An Essential Guide on the Types of Pearls

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Pearls are popular for their classic, timeless beauty. They adorn brides and match formal and casual outfits. But what are the different types of pearls? How can you choose a pearl that fits your taste and budget? In this guide, we’re exploring the types of pearls and answering common questions about these classic gems. 

Natural pearls

As the name implies, natural pearls are formed without human intervention. This occurs when a foreign material, such as a tiny parasite, enters the mantle – the area between the body and shell of mollusks such as mussels, oysters, abalones, and marine snails.

The mollusk then secretes a smooth crystalline fluid called “nacre” on the invading organism as a natural defense. This fluid hardens into a layer around the foreign material as the nucleus. Thousands of nacre layers build up to form a natural pearl.  

Natural pearls are rare and expensive because they form over a long period (6 to 24 months). Larger pearls can take up to 4 years. Also, natural pearl sources have become depleted due to over-harvesting. Hence, the existence of cultured pearls.

Cultured pearls

cultured pearl earring - An Essential Guide on the Types of Pearls

Unlike natural pearls, cultured pearls form with human assistance. A pearl farmer purposely places a foreign body in the mantle of a mollusk and puts the mollusk in fresh or seawater to complete the pearl production process. Cultured pearls are available in two broad types: freshwater and saltwater pearls.

💡 Did you know? Kokichi Mikimoto was the first to produce cultured pearls in 1893 successfully. As a result, he won the license to export his cultured pearls as what they are – real pearls, which won him the title of “Pearl King”. 

Freshwater pearls

14K Yellow Gold Freshwater Cultured Pearl Twist Drop Earrings

Freshwater pearls are cultured in fresh water such as rivers or lakes. When a pearl farmer places a foreign body in a mollusk, the farmer returns the mollusk to a freshwater body and carefully monitors it to ensure the pearls form successfully. 

Freshwater pearls are cultured in mussels and can produce up to 40 pearls at a time. They’re common in various places but a large chunk come from China. Their sizes range from 1mm to 20mm and they come in white, peach, pink, and lilac

💡 Did you know? Freshwater pearls are often cultivated with a piece of mantle tissue from another mussel, on the other hand saltwater pearls are cultivated with a piece of mantle tissue and a round bead nucleus.

Saltwater pearls

Saltwater pearls are cultured in salty water bodies such as oceans, seas, gulfs, and bays. They are common in countries like Japan, Vietnam, China, Australia, and Fresh Polynesia. They come in an array of colors from white, cream, gold, silver, even black. Saltwater pearls are further classified under three varieties: Akoya pearls, South Sea pearls, and Tahitian pearls.

Akoya pearls

Akoya Pearls necklace

Akoya pearls originated from Japan and were commercialized by Kokichi Mikimoto. Akoya-producing oysters are also common in China and Vietnam. Akoya pearls are considered the patriarch of cultured pearls. Their sizes range from about 2 mm to 11 mm, and they come in white and cream colors. If you’re looking for a single-strand medium-sized pearl, Akoya is a viable option.

Tahitian pearls

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Tahitian pearls come from the salty waters of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. They form in sizes ranging from 8mm to 18mm and occur in darker colors like black, gray, and brown. 

South Sea pearls

14K Yellow Gold Golden South Sea Cultured Pearl Leverback Drop Earrings

This variety of cultured pearls occur mostly in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. South Sea pearls from Australia occur in silver and white whereas those from the Philippines and Indonesia come in exotic golden colors. South Sea pearls are large, forming in sizes ranging from 8mm to 20mm.

Baroque pearls 

Baroque pearls are pearls with irregular shapes. They come in various non-spherical shapes, including teardrops, hearts, coins, rice, and potato. Types of baroque pearls include Biwa – a long and thin shape, twin – two baroque pearls joined together, and Keshi – a pearl that forms without a nucleus and is made up entirely of nacre. Baroque pearls form 90% of freshwater pearls. 

Clam pearls 

Clams are bivalves found in fresh waters. Clam pearls are smaller than oyster pearls. They’re not perfectly round and are less lustrous than cultured pearls. Clam pearls occur mostly in white but also in pink, lavender, and rarely blue.

