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Saltwater vs. Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls

The main difference between Freshwater and Saltwater pearls is that Freshwater pearls come from rivers, lakes and ponds, while Saltwater pearls come from the sea.

Saltwater pearls are exceptionally gorgeous and typically more expensive than Freshwater pearls. Freshwater pearls, by comparison, may lack some of the sharp luster of Saltwater pearls, but are usually far more affordable.

But we’re only scratching the surface here. Freshwater and Saltwater pearls have many differences but also quite a few similarities, and the most important thing to remember is that both are real pearls and beautiful in their own distinctive way.


Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls: The Basics

The jewelry world brims with many different types of pearls. The most beautiful of these are pearls that have a shiny, iridescent surface, which we commonly call “nacreous” pearls.

There are two types of nacreous pearls — Saltwater and Freshwater. And it is these two types of pearls that have always fascinated jewelry lovers.


What are Saltwater Pearls

What are Freshwater Pearls?

Freshwater pearls are grown in mussels that live in rivers, lakes and ponds. Also called sweetwater or river pearls, Freshwater pearls are loved for their thick, silky nacre and alluring range of natural colors.

Cultured Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls are cultured or grown in pearl farms all across China, as well as in some parts of Japan. The Freshwater mussel used to grow these pearls can sometimes produce more than 30 pearls at a time.

Cultured Freshwater pearls are a relatively new entrant in the jewelry world. In fact, it is only in the last 20 years that these pearls have become seriously coveted by jewelry designers and buyers.

Early Freshwater pearl production, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, saw very unimpressive results. Those early attempts produced mostly small pearls with knobbly, uneven surfaces. Flat and irregular shapes were so common that in the 1980s, Freshwater pearls were often called “rice crispy pearls” because of their resemblance to the breakfast cereal.

The techniques used to create Freshwater pearls have improved dramatically since then. Today, top quality Freshwater pearls are stunningly round, gorgeous orbs of luster and iridescence.


White Rice Crispy Freshwater Pearls

Rice crispy Freshwater pearls were some of the earliest culturing attempts in China, and are known for their crinkly, misshapen surfaces.

Different Types of Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearl farm in China

Freshwater pearl farm in China.


All Freshwater pearls are grown in rivers, lakes or other inland water sources. But within this category, there are two different types of Freshwater pearls.


Tissue-Nucleated Freshwater Pearls

Multi-Colored Freshwater Pearl Necklace with White Earring Pairs


These are the ORIGINAL cultured Freshwater pearls. Unlike all other cultured pearls, these Freshwater pearls do not grow around a bead.

Instead, the pearl starts forming around a thin piece of mantle tissue, which is taken from a donor Freshwater mussel to kick start the pearl creation process. Each Freshwater mussel can be implanted with multiple slivers of donor mantle tissue. This results in each mussel growing multiple pearls.

Without the presence of a bead, the tissue-nucleated pearl is solid nacre. This makes these pearls very durable, with a beautiful soft luster.

As far as pearl shapes go, these pearls often have an off-round or even slightly egg shape. Without a bead providing a round shape template, tissue-nucleated Freshwater cultured pearls rarely develop into perfectly round pearls.

Tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls have created a special place for themselves in the jewelry world because of their very pretty, natural pastel pearl colors. These include white, pink, lavender and peach. (You can also find black Freshwater pearls, but those are dyed pearls.)

With regard to pearl sizes, these Freshwater pearls come in sizes ranging from as small as 2 mm, up to 11 mm.


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Bead-Nucleated Freshwater Pearls

In the late 2000s, scientific development in pearl farming led to the wide availability of bead-nucleated Freshwater pearls. Unlike their tissue-nucleated predecessors, bead-nucleated Freshwater pearls, which are also called Edison pearls, grow around a bead that starts the pearl creation process.


Purple and White Edison Pearls


Bead-nucleated Freshwater pearls are large in size, and because of the bead, have generally round, symmetrical shapes. Each mussel is nucleated with only one bead. As a result, the mussels grow only one pearl at a time.

These pearls exhibit gorgeous, almost metallic luster, and a range of divine colors, which include many different shades of pink, peach, purple, violet, gold and bronze.

