A Buying Guide to Types of Pearls – Akoya, Freshwater, Tahitian Pearls and More!
Even if you’ve never watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ve undoubtedly seen the iconic movie cover featuring Audrey Hepburn decked out in a layered necklace of pearls and black evening dress. A beauty bedazzled in beautiful jewelry never goes out of style.
While Hepburn certainly helped immortalize white pearls, it turns out that there are many types of pearls and they come in all sorts of colours. Plus, they’re in a league of their own as jewelry pieces, given that they’re grown in the water by shelled mollusks.
What other gems can say the same?
If you’re searching for the perfect piece of pearl jewelry (30th anniversary gift anyone!?) or are simply pearl-curious, keep reading!
We’ve put together a guide on everything pearl-related, so you can get a handle on the types of pearls available for purchase, their symbolism, what to look for when shopping for pearl jewelry, and more.
Guide to ‘Everything Pearls’
Most folks don’t realize there are different types of pearls. When you think about pearls, what comes to mind? Probably a white pearl necklace, right? Or, you know, maybe a black pearl necklace comes to mind if you’re into Pirates of the Caribbean.
But what about the brilliant pink pearls hailing from the lakes and rivers of China? Or the blue pearls of Tahiti? They deserve the same love and recognition.
What Colors Do Pearls Come In?
Pearls come in more colors than most people realize. If you know where to look, especially in the many rivers, lakes, and oceans around the world, you will find:
- White Pearls
- Black Pearls
- Golden Pearls
- Chocolate Pearls (sadly, not edible, but still beautiful!)
- Pink Pearls
- Lavender Pearls
The list goes on. There are as many pearl color types as colors in the rainbow, and perhaps a few more we have yet to discover.
Freshwater vs. Saltwater Pearls
As we previously mentioned, it’s wholly possible to find oyster – and thus pearls – in lakes and rivers, which are typically freshwater sources, or in the oceans, which are saltwater. Each body of water produces unique properties in pearls, which we categorize as saltwater pearls or freshwater pearls.
Freshwater Pearl — As the name would suggest, these pearls grow in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds—typically in China—and come in a variety of shapes and sizes in mostly pastel colors. Most freshwater pearls do not feature a bead nuclear, which produces a thicker nacre (i.e. the material pearls are made from).
Saltwater Pearl — Conversely, the saltwater pearl, including Akoya cultured pearls from Japan and China, grow in saltwater oceans and produce the largest pearls in the world. They range from 9mm to 29mm and are typically white, cream, or golden-colored. However, some come in black, gray, blue, green, and purple.
But freshwater vs. saltwater pearls is not the only distinction when talking about ocean gems.
Natural vs. Cultured Pearls
Are natural pearls common today? Unfortunately, no. Quite a long time ago, many natural pearls were discovered in the Persian Gulf. Once found, these pearls were harvested to near-extinction levels. Today, you can purchase natural pearls but they will cost you an arm and a leg.
On the other hand, we now have access to cultured pearls, which are far more commonplace and readily available for a reasonable price. Ironic, isn’t it? The ‘cultured’ pearls are the commoners, while the natural pearl is for high-society!
A cultured pearl is grown on a farm (like salmon), where the mollusks are raised to the appropriate levels until they accept a mother-of-pearl bead nucleus. The entire process is complicated and delicate. An experienced technician surgically implants the bead, then returns the mollusk to the water and waits for the pearl to grow.
Unfortunately, not all mollusks will produce a pearl. Some may produce a pearl but not one of high quality. It can often take over 10,000 pearls to create a single pearl necklace, as many are discarded due to their quality.
Types of Cultured Pearls
There are four main types of cultured pearls.
- Akoya Cultured Pearls — The Akoya pearl is the most common type of saltwater cultured pearls sold in the United States. Most come in white or cream color and hail from Japan and China, where farms cultivate the Akoya oyster.
- South Sea Cultured Pearl — You will find South Sea cultured pearls hailing from Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where the white, silver or golden South Sea pearl is plentiful in size and availability.
- Tahitian Cultured Pearl — While not solely from Tahiti, the Tahitian pearl stems from the French Polynesian islands, where they cultivate black, gray, brown, blue, green, purple, and pink saltwater pearls.
