Types of Pearls: Diverse and Fascinating Natural Beauties

Pearls and pearl necklace in a mollusk

Pearls are THE classics of the jewelry world: No jewelry shop or collection is complete without a few of these stunning gemstones. Their natural beauty, diverse colors, and velvety sheen have been fascinating us for millennia. Discover the most popular pearl types on FineJewels24 and learn how the quality of these special stones is measured!

Table of Contents

Treasures from the Deep

Unlike diamonds and other precious gemstones, pearls don’t have to be shaped and polished. These beautiful orbs are formed with the help of aquatic creatures like mussels and rare sea snails.

Pearls come from mother-of-pearl – a shiny material composed of calcium carbonate and other organic substances. Different types of mussels in different parts of the world produce different varieties of pearls. The unique characteristics of each pearl type play a central role in determining the quality of these round treasures.

Creating Pearls: A Natural Wonder

Pearls are a result of a natural process. Mussels are very sensitive creatures that react to any changes in their environment. As soon as they feel threatened, they create a pearl as a defense mechanism. So just how does it work?

Mussels use part of their mantel tissue to create pearls. The presence of a parasite or other foreign object in the shell triggers the production of mother-of-pearl. This composite material forms layers around the invader until it is no longer a threat.

Scientists first discovered this phenomenon over 100 years ago. Ever since, pearl farmers purposely irritate mussels to initiate the pearl creation process and cultivate different pearl types artificially.

Most pearls are harvested in regions around the equator. The world’s largest pearl producer is China, though Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and French Polynesia also have booming pearl industries.

Oyster with isolated white pearl

How do you determine a pearl’s quality?

A combination of five factors allows us to sort pearls into different grades. These factors are size, luster, shape, color, and surface structure.

Sizes of These Shining Treasures

The average pearl is 3 to 8 millimeters in diameter. However, some rare examples can be much larger, including South Sea Pearls.

Size and rarity have a significant effect on a pearl’s value.

A Unique Luster

The most important factor for grading a pearl is its luster. The smoother the pearl, the more it shines and shimmers.

A Variety of Shapes

Pearls come in all different shapes, including round, semi-round, drop, baroque, and ringed. The most valuable pearls are perfectly round. However, baroque and drop pearls are growing in popularity and now frequently feature on earrings.

Pearls in Every Shade of the Rainbow

Every pearl has two different colors: that of the pearl itself and that of the light reflecting off its surface. These two hues can either be the same or different.

These shimmering treasures come in a seemingly endless variety of colors, from white and pink all the way to black. Each individual pearl has its own unique coloring. When it comes to the best shade for you, it largely depends on your personal taste and complexion. Classic white or pink pearls pair nicely with lighter skin, while pearls with a silver tinge are gorgeous on warmer skin tones.

Pearls of different colours

The Surface Structure

A pearl’s exterior should be as smooth as possible without any irregularities or defects. Since they are a product of nature, many feature protrusions, indentations, rings, or dull spots. Higher-quality pearls will have fewer of these flaws.

Surface quality is split into five categories:

Lots of rose-colored shiny pearls

You can tell pearls apart by their various features. One major difference is whether the pearl is natural or cultured.

As the name implies, natural pearls occur in nature inside of mussels and sea snails. Pearl divers find them deep beneath the waves. Today, however, a vast majority of pearls are farmed. That means that people are actively involved in the pearl-making process.

It’s important to note that both types of pearls are “natural” and grow inside mussels. There’s nothing to distinguish between the two on an organic level.

Natural Pearls: The Rare Originals

Historical documents and archaeological findings reveal that humans have been using natural pearls for thousands of years. The Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Red Sea all used to be famous sources of this prized gem. After the Europeans arrived in the Americas, most saltwater pearls were fished off the coast of Mexico.

Today, natural pearls are extremely rare and only appear in specific regions; for example, natural conch and abalone pearls are particularly popular in the Middle East and India.

Conch Pearls: The Creation of Sea Snails

Conch pearls are produced by the queen conch. These creatures grow to be 6 to 12 inches (15 to 31 cm) in length, making them the world’s largest sea snails. They can live to be 20 to 30 years old and are most numerous in the Caribbean Sea and the tropical parts of the Atlantic between Venezuela and the Bahamas.

Conch pearls are extremely rare: Only one in every 10,000 snails will contain a pearl. Of those pearls, only one in five will be of viable quality. The fact that these uncommon pearls cannot be cultivated makes them all the more attractive to fans.

Unlike other pearls, conch pearls aren’t made of mother-of-pearl, but rather of crystallized calcium carbonate. Their surface is similar to that of porcelain or ceramic. This pearl type can be 3 to 12 millimeters in diameter and comes in colors ranging from white, beige, and yellow all the way to pink and reddish-brown. Black conch pearls exist but are exceptionally rare.

