Coveted since ancient times, pearls are famous for their exquisite beauty and distinctive luster. The best thing about pearls is they never go out of style and there’s a pearl type for everybody, depending on budget and appearance. However, with the many types of pearls that come in various shapes, sizes and colors, finding the right one for you can be difficult.
In this article, we take a look at the many different types of pearls that are available on the market. We also look at what pearls are, the different ways they’re cultured and how to evaluate them.
What are Pearls?
Pearls are beautiful, naturally made gemstones that are created inside mollusks and oysters. They’re special in comparison to other gemstones, being the only ones that are formed inside a living creature. Today, pearl pieces are a much adored part of nearly every woman’s jewelry collection.
Fun Fact: In ancient times, people in various parts of the world (especially France) used pearls for medicinal purposes, believing that these gemstones could cure insanity as well as other physical health issues. The king of France, Charles VI, crushed pearls and swallowed the powder to cure his mental ailments.
The Two Main Types of Pearls – Natural and Cultured Pearls
Oysters in Pearl Farms
All pearls fall into two main categories – natural and cultured.
Natural pearls (also called Oriental pearls) are formed in oysters, mussels or clams naturally. The process of formation begins when an irritant makes its way into the creature which identifies it as an invader. The mollusk’s defense mechanisms begin to secrete a type of fluid that coats the irritant and traps it. The creature continues this process which can take several years, resulting in the gradual formation of a lustrous pearl.
Cultured pearls, on the other hand, are created by humans through the process of ‘farming’ and ‘harvesting. The oysters, or mollusks, are raised in pearl farms which are created with conditions similar to the creatures’ natural habitat. The main difference between natural and cultured pearls is that the pearl farmers insert an irritant (usually a tissue graft which is taken from a donor oyster or mollusk) into the creature, which kickstarts the process. The creature continues coating the irritant with nacre, gradually creating a gorgeous pearl which is then harvested and sold.
Harvesting the Pearls
Natural pearls are very rare and well beyond the price range that most consumers find affordable whereas cultured pearls cost less and are abundant. Both types are identical in composition and appearance, although natural pearls are more sought after due to their extreme rarity.
Broad Categories: Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls
Both natural and cultured pearls can be further divided into sub-categories – freshwater or saltwater pearls. Both types have visible differences but from the two, saltwater pearls are the more superior type.
Nearly all saltwater and freshwater pearls available on the market are cultured pearls. Let’s take a quick look at these two types in a little more detail.
Freshwater pearls are created by mollusks in bodies of fresh water like rivers and lakes. They’re commonly harvested in China, India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.
Unlike saltwater pearls, these take less time to form and are found in abundance since they’re the most commonly produced. Their quality and luster is lower than that of saltwater pearls but on the plus side, they’re more durable and are the most affordable pearls sold on the market today.
Unlike saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are made entirely of nacre, a smooth, crystalline substance composed of organic proteins and calcium carbonate. The hardness of nacre contributes to the high durability of the pearls, making them less prone to damage.
Freshwater pearls are typically irregular in shape and not spherical, because of the way they’re created. The nucleus of the pearl isn’t a ‘bead’ nucleus but a tissue from a mussel that’s inserted into the oyster or mollusc that creates the pearl.
As a result, the end product is irregularly shaped. The most common irregular shapes are semi-baroque, baroque and oval shaped pearls. Each pearl is unique and beautiful in its own way, bringing something different to your wardrobe.
These pearls are typically found in cream or white shades with gorgeous overtones of cream, lavender or pink. They can also be dyed black.
Freshwater pearl necklace by Pearl Source. See it here.
Since freshwater pearls are formed in a shorter period of time than saltwater pearls, this doesn’t give them sufficient time to grow large. Their size depends on the growth period and this changes according to the farm. This is why freshwater pearls are known for having the largest range of sizes in comparison to other pearl types. They come in sizes as small as 2.0 mm, ranging up to 15.0 mm. Today, the most popular and common freshwater pearl sizes range from 6.0mm – 10.0mm.
Because freshwater pearls come in many shapes, sizes and colors, consumers have a larger variety to choose from. This is why they’re commonly known as ‘fashion-forward pearls’. If you’re interested in purchasing an affordable piece with a unique combination of shapes, colors and sizes, you might want to go for freshwater pearls. The special thing about them is that no two freshwater pearls are alike which makes each piece one-of-a-kind.
Saltwater pearls are produced by saltwater mollusks that live in a saline environment (or the oceans). They’re mostly harvested in Indonesia, Australia, Thailand and Tahiti. They’re made from a thinner coating of nacre which ranges from 0.5mm to 6.0mm and are more lustrous and glossy than freshwater pearls. They usually take a long time to form and are more expensive and delicate due to their quality.
There are many varieties of saltwater pearls which are more well-known than freshwater pearls. Here are some of the most common types:
1- Akoya pearls
Akoya pearl ring. See it here.
Akoya pearls are cultured saltwater pearls that come from the akoya oyster (Pinctada Fucata oyster). Known for their incredibly high luster, akoya pearls range in size from 2.0 mm to 10.0 mm. Although their shape is usually perfectly spherical, baroque shaped pearls can also be found. They come in a variety of colors and shades including white, cream, blue and gray with silver, green and pink overtones. They’re never naturally black unless treated with Cobalt-60 radiation or an organic dye.
Akoya pearls are the most abundant saltwater pearl produced mostly in Japan, Vietnam, Korea and China. However, the best and highest quality pearls come from Japan. These are called Hanadama Akoya which in Japanese means ‘flower pearls’.
