Pearls provide a timeless, classic look that has been around in one way or another since approximately 2300 BC.
Through the ages, pearls have been used in everything from medicine to art to jewelry.
While beautiful, pearls can also be expensive.
For instance, Marie Antoinette’s pearl pendant sold for $32 million in a Sotheby’s auction in 2018, making it the most expensive natural pearl ever sold at auction.
Let’s look at the top reasons pearls are so expensive.
Why Are Pearls So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
A pearl’s value depends on many different things and how they interplay with the final product.
Most of the time, natural pearls are more expensive than cultured pearls because they are harder to find and harvest.
However, this is not an iron-clad rule.
Sometimes the opposite is true, depending on the pearl’s appearance.
Pearls are organic creations made by mollusks—that is, sea animals that have hard shells.
The pearls form when an irritant of some type becomes trapped inside the shell of a mollusk.
To protect itself, the animal creates what is known as a pearl sac.
Over time, it becomes covered with nacre, a protective coating.
This iridescent fluid is also referred to as the mother of pearl.
The nacre eventually hardens.
Because the pearls take a good deal of time to form, and because their beauty has caused them to become over-harvested, and therefore rare, naturally-formed pearls are very expensive.
Cultivated pearls, on the other hand, are much less expensive because these are pearls that have been manually seeded with the irritant, or pearl nucleus, which begins the process of the pearl formation.
Oysters are grown in water tanks for this express purpose.
Natural pearls, unlike the ones that are cultivated, are very difficult to find in the wild.
They are also much more difficult to harvest.
What one finds during a wild pearl harvest is a hit-or-miss proposition.
The perfectly round ones are particularly rare.
Occasionally, an exceptional pearl is found that is worth thousands of dollars, but these are rare occasions.
The scarcity of fine-quality wild pearls contributes to why they are so expensive, even though cultured pearls can end up with fewer flaws and as beautiful an appearance.
Consumers are attracted to something rare when considering purchasing something.
There exists a type of Japanese pearl called the Akoya pearl, which forms in oysters called the Pinctada fucata.
This type of pearl-producing oyster produces pearls that are quite small, compared to pearls found in the South Seas and Tahiti.
While once almost exclusively found in Japan, Akoya pearls can now be found in parts of Vietnam, Thailand, China, and Australia.
This was the first variety of pearls to be cultivated for commercial use.
Their developer was named Kasuchi Mikimoto, and his name has been closely associated with this variety of pearls since the beginning of commercial pearl production.
These pearls feature a rich, white color and are valued for their highly reflective properties and exceptional luster.
Depending on their ratings, the best ones can sell for tens of thousands of dollars because of their uniquely beautiful appearance.
4. Shape And Size
Pearls are generally found in four different shapes and come in a variety of sizes.
The perfectly round ones are the most popular shape and are the most valuable.
Semi-round pearls can appear to be perfectly round but have microscopic irregularities, making them less expensive than round pearls.
Drop-shaped pearls are shaped like teardrops and can be exceptionally valuable if they are found in a flawless pear shape.
Baroque pearls are noted for their asymmetrical shapes and are quite cherished for their unique appearance.
However, this type of pearl is less expensive than the other shapes of pearls.
However, pearls that are found in a baroque circle shape with rings around them are very rare and can be costly.
Regarding their size, generally speaking, the larger a pearl, the more expensive it will be.
There are exceptions to this rule, however, especially in the case of rare, naturally-harvested black pearls.
These pearls are among the most expensive, yet they tend to be smaller than other types of pearls.
With this kind, color is the most important determining factor for worth.
One of the most fascinating elements of pearls is that they are available in a wide variety of colors.
They come in white and black but are also found in secondary colors that include rainbow or peacock, rose, gold, and silver.
They can also be found in a mix of green, gold, and rose.
The color of a given pearl can carry considerable weight in determining its cost.
For instance, pearls that are naturally dark colors, as well as those that are exceptionally rare, such as gold and bronze, are more valuable than pearls of other colors.
Natural black pearls cost more than other pearls because of the extremely rare conditions under which they form.
They come only from the Tahitian black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster, which is found in the South Seas.
Most oysters yield glossy white pearls or even those that are a silvery color, but this type of oyster has a thick band of black in its interior shell.
