The Labeling of “Pearls” and Other Jewelry in Consumer Magazines

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As a consumer, I want to know what I am purchasing. As a writer, I strive to be accurate in my descriptions. I am troubled, therefore, by what seems to be an increasingly common occurrence in popular American fashion and celebrity magazines: They feature jewelry that appears to be erroneously described as made of  ”pearls” or other precious materials.

The August 10, 2009 issue of People magazine contains a full-page Style Watch article entitled “Pearl Parade: Stars are piling on the pearls-and the look is anything but stuffy.” Katherine Heigl, the celebrity pictured on the page, is wearing a mix of necklaces by David Yurman, Joan Hornig and J. Crew. Each of those designers or brands produces jewelry made with natural and/or cultured pearls.

However, the magazine goes on to show five inexpensive necklaces meant to approximate the look of the pearls worn by Ms. Heigl. “Just $14.90!” exclaims People about a “Multistrand pearl necklace” available through forever21.com. I was not able to find that particular necklace on the Forever 21 web site, although there are numerous other necklaces, some of which include the word “pearl” in their names, and all of which are priced under $20. For instance, a “Layered pearl necklace” that retails for $7.80 is described:

Lovely and classy long necklace with tier lengths of faux pearls and polished metal trimming and a lobster clasp closure. 38″ length. Imported.

Other necklaces on the Forever 21 web site such as the “Glory Pearl Necklace” and the “Double Strand Pearl Necklace” include descriptions stating that they are composed of “pearl beads.” Another necklace, the “Pearl Rope Twist Necklace,” is identified as a “Short length multi-strand pearl necklace. . .” without further description of the pearls.

Is the $14.90 multi-strand pearl necklace pictured in People magazine made of pearls?

Another item pictured on the People Style Watch page is labeled the “Draping pearl necklace” from topshop.com, available for $60. That particular necklace does not presently appear on either the British or the American version of the retailer’s web site, although there is a “Large pearl necklace” priced at $20 which is described as follows:

Cream pearl effect graduated beaded necklace. Approx drop 19cm 100% Plastic. Machine washable.

Another necklace offered by TopShop is the Chunky Chain Pearl Necklace, which is priced at $60 and is described as:

Gold chunky chain measuring 2cm in width with pearl & heart charms, total length 80cm 100% Metal.

Is the $60 TopShop necklace pictured in People magazine made of pearls?

A third necklace pictured in the People story is a “layered pearl necklace” from Rumor for $32. I visited the Rumor web site and indeed, the necklace featured in the magazine is identified there as an imported “Layered pearl – gold, gunmetal, silver chain necklace.” 

Is the $32 Rumor necklace pictured in People magazine made of pearls?

I recently posted an item about a beautiful multi-colored necklace gracing the neck of Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover of the July 2009 issue of InStyle magazine. While I loved the look of the necklace, I didn’t point out in my post that the magazine identified the jewelry as a “pearl necklace.”

Luckily, consumers now have an advocate in the person of gemologist Gary Roskin, who has created a new web site, The Roskin Gem News Report, in which he covers, among an extensive selection of topics, news of interest to consumers. His premiere issue includes the story “When is a “Pearl” NOT a Pearl?” that discusses his research into the accuracy of the description of the “pearl necklace” shown on the cover of InStyle

Roskin summarizes the United States Federal Trade Commission Guidelines, Section 23.19, on the misuse of the word “pearl.” The FTC Guidelines, which govern sellers and distributors of jewelry, specify that it is unfair or deceptive to use the word “pearl” to describe any product that is not in fact a pearl. Every jewelry designer and retailer needs to be aware of these legal requirements.

Moreover, every consumer needs to be aware of these legal requirements, too. To be sold something that is mislabeled “pearl” is to be the victim of an unfair or deceptive practice.

As Roskin recommends, when you purchase jewelry, be sure to obtain a sales receipt with a statement of what you are purchasing, whether that is a [natural] “pearl,” a “cultured pearl,” or an “artificial,” “imitation,” or “simulated” pearl. Don’t be deterred from demanding this receipt because you are purchasing jewelry from a brand you love. Know what you are buying. This is equally, if not more, true when you are paying a lot of money for designer goods.

If you take another look at the jewelry descriptions I set out above, you’ll notice that the terms “gold” and “silver” appear in the descriptions as well. These terms too are among those regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

I urge the editors of consumer magazines to be vigilant and to do their best to ensure that information they disseminate to the public, including any description of jewelry, is thoroughly fact-checked, complete and accurate. Accepting product names or descriptions at face value, especially when they seem too good to be true (i.e., meriting an exclamation point with a statement of the low, low price), does a disservice to the reading public. It also hurts the vast majority of designers and retailers in the jewelry industry, who strive to provide genuine value to consumers.