This next resident of our hypothetical ‘chocolate’ jewelry box is best approached with more than a teaspoonful of caveat emptor caution: chocolate pearls.
The most important thing to remember about pearls that are advertised or popularly regarded as “chocolate” is that 99.9% of them have been dyed or bleached in order to achieve that color. Yes, they are ‘natural’ in the sense that they developed inside an oyster; but purists who are looking for pearls that have not been altered or enhanced, in any way whatsoever, will not find them in this color category – as lovely as some ‘chocolate pearls’ may be.
The most economical way of producing a chocolate pearl is by dyeing a freshwater pearl. This method can produce almost any color desired, resulting in the so-called “fancies” which can be blue, green, cranberry-red, brown, or black. Dyeing can also make a freshwater pearl resemble (in color at least) the more expensive saltwater pearls. The dye penetrates the outer layer of the pearl’s surface, called the nacre, easily but it doesn’t change the original body color which will always be light. If you look at the drill hole of a dyed pearl under magnification, you will see that the interior is white(-ish) regardless of what color it is on the outside. Freshwater pearls have a thinner and softer nacre layer than saltwater pearls do, so they take dye easily. Total uniformity of color is another giveaway that a pearl has been dyed or bleached (more about bleaching later.) There’s nothing wrong with buying dyed pearls as long as you know what you are getting, and when done well, they offer a good imitation of more expensive varieties.
These are strands of dyed freshwater pearls. The middle strand is the only one that contains any that most people would consider “chocolate”, i.e., having a preponderance of brownish tones. The bottom strand is what most would call black pearls.
Here is a typical example of treated (either by dyeing or irradiation) freshwater pearls that are being sold in quantity out of China. Nowhere is any treatment disclosed. Listings like these can be found in their thousands every day on eBay. Although advertised as “chocolate”, in my opinion these are closer to the color of a rusted iron gate!
Even some of those pricey pearls may be dyed: For example, golden South Sea pearls. These do occur naturally in shades of gold but – nature being what it is – the intensity of the color can vary quite a bit. A naturally pale (cream or champagne) South Sea pearl can be changed to a much more desireable deeper gold via a dye process. This doesn’t mean that all rich yellow-gold South Sea pearls are dyed, only that it is a possibility…especially if a necklace looks perfectly matched and the asking price doesn’t induce a reaction that requires medical attention.
The closest thing to a completely natural chocolate pearl is a ‘black’ Tahitian pearl that has been bleached. Tahitians, like the South Seas, are saltwater pearls and are in the top tier of the pearl-value universe and they are the peacocks of the pearl world when it comes to unique shapes and colors. I put the word ‘black’ in quotes just now because they are not really black as we normally envision that color. They run the gamut from silver gray to a charcoal gray that, while being extremely dark, also has shimmering overtones and shadings that give the pearl a chameleon-like depth of color and interest. From any significant distance they do look rather black, and let’s face it: No marketing guru could ever do anything positive with a description like “gunmetal-gray pearl” and so ‘black pearl’ is how these are known.
To change a Tahitian black pearl to a chocolate color, the choices are either dyeing or bleaching. Dyeing a Tahitian pearl is more of a challenge because the nacre is thicker and denser; it does not take the dye as easily as a freshwater pearl does. The upside is that for dyeing, any color can be used, including lighter ones which are less rare and consequently less expensive (as Tahitians go, that is; it’s only a matter of degree when it comes to this type of pearl, because all require relatively deep pockets.) On the other hand, bleaching is more straightforward but it does require a black pearl to start with.
Bleaching a pearl sounds nasty but actually it’s extremely common; if you have any non-synthetic white pearls, the odds are that they were bleached. If they are white Akoya pearls, it’s practically a certainty because the natural color of Akoyas often has either a greyish or a yellowish cast. Not very attractive. Bleaching is such a widespread practice that it’s taken for granted where white pearls are concerned, and thus rarely even mentioned (neither is ‘pinking’, another fairly common procedure.) Bleaching a black Tahitian pearl to a brown color is a bit trickier but, when done well, it produces a very “appetizing” result.
Opinions differ among gemologists as to whether Tahitian pearls can ever produce a true brown color naturally, i.e., without any chemical intervention at all. Some claim that it can happen but is so incredibly rare that finding enough to create a truly matched strand of them would be almost Mission Impossible. Others maintain that because there are no oyster species that have a truly brown “lip” – black pearls are only grown from one species, the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera – a natural chocolate-brown pearl cannot develop.
This necklace illustrates three colors that are often described as “chocolate”. These claim to be Tahitian pearls but the very low asking price of $175 versus the description (10-11 mm) makes that highly unlikely. They are probably cultured and dyed freshwater pearls, although it is possible that they may be low-grade Tahitian. (The 16” chain is not even gold, but gold-filled.) In any case, the definition of “chocolate”-brown is subjective; which of these (if any) would you consider to be the color of chocolate? For example, I would describe the one on the right as being closer to the color of a cranberry.
Even though dyed-brown freshwater pearls are relatively inexpensive, there are nevertheless plenty of imitation chocolate pearl jewelry items around.
Glass-bead costume-jewelry necklaces like these are often sold tagged or titled as “chocolate pearl” or “brown pearl” items by online sellers, but the detailed description usually identifies them as “faux pearl”, “simulated pearl” or “pearl bead” items. They are typically priced at $30 or less. The pearlescent coating will eventually wear off in spots, just as did the Richelieu simulated pearls that our older female relatives (or perhaps we ourselves) wore, back in the day. The question is whether, given their price range of $15 to $50, it might not make more sense to just buy a dyed real freshwater pearl pendant or necklace instead. The surface color of the latter will last much longer.
