Though white and off-white pearls are undoubtedly the most common pearl colors, these watery wonders come in a gleaming array of hues. Think pale peachy pinks, peacock green, glittering golds, and more!
This guide lists the verifiable rainbow of pearl colors, along with where they originate, and answers all of your frequently asked pearl questions too!
From Elegant to Everyday
Few things are as distinctive, elegant, and culturally resonant as a strand of ivory pearls. They are equally stunning when paired with a low-neck satin gown as they are with a white T-shirt and mom jeans, worn at a grand opera house or in the supermarket.
This June birthstone is instantly recognizable and is making a comeback into contemporary fashions, guided by both a resurgent fascination in all things vintage and a fresh perspective from a new wave of millennial jewelers.
But did you know that this queen of all gems is not always plain white? Pearls can be found in a vast range of colors, both natural and treated. From rich, sensual black pearls swirling with all the colors of the northern lights to icy blue and shocking coral, there’s a whole array of pearl colors to fit any style.
Where Do Pearls Get Their Color?
To understand color in pearls we first have to look at the different levels of color recognized in pearl jewelry: body color, overtone, and orient.
Body color is the basic hue of the pearl as a whole, for example white, lavender, or yellow. We can think of this as our canvas.
Overtoneis the subtler hint of color that gives the pearl its character. For example, a pearl might be white with rose overtones, or black with green overtones. We can think of this as the first wash of paint.
Orient is a quality that may not be present in all pearls. It’s a multicolored iridescence similar to the rainbow effect of an oil slick. It happens when the nacre on the pearl is particularly thick and well-formed, and is more commonly observed in off-round or oddly shaped pearls (these are called baroque). Orient is the final layer on the canvas that gives a little extra richness to the work of art.
The basic body color of a pearl — generally white, black, or gold — depends on the species of the oyster. For example, the black-lipped oysters of Tahiti usually produce black pearls, and the Akoya species of oyster, native to the coastal waters off China and Japan, usually produce white pearls.
However, as each one of these creatures is a living being, their own shells and the colors they produce can vary as much as one human can vary from another. The unique overtones of a finished pearl mostly come down to luck and, beyond that, artificial color treatments.
Where Do Colored Pearls Originate?
Pearls can be cultivated in any temperate coastal area, but the most common places to find pearl farms are:
- French Polynesia
- New Zealand
- the Philippines.
China produces a wide range of colored freshwater pearls including pink, peach, and lavender. Rich golden South Sea pearls come mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia. The deep, dark pearls that we call Tahitians, which carry a range of multicolored overtones and range from true black to silver-grey to teal blue, come from around the islands of French Polynesia.
While Japan, the birthplace of cultured pearl farming, mainly produces white akoya pearls, we sometimes see other colors coming from this region such as pale blue or champagne yellow.
13 Pearl Colors
White, ivory, or cream colored pearls are the quintessential symbol of elegance.
Favored by the Grace Kellys and Jackie Kennedys of the world and immortalized by Audrey Hepburn’s effortlessly chic morning after ensemble in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, white pearls will always be fashionable.
Most white akoya saltwater pearls are harvested in Japan and China, with small amounts coming from Vietnam, Australia, and Thailand. The vast majority of white freshwater pearls come from pearl farms in China. Larger white South Sea pearls come mostly from Australia.
Black pearls are a deep, exotic gemstone perfect for people who find the subdued tradition of white pearls too constraining. Their ebony body color is the perfect canvas for a stunning array of overtones including green, blue, red, copper, and even violet.
Black pearls are primarily cultivated in the islands of French Polynesia and traded in Tahiti, which leads to their more common name of “Tahitian pearls”. These pearls tend to be quite large, closer to the size of South Sea pearls, but you can also find smaller Akoya and freshwater pearls that have been color treated to resemble a Tahitian pearl.
In addition to lending themselves well to modern, edgy jewelry designs, black pearls can be found in men’s accessories such as cufflinks, tie pins, or leather bracelets.
Gold pearls are a sight to behold. True gold pearls are a variety of South Sea pearls, which also come in white. They tend to be quite large (up to 20mm, or just under an inch). Colors of naturally golden pearls can range from gentle champagne tones to deep, brassy colors known as “24k gold”. Generally richer, deeper colors are the most valuable.
They’re grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia.
While many white pearls exhibit a lovely pink overtone, most naturally pink body colors occur in Chinese freshwater pearls. They range from palest powder rose to richer cherry blossom tones.
Japanese akoya pearls, on the other hand, are a saltwater variety with a white body color and sometimes rose overtones. While you can occasionally find akoya pearls that show this wash of color naturally, many of them are treated, or “pinked”, to bring out this tone. You can also find lovely coral-pink tones in conch pearls, described in more detail below.
Like naturally colored pink pearls, peach toned pearls are another stunning hue on the freshwater palate. These pearls can be found in subtle golden tones through to vivid apricot. They make a wonderful addition to feminine summery dresses.
While this color can be found naturally, some peach pearls are the result of dyeing and other color treatments. Like other colored freshwater pearls, most of these gems come from Chinese freshwater farms.
Purple is consistently one of the most in-demand colors in the pearl jewelry market. You can find soft lavender hues in Chinese freshwater pearls and royal purple overtones in darker Tahitian pearls (sometimes these are called “aubergine pearls”).