What’s more, these pearls are available in quite large sizes, ranging from 11 mm to upwards of 15 mm!


What are Saltwater Pearls?

As the name suggests, Saltwater pearls are produced by mollusks that live in seas and oceans. Also, unlike freshwater pearls, all Saltwater pearls are bead-nucleated. This makes them rarer than Freshwater pearls.

Saltwater pearls are loved for their breathtaking luster and lovely colors.

There are three different types of Saltwater pearls: Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls.


Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are the smallest Saltwater pearls and are loved for their sharp and clean luster.

They were also the first pearls to be cultured. In fact, the successful farming of Akoya pearls led to the culturing of other types of pearls, both Saltwater and Freshwater.

Akoya pearls are coveted for their perfectly symmetrical, round shapes and striking, mirror-like luster. In fact, very high quality certified Hanadama Akoya pearls are regarded as some of the rarest and most beautiful pearls in the world.


Akoya Pearl Type


Although these pearls are available in a host of natural colors — which include white with creamy or pink overtones, as well as silvery blue and even light gold — it is the white Akoya pearls that come to mind whenever you imagine the perfect pearl.

Akoya pearls also come in a range of sizes, which commonly start at 2 mm and go up to 10 mm. These pearls are mainly cultured in the coastal waters around Japan, China and Vietnam.


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Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian South Sea pearls are sought for their dark body colors and gorgeously iridescent overtones. Tahitians are the only cultured pearls with a natural black color. Sometimes referred to as black pearls, their large sizes, silky luster and mesmerizing dark gray, silvery-gray or black colors makes them a favorite among jewelry lovers.

Tahitian pearls are mainly cultivated in the clean, tropical waters of French Polynesia. Their culturing started in the late 1960s, and for the next two decades, they were seen as the most desireable and rare of cultured pearls.


Tahitian Pearl Necklaces in Peacock Overtones

Tahitian pearl necklaces displaying gorgeous peacock and green overtones.


One gorgeous characteristic of these pearls is the infinite range of secondary colors they can exhibit. These secondary colors, or overtones, skim over the surface of the pearls, and can range from green, aubergine, cherry, blue, silver, gold or even peacock, a medley of blue, turquoise, purple, green and gold colors.

Regarded as luxury pearls, Tahitians come in sizes that can start at 8 mm and go upwards of 15 mm. One of the most beautiful pearls, Tahitian pearls have rightly earned a special place in the jewelry world.


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South Sea Pearls

South Sea pearls sit at the pinnacle of the cultured pearl world and are some of the most sought-after pearls. Luminous and large, South Sea pearls are synonymous with luxury, sophistication and charm.

White South Sea Pearls


South Sea pearls come in two basic colors — white and gold. Within these, there are stunning variations such as silvery white, creamy white, light gold, champagne, deep gold and the highly regarded 24K gold. Very occasionally, you may even come across exquisite silvery blue South Sea pearls!

While the golden South Sea pearl is a marvel of nature, with its glossy, lustrous colors and satiny luster, it’s the white South Sea pearl that is regarded as the “Queen of Pearls” because of its beauty, rarity and the very large sizes it can reach.

Farmed in the coastal waters off northwestern Australia, Philippines and Indonesia, South Sea pearls come in a range of sizes, starting at 8.0 mm and sometimes going upwards of 20 mm!


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Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearl Pricing and Value

One of the main differences between Freshwater and Saltwater pearls is value and therefore price. There was a time when it could be confidently asserted that Freshwater pearls would always cost less than Saltwater ones.

But the situation is no longer this simple. The fact is that Freshwater pearls have been playing a catch-up game with their Saltwater cousins, in terms of quality, appeal and overall appearance.

With the recent impressive scientific improvements in Freshwater pearl farming, the appearance and value difference between certain types of top Freshwater pearls and Saltwater pearls is gradually decreasing.

Let’s explore this in some depth.


Freshwater Pearls vs Akoya Pearls

Over the last two decades, the quality of Freshwater pearls has improved considerably. Today, you can find gem quality Freshwater pearls that are round or almost round with gorgeous luster.

These Freshwater pearls compare very favorably with good quality Akoya pearls. Even so, Akoya pearls will always be more valuable because they are rarer than Freshwater pearls. This is because it takes more time, investment and effort to grow Akoya pearls as compared to Freshwater pearls.

