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What’s the Difference Between Freshwater Pearls and Saltwater Pearls

Apr 19, 2017

Pearls are amazing gemstones, the only gem created by a living creature. Learn more about pearls here; how they’re made, and how they grow. We’d love to be able to help. When anyone talks about pearls today, they are talking about cultivated pearls. What are cultivated pearls versus natural pearls? They are very similar. Cultivated pearls are […]

Ben Bridge Jeweler

Pearls are amazing gemstones, the only gem created by a living creature. Learn more about pearls here; how they’re made, and how they grow. We’d love to be able to help.

When anyone talks about pearls today, they are talking about cultivated pearls. What are cultivated pearls versus natural pearls? They are very similar. Cultivated pearls are real pearls, just with a little bit of a man-made nudge at the start, meaning that while they form the same way “natural” pearls do, when an irritant invades their shell, cultivated pearls have something inserted by a pearl technician to start the process. That irritant is then surrounded by layers and layers of nacre (rhymes with baker) to produce a pearl. Nacre is the material that both makes a pearl and lines the inside of oyster and mussel shells.

Freshwater pearls

When freshwater pearl farming began, farmers implanted mussels with bits of mollusk tissue that the mussel would then encase with nacre, and the end result was a pearl. With implanted tissue, freshwater pearls didn’t look like a traditional round saltwater cultivated pearl, rather the pearls were smaller and misshapen. They were lovingly sometimes called rice crispy pearls, because they resembled the breakfast cereal. But they what they may have lacked in quality, they made up for in quantity. The technique can produce up to 20 freshwater pearls out of one mussel.

Freshwater pearl farmers began changing the way they produced their pearls in the last few years, experimenting with different types of mussels and implanting techniques, attempting to make a higher quality pearl.

Today, cultured freshwater pearls fall into one of two categories. About half of freshwater pearls are still made with implanted mollusk tissue, making smaller pearls that aren’t the traditional round gems, but about half are now using traditional saltwater methods of implanting seed pearls into mussels to begin the process. Both methods create pearls, but the seed pearl has begun producing resulting freshwater pearls that are of a much higher quality.

Freshwater pearls are now mainly produced in China in pearl farms ranging from small family farms to large factory operations. The range of production, both in numbers and in quality makes these pearls a more affordable option for everyone.

Saltwater pearls

Freshwater pearls may be similar to saltwater pearls, but the most valuable pearls around the world still begin in saltwater. The three main types of saltwater pearls include Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls.

The process is the same for any cultured Saltwater pearl, but the pearls vary, depending on the type of oyster the pearl grows in. In saltwater pearls, the start of the process requires a seed pearl. The resulting pearl depends on the skill of both the technician implanting the seed pearl, and the oyster itself. And even with an experienced technician, almost half of oysters never produce pearls because of the many factors required to grow a gem-quality pearl. Weather, water temperature, pollution, even pearl pirates all factor into whether or not a pearl farmer has a successful season. One pearl producer outlined 344 steps from start to the resulting pearl. In the end, even in oysters that produce pearls, only about 20 percent end up in high-quality jewelry.

After implanting the seed pearl, the oysters live in oceans around the world and are tended to by divers as they grow.

The color of the pearl depends largely on the color of the oyster shell itself. Tahitian pearls are often known for their dark colors, and some South Sea pearls have a rich golden hue. There are black-lipped oysters, silver and gold-lipped oysters. These produce pearls in similar shades.

The value of the pearl depends on several factors: size, color and luster. The deeper the color is, the more valuable the pearl. The larger the pearl is, the more valuable it is. And finally the higher the luster is, the more valuable the pearl. The luster or how much the pearl “glows” is a factor of the depth of the nacre.

The three main types of saltwater pearls are Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls. Mikimoto offers the top five percent of all three pearls.

The different pearls are all known for their size and their colors, although there are similarities between them.

Learn more about Pearls

Tahitian Pearls

Akoya Pearls

South Sea Pearls

Mikimoto

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