People ask us all the time about the difference between the many varieties of pearls. The two main types of pearls are natural and cultured. Natural pearls are those found in the wild, which are created inside the mollusk without any human intervention. The chances of finding a natural pearl in the wild are very slim! While natural pearls are much harder to find, they are not necessarily higher in quality than cultured pearls.
The majority of pearls found on the market today are cultured pearls. Cultured pearls are created when a pearl farmer steps in and coaxes along the pearl making process. Placing the “proper ingredients” inside the mollusk and ensuring a proper environment speeds along the process and helps the mollusk naturally form a perfectly shaped pearl.
Cultured pearls come in two basic varieties – Freshwater and Saltwater. Freshwater pearls are grown inside mussels or oysters in lakes, rivers, ponds or reservoirs that are filled with fresh water. Freshwater pearls are typically less expensive than saltwater, as they tend to form in more irregular shapes than saltwater pearls. They range from 4 to 1-mm in size. 96 percent of today’s freshwater pearls are produced in China.
Saltwater pearls are also farmed, but are made in salty seas and oceans. They are not considered higher quality than freshwater, but they are typically considered more valuable because of their tendency to form in more perfectly round shapes with a greater luster.
Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea Pearls
When it comes to saltwater pearls, the three basic varieties are Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls. Each have their own unique features.
Akoya pearls come form the Chinese Akoya oyster which is cultured in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Korea. Akoya pears are light pink to white in color with a round shape. The classic stand of pearls is typically made up of Akoya pearls. They range in size from 2mm to 10mm.
Tahitian Pearls can also be referred to as Black Pearls. Pearls that are naturally black without the use of dyes come from either the Pinctada Margaritifera Oyster, the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster, or the Pinctada Mazatanica Oyster. Interestingly enough, Tahitian Pearls are not always grown in Tahiti; they’re grown off the coast of several of the islands of French Polynesia (including Tahiti). They are typically 8mm to 16mm in size.
The South Sea Pearl comes from Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These are the largest of all the pearls ranging in size from 9mm to 20mm. These pearls come from the White Lipped Oyster. They are naturally white, cream, or golden in color and are often referred to as the “queen of pearls” because of their size, beauty, and luster.
These are are completely man-made pearls. They are produced from glass, plastic, or other materials and are very inexpensive. They are often used in costume jewelry.