So, given the various caveats about the definition(s) of “chocolate pearl”, here are some tasty morsels from our imaginary chocolate-jewelry box:
A double-chocolate twist: a dyed South Sea pearl of almost 13mm size, atop an 18k gold ring set with bands of cognac (brown) diamonds totaling a bit more than 2 ¼ carats. No claim is made by the seller as to the origin of the color other than “South Sea Chocolate pearl.” It is priced at not too much less than $10,000.
On the other hand, this seller practices full disclosure: Freshwater Pearl Bracelet (“Chocolate” dyed) appears at the start of the description. The bracelet is 7” long and the pearls range in size from 6 to 8 mm. Something like this sells for less than $100 in retail stores.
Chocolate and vanilla in a pendant! This has two 9-10mm saltwater pearls (one Tahitian and the other South Sea) in a curvy 14k white gold setting with 26 small diamonds totaling about ¼ carat. The South Sea pearl is probably natural but the Tahitian is definitely treated. Kudos to the seller for citing – albeit only at the top of the search results rather than in each individual listing – that the brown ones are “coaxed to cocoa through a complex proprietary process.” Priced in the neighborhood of $1000.
Here’s an interesting comparison with the previous item. It’s offered as a vintage “cultured chocolate pearl” necklace with a 14k gold ball clasp. The pearls are all about 10mm, give or take, and the necklace is 18.5” long. Its price is close to that of the new-stock Tahitian/South Sea/diamond pendant above. Which is the better bang for the buck? The necklace is definitely made of dyed freshwater pearls which are the low rung in terms of pearl-type quality (Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian all rank higher) but there are more of them. Personally, I’d go for the pendant if stocking my own ‘box of chocolates’ for roughly the same number of shekels.
This ring falls into my “you can…but why would you?” category of design: a 9.5mm pearl (not described other than “chocolate Tahitian pearl”) in a 14kt white and rose-gold setting that resembles a gift box, set with 0.68 ct of tiny diamonds. Oddly, the colored diamonds are described as “red” rather than some shade of brown which they appear to be. There is only the one photo – also odd for something for which almost $6000 is being asked! – and so the ring’s construction details are a bit murky. My main question is, if you have a good quality Tahitian pearl why would you want to obscure it to this degree? However, one can’t deny that the setting is unusual.
Double chocolate again, this time in a pair of earrings. They are described as “chocolate coloured South Sea pearls dropped from blackened 18kt white gold spirals” set with cognac diamonds. Two notable omissions are the size of the pearls and the total carat weight of the diamonds; for $5000, those specs should be front and center. Savvy buyers will recognize the subtle semantics of “chocolate coloured” which can refer to either their appearance or the chemical process that was required in order to attain it.
Round and near-round chocolate Tahitian pearls are much more in evidence than baroque examples, but I did find a couple. The color of these is more in keeping with some others (of whatever shape), at least in this photo. The 18kt gold clasp with a large baroque white pearl is an interesting touch: a dollop of whipped cream atop the chocolate!
The seller of this 18”-long strand was refreshingly candid about it in all respects. It was fully and properly described as twenty-nine “chocolate brown, copper treated” Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia, ranging from 11.6 to 14.5 mm and with “clean to very light natural imperfections.” This is a color that I would consider to be close to a true chocolate brown. This is not meant to be a finished necklace, because the pearls are on a steel thread with a silicone spacer between each, and a temporary clasp which is also stainless steel. The second photo shows how the silicone spacers seem to have deposited some residue around the pearls’ drill holes. This strand sold recently for €551 which is approximately $650 USD.
Today’s prize for the Worst-Described Chocolate-Pearls Item goes to this listing on a jewelry-seller’s website. There is only one photograph, which is never a good sign. The description reads: “brilliant round white diamonds and rose cut brown diamonds set in 18kt black gold links between 18 large chocolate tahition [sic] pearls. * Note that the pearls do not actually have a dark spot on them, this is a reflection of the camera.*” There is soo much wrong with this, even aside from the misspelling of Tahitian, that I hardly know where to begin: No pearl size, no treatment disclosure, no diamond sizes or total weight, no necklace length, and then there’s the fact that there’s no such thing as “18kt black gold.” Any gold that has a black surface has been black-rhodium plated which is not a permanent finish. The coup de grace is the asking price: $15,000. Just…no. This is, however, a great example of how the term “chocolate pearl” can sometimes be attached to a multitude of errors and omissions!
And now for some chocolate pearls that will never disappoint, but will surely disappear if any chocolate lovers are around! I confess that I sometimes tossed these Valrhona 55% Dark Chocolate Pearls down by the handful, back in the days when I could do such things without paying a severe gastrointestinal price afterward. It’s probably just as well, because this 8-lb bag costs around $170 nowadays. Another iconic French chocolatier, Callebaut, produces crunchy-centered chocolate pearls in 28% milk chocolate, 25% white chocolate, and 50% dark chocolate. A 1.75-lb bag of those will set you back about $30. This comes out to $17.14/lb, compared to Valrhona’s $21.25/lb…but do consider that the latter is entirely chocolate, with no biscuit-y center taking up part of the real estate. As with real ‘chocolate’ pearls, you usually get what you pay for!