Lately, pearl jewelry is becoming a hot fashion accessory, with pearl-sporting stars like actress Sarah Jessica Parker contributing to the sizzle.
But if you buy a string of cultured pearls at some national jewelry store chains, they might not last as long as you think, one jewelry expert told Greg Hunter, consumer correspondent for ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
"It will change, it will deteriorate into worthless shell beads because the pearl coating basically comes off," said Antoinette Matlins, a gem and jewelry expert and author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide. "It won't be a pearl."
As an experiment, Matlins and a Good Morning America producer went pearl shopping at three jewelry stores that were part of national chains, and one department store. After expert gemologists examined the brand-new jewelry, they found three of the necklaces and one of the bracelets had pearls that were already chipping around the drill holes, where the pearls are strung together.
"Oh my goodness ... this is absurd," said Cap Beesley, president of American Gemological Laboratories in New York, who examined a pearl necklace that they had purchased for $464. The store, part of a national jewelry chain, had marked it down from $999.
When Beesley looked at the necklace under a microscope, the gemologist found several chipping pearls, which seemed to be missing large sections of nacre, the natural substance that from which pearls are made.
Pearls Are Big Business
Most pearls sold today are not the natural kind, but rather cultured pearls, grown on pearl farms.
Natural pearls form when an irritant — such as a grain of sand — gets into an oyster, prompting it to produce nacre, a coating substance that eventually forms a pearl. Such natural pearls are rarely found; the fine ones that do exist command staggering prices and are mostly owned by collectors or connoisseurs.
Since pearl cultivation started in earnest back in 1920, pearl farmers have been giving nature a little push to create pearls the same way that natural pearls form.
Technicians insert shell beads made of mother-of-pearl into live oysters. Because the mollusks consider the beads to be an irritant, they form nacre around it. Over a period of up to two years, this layer upon layer of nacre forms what the pearl farmers hopes will be a round, relatively blemish-free pearl.
But to meet the demand for pearls, some farmers remove the pearls from the oysters too soon, before the nacre coating has thickened, Matlins said.
"If the pearl coating is tissue-paper thin, it's going to peel off and leave just the bead," Matlins said.
A Disheartening Shopping Trip
At the first chain store, Matlins and the Good Morning America producer bought a $185 cultured pearl bracelet, a $285 cultured pearl necklace on sale for $199 and a $1,299 cultured pearl necklace. They were assured that the pearls would last. "Unless you beat the crap out of 'em, nothing is going to happen," the salesperson assured them.
At the second chain store, they bought a $699 cultured pearl necklace for $499.
"You should have them forever; you should be able to pass them down," the salesperson said.
At the third chain store, they were told that the would get a deal: a $999 cultured pearl necklace for only $464. They were assured that the coating would last.
"They are not going to peel unless you hit it on something or bang it around," the salesperson said.