This is one of the rarest and most prized colors in pearl jewelry, so it is not uncommon to find color treated imitations.
Blue body colors and overtones in pearls come in an enormous spectrum. Rare Japanese akoyas can be found in startling icy blue colors reminiscent of a winter sky, while black Tahitian pearls can be found with intense midnight overtones.
“Peacock” pearls in particular are quite popular, which are black Tahitian pearls with overtones of blue and green together. Some Tahitian pearls also show summery teal colors.
Most white akoya saltwater pearls are slightly grey-toned before they go through their routine bleaching process. The more commonly marketed grey pearls, however, are Tahitians. They have a lovely silver, stormy, pewter color to them. Grey pearls make a bold statement and create a particularly lovely contrast with very pale hair.
The only true coral colors found in pearls are conch pearls, which is a variety of mollusk that lives in the Caribbean.
Biologically speaking, conch pearls aren’t actually pearls at all because they’re made up of a different shell substance, but they are an exciting part of the pearl jewelry industry nonetheless. They can be found in shades from deep lipstick pink to salmon-y orange. The most valuable conch pearls exhibit a mottled, luminescent appearance known in the industry as the “flame structure”.
The most common green colors in pearls are the overtones found in black Tahitian pearls, from rich emerald to the vivid blue-green tones known as “peacock” or the silvery green known as “pistachio”. Green overtones in pearls are quite rare and the coloration tends to be quite subtle, but you can find freshwater pearls dyed in all sorts of vivid shades of green.
Softer than the bold tones of gold South Sea pearls, golden yellow akoya pearls are on the rise in niche jewelry. Though some akoyas have always been found in these golden colors, up until very recently yellow tones were considered undesirable and were bleached out by pearl farmers before wholesaling them.
Now trends are starting to turn, as they so often do, and people are beginning to appreciate the warm elegance of yellow-toned akoyas. Plus, they’re more delicate and more affordable than the more famous golden South Seas.
While the only truly red pearls are artificially treated, some Tahitian pearls have been discovered with beautiful cherry overtones. Often these are found overlaid with other colors such as green or peacock. In addition, conch pearls can sometimes exhibit such a concentrated coral color that it appears red, though these are exceptionally rare.
Copper, chocolate, and bronze are all words used to describe this stunning color range. Unfortunately, finding these colors naturally present in pearls without any sort of treatment is just about impossible.
Some Tahitian pearls can be found with warm, coppery overtones (sometimes called “cinnamon”), and others are bleached to remove the darker hues. Many others, both freshwater and saltwater, are dyed to achieve this color. These can be beautiful, affordable options so long as the treatment is stable and disclosed honestly.
Which Pearl Color Should You Choose?
With so many wonderful options available today, pearl shoppers are no longer limited to the classic white strands that our grandmothers wore. There is a wide variety to suit all skin tones, seasons, ages, and occasions.
In summer, fair haired beauties may prefer pink or peach pearls, reserving richer golden colors for autumn. Women with darker features or cool tones in their skin may be drawn to icy blue akoyas or rich peacock-black Tahitian pearls. Lavender pearls are often associated with youth, while the steely storm-colored grey Tahiaitans make a magnificent statement on more mature women.
Despite all of these associations and all the advice you might hear, the most important thing is to look at pearls against your skin and decide which colors you love most. As with all jewelry, the right pearl for you is the one that makes you glow from the inside.
Colored Pearl FAQ
Gold South Sea pearls are the most sought after pearls and command the highest prices. However, the wide range of colors found in Tahitian pearls means that rare overtones like cherry and copper can cause a lot of excitement among pearl experts as well.
Blue akoya pearls are a rare and exciting find, as are golden ones — so many of them are bleached before sale, trading these unique champagne tones for the safer white pearl market.
For larger pearls, Tahitians with cherry red or aubergene purple overtones are seen the least often and command the highest prices.
Naturally colored pearls should not change their hue over time, nor will bleached ones as bleaching is a stable treatment. Some dyeing and finishing that is used on low quality dyed pearls might fade or chip off with age.
Although the actual color of quality pearls should not change, it is important to note that other aspects such as shine and luster might dull over time if the pearls are not properly cared for.
There are several clues you can look for in your pearls to see if they are real, including their shape, surface texture, and construction.
Surprisingly enough, they’re not the result of a torrid love between a mother and a father pearl. Pearls are actually part of an immune response in the oyster or mussel that they’re formed in.
When an external irritant such as a grain of sand, a shard of seashell, or a bit of the oyster’s lunch gets caught in between the two shells, the oyster secretes a protective substance known as nacre. This is a mineral buildup of calcium carbonate that isolates the irritant so that it can’t do any harm (think about how our bodies scab over open wounds to keep them safe).
Pretty As A Pearl
As you can see, what’s often thought of as one singular white gem is actually a world of colorful possibilities.
Pearls can be fun, fresh, and contemporary as well as classically demure and elegant. Whether you feel most drawn to the soft tropical tones of peach freshwater pearls or the take-no-prisoners confidence of a heady black Tahitian pearl, there is a perfect pearl color for everyone.
You can even mix and match in a beautiful multicolored pearl necklace. Or wear a different color every day of the week!
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