At Hamra Jewelers, we don’t sell products: we sell passions. To us gemstones, diamonds, jewelry, watches and pearls aren’t just luxurious objects of beauty: They’re fascinating subjects worthy of study, possessing rich histories. And our staff reflects that: We’re proud to say that we have a group of experts, masters of their trade, here to help our customers find their perfect piece.


One of our resident experts is our Creative Director, Steve McGhee. Steve has a particularly deep well of knowledge to draw from when it comes to pearls. We sat down to talk with him about the wonderful world of pearls. If you have any questions about how pearls are made, where they come from or what kind of pearls are out there, read on and learn from our master.


Related: Your Complete Guide to Pearls Part 1


HAMRA JEWELERS: How long have you been working with pearls in the industry?


STEVEN MCGHEE: “I have been in the industry for about sixteen, seventeen years. Eight of those were spent dealing with wholesale pearls.”


HJ: What drew you to pearls, as opposed to other kinds of materials like gemstones or precious metals? What is it about pearls that drew your attention?


SM: “I kind of fell into the job! I picked it up and basically taught myself how to grade pearls, how to pick pearls and how to match them. It just kind of escalated from there.”


HJ: Could you give us an explanation on how to grade pearls? What are you looking at, in terms of characteristics and how you differentiate them?


SM: “If you’re grading pearls of certain value, the things that go into the value of that pearl are, first of all, the spherical-ness. It has to be perfectly round. You’re trying to look at the different layers of the pearl, the thicker the pearl, the thicker the nacre, the better quality of pearl you have and the longer it’ll keep its lustre.


That’s something else you look at, the pearl’s lustre. And you also look at spotting and pitting. Certain pearls can have a little pit here and there; that lowers the quality of the pearl. So when you find a pearl that’s perfectly round, that has a very high lustre and no spots on it, you’re looking at a very, very high quality pearl.”


HJ: Is there a certain geographic region where better quality pearls tend to come from, or are they all over the place?


SM: “They’re a bit all over the place. You have different types of pearls. The Akoya pearl is the pearl you usually see women wearing as a classic white strands of pearls. You have Japanese Akoya and Chinese Akoya. The Japanese Akoya tend to be a little better in terms of quality and companies like Mikimoto, which is the number one pearl company in the world, only carry the most exquisite pearls you can find.”


Related: The Dos and Don’ts of Pearl Care


Mikimoto himself came up with the process of making the cultured pearl. He was the one who came up with the process of how to insert a nucleus into the oyster to help make a pearl, instead of just going and diving for oysters and opening them up sometimes not finding anything. So if you look at Mikimoto’s grading of pearls, you will find that there’s a top seven grades that they will consider a Mikimoto pearl. Their pearls are perfect.”


HJ: Are natural pearls considered more valuable than cultured pearls, or is there not really a difference at this point?


SM: “At this point, it depends on the type of pearl you’re talking about. When it comes to Akoya, you’re probably better off finding a cultured pearl for that. Some South Sea pearls, if you can find a natural one, chances are they won’t be as round as one that has been cultured. What they’ll do is open up the oyster. On the outside of the oyster is a lip. There’s material in there that’s called mantle.


What started oysters making pearls is that they would eat and a piece of sand would get lodged that they couldn’t expel. They’d find it sharp and uncomfortable. Their shell is called mother of pearl; they’ll take layers of their shell and build it around that piece of sand to make it more comfortable.


Mikimoto decided to lodge something in there, a nucleus, that’s perfectly round and put it somewhere where the oyster can’t expel it. The oyster will make the layers of the pearl, creating a cultured pearl.


So you have different regions where you can find specific pearls. You have the Tahitian pearls,  which are black pearls. Those are in the Tahitian waters and the South Seas. And in the South Sea waters you’ll also get these large, white, very big Wilma-Flintstone-type necklace pearls. Or golden pearls, which have this amazing golden hue sometimes with overtones of green and pink. A lot of pearls also come from Australia.


The Akoyas are mainly found in Japan and China and are much more widespread.


Then you have your freshwater pearls, which you can get anywhere. There have been some discoveries in the last couple of years, of different kinds of pearls. One of them is called a Melo pearl. The Melo is a round pearl that’s orange, yellow and white. It kind of looks like a flame is going around it. They’re HIGHLY rare.


And then you have the conch pearl. Now the conch pearl is a pearl that’s pink and kind of has that flame going through it as well. But it comes from a conch shell! Those are natural pearls; since the conch is shaped differently, no one has figured out how to put a nucleus inside the conch shell to make a cultured pearl.


They were found by fishermen in Florida, who were conch fishing. They found these little beads inside them and were giving them to their kids to play with, not realizing how valuable they are!


I’ve even heard of a clam being able to produce a pearl. I’ve heard of a mussel being able to do it too. You figure it’s the same thing- it opens and closes the same way, it has that piece that it can’t dislodge and it has a mother of pearl type shell so they can make that layer.”


HJ: I know that in the diamond and gold trade they often have to deal with fakes and knock-offs. Does the pearl trade have the same issues?


SM: “Absolutely. The best way to look at a pearl and see if it’s imitation is to feel them. Pearls look smooth and feel smooth, but… You ever hear that story about scraping a pearl on your teeth? People used to do that all the time to see if it was real. Which actually damages the pearl! If you were to take your nail and run it along the surface of the pearl, you’ll find that it feels a bit gritty.Whereas a fake pearl is usually perfectly smooth!


So if you take two fake pearls and rub them a little bit together, you won’t  feel the abrasive grittiness like on a true pearl.”


HJ: So it’s a matter of texture?


SM: “Exactly. That’s one good way of telling what’s a real pearl. Microscopically, you could do it as well, and see all the different layers, but the easiest way is to do it through the texture.”


Related: Pearls of Wisdom: A Classic Touch for The Classic Woman

At Hamra Jewelers, we pride ourselves on the knowledge and expertise our staff possesses. If you’d like to find out more about pearls, give us a call at 480-946-5110. Or better yet, come visit our store and see the wonderful pearls we have available in person. Photographs simply don’t do their luminous beauty justice.