Oyster pearls 

Oyster pearls are more valuable than clam pearls. Their colors depend on the color of the outer oyster shell, known as the “lip”. For example, the black Tahitian pearl forms in an oyster with black lips. 

Pearl typeOriginColor
Natural pearlsRivers, ponds, seas of China, Japan, etcWhite, black, blue, silver, yellow, lavender, peach, gold, and more.
Freshwater pearlsMostly ChinaWhite, peach, pink, and lilac colors.
Cultured PearlsJapanWhite, cream, peach, pink, green, blue, purple, and black with multi-color overtones
Akoya pearlsJapan, China, and VietnamWhite and cream
Tahitian pearlsFrench Polynesia and the Cook IslandsBlack, brown, and gray
South Sea pearlsAustralia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.Silver, white, and gold
BaroqueNatural and cultured pearls, mostly freshwater cultured pearls, a few are obtained from cultured saltwater pearls such as teardrop pearls  It can come in all colors of round pearls, such as white, cream, brown, gray, silver, gold, black, etc.
ClamFreshwatersWhite, pink, lavender, rarely blue
OysterSalt watersWhite, cream, silver, gold, black, etc. The oyster’s lips determine pearl color.

Frequently asked questions

We’ve journeyed across continents to explore the different types of pearls. Perhaps you’re still curious and have more questions. We’re answering the most common questions on pearls. 

How do you tell if a pearl is natural or cultured?

Hold the pearl against a strong source of light; a natural pearl has a thick outer skin (also called nacre) due to several layers of nacre that have been deposited on the irritant. On the other hand, a cultured pearl has a thin outer skin or layer because it’s composed of an inserted bead nucleus which is then coated by a thin layer of nacre by the oyster. 

Natural pearls will have a delicate but intense shine, whereas cultured pearls tend to shine more brightly. Also, cultured pearls are often perfectly spherical, unlike their natural counterparts, which may have more irregular shapes. 

What is the rarest natural pearl?

It’s the Melo Melo pearl because it’s produced by a sea snail rather than an oyster or a mollusk. A single Melo Melo can contain a variety of shades like light yellow, light tan, and deep orange. The Melo Melo is unique for its enigmatic, flamelike shimmery surface — a beauty to behold.

What are the major types of pearls? 

Pearls can be broadly classified under two types: natural and cultured. When pearls are cultured, they are either grafted in freshwater or saltwater. Freshwater pearls are of just one variety. However, saltwater pearls are of three types: Akoya, Tahitian, and South sea. 

Which type of pearl is best?

Different pearls are known for their peculiar attributes and quality. For example, freshwater pearls are moderate-sized and less pricey than saltwater pearls which tend to be larger and more expensive. If you’re seeking a classic pearl on a budget, freshwater pearls may be your best bet.

On the other hand, if you have a penchant for deep alluring hues of black, Tahitian pearls are the way to go. Akoya pearls are prized for their high luster and near-perfect round shapes. If you fancy golden luxury, South Sea pearls are for you.

All the above mentioned pearls can still be graded based on surface quality, shape, and luster. Akoya pearls are also graded on thickness of nacre. The bottom line is, it’s a case of different strokes for different folks.

Are cultured pearls real pearls? 

Yes, they are. Cultured pearls form in real mollusks with human intervention. After a nucleus or foreign body is inserted into the mollusk’s mantle, pearl farmers clean, care, and return the mollusks into the waters while monitoring them as they complete the pearl-producing process. 

Scientific studies done in the 1920s proved beyond doubt that the only difference between natural and cultured pearls is their origin. So, cultured pearls aren’t fake pearls. That said, many fake pearls exist on the market that are paraded as real ones. To tell the difference between a real pearl and a fake one, read our guide on how to tell if pearls are real. 

Match any style with these timeless gems

Pearls are a timeless beauty for any occasion and outfit. The different types of pearls are a delight for the pearl-loving woman. We hope you find one or more that fits your taste, budget, and personality.

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