So, at Pearls of Joy, a necklace of white, gem quality 8.5 mm – 9.5 mm freshwater pearls is sold for $729 while a similar strand of AAA quality 8.5 mm – 9.0 mm white Akoya pearl necklace is sold for $2,659.

The price difference becomes even bigger when Freshwater pearls are compared to certified Hanadama Akoya pearls.

So, while Akoya pearls are pricier and more valuable as compared to Freshwater pearls, gem quality Freshwater pearls give you great value for your money.


Freshwater Pearl Necklace on Gold Chain

White Freshwater Pearl Necklace

Freshwater Pearls vs South Sea Pearls

Bead-nucleated Freshwater pearls, or Edison pearls, were developed to compete directly with the large, luxurious white saltwater South Sea pearls. And they have been giving their Saltwater cousins stiff competition.

Just like white South Sea pearls, Edison pearls also come in sizes upwards of 12 mm. And their overall quality has been steadily improving.

Even so, Edison pearls cannot reach the heights of white South Sea pearls in terms of luxury and overall quality.


Gem Quality White South Sea Pearl Necklace

Gem Quality White South Sea Pearl Necklace


A necklace of white South Sea pearls will always remain a statement of style and status. Often it will be purchased as an investment, as well as a piece of jewelry that is cherished and enjoyed for generations to come.

And its price, which is usually in the thousands of dollars, reflects this very clearly.

For instance, a white, round, 12-14 mm South Sea necklace at Pearls of Joy is offered at $43,800. A comparable white Edison Freshwater pearl necklace will cost only a couple of thousand dollars.

Once again, it’s difficult to beat high quality South Sea pearls as far as value goes, even though their prices may sometimes be astronomical. Edison pearls, by contrast, are a great way to get a similar look but at a fraction of the price.


Quality of Luster

Pearl Luster


Luster is the most important value factor for pearls and the difference between the luster of Freshwater and Saltwater pearls goes some way toward explaining the difference between these two types of pearls.


Freshwater Pearls and Luster

Freshwater Pearl Luster


Tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls are pure nacre. As a result, their luster is deep and smooth in appearance. By contrast, bead-nucleated Freshwater Edison pearls have a shiny, slightly metallic luster, which is quite lovely and fascinating.


Saltwater Pearls and Luster

The one pearl with an incomparable luster is the Akoya. With their sharp, mirror-like luster that is beautifully reflective, Akoya pearls are sparkling and seem to glow from within.


Hanadama Akoya Pearl Luster

Superbly Lustrous Hanadama Akoya pearls


But it’s the luster of Hanadama Akoya pearls that can be considered the gold standard for this pearl value factor. Their incredibly intense luster is so sharp, it’s possible to see finely detailed reflections on their surfaces.

Both Tahitian and South Sea pearls have a satiny luster that oozes luxury and sophistication. There is a dreamy quality to the luster of these pearls, which is hard to ignore and even harder to resist.

So, while Freshwater pearls boast a smooth and silky luster, different types of Saltwater pearls have their own distinctive luster characteristics.

Which one is better? It really depends on what you are looking for.

If you want silky, smooth and deeply lustrous pearls, then you can’t go wrong with tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls.

If you’re in the market for pearls with a luster that whispers sumptuous opulence, then Tahitians and South Sea pearls are the answer.

However, if it's high wattage, disco ball-level shine you’re looking for, then only Akoyas will do.


Baroque Golden South Sea Pearl Necklace

Golden South Sea pearls have a different but no less striking type of luster.

Pearl Colors

Color comparison among pearls is tricky. This is because there’s only one natural color that’s common to all the different types of cultured pearls: white.

While tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls offer a range of pastel colors that have a very summery feel to them, their larger siblings, bead-nucleated Edisons, offer buyers a delectable selection of bright, jazzy, attractive colors, which can be both pastel or a deeper and more complex tone.

Because of this wide range of colors, Freshwater pearls have amassed a large and loyal color-friendly following.

South Sea pearls come with a comparatively modest selection of colors: white and gold and a continuum of shades in between.

