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Freshwater vs. Saltwater Pearls: A Complete Guide

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Pearls are a classic. Whether you’re looking for stunning bridal jewelry or a central stone for an engagement ring, they’re universally adored- and have been for centuries!

However, with so many kinds of pearls out there, it can make buying them difficult. So, we’ve put together a quick guide to highlight the main differences between freshwater and saltwater pearls. Hopefully, this info helps make your decision a bit easier. Let’s dive in!

The Basics

Most pearls, whether they’re saltwater or freshwater, are cultivated, not natural. This means someone manually inserts a small piece of mollusk tissue, which triggers the nacre to cover the stimulant and produce a pearl. This process is far more predictable for pearl farmers in comparison to waiting for a pearl to form organically.

For those of you who don’t know, every pearl is made by a mollusk which produces layers of nacre inside their shells which bond together to form a beautiful pearl. Whether the gem’s natural or cultured is irrelevant to the overall finesse of the pearl. Instead, the quality of the nacre dictates this.

Fun Fact: Another term for cultivated pearls is “cultured pearls.” So, don’t let that confuse you; they mean exactly the same thing!

Interestingly, most saltwater and freshwater pearls aren’t ‘natural.’ This is because these gems are exceedingly rare- so not many people can afford them unless you’re boasting a pretty big budget!

Luckily for most of us, it doesn’t matter whether the pearl’s cultivated or occurs naturally, the longer the growing period, the better the formation of the nacre, and therefore, the better quality of the pearl produced. So, usually, the older the pearl, the more expensive the gem.

What Should You Look for In a Pearl?

pearl

As you start browsing through your options, review all the following:

  • The luster of the pearl: one of the most beautiful things about pearls is the intensity of their reflections — the clearer the image reflected in the bead, the better the quality of the luster.
  • The pearl’s size: this mainly comes down to the wearers taste in jewelry. Typically, larger pearls are ideal for necklaces, whereas tiny beads are perfect for embellishing a cute set of earrings. Unsurprisingly, the more significant the size of the gem, the higher the price tag- so, if you’re shopping on a budget, be sure to consider this.
  • The uniformity of the pearls: if there’s more than one pearl in a piece of jewelry (say a necklace, bracelet, or a set of earrings, etc.) then carefully analyze whether the stones match one another. The more even the pearls, the better. However, this rule might not apply if precision isn’t vital to your look. For example, if you’re going for the Boho or shabby chic aesthetic, then a mixture of different pearl formations might enhance your look perfectly!

Pearl Grading

As you start researching the kind of pearls out there, you’ll need to understand how pearl grading works. This is probably the hardest aspect of selecting a pearl. Unfortunately, there isn’t an official or standard system for grading these gems. Therefore, each jeweler and pearl supplier tend to use their classification process to rank the luster, surface, shape, and color of the stone.

All these factors are things you’ll need to weigh up against each other to make an educated decision about your purchase. However, Tahitian pearls boast an exception to the rule. The French Polynesian government controls their grading and exportation and therefore, the lines are way less blurred when it comes to classification.

What’s the Difference Between Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls?

On the whole, freshwater pearls boast a softer luster, which means they’re not as glossy looking. Whereas, saltwater pearls have a more superficial, shine to them. However, it’s worth noting that over the last few years, we’ve seen drastic improvements in the farming techniques used to harvest pearls. In light of that, the luster of freshwater pearls is now comparable to those of saltwater ones.

‘Why does this difference in luster occasionally occur?’ We hear you cry! Well, different types of mollusks produce freshwater and saltwater pearls, which means the thickness of their nacre varies and therefore the quality of their luster.

Freshwater Pearls: A Brief Summary

real pearl

Unsurprisingly as their name suggests, freshwater pearls grow in bodies of fresh water; rivers, lakes, ponds, etc., but more interesting than this, mollusks living in this kind of environment can produce anywhere up to 50 freshwater pearls in one go! Generally, China manufactures most of the freshwater pearls on the market.

However, if you want a freshwater pearl to occur naturally, you need to wait for some form of an irritant to find its way into the mollusk to kickstart the pearl making process. This delay can prolong the pearl making process, taking it to a total of roughly four to six years!

Freshwater pearls are famous for their elegant shapes, white and pastel colors and soft luster. It doesn’t matter whether you want a perfectly round gem or free-form baroque, freshwater pearls offer a diverse range for you to choose from.

Traditionally, freshwater pearls are usually more durable than saltwater pearls. This is because the nacre used to create these pearls is way thicker than the nacre found in saltwater pearls. So, if you’re planning on wearing your pearls regularly, freshwater is probably the better option.

