They're not exactly taking over the jewelry industry: With just 2 percent of total U.S. jewelry sales, pearls are still a bit player in the overall market. But they’re holding their own in these cautious times, helped by new shapes and colors—and un-diamond like prices. So while diamond sales have fallen at double-digit rates in each of the past two years, the Jewelry Industry Research Institute reports sales of pearls are steady at about $1.2 billion a year.
Affordability is a big selling point, with prices for a strand of pearls running in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars, compared with upwards of $5,000 for a round, 1.04-carat diamond. But experts say pearls have something else going for them: a culture of innovation. For years the industry standard was the classic white cultured pearl, a safe, if at times dull, choice. But sales of pearls in colors other than white and even shapes other than round now make up about 70 percent of the market, says Kathy Grenier, director of marketing for the Cultured Pearl Association of America. “Pearls can also be very current and modern,” says Sue Bell, senior VP of merchandising for online jeweler Blue Nile.
For the holidays, consider long strands, from 36 to 60 inches, that can be wrapped or worn loosely à la Coco Chanel, and pear-shaped pearls or the slightly off-round pearls that are typically called baroque. While much rarer than cultured pearls, natural pearls also come in a variety of shapes. When comparing pearls of roughly the same size that have a similar blemish-free skin quality, one that is slightly baroque will typically cost a fraction of the price of one that is perfectly round, says Joel Schechter, chief executive of New York–based cultured-pearl firm Honora.
“It creates great fashion, since every baroque pearl is different—like snowflakes,” he says.