These glossy treasures have an oval or baroque shape. Their unique flame effect only adds to their captivating appearance.

Great queen conch

Abalone Pearls: Exclusive Products from Mollusks

The abalone pearl is among the rarest pearl types in the world. It also cannot be farmed and occurs very infrequently in nature. These pearls form inside abalone, a type of mollusk also known as sea ears. This name comes from the shape of its flesh, which resembles the outer ear of a human.

Abalone live in warm seas and in temperate regions. However, only half of these snails produce pearls. These fascinating stones come in green, blue, or bronze depending on the species. Light pink abalone pearls also exist but are much less common.

In contrast to other pearl types, abalone pearls aren’t round. Instead, they attract attention because of their asymmetrical and sometimes elongated shapes. There are 66 types of abalone pearls, the largest of which can measure from 4 to 10 inches (10 to 25 cm) across.

The surface quality varies from pearl to pearl: Some are flawless and smooth, some are slightly uneven, and others come with noticeable flaws. Regardless, these pearls are almost always more irregular than akoya and South Sea pearls.

Did you know that Japanese consumers have had a penchant for abalone pearls for years now? Nowadays, the popularity of these colorful gems is growing around the world, and they’re being used in exclusive jewelry.

Abalone Oyster Shell

Cultured Pearls: Lending Nature a Helping Hand

The Chinese spent centuries trying and failing to master the art of pearl farming. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto developed the first cultured pearl.

In the early 19th century, the Japanese invented a way to create round pearls. Pearl farming has since evolved by leaps and bounds: Regions of production and the types of pearls being farmed have expanded massively.

Like natural pearls, cultured pearls are “real” pearls, meaning they form inside a living creature. Humans are only actively involved at the very beginning to set the process in motion.

Differences arise between pearls cultivated in salt water and those grown in fresh water.

Pearl breeding at the beach

Saltwater Pearls: An Irresistible Shine

Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls all belong to the family of saltwater pearls. They are available in all different colors and fascinate onlookers with their extraordinary luster.

An important note: Saltwater mussels can usually only produce one pearl at a time, while freshwater mussels can create up to 20 pearls simultaneously. This is why saltwater pearls are so much more expensive than their freshwater cousins.

Akoya Pearls: The Classic Saltwater Pearl

Akoya pearls are the quintessential saltwater pearl, which is why they are often referred to as the “original pearl.” Their unique luster embodies what we think of as a flawless pearl and makes them one of the most popular types of cultured pearls. They have an especially feminine look, especially those with pink, cream, or silver undertones.

The bivalve oyster Pinctada fucata martensii is the “mother” of the akoya pearl. With a maximum length of 4 inches (10 cm), they are the smallest of the pearl oysters. This also explains why their pearls are on the smaller side at only 2 to 9 millimeters, with an average of 6 to 7 mm.

Japan has been the leading producer of akoya pearls since 1916. This island nation was once the world’s undisputed pearl-making superpower until a series of natural disasters killed off millions of oysters, prompting many farmers to give up their trade. China began cultivating these coveted gems in the 1990s and is now Japan’s biggest competitor in this market. More recently, you can also find akoya pearls grown in Dubai.

The process usually begins in the summer when no more than two to four mother-of-pearl beads are inserted into the oyster. These serve as the basis for the pearl. A small piece of mantel tissue from another oyster is later inserted into the host specimen, thus triggering the production of more mother-of-pearl and, ultimately, a pearl. Most akoya pearls take 10 to 14 months to grow.

South Sea Pearls: The Queen of Cultured Pearls

South Sea pearls shine in a wide variety of colors, including white, pink, silver, cream, and champagne. Their soft and satiny luster places them among the most elegant of all cultured pearls. A combination of beauty, rarity, and size has earned them the title “Queen of Pearls.” They are the perfect choice for creating especially impressive jewelry.

In the early 20th century, the Japanese began cultivating these pearls from the large tropical oysters found in the South Pacific, hence their name. Today, Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines also farm these massive aquatic creatures.

South Sea pearls grow inside the pearl oyster Pinctada maxima. These oysters can grow up to a foot (30 cm) in diameter and are the largest of the pearl oysters. There are two color varieties: the gold-lipped and the white-lipped oyster. Both create 10 to 12-mm pearls when first harvested. These pearls take around two years to form.

Unlike the other pearl oysters, Pinctada maxima is often returned to the farm to create another pearl. Thanks to larger mother-of-pearl beads, pearls from the second harvest can be up to 15 mm in diameter. Some oysters can even go on to create a third pearl. These final pearls reach diameters of up to 20 mm and are extremely rare.

Pinctada maxima with golden pearl
Gold South Sea Pearls

Oyster farmers spent many years experimenting to develop new pearls in a variety of colors. This is possible by cross-breeding multiple types of oysters or by targeted isolation.