Historically, cultivated freshwater pearls boast a shorter turn around time than saltwater pearls (less than two years). Therefore, they tend to be smaller in size. However, more and more producers are beginning to grow their freshwater pearls over an extended period (typically between three to six years). This has resulted in the beads growing in size (usually averaging between 5-15mm). However, some suppliers have managed to produce both round and baroque pearls as big as 20mm!

So, as we’ve already said, the quality of freshwater pearls is now competitive to that of high-quality saltwater pearls. So, be sure to focus on finding a reputable, good-quality supplier if you want decent freshwater pearls.

Saltwater Pearls: A Brief Summary

Saltwater pearls are also known as Akoya pearls. This is fitting because the Akoya mollusk creates this kind of jewel. These are produced mainly in bays, inlets, and atolls across Japan, China, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, and Tahiti. Saltwater pearls, also include Tahitian, and South Sea pearls.

Fun Fact: Akoya pearls have grown off the coast of Japan for almost a century! Traditionally, these were famously known as the ‘classic pearl of choice’- so this is what we usually picture when we imagine an image of a stereotypical ‘pearl.’

Fun Fact No.2: Traditionally, saltwater pearls were considered the best quality pearl for necklaces, both in terms of their luster and beautifully rounded shapes.

Typically, saltwater pearls in comparison to freshwater pearls are far quicker to grow organically. Usually, they only take between six and 18 months. Unlike freshwater pearls, saltwater pearls are more likely to boast a perfectly round shape and range between four to ten millimeters in size- so there’s plenty of variety for you to choose from!

Perfectly spherical pearls are typically the most popular shape, and therefore they’re in high demand. This is one of the reasons saltwater pearls tend to come with a heftier price tag. They’re also more expensive because freshwater mussels are more abundant than saltwater ones, so their rarity also boosts their value.

Interestingly, with all that being said, Akoya pearls do come in unusual baroque shapes and colors, for example, silver-blue, and gold. However, these are few and far between, so this kind of pearl hasn’t isn’t well-renown for producing obscure styles and formats of gems.

What About Other Kinds of Pearls?

pearl

In addition to freshwater and saltwater pearls, there are other fabulous kinds of jewels, like the Tahitian. Like we’ve already said, these are grown in French Polynesia and are the only dark pearls to occur naturally. Interestingly, although these pearls are often described as ‘black’ Tahitian pearls come in a variety of unusual colors.

If you’re after a round pearl, the Tahitian isn’t your best bet because a rounded shape is considered exceedingly rare. Conversely, if the thought of pearls boasting the following configurations: drops, baroque or oval excite you, then the Tahitian is a fabulous choice. Tahitians typically range between 8mm and 15mm in size ( this is regardless of their shape).

Alternatively, you could opt for the South Sea pearl. These are primarily grown in Australia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. These stunning pearls range from white to gold in color- how impressive is that?! One of the best things about this kind of pearl is their immense size! However, because of their enormity, perfectly rounded South Sea pearls are incredibly rare.

South Sea pearls tend to range between 8mm and 18mm in size. However, more commonly they fluctuate between 10mm and 14mm. Therefore, if you’re looking for a statement rock for an engagement ring, a South Sea pearl might just be your best bet.

Caring for Your Pearl

Interestingly, pearls are one of the world’s only wholly organic gemstones. Hence, they tend to be very fragile. So, you need to take excellent care of jewelry, to ensure they withstand the test of time.

Fun Fact: harsh products like perfume and hairspray, can critically damage the luster of a pearl so keep these toxins well away from your precious pearls!

Handy Hack: You can also purchase pearl-care kits. These usually provide you with clear instructions on how to care for your pearls. Follow them to the letter if you want to enjoy your gems for years to come!

Final Thoughts

If you’re currently weighing up whether to purchase a freshwater or saltwater pearl, then you need to analyze their appearance carefully. Your number one priority should be finding a fabulous supplier. The better the reputation of your jeweler, the more likely they are to offer you freshwater and saltwater pearls that are comparable in quality.

You want a jeweler that uses a pearl supplier who uses modern methods to cultivate their freshwater pearls. Typically, these pearls match the luster and shape of their saltwater counterparts.

However, they’re usually retailed at a far more reasonable price in comparison to saltwater pearls. Luckily for you these days, you shouldn’t have to trade off too much concerning the pearl’s weight, appearance, and durability- providing you find a decent quality jeweler!

Rosie Greaves

Rosie Greaves is a professional freelance writer and content strategist. She specializes in all things weddings and lifestyle. Having previously written for Cake and Lace and worked as a wedding planner, there’s nothing she enjoys blogging about more!

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