Akoya pearls also boast a range of very attractive colors, more than South Sea pearls but not quite as many as Freshwaters. The most coveted Akoya pearl is a white pearl with distinct rose overtones. Often compared to the Japanese Sakura or cherry blossom, these pearls are as lovely as the flower they have been named after.


Colorful Loose Tahitian Pearls

Gorgeous, Multicolor Tahitian Pearls


It’s Tahitian pearls, with their breathtaking choice of iridescent colors, that have changed the definition of color in the pearl world.

Tahitian pearls, which are sometimes also called black pearls, are anything but simply black. There is a world of remarkably dynamic color that can be seen on their surfaces.

Just their selection of body colors — which include black, dark and dove gray, silver, gold and the rare white — would make them exceptional. But the secondary or overtone colors that skim on their surfaces clearly make Tahitians quite extraordinary. Even so, Tahitian pearl colors have a dark tone, and finding pure pastels among them is difficult.

So, as far as pearl colors go, the range of choices offered by Freshwater pearls is almost impossible to match.


The Special Case of Tahitian Pearls vs Black Dyed Freshwater Pearls

Quite often, Freshwater pearls are dyed different colors, so that they start to look like colored saltwater pearls. You may find large Edison Freshwater pearls dyed a dark gold, so that they look like “almost there” imitations of golden South Sea pearls.


Dyed Black Freshwater Compared to Natural Black Tahitian Pearls


Good quality dyed black Freshwater pearls will have peacock overtones similar to those of authentic Tahitian peacock pearls. And you can get the Freshwater pearls at a fraction of the price of Tahitians.

Isn’t this happy news for lovers of black pearls, who may be on a budget but still want to wear peacock pearls?


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Cultured vs Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls

Jewelry buyers often get confused by the many different terms describing pearls. This is especially true when we talk about real pearls and compare them to cultured pearls. So, let’s dig a little deeper into this problem.


What are Cultured Pearls?

By definition, cultured pearls are all those pearls that have required human intervention for creation and growth. These pearls are grown on pearl farms.

Today, virtually all pearls available in the jewelry world are cultured pearls. By contrast, truly “wild” or naturally occurring pearls are extremely rare. As a result, these natural pearls are very expensive, and jewelry set with these pearls forms a very tiny fraction of all pearl jewelry available in the market.

Very often, the term “cultured pearl” is used to describe Akoya pearls. This is a slightly misleading practice.

Both Freshwater and Saltwater pearls that are grown on pearl farms are cultured pearls. Once the pearls are formed and become large and beautiful, they are harvested from their oysters by pearl farmers.

All pearls that are cultivated, grown and harvested on pearl farms are cultured pearls. All cultured Freshwater pearls are grown on inland Freshwater farms. Similarly, all cultured Saltwater pearls are grown on Saltwater pearl farms that are located on the sea in coastal areas.


Sorting Cultured Pearls at a Pearl Processing Factory

Young woman sorting cultured pearls after harvest at a pearl processing factory in China.


By contrast, natural pearls grow in the wild. The creation of these naturally occurring pearls happens without the help of pearl farmers or any other human intervention. Natural Freshwater pearls are fished from rivers, lakes and streams, while natural Saltwater pearls are found in the sea.


Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls - Which are Better?

Pink Freshwater Pearl Necklace and Earrings Set


This is a very subjective question, and the answer really depends on you, the buyer, and what you’re looking for.

Both Freshwater and Saltwater pearls are beautiful in their own ways, and have different things to offer jewelry lovers. Saltwater pearls have incredible luster, and their gem-quality pearls embody high luxury.

Freshwater pearls offer great budget compatibility and a range of colors that are both tempting and lovely.

At reputable online pearl sellers like Pearls of Joy, you will find a wide selection of top quality cultured Freshwater and Saltwater pearls, to suit every taste and budget preference.

So why not explore our vast and wonderful selection of gorgeous, cultured pearls?


The Perfect Strand of Pearls

Fine Japanese Akoya Pearls

The perfect strand of pearls... Is it possible?

Perfectly round, beautifully matched, with a mirror like luster – Japanese Akoya pearls can’t be matched for quality and high-end appeal. This is the classic pearl necklace.  

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