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Know More About Pearls


Let's know more about pearls!


There are many types of pearls, some with price tags in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. To the untrained eye, many of these pearls can look very similar and it is hard to understand such extreme price differences. What can make one strand of pearls cost $30 but another similarly sized pearl strand cost $300? In this post I will discuss the different types of pearls, teach some basic pearl terminology and explain a little about pearl grading.


Cultured: This refers to pearls that are raised in pearl farms. Cultured pearls are simply real pearls managed in a semi-controlled environment.

Nacre: What makes up the outer coating of a pearl. It is strong, resilient, and iridescent. The outer layer of pearls and the inside layer of pearl oyster and freshwater pearl mussel shells are made of nacre.

Luster: The measurement of the quality and quantity of light that reflects from the surface and just under the surface of a pearl.

How Pearls are made:

A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster's soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. This object irritates the oyster. To ease this irritant, the oyster's body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called "nacre." As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.

Types of Pearls:

There are several different types of pearls, and what differentiates pearls is the type of oyster that it is produced from and the type of water that particular oyster can be found in.

Freshwater Pearl:

Freshwater pearls are the most commonly produced type of pearl. They come from the freshwater pearl mussel otherwise known by its scientific name Margaritifera margaritifera, but can also be produced from other mullosks. Earlier in history pearls occurred naturally, and were found in lakes and rivers around the world. Because of their limited quantity they were exclusively reserved for royalty and the extremely wealthy. Today pearls 99% of all freshwater pearls are cultured. They are almost exclusively cultured in China, but where also originally produced in Japan as well. It was Kokichi Mikimoto, of Japan who patented the method of culturing round pearls. Cultured pearls share the same properties as natural pearls. It is this cultivation process that makes freshwater pearls so affordable and accessible today. Oysters form cultured pearls in an almost identical fashion. The only difference is a skilled technician carefully implants the irritant in the oyster, rather than leaving it to chance. Each mussel or oyster can yield multiple pearls at once. Freshwater pearls can be found in any color possible due to the dying of pearls, but their natural colors are white, pink, peach and mauve. These pearls can be cultivated in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Generally the sizes range from about 1mm – 14mm. Recently freshwater pearls have been spotted in even larger sizes due to improvements in the cultivation process, but pearls larger than 14mm are not common. Freshwater pearls also come in a wide variety of shapes but the most common are round, potato (off round), rice (oval shape), coin shape, button shape, baroque shape (free form), and drop shape.


Saltwater Pearls:

Saltwater pearls are exclusively produced from oysters in saltwater environments. Most saltwater pearls are harvested in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the coastal waters of India and Japan. Because a saltwater oyster can produce only one pearl, while a freshwater mollusk can produce several at once, saltwater pearls are more rare than freshwater—and thus more expensive. The most common saltwater pearls found on the open market are Tahitian pearls, South Sea pearls, and Akoya pearls.

Akoya Pearls: 

These popular pearls are farmed mostly along the coasts of China and Japan from the Pinctada fucata martensii oyster. Akoya pearls usually have a high luster, near-perfect roundness and high quality all around. White and cream are the most-requested colors, but many natural and treated colors are available, including black. They range in size from 2mm (tiny) to 10mm (rare) and round in shape.

South Sea pearls: 

These pearls are certainly among the rarest and most costly cultured pearls available today. Cultivated in the waters off Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Japan and Thailand. Because of their rarity, tremendous size, and silky luster, South Sea pearls command premium prices, and are coveted by jewelry aficionados. Gem quality South Sea pearls are extremely rare for two important reasons: one is that the Pinctada maxima oyster used to cultivate them is a wild species, and one can never be certain how many will be available for cultivation. The second reason rests in the pearl's long cultivation period -- any pearl is more likely to become flawed the longer it's left in the oyster, and therefore, large, round, unflawed pearls are always extremely rare. Because of their long, 2-to-3 year cultivation period, South Sea pearls develop an exceptionally thick coating of nacre usually from 2 to 6 millimeters, which is perhaps the thickest of all saltwater cultured pearl varieties. South Sea pearls are among the largest of all saltwater cultured pearl varieties, ranging from 8 millimeters to as large as 22 millimeters. Their average size is 15 millimeters. South Sea pearls general come in colors that range from a silverly white to a rich golden color, and the various shades in between.

Tahitian Pearls: 

Tahitian Pearls form in the "Black Lipped" oyster Pinctada margaritifera, almost twice the size of the Japanese Akoya oyster. This warm water species naturally ranges across the central and south Pacific, but its main home is in French Polynesia. Just like with south sea pearls, Tahitian pearls also take about 2 to 3 years to form. Tahitian pearls undergo no form of chemical processing or enhancement. When harvested, they are simply cleaned, dried and lightly polished. Though commonly called "black" pearls, Tahitian pearls are actually gray, to lighter or darker degrees. But, in addition, Tahitian pearls have the unique ability to display a variety of colors at the same time, shimmering about their surfaces in varying shades -- colors such as Peacock, Eggplant -- or Aubergine, Green, Olive Green, Blue and Magenta. The most highly prized Tahitian pearls are those of the iridescent peacock and cobalt blue colors, followed by the rainbows, grays and golds. Other fancy Tahitian pearl colors may range from parchment, to lemon, to a golden-orange. Tahitian pearls tend to come in the same size range as south sea pearls.

Pearl Grading:

Pearls are generally graded according to certain variable. Freshwater and saltwater pearls are graded according to almost the same variable. These variables will determine a pearl’s price and quality.

Size: The larger a pearl is the more expensive it will be. Although, larger size does not necessarily mean higher quality, it does affect the price. Pearls that exceed their general size ranges will be considerably more expensive as they are more difficult to culture and thus more rare.

Shape: Round is the preferred shape of all pearls. The rounder a pearl is the more expensive it will be. In the case of south sea pearls, Baroque shapes are also in high demand and may also command high prices.

Luster: Luster as explained in the terminology above will also greatly affect the quality of a pearl. Generally speaking, the better a reflection the pearl creates within its nacre, the higher the luster. High luster pearls are exceptionally difficult to find and command high prices.

Type of Pearl: As we discussed earlier, certain types of pearls require a great deal more work to culture, and the yield of these pearls can be far less than others. Because of this, there is a price hierarchy to pearls. Saltwater pearls are almost always more highly valued than freshwater pearls. The pearls with the highest value are Tahitians due to their beautiful color spectrum. South Sea pearls come at a close second to Tahitians because of their thicker nacre, which can lead to higher luster pearls. Generally both these pearls are more highly valued when compared to Akoya or freshwater pearls because of their larger size, and rarity. Top quality strands of these pearl strands can commands prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. Akoya pearls are third because they are also higher luster pearls, but have a relatively thin layer of nacre and generally are much smaller than other salt water pearls. Last but not least….literally is freshwater pearls. The abundance of these pearls keeps their prices reasonable. However, there reasonable price doesn’t necessarily mean lower quality. The cultivation process for freshwater pearls is constantly improving and so is the quality of these pearls. Unless you are very familiar with pearls, you can find white freshwater pearls that are relatively comparable to white south sea pearls for a fraction of the price.