You’re out shopping for the perfect white pearls, and things are going good but then come to a screeching halt.
All of a sudden you realize: Should I Buy Freshwater or the Akoya pearls?!
It’s an almost agonizing question, and one that can be difficult to answer. No one wants to have their options limited but we also don’t want to spend the next year figuring it out!
So this blog post is geared towards answering this age-old issue.
In this post, we’ll be comparing pearls and getting down to brass tacks about each pearl type, and their pros and cons. We’ll look at how the pearl luster compares, each pearl shape, blemishing types, size ranges and price points. Hopefully when we’re done, we’ve helped you arrive at a decision you’ll be happy with in the years to come.
Now that that's out of the way, we can dig into the WHY's behind those bullet point lists.
Out of all the Value Factors used to evaluate and compare pearls, the biggest difference between Freshwater and Akoya pearls is their Shape.
When most people think “pearl necklace” they are typically thinking of a white, perfectly round and perfectly matched strand of pearls.
This ideal image matches what the saltwater Akoya pearltype has to offer: perfectly round in shape, expertly matched in shape, size, surface quality and luster, and a lovely, bright white appearance.
Close up shot of cultured Akoya pearls from Japan. Notice how perfectly round in shape they are. All grades of Akoya pearls will be perfectly round in shape: AA, AA+, AAA and Hanadama.
This uniformity of shape is a hallmark of the Japanese Akoya pearl, and one of its most prized characteristics. Within the pearl world, Akoya pearls are known as “8 Way Rollers” because of their ability to roll smoothly and evenly in all directions on a flat surface.
This perfection of pearl shape adds to the Akoya pearl’s higher value, as perfectly round pearls typically account for the smallest percentage of any pearl harvest.
If a flawlessly round pearl necklace is highly important to you in your hunt for the perfect strand of pearls, then the Japanese Akoya pearl type is for you!
Of course, Akoya pearls are also available in other shapes, namely free-form baroques. But these pearls represent a much smaller niche for pearl shoppers – mostly collectors who know about them. The majority of jewelry stores simply do not carry them (and most often have never even heard of them!). Most Akoya pearl farmers do not send these pearls on to the processing facilities for sorting and treatments ... instead the pearl nacre is removed and the pearl's bead nuclei are often recycled into a new crop of oysters
Close up of some free-form baroque Akoya pearl strands. Notice the oil-slick rainbow iridescence on their surfaces; this is a result of very thick nacre, and irregular, textured surfaces.
Freshwater pearls from China have MUCH more variability in the Shape category.
Freshwater pearl shapes can be:
WOW, right? It is an almost dizzying variety of shapes.
The most common pearl shape for Freshwater pearls you will find in most jewelry stores today is the off-round shape. Off-round pearls look like ovals or even eggs. This pearl shape falls into the AA+ grade on the A-AAA grading scale.
AA+ quality Freshwater pearls close-up. You can see the slightly “squished” off-round shapes in the front row. The variance in shape is easy to notice when examining the pearls closely, but will appear “mostly” round to the casual onlooker.
Off-round pearls can also get REALLLLYYYY exaggerated into what we call “Potato pearls”, which often look like potatoes or barrels, most often with multiple rings around their middles. These are what we consider A grade “commercial pearls”, which you’ll often find in lower-end stores and crafter’s shops selling Freshwater pearls for beading projects.
The next most prevalent shape is Near-Round. Those pearls are mostly round to the eye, but not quite “8 Way Roller” round like Akoya pearls. These pearls are “Round” but they’re not “Perfect Round” shape. These would fall into the AAA grade pearls.
MUCH better matching and roundness of shape with the AAA grade Metallic Freshwater pearl upgrade here. This shape qualifies as Near-Round and represents the top 5% of each pearl harvest … there will only be slight variance off of a perfect Round shape noticeable only when closely inspecting the pearls.
Another popular shape is the Smooth Drop-Shape. These pearls are fun, whimsical, and romantic … and best of all: inexpensive! Smooth Drops are exactly what they sound like, which is a tear-drop to ovalish shape with smooth surfaces.
These Metallic Freshwater pearls have perfect drop-shapes and incredibly smooth surfaces.
The RAREST Freshwater pearl shape of all is Round. Rounds represent only a teeny-tiny percentage of each Freshwater pearl harvest. Gem Grade Freshwater pearls and bead-nucleated Edison pearls feature the highest instances of being perfectly round in shape.
