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Japanese Akoya pearls are "THE" classic white saltwater pearl. This is the type of pearl made famous by Mikimoto and the what most people think of when they picture that perfect set of white pearls. Akoya pearls are perfectly round and have the highest luster of all pearl types, many consider them "the best" pearl.
Any time you see a traditional single-strand pearl necklace, it most likely is strung with Akoya cultured pearls. Akoya pearls were the first pearls to be cultured in the early 20th century, making pearl jewelry affordable for the masses, and many women have strands of Akoya pearls in their jewelry boxes. These round, white or cream-colored pearls are gemstone staples.
The Akoya oyster is the smallest of the pearl-producers. Adults are only 3 to 5 inches in diameter. Because the oyster is small, so is the pearl. Typical Akoya pearls range from 2 mm to 11 mm, with the 10 and 11 mm sizes rare finds.
Of all the pearl value factors, the Akoya excels at matching - in fact, most of them rank as "excellent" in the category. That's why many Akoya pearls are sold as strands. The reason the pearls can be so easily matched is that most of them are round or near-round.
Sizes in Akoyas are valuable when they are in high demand. There is a big amount of difference in value between a 7.5 and 8 mm size, just because the 8 mm is desirable in fashion at the moment. However, as a rule of thumb, Akoyas become more valuable as they increase in size. Although most Akoya pearls are round or near-round, nature still produces baroques, semi-baroques and sometimes even drops in some harvests.
The Akoya pearl is either white or cream in body color with rose, cream, silver or ivory overtones. Some Akoya pearls achieve a black body color through a process called irradiation. It typically has an excellent, good or fair luster, which is why the Akoya is such a prized gem. The best pearls have clean surface quality and acceptable nacre. The most highly valued Akoyas are larger, have excellent luster and clean surface quality.
By far, most Akoya pearls are strung in the traditional pearl necklace style. These popular jewelry pieces become family heirlooms. They are often a "Sweet 16" present or accessorize wedding gowns. Pearl necklaces come in a variety of sizes, but the 14- to 16-inch choker and the 17- to 19-inch princess are the two most popular.
The choker is perfect with virtually every neckline, from an opened buttoned-down blouse to a business suit. This piece looks great with everything from blue jeans to evening wear. The princess necklace works well with crew necklines and turtlenecks.
Akoyas are also popular in strand bracelets, earrings, rings, pendants, brooches, tie tacks and cufflinks.
The color of an Akoya pearl is a combination of body color and overtone. Generally the body color will be white, cream or black with a white body color being more prized. Although the black body color is not found naturally it can be created through a process called irradiation, where the nucleus of the pearl is bombarded with gamma rays to achieve a permanent coloration of the pearl.
Within the white and cream body colors you will also an overtone present, usually in rose(pink), cream, or silver. Below is an example of the 3 most common overtones found in white Akoya pearls:
A general guideline is skin tone. Many women with fair or light colored skin feel rose overtones look best, while women with dark skin(or tan easily) find black or cream overtones look best, with silver being a nice middle ground if you're not sure.
What color you choose should be based on the personal preference of the person who will wear the pearls
As with any other item that can appear in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and conditions, a standardized system of grading must be used when purchasing or selling pearls. Only in this way can the pearl be described according to mutually agreed-upon and understood terms, so that both buyer and seller can determine a fair price.
Unfortunately, the pearl industry as a whole has not adopted a universally used standard grading system. Instead, the specific grading system used often depends upon the specific jeweler. The AAA-A system is the major grading system used by nearly every major pearl retailer in the United States.
Even this system, however, can become misleading if a seller uses terms from the grading system (such as "AAA"), but uses them to describe a different quality pearl than that which the system is generally understood to be describing. Or a seller could use a term not in the grading system (such as "AAAA" or "AAA+") to make it appear that the pearl is beyond even the highest standard quality -- when in reality, that seller's "AAAA" pearls are actually equivalent to the more-common "AAA" grade, and his "AAA" pearls might only be equivalent to the commonly used "AA."
For reasons such as these, it's extremely important when purchasing pearls to be absolutely certain of the meaning of any descriptive terms used by the seller. If possible, ask to see a written description of each grading term, so that you know exactly what the grade implies. Reputable jewelers will be happy to comply with such a request. Only in this way will you be able to determine if the price the seller is asking is reasonable.
This system grades pearls on a scale starting at A - Hanadama grade, with Hanadama grade pearls being the highest level of Akoya pearls available.
Hanadama: This is a special designation for pearls that have passed the Pearl Science Laboratory of Japan's rigorous tests and must be accompanied by the original certificate. Hanadama pearls are tested for a nacre thickness of at least 0.4mm on each side for a total of 0.8mm total nacre thickness. Hanadama pearls must also be nearly flawless with no visible inclusions and an extremely high luster.
AAA: The highest-quality pearl, virtually flawless. The surface will have a very high luster, and at least 95% of the surface will be free from any type of defect. The pearl will be perfectly round, and have a mirror-like luster, and a nacre thickness (Akoya pearls only) of 0.4mm or higher.
AA: The surface will have a very high luster, and at least 75% of the surface will be free from any type of defect. The luster will be very high, and have a thick nacre. AA is still a very nice quality, but not quite as nice as AAA or higher.
A: This is the lowest jewelry-grade pearl, with a lower luster and/or more than 25% of the surface showing defects. In many cases, if the pearl is being mounted into a piece of jewelry, it can be mounted so that the defects are hidden -- thus providing a lovely jewelry piece at a lesser price. This quality has a chalky appearance and thin nacre, typically of .25mm or less. This thin nacre is due to early harvesting of the pearl.
Japanese Akoya pearls range in size from 2.0mm "seed" pearls up through 9.5mm and very rarely, 10.0mm. The most popular and common sizes you'll find today range from 6.0-6.5mm through 9.0-9.5mm pearls.