- Freshwater Cultured Pearls — The most common cultured pearls are freshwater pearls, which are available in a broad range of sizes, shapes, and colors. Most come from China’s freshwater cultivation farms.
How is Pearl Quality Determined?
We all know pearls are graded by their quality, but how?
A pearl’s quality is determined by the following factors:
- whether it is natural or cultured
- size and shape
- color and luster
- surface quality
- nacre thickness & quality
- matching capabilities
And what’s meant by matching capabilities? Well, when you purchase a piece of jewelry with multiple pearls, you want them to match in size and color, so pearls that are easy to match are more valuable.
Because of their larger pearl size and the extreme skill needed to aid in their growth, the South Sea pearl can be considered the most valuable on our list. The highest quality ones come in either a golden or pure white tone. They can also be found in an array of other hues such as silver, blue, or green.
What are the Rarest Pearls?
Generally speaking, conch pearls are among the rarest in the world. They are non-nacreous pearls, which we cannot cultivate in farms, and may only grow in one of every 10,000 Queen conch mollusks.
Due to their rarity and brilliant, soft pink coloring, the value of a pea-sized conch pearl is often $120,000 or more.
However, in the entire world, the rarest pearl is the Melo Melo Pearl, a natural, non-nacreous pearl formed via a sea snail. Its surface features swirling patterns of light mixed with an iconic orange coloring common to Vietnam.
Which Pearls Are the Most Expensive and Which Are the Most Budget-Friendly?
If we’re talking about purchasing pearls for jewelry, knowing which will fit within your budget is key. But know this first: high-quality pearls range in price from $300 to $1500 apiece. Now, that’s not to say you’ll pay that much for a piece of jewelry. Most pearl jewelry uses typical pearls, which are less pricey but no less beautiful.
As mentioned above, the most expensive pearls hail from the South Sea. On the other hand, the most budget-friendly pearls are of the freshwater variety, of which you may purchase a pearl strand necklace for about a hundred dollars.
Pearls as Gifts
Pearls are a wonderful gift for any special occasion.
Why? Because on top of their natural beauty, pearls are memorable. How often do you open a birthday gift to discover pearls inside? They are timelessly charming. Cue Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Symbolism and Superstition
With a long and storied history, it’s no surprise that pearls are steeped in symbolism and superstitions.
Pearls are said to symbolize wisdom, serenity, and purity. If you offer pearls as a gift, they are meant to strengthen relationships and convey safety to the receiver.
Like most jewelry, pearls also convey superstition We often consider pearls tokens of love and affection, but they are also said to provide luck. Many myths suggest pearls symbolize fortune and wealth.
On the other hand, some superstitions suggest that pearls symbolize tears and thus should not be worn on an engagement ring. Yet other superstitions suggest that pearls worn by a bride symbolize the tears she will cry, and thus ensure a happy marriage and life, with the pearls acting as an absorber of bad luck.
When are Pearls the Perfect Gift?
Pearls make the most sense whenever you feel the occasion calls for an extravagant, memorable, and beautiful gift. We most often see pearls offered as presents for an anniversary gift, birthday, Mother’s Day, and even around the holiday season.
Really, there is no wrong time to give pearls as gifts, but since they can represent a significant investment, it’s usually best to gift them when there’s an especially significant occasion to celebrate.
Pearls are a gift that can be kept and passed down through generations, so it is important to choose the right time and place.
What to Consider When Gifting Pearls
Before you take a trip to the jewelry store in search of a pearl necklace, know your recipient. Like all other forms of jewelry, buying pearls a
Budget — Set a reasonable budget and stick to it. If you’re on a tighter budget, jewelry made with freshwater pearls is your best bet.
Age — The age of the recipient matters. Is your daughter too young to appreciate or care for a set of pearls? Perhaps a full necklace isn’t the best way forward, but a pair of pearl earrings might just be the perfect gift.
Style — Does your recipient put a lot of effort into their personal style? Is it more casual and comfortable, or classy and extravagant? If the latter reigns true, then pearls are a good choice. If you know your recipient dresses up for parties or dinners, then pearls will make an exceptional, memorable present.
Now that you know a bit more about the various types of pearls, or ocean gems, perhaps it’s time to surprise someone in your life with a piece of pearl jewelry. A unique necklace strung using high-quality, white, or cream-colored pearls is sure to elicit many ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’.
Make an already special day even more so with perfect pearls!
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