The Ultimate Guide To Freshwater Pearls for Your Unique Style
Any time you are shopping for pearls, the focus should always be on selecting pearls that reflect your personal taste. However, unlike natural cultured or imitation pearls which have only one color and shape, freshwater pearls offer something truly spectacular for every style and budget.
Freshwater pearls are the great shapeshifters of the fine jewelry world. Their broad range of shapes, qualities, and colors can make things pretty confusing for consumers. Let’s look at what these jewels have to offer and how to choose the ones that are right for you.
What is a Freshwater Pearl?
When you think of a classic strand of pearls, what comes to mind? A uniform, gently glowing cream-colored cascade? A string of effervescent, multicolored beads of light? Or maybe a motley row of bending, twisting, undulating gems reminiscent of the waves of the sea itself? Freshwater pearls can be all of these things.
A freshwater pearl is a real pearl that originates in freshwater bodies such as lakes, ponds, and rivers. They’re cultivated in freshwater mussels such as Hyriopsis cumingi and Hyriopsis schlegeli, which are completely different species from the saltwater oysters that other pearls (such as akoyas, Tahitians, and South Seas) are cultivated in.
Pearl Farming and Production
The pearl farming process for freshwater pearls is similar to that of saltwater pearls, with one very important difference. Like on saltwater pearl farms, a trained technician will surgically implant a small starter seed into the body of the mussel (or oyster, in the case of saltwater pearls). This small piece of foreign matter encourages the mussel to begin isolating it with layer upon layer of glossy, pearlescent nacre — what we sometimes call mother-of-pearl.
The key difference is what kind of seed is used. In akoya, Tahitian, and South sea oysters, the farmer will insert a piece of biological tissue along with a perfectly round bead, usually made out of shell or plastic. There was a time when these were made out of gold, but since it was too difficult to drill a hole through solid gold to string it on a necklace, they weren’t very practical.
This inserted “starter” is called the nucleus. The tissue will encourage the oyster to begin the nacre formation and the bead gives them a form to build up the pearl around. This is why so many saltwater pearls are perfectly round.
Freshwater Pearl Development
With freshwater pearls, the process is a little different. These pearls receive an implanted tissue irritant, but no bead nucleus…most of the time. Larger freshwater pearls, called Edisons, are being introduced onto the jewelry market with a bead nucleus, but these are still quite new and experimental. Fireball pearls are also bead nucleated.
As the freshwater nacre grows over a period of 2-7 years, the tissue, being organic matter, dissolves. This leaves a gem behind that is pure pearl all the way through.
Without a form to grow on, however, the pearl is left to the whims of nature. Sometimes it may grow into a perfectly sound sphere, but not very often. It might be oval, drop shaped, knobbly (these are called “potato pearls”), or something with no shape at all, like a paint splotch. These are called “baroque pearls”.
How Rare Are Freshwater Pearls?
It’s a common misconception that freshwater pearls are synonymous with “low quality”. This is largely for two reasons: the first, as we’ve seen, is that the majority of pearls that come from freshwater mussels are less desirable off-round shapes. The second is that there are a lot more of these than there are pearls of any other kind.
On saltwater pearl farms, oysters are nearly always implanted with one single bead nucleus per harvest period, though akoyas can sometimes take two. After a waiting period of between six months and four years, depending on the oyster species, the finished pearl is removed, cleaned, and set into jewelry.
On the other hand, freshwater mussels can grow up to fifty pearls at the same time. Most of these will be fairly low grade, which means that there is a huge amount of low quality freshwater pearls saturating the market at any given moment. Because of this, some might assume that freshwater pearls are incredibly common and always low quality. However, the best quality freshwater pearls can easily rival akoya pearls in both beauty and rarity.
How to Choose Freshwater Pearls
All pearls are graded with the GIA’s seven pearl value factors: shape, luster, color, nacre thickness, surface quality, size, and quality of the finished jewelry item (called make, matching, or craftsmanship). Freshwater pearls are graded on a scale of A-AAA, and usually a fourth, superior grade. Different jewelers may use different terms for this, but words you might hear are Gem Grade, AAAA, Freshwater Orient, and Freshadama.
This is probably the most integral when evaluating freshwater pearls because, as we’ve seen, freshwater pearls come in a wide array of different shapes. Perfectly round pearls are the most sought after, and the most rare — only about 1% of all freshwater pearls produced are perfect spheres. This makes round freshwater pearls even more rare than round akoyas.
