Buying pearls with design in mind

Tahitian pearl necklace ($2,350,

While traditional pearl jewelry can have great impact, jewelry designers have been finding ways to reinvent the pearl for centuries. Fortunately, there has never been a better time to get creative with pearls.

Production of pearls increased several years ago, bringing prices down. Pearls suppliers in Tahiti and China have tried curtailing production in order to establish some price control. But for now, pearls of all varieties are abundant and relatively inexpensive. This has allowed jewelers to be much freer with their designs, to experiment in a way they couldn’t have risked before. Some tips for pearl shopping:

Sensual Tension ring by Gina Pankowski (

Don’t overlook the rejects. Pearls are often labeled this way due to flaws in the nacre or inconsistencies in shape and color. For the studio jeweler, this can be a way to get what Sam Shaw calls “more show for the money.”

Seattle studio jeweler Gina Pantowski often uses doublets and triplets, cultured pearls considered rejects, for her Pearl Orbit neckpieces. “The color is natural but they’ve grown into these odd shapes,” she says. “I design the pieces around the pearls so the pearl dictates or inspires the shape.”

Another common reject is a pearl with beautiful luster on one side and a blemish on the other. “It comes down to the skills of the jeweler to hide the blemish, which is a fun challenge,” says Sam Shaw, who works from a studio on the coast of Maine. He often puts a back on such pearls and makes pendants of them. “I’m always trying to find ways to make wonderful jewelry cheaper.”

South Sea pearl twig necklace in 18kt gold with diamonds by Sam Shaw ($4900,

Always negotiate. Price reductions for a flawed pearl vary dramatically. There are many variables including size, quality, shape and color—and each can effect the price. Shaw buys most of his pearls from familiar vendors at the Tucson Gem Shows every year – Betty Sue King is my personal favorite there – but he always looks for new ones.

“You can sometimes find amazing pearls in unlikely places — from someone who isn’t really a pearl dealer, for example, but has acquired a couple strands as part of a closeout deal,” Shaw says. “You have to keep checking. And always ask for a better price.”

Look for luster. “Buying pearls requires a different sense than gemstones. I look for pearls that feel like skin,” Shaw says. “When I’m looking at pearls, it’s all about the feminine sensibility of touch. The most important thing to me is the luster: Does this pearl glow and sing?”

Strands vs. singles. “When I’m buying a strand, I like variegated pearls with a variation in color,” Shaw says. “In single pearls, I want luster and I want size. I think big pearls are just inherently more fabulous.”