Until they were first cultured in 1920, natual pearls were so expensive and rare that they were only worn by the cream of society. However, culturing brought down the costs of the pearls, making them readily available to all. As akoya pearls were the first to be cultured, they became famous as the pearl that made pearls accessible to all.
Akoya pearls are less expensive than some other saltwater pearl varieties, but they’re more costly than freshwater pearls. Their prices can range anywhere from $60 to thousands of dollars. The finest quality pearls can cost as much as $135,000 or more.
2- Tahitian Pearls
Tahitian pearl pendant. See it here.
Tahitian pearls come from the black-lipped oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) which is mostly cultured in French Polynesia. They’re the only pearls that are naturally dark with unique overtones and colors. This is one reason why they’re one of the most sought after pearl varieties.
Similar to South Sea pearls, Tahitian pearls can grow to a very large size but they’re appearance makes them stand out from other types of pearls.
Although they’re commonly known as ‘black pearls’, completely black Tahitian pearls are very rare. The most common colors are charcoal, green and dark gray and they come with many different overtones. The most popular overtone is the ‘peacock’ since its beautiful colors are similar to those found on a peacock’s feather, giving the pearl its stunning, unique look.
Tahitian pearls are available in different shapes including round and baroque. While the round pearls are the most popular choice among pearl lovers, the irregularly shaped ones usually have more color and more attractive overtones. They’re also much more affordable.
3- South Sea Pearls
Golden south sea pearl earrings. See them here.
South Sea Pearls are the largest type of cultured pearls and the most prestigious. They’re available in two colors – gold and white, which gives them their unique, elegant appearance. While both types are highly popular, the golden south sea pearl is in higher demand than the white.
The largest of all varieties of pearls, south sea pearls come from Indonesia, Phillipines and Australia. Some grow up to 20.0 mm in diameter, but pearls over 15.0 mm in diameter are extremely rare. Larger pearls are often used for statement jewelry and cost far more than smaller ones. South sea pearls are typically found in irregular, baroque shapes which is why perfectly spherical ones are sold at very high prices.
If you’re interested in purchasing a jewelry item featuring south sea pearls, you’ll find many options available on the market. If you find it difficult to afford an entire strand of these gorgeous pearls, you can always go for piece with a single south sea pearl instead. Such pieces can add a stylish, modern look to your wardrobe while keeping things simple at the same time.
Other Unique Types of Pearls
Aside from the pearls we’ve discussed, there are others that fall into the category of either freshwater or saltwater pearls depending on how they’re formed. These include Mabe and Keshi pearls.
Also known as ‘half-pearls’ or ‘blister-pearls’, because of how they look, mabe pearls are typically categorized depending on how they’re created. When looking at these pearls from the front, they look just like usual spherical pearls. However, when you look at them from the side, you’ll see that the back is actually quite flat, giving it the ‘half-pearl’ look.
Mabe pearls can have the same origin as saltwater or freshwater pearls but they’re not created in the same way as the usual cultured pearls. The irritant (or nucleus) inserted into the mollusk or oyster is shaped like a semi-circle and is attached to the inside of the creature’s shell instead of being placed inside its body. While the pearl continues to grow in the front, the back stays fixed to the shell, which is how it gets its shape. Once the pearl is ready to be used, it needs to be cut off the oyster’s shell.
The unicity of Mabe pearls make them highly popular among pearl lovers because of their expensive, luxurious look at a highly affordable price. In addition to their stunning appearance, they’re also comfortable to wear than spherical pearls since their flat backs sit well against the body.
Keshi pearls, also called seed pearls or ‘poppy’ seed pearls, are accidental and beautiful products of nature. They’re irregularly shaped and are made entirely of nacre. This means they don’t contain a nucleus, like other types of pearls.
Keshi pearls are formed when the mollusk or oyster rejects the implanted nucleus and spits it out before the process of culturing is complete, or when the implanted tissues fractures, forming multiple pearl sacs with no nuclei which go on to become gorgeous little pearls.
Because keshi pearls don’t have a nucleus, they’re typicall smaller than other pearls and come in various shapes. The position of the pearls inside the oyster plays a major role in determining their shape.
For instance, if the pearls form against the creature’s shell, they’ll be flatter on one side and round on the other. Some pearls have several rings or grooves encircling them which occur when constant pressure is exerted against the pearl as it develops in the oyster.
They’re also found in a wide range of colors and are especially lustrous (even more than the highest-quality cultured pearls) due to their 100% nacre composition. This is why keshi pearls have a beautiful shimmering surface.
Pearl Costs and Grading
While there are other types of pearls available on the market, we’ve mentioned only the most popular ones in this article.
Pearl prices range from as little as a $20 for a freshwater pearl, to over $1500 for a South Sea pearl. Choose the pearl that corresponds to your budget.
Since every pearl is unique and beautiful in its own way, it can be tempting to keep purchasing pearl pieces for your jewelry collection. To avoid overspending on these, make your budget before you go pearl shopping and stick to it.
The most common scale used for grading the quality of pearls in the U.S. is A (the lowest quality pearl) to AAA (the highest quality). The Tahitian A-D scale is also used but is interpreted differently depending on the vendor.However, it’s wise not to rely only the grading, as what’s graded as an A on one website, might be considered an AA on another.
The best way to select the right pearl is by checking the product images carefully for luster and color, and comparing them with other pearls.
Because pearls never go out of style, they’re a classic investment for any jewelry collection. They make for stunning jewelry, and because they come in a range of budgets, colors and shapes, ensuring that there’s a perfect pearl for everyone.