These perfectly round Edison Freshwater pearls are true “8 Way Rollers” and feature Metallic luster, incredibly unique natural colors, and smooth, blemish-free surfaces. These are still a new, "experimental" pearl culturing technology and very expensive.
The photo below shows both our Gem Grade Freshwater pearls compared to our AAA quality Akoya pearls – with up-close, careful observation you will be able to notice the very slight variance from a perfect round shape with the Freshwater pearls. The saltwater Akoya pearls are of course, perfectly round.
The second biggest difference between these two pearl types is LUSTER.
Luster is the most valuable attribute for any pearl … a pearl without nice luster is just a pretty bead, not a precious gemstone. Luster is what gives a pearl its inner glow, its outer shine and surface reflectivity.
Saltwater Akoya pearls are famous around the world for having “mirror-like” or “ball bearing” luster. You will be able to see your entire face reflected in the pearl’s surfaces, and in the highest grades will be able to recognize details like your eyes and even the teeth in your smile.
These AAA grade Akoya pearls showcase what great pearl luster looks like. Notice the reflected light squares on the surfaces all have very sharp, well-defined edges.
Light sources reflected on the surfaces of the Akoya pearl will be bright white, and the edges of the reflection (see image above) will be well defined with sharp edges, and little to no fuzziness or “satiny” diffusion.
The sharpness of the light reflections on Akoya pearls is what gives these pearls their trademark “ball-bearing”, slick, almost “glossy” look.
Freshwater pearl luster is often described as a much softer, more “satin” glow. This especially applies in lower grades like A, AA and AA+ qualities. The higher in grade the pearls are, the sharper the luster is.
The AA+ grade Freshwater pearls in this photo display both the off-round, oval shapes and softer, more diffused luster and “fair” rates of reflectivity. Notice the distinct diffusion along the edges of reflected light sources.
These Gem Grade Freshwater pearls display luster that is much closer to that you will usually observe on saltwater Akoya pearls.
Because luster is such an important Value Factor, we’ve written an entire article dedicated to it. Here you can learn what causes luster in pearls, and how each major pearl type displays luster in its own unique way.
While we’re on the subject of amazing pearl luster, watch this short video on Hanadama Akoya pearls to see what that “ball-bearing” shine looks like in real life. You won’t be disappointed!
As organic gemstones created by a living organism, pearls all have blemishes, also known as inclusions, on their surfaces.
Both Akoya and Freshwater pearl blemishes have similarities in that they are usually:
Saltwater Akoya pearls differ in that the inclusions can also look like tiny wrinkles in the nacre, light or dark spots visible just under the surface nacre, flat spots, and tiny holes that look like pin pricks.
This close-up image of a AA grade Akoya strand is for illustrative purposes only; Pearls of Joy does not carry any Akoya pearls lower than AA+ quality.
Freshwater pearls have their own unique inclusions too. Commonly you’ll find smooth ridges, dents, streaks in the nacre - they look like shooting stars to us - and irregular accumulation of nacre in a small spot … kind of like a blob (it sounds worse than it actually is).
Close-up of an A quality Freshwater pearl strand depicting the most common inclusions for this pearl type. Pearls of Joy does not carry any Freshwater pearls under AA+ quality.
Keep in mind while shopping that the vast majority of saltwater Akoya and Freshwater pearl jewelry will be AA+ quality and up, so you won’t be running into too many strands like the examples above.
AA+ quality pearls will feature 10% of surface blemishing OR LESS, and that percentage counts for each pearl in the strand and for the necklace as a whole … so some pearls will be perfectly clean, and others can have 2-3 small inclusions.
AAA quality pearls will be even cleaner, with 5% surface blemishing allowable for each pearl and the necklace overall. Again, some pearls (many pearls with the AAA!) will be perfectly clean, and others can have 2-3 small inclusions, and no deep inclusions at all.
In the big scheme of things, we think that the pearl inclusions are possibly the least important aspect of comparing the two pearl types. But still worth mentioning so you have as much information as possible before committing to a purchase.
Both saltwater Akoya and Chinese Freshwater pearl types reside in some of the smaller, more versatile size ranges, starting as small as 2.0mm seed pearls up to larger 10.0mm and even larger as is the case with Freshwater pearls.
The 6.5-9.5mm size range is the most popular for both pearl types, with the 7.0-7.5mm through 8.5-9.0mm being THE MOST popular of all pearl sizes.
