ABC News buys faulty pearls sold at chains

ABC News’ Good Morning America on Monday aired a story saying that pearls purchased at jewelry chain stores and a department store were chipped, bruised and generally of poor quality.

A show producer and Antoinette Matlins, a gem and jewelry expert and author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide bought several pearl necklaces from three unnamed jewelry chain stores and a department store. Cap Beesley, president of American Gemological Laboratories in New York, inspected the pearls and found that all of the necklaces purchased at differing prices had pearls contained pearls that were chipped due to missing nacre.

The report was provided by Greg Hunter, consumer correspondent for ABC News’ Good Morning America.

At the first chain store, Matlins and the Good Morning America producer bought a $185 cultured pearl bracelet, a $285 cultured pearl necklace on sale for $199, and a $1,299 cultured pearl necklace. They were assured that the pearls would last. “Unless you beat the crap out of ’em, nothing is going to happen,” the salesperson assured them while a hidden camera filmed the conversation.

At the second chain store, they bought a $699 cultured pearl necklace for $499.

“You should have them forever; you should be able to pass them down,” the salesperson said again while being filmed.

At the third chain store, they were told that they would get a deal: a $999 cultured pearl necklace for only $464. They were assured that the coating would last.

“They are not going to peel unless you hit it on something or bang it around,” the salesperson told them.

Lastly, a national department store sold the producer and Matlins a $2,200 necklace for $913.

“Nothing is going to happen to these as far as peeling . ever,” the salesperson said.

Back at his lab, Beesley examined the pearl jewelry that Matlins and the Good Morning America producer purchased.

“Some of these are not fit for use-they are total, complete rejects,” Beesley said on the program, looking at one of the necklaces.

Under a microscope, viewers were able to see where the nacre in the $464 chain store pearl necklace was missing in some of the beads, and that a shell bead was visible underneath.

“Oh my goodness … this is absurd,” Beesley said “It has the appearance of improperly fired pottery.”

Beesley said pearls in the $185 dollar bracelet were chipping.

“You can see clearly the shell bead showing through, and see how much of that has already peeled away,” Beesley said.

“The $285 necklace had chipped pearls, and an exposed shell bead, Hunter said. “When a pearl starts peeling to that extent, it can continue to peel, going through the rest of the pearl. The $699 pearl also had some pearls that were chipped and showed signs of visible peeling.”

Hunter said that unlike the diamond industry, the pearl industry does not have an official set of standards by which everyone who buys and sells pearls can measure them. However, he then said that since 1987, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) used a grading chart that rates pearl thickness in millimeters from very thin to thick. Hunter picked out five pearls at random from the six samples to test them for thickness, a test that requires actually cutting the pearls in half.

Using an optical microscope and computer that measures nacre thickness to 80-millionths of an inch, two out of the six samples measured were thin, while the other four were classified as very thin.

The Cultured Pearl Information Center in New York told Good Morning America that consumers should not buy pearls that have a thin nacre, less than .3 millimeters, about the thickness of four $1 dollar bills. Some of the pearls the program measured were thinner than the thickness of a single $1 bill, Hunter said.

Experts also recommend that you don’t buy pearls that already show damage. This can be done by checking the drill around the drill holes for shipping, cracking and peeling.

Matlins provided several tips to help consumers buy quality pearls. Among them she said to take time to visit fine jewelers who are knowledgeable about pearls, and will be able to show you a wide selection of necklaces at different price points in order to compare quality. She suggested that consumers find reputable jewelers by going to the Jewelers of America Web site.