Drop-shaped pearls are also popular choices for pendants and earrings, particularly if they’re even and symmetrical. The next most valuable would be oval or “rice-shaped” pearls, followed by more jazzy baroque shapes.
Luster is the way light reflects off the layers of nacre that make up the pearl. This shows itself as a reflective glow on the pearl’s surface. Akoya pearls are known for their sharp, high-contrast reflections, while freshwater and south sea pearls are both characterized by their softer, satin-like luster reminiscent of moonlight on water.
When evaluating the luster of a pearl, look at the lines around the reflections shown on its surface — they should be sharp and easy to spot. A pearl with good luster will also have high contrast between the lighter and darker areas, whereas on a pearl with poor luster the light and dark spaces will begin to blend together.
While the luster on a freshwater pearl will never be as sharp and vibrant as the surface of an akoya pearl, the best freshwater pearls will be bright, high-contrast, and show reflections clearly and distinctly.
Color is where freshwater pearls really come into their own. These gems come in a wider range of body colors than any other pearl. They can be found in classic white, pink (a true rosy pink, unlike the subtle pink overtones on some akoya pearls), peach, and even lavender (like our namesake!).
While white pearls will always be a reliable choice for jewelers, many will string different colored pearls together on a multicolor strand. Sometimes these are paired with Tahitian and South Sea pearls as well, creating a string of pearls with every color of the rainbow.
White freshwater pearls with rose or silver overtones are the most valuable, followed by lavender and then pink and peach. When looking at colored pearls, richer, more vivid colors will sell for more than paler ones.
Because freshwater pearls have no nucleus, their nacre isn’t examined the same way it is with saltwater pearls — it’s assumed that the nacre continues all the way through (Edison pearls are, of course, the exception to this). This already gives freshwater pearls a leg above all the other types, because their pure nacre makes them much more durable. It also makes them the closest thing to natural pearls.
Surface quality is another big one for pearls of all varieties, including freshwater. It’s a little like looking at clarity in diamonds – it refers to how smooth and consistent the surface of the pearl is. Many pearls, both natural and cultured, will have little interruptions in the growing process. These show up as pockmarks, dents, or ripples in the surface that we call blemishes.
While these are a natural part of this organic gem and they show that your pearl is real, having too many of them becomes distracting and detracts from the pearl’s beauty. The best quality pearl necklaces should have no more than one or two blemishes on the entire strand. Single pearls, such as those in rings or earrings, shouldn’t have any at all.
Size is an indication of value in pearls, though not necessarily of quality. Freshwater pearls can range from 3mm up to about 15mm in diameter. When all other value factors are equal, larger pearls will sell for higher prices than smaller ones. However, if a small pearl is perfectly round and has excellent luster, surface quality, and a beautiful color, it will always sell for more than a large, dull, off round pearl.
More than just the pearl, or pearls, the make refers to the quality of the finished piece. In a necklace, this involves the following factors:
- making sure the knotting is tight in between each pearl
- checking that the pearls are well matched in size, shape, and color
- gradient sizes increase smoothly and subtly
- the colors should be well balanced and pleasing to the eye (in multicolor strands)
In earrings, brooches, and rings, you will want to make sure that all pearls and any other stones the piece is using fit together as a unified whole.
Freshwater Pearls vs Akoyas
Which is the better pearl? Which is better value? Is one more “real” than the other? These are all valid questions to ask about two very similar gems. At their best, they’re both round, creamy, and lustrous, both icons of a classic vintage elegance. You’ll get some some strong conflicting opinions about which one is the better choice, but here are a few key differences.
Nacre thickness is one very important difference that puts a point solidly in the court of Team Freshwater: freshwater pearls are pure nacre. That is, pure pearl all the way through. Akoyas, by contrast, actually contain very little real pearl — only a thin coating around the bead nucleus. In addition to the solid nacre making freshwater pearls much more of a durable choice for everyday wear, it’s also much more like the pearls you find growing wild in a natural environment.
Freshwater pearls took the lead, but akoya pearls are coming up fast. When it comes to luster, nothing in nature glows quite like an akoya pearl. Pearls born in the akoya oyster have sharp, brilliant reflections that have made them the connoisseur’s choice for pearl jewelry for generations. Freshwater pearls, on the other hand, naturally have a luster that is much softer and more muted.