Akoya pearls come from the smallest pearl bearing oyster and are more limited in size. These pearls start out in size at tiny 2.0mm and top out around 9.0-9.5mm. The very largest and rarest Akoya pearl size is 9.5-10.0mm, which demands a hefty premium.
Akoya pearls are measured in half-millimeter increments, and most Akoya pearl necklaces and bracelets are non-graduated, meaning that the pearls will all be matched for size within the half-millimeter range. The smallest pearls will be near the clasp and largest pearls in the center of the strand, but again this is only a half-millimeter increment and is practically negligible.
Most Akoya pearl jewelry you come across will have measurements like 7.0-7.5mm, 7.5-8.0mm, 8.0-8.5mm and so on.
Freshwater pearls have a bit of a wider range of sizes to choose from, and we expect that these pearls will only continue to get larger over the coming years. Advances in culturing techniques and experiments with bead-nucleated Freshwater “Edison” pearls have yielded pearl sizes well over 15.0mm within just the last few years. This is a very exciting era for Chinese Freshwater pearl farming!
Traditionally however, Freshwater pearls mimic the Akoya pearl size range, from 2.0 - 12.0mm. The most popular pearl sizes for Freshwater pearl jewelry range from 7.0 – 9.0mm.
Freshwater pearls are generally measured in whole millimeter increments, however American retailers have switched over to half-millimeter sizing to reduce confusion, maintain consistency with Akoya pearl sizes and avoid purchasing large lots of pearls (usually done by weight) that are undersized. Pearls of Joy uses half-millimeter increments for Freshwater pearl necklaces, pearl jewelry sets, and Freshwater pearl earrings.
Also like Akoya pearls, Freshwater pearl jewelry is typically non-graduated. Necklace and bracelet measurements will look like 7.5-8.0mm, 8.5-9.0mm, 9.5-10.0mm and so on.
Freshwater pearls are traditionally measured in whole millimeter increments like 7.0-8.0mm, 8.0-9.0mm and 10.0-11.0mm; however, many retailers today use half-millimeter increments to avoid confusion and maintain consistency in comparisons between Freshwater and Akoya pearl types.
Bead-nucleated “Edison” pearls like this naturally-colored Lavender Freshwater pearl necklace routinely reach sizes of 15.0-16.0mm and sometimes even larger. These rare, exciting pearls are China’s answer to Australia’s larger than life South Sea pearls.
For more information on pearl sizes, and to view the most popular pearl necklace sizes worn on a model visit our Pearl Size Guide.
Pricing is the last major area of comparison to really concern yourself with. As a rule of thumb, Japanese Akoya pearls are the more expensive of the two pearl types. This is primarily due to rarity, but also their perceived value as a “high-end” pearl type worldwide.
With Akoya pearls, you’ll generally range from the low hundreds to tens of thousands depending on the pearl quality, size and jewelry style.
Akoya Pearl Earrings $99 - $1,200
Akoya Pearl Necklaces $350 - $10,000
Akoya Pearl Jewelry Sets $689 - $1,700
Akoya Pearl Bracelets $250 - $600
Akoya Pearl Pendants $350 - $600
Hanadama Pearls $350 - $10,000
Certified Hanadama Akoya pearls like these are the highest priced option of all Akoya pearls, but WOW – are they worth it! The luster, iridescence and incredibly smooth, clean surfaces are just phenomenal.
Freshwater pearls are known as being a “cheaper” pearl type, but don’t let their old reputation fool you … these pearls have plenty to brag about! From Metallic luster to Gem Grade round shapes to a beautiful rainbow of natural colors, there’s something for everyone to love with Freshwater pearls.
With this pearl type, it’s important to know exactly what to expect for various price points, so you don’t end up disappointed. Generally, however, for something nice you will spend maybe half to two-thirds the price that you would for an Akoya version.
Freshwater Pearl Earrings $75 - $350
Freshwater Pearl Necklaces $265 - $3,700
Freshwater Pearl Jewelry Sets $515 - $2,800
Freshwater Pearl Bracelets $145 - $650
This video by the owner of Pearls of Joy, Kevin Canning, showcases the pinnacle of modern Chinese pearl culturing techniques: Metallic Edison pearls. Checking out these stunning pearls, we know that Freshwater pearls are THE pearl type to watch going into the future (yes, they also come in white!) …
This blog post was all about helping you make the best decision you can when it comes to picking the right pearl type for you. If you’ve gotten bogged down in the details however, we’ll sum it up for you here.
Go for the Akoya pearls if …
Go for Freshwater pearls if …
Which pearl type will YOU buy?