A pearl that forms near this black band will also absorb its color, but this rarely happens.
The closer to the lips the pearl is formed, the darker it is.
However, as the distance grows between the location of the pearl and the lips of the oyster shell, it tends to be a lighter color, which is often silvery gray.
Other oysters have been known to produce black pearls when they have black coloring in their nacre, but this is an extremely rare occurrence that only takes place in one in ten thousand pearls.
While black pearls can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the market value depends on the size, luster, shape, color, and quality of their shape.
They are graded on a scale that ranges from A to D.
If a single Tahitian black pearl is perfectly round and consists of a AAA surface quality, one that is 10 millimeters will go for around $140.
Alternatively, if the same size pearl is white, the average price will be around $15.
6. Location Of Harvest
Pearls that are naturally harvested from the South Sea Islands are considered to be the “Rolls Royce of pearls.”
These are the largest and the most expensive pearls that are harvested today.
On average, they range in size from 10 to 15 millimeters, and they grow in the types of large oysters that are found in Myanmar, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Strands of pearls from the South Seas range in price from one thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars, depending on the standard qualities by which all pearls are rated.
Costs of harvesting pearls from the South Sea islands are higher logistically because of the special equipment that is required.
This causes the rise in the price of these varieties of pearls even more.
The next in line are the pearls harvested in Tahiti.
These exotic pearls range in color from black to aubergine and can range in price from one thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars on average.
However, as previously noted, the exceptionally rare black variety is among the most expensive in the world.
The third most expensive pearls are the Japanese Akoya pearls mentioned earlier.
These were first harvested from Japan around 100 years ago and can range in price from three hundred to ten thousand dollars per strand.
These days, this type of pearl is harvested in Australia and a handful of other countries.
7. Freshwater Vs. Saltwater
The type of water that the pearl-forming mollusk comes from can have an impact on the price of a pearl.
Three varieties of oysters comprise those that form pearls; the Mikimoto, the Pinctada fucata, and the Pinctada margaritifera.
Each of these oysters is a saltwater creature and can commonly produce one pearl per lifetime.
Occasionally, more than one pearl can be found in a shell, but this is rare.
Alternatively, freshwater pearls come from mussels, and for the most part, are raised in pearl hatcheries.
Muscles differ from oysters in that one of them can produce several pearls at once, causing them to be less rare, easy to produce, and very inexpensive to purchase.
Freshwater pearls also tend to be less valuable because of their inferior coloration and tendency toward blemishes.
Freshwater pearls come from mussels, a different kind of shellfish, that are raised in hatcheries.
One mollusk is capable of producing several pearls at one time.
This makes freshwater pearls less expensive to acquire in most cases.
As a result, many consider freshwater pearls to be great bargains.
Conversely, saltwater pearls that are harvested wild from the ocean continue to be very expensive.
Increasing labor costs associated with the saltwater pearl industry in Japan also contributes to their high expense.
8. Surface Quality
The surface quality of a pearl can play a large role in its value.
For instance, a freshwater pearl that has zero or only a couple of minor blemishes with at least a 95% clean surface is considered the most valuable.
Pearls of this range represent the top 1–2% of all pearls harvested.
The same variety of freshwater pearls with minor blemishing and 90% or more clean surfaces are considered to be of high value.
These grades of pearls are most commonly found in finer jewelry stores.
Freshwater pearls that have minor to medium blemishes with a clean surface of from 70–80% represent the top twenty percent of the harvest type most commonly appearing in moderately priced jewelry stores and major department stores.
Freshwater pearls that present with heavy blemishes and only a 50% or less clean surface are considered to be of inferior quality and are the least expensive.
This grade of pearl usually has poor luster and an off-round, inconsistent shape.
A high-quality pearl should have high reflective qualities.
Its surface should be very smooth.
However, it is extremely rare to find a pearl that has a 100% flawless surface.
Blemishes appear on most of them to some degree.
The key factor to consider is the extent to which the blemishes are graded, which depends on how obviously visible the blemishes are.
This is determined by a measuring system that classifies them according to whether they are clean, lightly spotted, moderately spotted, or heavily spotted.
The one aspect of a pearl’s surface quality that affects the price more than any other quality is its luster.
It is defined as the way a pearl reflects the light and is very difficult to measure.
To do so, it must be compared to all of the other features of the pearl.