While color is an individual choice, it’s undeniable that freshwater pearls have a wider range to offer. Both freshwater and akoyas are available in classic white, and you can also get freshwaters in an array of glorious pastel tones. Akoyas come predominantly in white as well as yellow and, rarely, silver or blue. So which color range is best? Well, we believe its the one that looks best on you. We’re going to call this one a tie.
Here, freshwater pearls really surge ahead. While both freshwater and akoya pearls come in a range of qualities and price points, akoya pearl jewelry commands much higher prices. This is largely cultural – even the best freshwater pearls sell for around the lower range of akoya pearls. Freshwater pearls are by far the more budget-friendly option.
We’re pulling up neck and neck here. Due to the rarity, history, and prestige of akoya pearls, and the fact that gem grade freshwater pearls are a relatively new addition to the market, akoya pearls are considered much more luxurious than their freshwater counterparts. Even when no one can tell the difference, you might find that attitudes change a little when you mention that you’re wearing freshwater pearls. Akoya pearls are indisputably the more desirable and prestigious option.
The verdict? It’s a tie! Freshwater pearls are great for more regular wear, and for experimenting with funky new styles without breaking the bank. Akoyas are more of an investment piece for special occasion wear.
Freshwater Pearl Value
As we’ve seen, freshwater pearls are usually a lower priced option than saltwater pearl varieties. This is because the vast majority of them are not of very good quality — you can get real, genuine freshwater pearls for only a couple of dollars at beading or craft stores. These will usually be artificially color treated, potato-shaped, and heavily marked on their surfaces. None of this, however, means that they aren’t real pearls. This is what has given rise to the myth that freshwater pearls aren’t worth very much.
For a good quality freshwater pearl necklace, you can expect to spend anywhere between $250 and $3000. Simple stud earrings can go from $99 to $500. A gem grade freshwater strand will hold up better over time than other pearl varieties, so you can enjoy them for years to come.
This is good news, since freshwater pearls don’t have a very good resale value. If you’re looking to part ways with your pearl jewelry, or maybe you want to upgrade to a better quality piece, you may be better off giving your pre-loved pearls as a gift rather than trying to sell them off.
Freshwater Pearl FAQ
Though they are lovely, pearls in general do take a bit of TLC in order to maintain their beauty and luster.
Pearls should never be worn in the shower — not because it poses any danger to the pearl itself, but because water, shampoos, and other body products can damage the delicate silk threading on pearl necklaces and the hardware of earrings and rings. Care should be taken to keep pearls away from harsh chemicals like those in hairspray or perfumes.
If you’re planning on wearing pearls for a night out, it’s best to put them on just before leaving, after other products have had a chance to settle in. After you take them off, use a clean, soft cloth to remove any natural skin oils or cosmetic residue.
Yes! Freshwater pearls are a very real type of cultured pearl — that is, farmed pearls that have been harvested from oyster and mussel farms under controlled conditions. They’re not the same as what the industry calls “natural” pearls, which are pearls found out in the wild. Both natural and cultured pearls are considered real.
The only real difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls is the species of shellfish they come from. Saltwater pearls from certain kinds of oysters, and freshwater pearls from freshwater mussels. In addition, there are certain differences in the farming techniques for these pearls — saltwater pearls are almost always grown around an implanted bead nucleus, whereas most (but not all) freshwater pearls are grown from only a piece of organic tissue.
Yes, freshwater pearls are often treated with dyes or radiation to create fun colors not naturally found in these types of pearls. Black, gold, and vibrant pink are some of the treated colors you might see in dyed and irradiated pearls.
This fascinating type of baroque pearl was created quite by accident, when Chinese pearl farmers tried inserting a bead into the freshwater mussel after the first pearl had already been harvested. What they ended up with was a round pearl, much like an akoya, only with an extraordinary excess of nacre on one side much like a comet’s trail. These pearls have become a cult collector’s item, and each one is one of a kind.
Your Pearl Style
One of the more polarizing gems in the fine jewelry industry, freshwater pearls have some of the most devoted aficionados around. Known for their pure, unfiltered luster and their extraordinary colors, these pearls are an astonishingly affordable marvel to add to your collection. Plus, the range of sizes, colors, and shapes means you’ll never run out of covetable ideas for your next pearl jewelry splurge.
Whether you’re buying your first “starter pearl” necklace or your fortieth, freshwater pearls will never go out of style.
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