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The Evolution Of Freshwater Pearls: Part 1

INTRO: Caitlin Williams is a member and admin of the Pearl Guide forum and for many years has been a huge proponent of freshwater pearls. I thought who better to walk us through the history of Freshwater pearls than Caitlin.
~ Kevin Canning

The Evolving Shapes of Freshwater Pearls Part 1: Tissue-only Nucleated Pearls

There are two types of cultured freshwater pearls; those with solid nacre (tissue-only nucleated) which is the subject of this article, and those with a nacre covered nucleus (tissue accompanied by a mother of pearl bead) which we will cover in Part 2 of this article.

Pearl Shapes

The round pearl stands as the apex of all pearl shapes, with the button, the drop, the off-round, keshi, and other baroque pearls also being popular shapes across both freshwater and saltwater pearls. In addition to all the above shapes, non-nucleated cultured freshwater pearls can come in the unique rice crispie shape and in stick shapes. The stick shapes include the subtypes of claw shapes and crosses. The history of cultured freshwater pearls reflects the stages in the path from the little odd crinkled rice shapes to perfectly round pearls.

The First Chinese Cultured Freshwater

Solid nacre or tissue only nucleated pearls were the first kind of freshwater pearls the Chinese cultured. They came onto the jewelry markets in 1981. The first Chinese tissue nucleated freshwater pearls were dubbed “rice crispie” pearls because they looked like the cereal, full of little surface wrinkles. But they were highly iridescent and kept the iridescent look when dyed almost any color.

Rice Crispie Pearls

modern rice crispie shape pearls

Modern "Rice Crispie" pearls by John Tu (via Pearl-Guide.com)

From the beginning, rice crispy pearls and the multi-strand rice crispy torsade necklaces made from them were big successes that put Chinese freshwater pearls into the hands of millions of women worldwide. Many torsades were sold as fine jewelry and were pricey at the time. They often had gold and pearl and diamond clasps. Ones with less valuable clasps have lost value over time as the beauty of the newer freshwater pearls has surpassed the old wrinkled rice crispies. The torsades were very popular throughout the 80’s but began to fade during the 90’s as the culturing techniques and the pearl mollusks improved. It is still possible to find examples of these old torsades in second hand markets at low prices. They still look great.

Potato Pearls

potato pearls

Freshwater potato shaped pearls from John Tu, as seen on the Pearl Guide Forums

The next big breakthrough was off-round pearls with solid skins, known as “potato” pearls. They came onto the market in 1992. Not only were the skins smooth, the shapes were becoming rounder. Potato pearls were not round, but they had nice fat shapes without a flat side. They looked very organic and natural compared to the bead nucleated ocean pearls. They also looked much more round than previous pearls, though they had no definite shape like button pearls do.

Button Pearls

black dyed button pearls

A pair for dyed black freshwater button pearl earrings from PearlsOfjoy.com

The much more symmetrical button pearls became common by 1992-4. They were sometimes called “loaf” pearls. They were round like a loaf of San Francisco sourdough. They even had the same flat bottom. (There were also a lot of shapeless baroque pearls with one flat side. They never got a name of their own and are mainly sold to manufacturers.) Drop, Rice, Egg, Barrel and Off-round Pearls The fat rice shaped or plump drop shaped pearls arrived about the same time as the button pearls. This shape comes in a continuum from drop shaped to barrel shaped. Anything rounder than this is called an off-round or nearly round.

Round Freshwater Pearls

the finest round freshwater pearls available

Round freshwater pearls that rival the finest saltwater pearls. Selected by Kevin Canning of PearlsOfJoy.com

In 1995, the first pearls the Chinese called “round” were introduced. First came the tiny 5mm and less sizes, but by the end of the 90’s the Chinese techniques were producing larger and larger non-nucleated freshwater pearls that looked very round. But because of the nature of having no solid nucleus, all but a tiny percent of the finest solid nacre freshwater pearls are going to be off-round. Today there are round freshwater pearls available that rival the finest saltwater pearls.

Freshwater Stick Pearls

stick pearls

Freshwater stick pearls from John Tu, as seen on the Pearl Guide Forums

Unique to freshwater pearls is the stick or bar shaped pearl, which is a radical departure for a cultured pearl shape and a new way of reimagining pearls. The stick pearl is almost a transitional shape between tissue only and bead nucleated pearls. Claw pearls and Cross pearls are subtypes of the stick pearl.

The Rise of Baroque Shapes

Baroque pearls have become more popular and as customers learn about them, the demand has increased to the point where the off-shaped pearls are now being offered by top online businesses. Some baroque shapes have their own names and are beginning to rise in popularity as people find they like the amazing iridescence of the baroque shapes. Rosebud pearls, keshi pearls and circled pearls, are just a few of the subtypes of baroque freshwater pearls on the market.

In Part 2 we will follow the rise of nucleated pearls in China and the many new shapes this technique has introduced.

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