Inherited Pearls - what are they worth ?

Dear Pearl Market,

I 've inherited a pearl necklace which belonged to my grandmother. It has about sixty pearls on it and what I think is a gold clasp. There isn't a box or a certificate with them. Most of the pearls seem in good condition although a few appear a bit yellow coloured. Can you give me an idea what the value of the necklace might be ?

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We do get asked this sort of thing quite often.

grandma's pearls usually aren't worth muchSadly, there's bad news and then there's more bad news...

The bad news is that the majority of inherited pearls turn out to be imitation. A generation or two ago most people couldn't afford real pearls, so they wore fakes.

The more bad news is it doesn't matter ! With some exceptions, old pearls usually aren't worth much anyway. Lets explore this further......
Real Pearls

From a description alone it's not possible to say with certainty whether a necklace is real or imitation. Even with a photograph. But there are clues:

Pearl Size

real pearls in this era weren't bigGet out your ruler and measure the diameter of the largest pearls on the necklace. In the 1950's 60's and 70's a typical size for cultured pearls was 4mm to 6mm. Graduated necklaces were popular - ranging from a central 7mm diameter pearl to 3mm pearls at the necklace ends. A necklace from this era with large pearls was either fake or vastly expensive. Was grandma very wealthy ?

Imperfections

Pearl culturing and processing has come a long way in the last twenty years but pearls are still a natural product, often with small imperfections visible on the surface. Imitation pearls are usually perfectly round and flawless. Ironically, the better grandma's pearls look, the more likely it is they aren't real.

Colour

Tricky one this because it's far from conclusive. Fake pearls are sometimes slightly or more-than-slightly yellow. Unfortunately, if real pearls are kept in a dark box for a long time they can become dry and yellowish too.


Clasp and Thread

cheap clasps are not a good signIf grandma's necklace is genuine it probably has a decent clasp fitted - not a cheap silver, paste or gold-plated filigree clasp like this.

good pearls are strung on silk threadReal pearls would have been strung on silk thread and knotted between each pearl to stop them rubbing together and protect against breakage.
Stringing on cotton or twine with or without knots isn't a good omen.

Imitation Pearls

Go by many names. Simulated, organic, faux and semi-cultured are sometimes used.

Good imitations are made from beads of glass, ceramic or shell and coated with a varnish of laquer and ground fish scales to mimic the pearl surface.

Well made imitations can be quite hard to spot. One way is the 'tooth test'. Gently rub the pearl under the cutting edge of your top front teeth. Don't bite it.

A real pearl should feel slightly gritty due to it's crystaline structure. An imitation pearl will feel smooth. This is not an infallible test.

an imitation pearl necklace


Example of an imitation necklace. Note the very large perfectly formed pearls and cheap clasp. If this was a real pearl necklace it would be worth a fortune !
Pearl Values

It's often assumed that because something's old it must be valuable. That's rarely true and certainly not for pearls. Advances in technology and culturing techniques mean you can buy a better set of pearls for less money than in grandma's day.

jackie kennedy's famous pearlsSecond-hand pearls usually aren't worth much unless there's something special about them - like if they're wild pearls or were owned by someone famous.

Jackie Kennedy's much-loved triple strand of glass pearls went for over $200,000 at auction in 1996. An identical replica set can be had for only $99 !

In 1917 jeweller Pierre Cartier bought his company's Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York with $100 in cash and a two-strand natural pearl necklace valued at $1 million. In 1957 the same necklace was auctioned for just $157,000.

Do remember that there can be a big difference between resale value and replacement value. If you are looking to insure your pearls you'll need to do a bit of research or get a valuation from a jeweller to find out how much it would cost to replace them if lost.

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