors range from cream, pink and grey to black, green and blue. White and pink rosé are among the most popular Akoya colors while peacock green and gold are among the rarest South Sea shades. While color choice is a matter of personal preference, always look for rich color, evenly distributed throughout the pearl.
Similar to inclusions in diamonds, pearls are evaluated for pin-pricks, scoring marks, chalky spots, wrinkles and other blemishes. Pearls with cleaner surfaces are valued more highly but it is important to note that pearls are a product of nature, there will always be some form of blemish even if you can’t see them with the naked eye.
Like diamonds, pearls that are larger in size are much rarer and more valuable (all other value factors being equal) than those that are not. Pearls are measured in diameter increments of millimeters (mm). The classic Akoya cultured pearl generally ranges from 3mm to 10mm. South Sea cultured pearls begin at 8mm and can grow as large as 18mm. The majority of cultured pearls harvested typically range between 6mm – 10mm in size. Pearls larger than 10mm are typically found in the wild, but are not as lustrous, colorful or round as cultured pearls.
Bonus Factor: Matching
This factor describes how well pearls are matched within a pair of earrings or a necklace strand. For Akoya pearls, matching must be near perfect with little to no variation in the 5 other factors listed above. South Sea pearls are often featured in graduated strands and showcase multiple colors as it is much more difficult to find identical gems.
Currently, there is no internationally agreed upon grading scale for pearls which means that grading is often subjective. The most common scale, A-AAAA, isn’t properly described by dealers, and customers who are new to pearls and are unfamiliar with the intricacies of pearl grading end up disappointed. However, Mikimoto developed their own proprietary grading scale to maintain absolute consistency and fairness of value for its consumers. So, there is no need to worry that you are purchasing a AAA and really getting a AA.
Below is a small chart of Mikimoto’s pearl grading system and each grade’s meaning: