This is the variety that prompted one reader to say, "I didn't know what all of you saw in pearls, till you showed that South Sea strand."
I have wider tastes, but knew what thrilled her: the size (13mm is average), the endless glow (caused by thick nacre) and the serene colour, either whites with over-and-undertones of rose, blue or silver, or the goldens. (Providing the eye candy at left: South Sea pearl and diamond ring set in 18k, Beladora.)
These are high-society pearls; I once stood next to a billionaire's wife in an astonishing strand of 20mm rounds interspersed with diamonds that was basically a Lamborghini on the neck. But a single South Sea ring or pendant can be yours for less than the price of a night on the town. Well, OK, a big night!
The South Sea difference
Before we window shop, the obligatory pearl nerdiness.
South Seas are the most valuable of the cultured pearls. (Tahitians are often grouped in the category—cultured saltwater pearls— but are grown in a different oyster, the pinctada margaratifera). The pinctada maxima, the oyster used to culture South Seas, is a big guy (sometimes the size of a frisbee) that comes in two varieties, silver-lipped and golden-lipped, hence the two colours of the pearls.
That big oyster is implanted with a large bead for culturing; it then sits in clean, warm waters in the southern ocean from Australia to China, and lays down lavish nacre over two or more years (versus half the time for other cultured varieties.) The whites typically come from Australia and Indonesia, the yellows from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
The overall impression of a strand of large, matched South Seas is, Whoa, baby. They, along with Tahitians, are grande dame power pearls.
Even as simple studs, the SS has the presence to match a Chanel dress, as worn by Christine Lagarde, at left.
The vintage market is a good place to begin building your eye for two reasons: the price, while still not a casual purchase, is better, and South Seas, with their thick nacre, tend to hold up well, unless madame has been mean to them.
For example, I swooned over Beladora's South Sea strand, utterly elegant 12mm-13mm pearls with a pavé diamond and platinum clasp, $17,000. (Half the price of a comparable new strand from a status jeweler. Pearl Paradise list a necklace of comparable size for $16,000 but without the diamond and platinum clasp.)
While in Beverly Hills these pearls might be go-to-the-market attire, they are a bit much for many of us strolling through the Passage. But there are ways to wear the South Sea without a bodyguard.
First, we step away from the world of rounds, to explore the less-formal shapes.
My South Sea strand (from Kojima Company), which I'm wearing on New Year's Eve in the photo, is of mixed shapes: discs, drops, off-rounds and baroques, with shimmering rose and blue undertones.
This is an idiosyncratic, informal vibe for South Seas, and the pearls are not perfect; you will see some minor blemishes and light rings on a few, places where the oyster burped or the sea surged, the poetry of pearls.
Therefore, the cost was but a fraction of the necklaces shown.
Because of that charisma, a single South Sea pearl can delight all on its own.
This ring, at Beladora, is such a piece, everyday-wearable yet fine: a 10.5mm South Sea pearl set in diamonds and platinum; price, $950.
Another way to come to terms with the cost is to mix them with other varieties. Kojima Company's Sarah Canizzaro, unintimidated by the grandeur of South Seas, creates pieces that are especially free-spirited.
Here, for example, are her company's lustrous Chinese freshwater ovals mixed with big baroque South Seas and natural colour punch-pink tourmaline beads, in a 40-inch endless rope; price, $630.
Golden South Seas: an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder! Since they can be dyed to deepen or enhance colour, ensure the colour is natural or that any treatment is disclosed. The deeper the gold, the more expensive the pearl.
Classic studs or drops are lovely and luxe, but I am taken by a quirky pair of matched 10.8mm baroques, one white, one yellow, from the UK's Pearlesence; price, £80.
Currently I'm seeing a glut of bleached freshwater and Akoyas among the "fashion" jewelery lines, often sold at boutiques who sell branded jewelry, or in department stores. They are genuine, but neither organic-looking nor lively.
When they carry a brand name like David Yurman, the price can be hefty; for example, this freshwater 8-8.5mm 70-inch necklace, with .38cts of diamonds dressing up the silver clasp is $2,659. (To the firm's credit, they do disclose that the pearls are bleached.)
A low-luster bleached-pearl necklace looks like a woman with an obvious face lift, too blandly perfect, no overtones, no character. I prefer even a subtly-dyed pearl (in a 'natural pearl' colour).
Last year, I ordered several things from online pearl vendors, and kept two (the South Seas and a gift). Even the returned items were better value than those of the high-end department stores, and the service more knowledgeable.
A number of readers asked me to provide an opinion about prospective purchases or renovating their unworn pearls; I enjoyed that!
My advice to anyone interested in pearls (or any gem) is, keep reading (including dozens of archived posts here), looking and comparing prices. Reputable online vendors are happy to talk with you to supply more information.
Then, should you too experience a coup de coeur, you will make a wise and satisfying decision.