Its luster is most influenced by the layers of nacre that build up in the center.
This feature reveals how intense the reflections are from its surface.
High nacre quality tends to produce bright, sharp reflections which increase the value of the pearl.
Whether or not a pearl was owned or worn by a famous person can be a determining factor in its worth.
European queens, movie stars, and Maharajas of India have famously adorned themselves with pearls, which served as symbols of their social class and prestige.
Celebrities are often seen walking the red carpets of Hollywood decked out in expensive pearl necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
At a recent Met Gala event, Urma Thurman wore a dress that had more than 3,000 pearls stitched into it.
During the 2019 Grammy ceremony, Cardi B dressed as an oyster shell that was heavily adorned with pearls around the waist, a multi-stranded pearl necklace, and an ornate pearl headpiece.
Among the most famous pearls in the world is the pearl sometimes referred to as the gigantic Pearl of Lao-Tse.
Best known for being the largest pearl ever found, it was harvested from an especially large clam in 1934.
It weighs 14 pounds and is more than nine inches long, and it is believed to be valued at more than $100 million.
Another notable pearl that is among the world’s most valuable was once owned by Henry Phillip Hope, the same man for whom the famous Hope Diamond was named.
The pearl is an amazing saltwater one that weighs about four ounces and is about 2” x 4.5” in size.
This pearl is famous for being one of the largest saltwater pearls known to exist.
It is certainly the largest drop-shaped one.
It also features a rare bronze to white color with a very high luster.
In 1990, a huge baroque pearl, known as the Big Pink, was found off the coast of Petaluma, California.
It is the largest abalone pearl ever discovered and is thought to be priceless.
It still belongs to the diver who discovered it.
The pear-shaped La Peregrina pearl, valued at more than $3 million, was once owned by the actress, Elizabeth Taylor.
It was discovered by African slaves near the Pearl Islands in Panama over 500 years ago and was previously owned by both kings and queens.
It is considered to be one of the greatest pearls in existence.
The Jomon pearl is famous for being the oldest pearl in existence that has any connection to human inhabitants.
According to some, the Jamon pearl is over 5,500 years old.
However, this claim is a controversial one, in that another pearl discovered in 2021 is currently believed to be even older.
The second pearl was discovered at a Neolithic site in Arabia.
According to a natural history publication that was published by the American Museum of Natural History during its pearl exhibition, the oldest pearls were found in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze age stars in Arabia and Mesopotamia.
The issue is still being debated among experts, some of whom claim that the Jomon pearl is, indeed, the elder of the two, and the other camp claims that the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze age pearls are older.
Further investigation is currently underway.
10. Environmental Issues
Popular opinion holds that the farming of mollusks and cultivation of pearls has had little impact on the environment.
However, recent research suggests that pearls can be expensive in alternative ways as well as monetarily expensive.
The pearl industry can cause great environmental damage at great expense to the earth’s environment.
Oysters are often not treated as living creatures by the pearl industry, and this has far-reaching negative implications for the biological balance of the ocean.
Natural environments and ecosystems have been drastically changed in the name of profits, and animal diseases have run rampant due to the imbalances caused by the destruction of these ecosystems.
Reports of substantial adverse environmental impacts have resulted from the industry in the pearl farming districts of China and Japan.
The lack of regulations in the pearl industry in China has already had adverse effects on the environment and is predicted to continue in this direction.
While some countries such as Australia have assessed the risks the industry has to the environment, and have developed management plans to help the environment, other countries have not followed suit.
Well-managed pearl cultivation requires that few chemicals are used and that a heightened awareness of the industry’s impacts on the environment is taught to help reduce risks.
Australia is one of the few countries that has paid close attention to these details.
Otherwise, oyster cultivation results in being very expensive in its toll on the environment.
Among the many problems associated with the pearl industry, there lies the potential for it to harm the water quality in many ways, such as the chemical treatment of the sewage from vessels that are used for cultivation purposes.
Hydrocarbon spills occur during the cultivation of pearls.
Oyster seeding can introduce diseases to the oysters, introducing exotic organisms that conflict with existing ecosystems and attract non-indigenous fauna to the area.
Generally speaking, a classic white pearl necklace can range in price from around $100 to more than $10,000.
However, the expense to the environment is even higher.