The gold South Sea pearl is one result of their efforts. Farmers separated a subspecies of the gold-lipped Pinctada maxima from other oyster types, eventually leading to the first gold South Sea pearl entering the market in 1970.

These pearls range in color from intense gold to a light orange. One highly coveted variety has “vanilla” overtones; the rare, bright gold hue looks especially flattering against lighter skin tones.

Tahitian Pearls: Exotic Wonders

Tahitian pearls dazzle with their dark coloration. Most are silvery gray, bronze, dark gray, or black. However, you can also find green and blue-green pearls.

Fun fact: People used to believe that Tahitian pearls were simply dyed akoya pearls. However, in the 1980s, it was proven that these pearls aren’t dyed; they are just their own type of pearl.

A metallic luster and iridescent colors characterize these “black pearls.” Tahitian pearls also stand out with their above-average size of 8 to 16 mm. These dark treasures grow inside the black-lip Pinctada margaritifera. This pearl oyster usually grows to between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long and can live for up to 30 years.

Did you know that, despite their name, Tahitian pearls don’t come from Tahiti? They actually originate from elsewhere in French Polynesia, predominately on the territory’s coral-rich atolls.

These pearls first arrived in Europe in the 18th century, where they were exhibited in museums. Native Tahitians and Polynesians had already been producing jewelry using these fine gems for many years. However, natural stocks have been exhausted, meaning almost all Tahitian pearls on the market today are cultured.

Black Tahitian pearl in shell
Keshi Pearls: The Smallest Beauty

There are two types of Keshi pearls: akoya keshis and South Sea keshis. These tiny pearls are by-products of pearl farming.

Most ayoka keshis are only 2 millimeters large and baroque-shaped. A silvery luster lends these saltwater pearls their unique character.

Unlike akoya keshis, South Sea keshis are simply South Sea or Tahitian pearls that lack a nucleus. They range from 9 to 12 mm in size. Most have a baroque shape and share the bright tones of South Sea pearls.

Keshis of Tahitian Pearl

Freshwater Pearls: Treasures with a Thousand Faces

No pearls are more diverse than freshwater pearls. Their color palette stretches from white and pink to salmon and brown-violet. This wide variety makes freshwater pearls a popular choice among jewelry makers.

People have been cultivating freshwater pearls since the 13th century. The industry was mainly based out of Japan until the 1970s. Today, China is the world’s leading producer of these coveted pearls. Unlike saltwater pearls, these pearls come from rivers and lakes instead of the ocean.

Their cultivation is also entirely different: The process for freshwater pearls skips the insertion of mother-of-pearl beads and starts instead with implanted mantel tissue. However, the lack of a spherical center makes it much less likely that the final products will be as round as their saltwater counterparts.

Interestingly, the lack of a bead puts the mussels under much less stress, so they are able to produce multiple pearls over their lifespans.

The most common pearl-producing freshwater mussel is Hyriopsis schlegeli. It can measure up to 12 by 8 inches (30 by 20 cm) and creates pearls of all shapes and sizes. These pearls are generally 2 to 8 mm in diameter, with an average size of 4 to 5 mm.

White Freshwater pearls in abalone shell
Pearls from Lake Biwa

Biwa pearls come from Japan’s largest freshwater lake: Lake Biwa near Kyoto. Freshwater pearls from this body of water are known for their high quality, satiny luster, and smooth surface. Their colors range from creamy white and light pink to salmon, claret, and dark violet. Since they lack a nucleus, these pearls form in incredible shapes.

Due to pollution, pearls are no longer farmed in Lake Biwa. Only old Japanese stocks can truly be called Biwa pearls. That being said, many freshwater pearls from China are referred to as Biwa pearls.

Mabé Pearls: Shining Half-Pearls

Mabé pearls are a special variety of cultured pearl. Their unique cultivation has added the term “blister pearl” to the industry lexicon.

So how does this extraordinary process work? Instead of implanting a small round bead into the host mussel’s tissue, farmers attach a half-round bead to the inside of its shell. The mussel then coats it in mother-of-pearl or nacre, resulting in a half-pearl with a flat bottom.

Mabé pearls are usually white or cream-colored and are famous for their shimmering rainbow luster. Many grow to be 10 to 20 mm in diameter and are more affordable than other pearls due to their composition. Mabé pearls frequently ornament rings and earrings.

How much do different pearl types cost?

Pearls are valuable treasures. Natural and cultured pearls are worth the investment. Since natural pearls are so rare, they are also much more expensive than their cultured cousins. Artificial pearls are sold as a cheap alternative.

Every pearl is truly unique. Prices depend on its individual shape, color, luster, size, and surface quality. It’s definitely worth taking the time to thoroughly inspect each pearl!

Prices for pearls range from several hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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People around the world gift pearl jewelry in celebration of special occasions. Traditionally, married couples should receive pearls on their third and 30th anniversaries.

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