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Guide to Pearl Types

Holding a gleaming, lustrous pearl in your hand, you understand intrinsically that you are holding one of the ocean’s most unique, sought after treasures. There are 5 major pearl types that jewelry buyers should be familiar with. They are:

    • Akoya Pearls

    • Freshwater Pearls

    • Tahitian Pearls

    • White South Sea Pearls

    • Golden South Sea Pearls

This article aims to give you a quick guide on everything you need to know about each major cultured pearl type. At Pearls of Joy we know educated clients are happy clients; use this guide to find out which pearl type is your favorite and why.

 


Akoya Pearls

Cultured Akoya pearls are probably the most famous pearl type in the world today. The “Father of Cultured Pearls” Kokichi Mikimoto himself was responsible for bringing these gems to life, and spreading their beauty to all corners of the globe.

Farmed primarily in Japan, Akoya pearls are famous for their classic appearance: perfectly round, white, gleamingly lustrous and with small to moderate, versatile sizes that can be worn anywhere and everywhere. They really are one of the best pearl necklaces to buy!

 

Akoya Pearls loose on Sorting Tray

Akoya Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: Cultured Akoya pearls were originally created in Japan by Kokichi Mikimoto, and still today the vast majority of pearls are farmed in Japan. China did make an attempt to culture saltwater Akoya for perhaps 20-30 years, but due to various environmental catastrophes most of the farms were abandoned, leaving Japan the major source of Akoya pearls once again. Farms in Vietnam have started up over the last decade or so, but they are aimed primarily at producing colored Akoya, not white.
    • Pearl Sizes: The Akoya pearl oyster, pinctada fucata martensii, is one of the smallest pearl-bearing oysters in use today, and only reaches sizes of 3-4 inches in diameter at maturity. The small size of the oyster means that the pearls cultured inside are going to be smaller too! Akoya pearls range in size from 2.0-3.0mm up through 9.0-9.5mm, and very rarely, 9.5-10.0mm or even 10.0-10.5mm at their very largest.
    • Pearl Colors: Akoya pearls are most famous for their white colors, with a range of popular overtones of rose, silver and cream. Other natural colors exist that are rarer and more of a collector’s item. These include Silvery-Blue, Blue Akoya, Gold and even shades of Pistachio Green!
    • Common Treatments: The vast majority of white Akoya pearls are “bleached and pinked” after harvest to whiten them and remove any brown, gray or green tinges from the pearls, and to give the pearls a rosy glow. The treatment is so common it is considered “SOP” by the industry and is not disclosed on gem reports. Other common treatments include dye used to create the dazzling Black Akoya pearls. This is a disclosed treatment and the dye is extremely stable. Black Akoya pearls feature a very distinct Midnight Blue-Black or Blackish-Green color.
    • Pearl Shapes: The most valuable and traditional Akoya pearl shape is a true, perfect Round, but heavily textured, free-form Baroque shapes are also available and highly collectible.
    • Price Range: Prices range from $75 to the high thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls. Average prices for fine Akoya pearl jewelry will run from $150 to $1,000 for the most popular designs and pearl sizes.

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Hanadama Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are most famous for their bright luster, which most people will describe as “ball-bearing” or “mirror-like”, meaning that the pearls appear somewhat metallic, and highly reflective. The sharper, and more reflective the luster is, the higher the quality of pearl.

The very highest quality Akoya pearls are called “Hanadama” pearls, which means “Flower Pearl” in Japanese. Hanadama Akoya pearls are pearls chosen from the highest quality gems of each harvest, and are sent to the prestigious Pearl Science Laboratory of Tokyo, Japan for testing and certification. The PSL issues an individually numbered certificate for every Hanadama pearl necklace, pair of Hanadama earrings and pearl bracelet that passes the laboratory’s strict qualification tests.

 

Close Up of Lustrous Hanadama Pearls

Hanadama Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: Hanadama Akoya pearls are farmed primarily in Japan like most other Akoya pearls.
    • Pearl Sizes: The Hanadama certification process is somewhat expensive, so pearls smaller than 6.5mm in size aren’t usually tested because of the added overhead of the certificate; this would make the smallest pearls almost too expensive to buy! The average sizes of Hanadama pearls range from 6.0-6.5mm through 9.0-9.5mm and up to 10.0-10.5mm - the absolute largest these pearls can get.
    • Pearl Colors: Hanadama Akoya pearls are traditionally white, with a range of popular overtones of rose, silver and cream.
    • Common Treatments: Hanadama pearls are bleached and pinked with the rest of the Akoya pearl harvests. Very rarely you can find “Natural Color” Hanadama pearls that have not undergone the bleaching and pinking process, but this represents less than 1% of all Hanadama pearls. One issue to be aware of with Natural Color Hanadama pearls is that often they’ll display a distinct greenish undertone to them, making them hard for some complexions to wear.
    • Pearl Shapes: Because Hanadama Akoya pearls are certified to be the very best of all Akoya pearls, their shapes are always only perfect Round.
    • Price Range: Prices range from $300 to over $10,000, depending on the jewelry type and size of the pearls.

 

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Tahitian Pearls

Dark, colorful and exotic, Tahitian pearls are the world’s most famous naturally black pearls. Tahitians, once upon a time, were so rare that they were considered the "Pearl of Queens".

Tahitian pearl farming got its start in 1970’s in the tropical lagoons and atolls of the French Polynesian islands. They were first made famous by Salvatore Assael of the jewelry house Assael Pearls, who spent decades promoting these black gems.

In order to ensure Tahitian pearls are of the highest quality, in 1998 the government of Tahiti (Maison de la Perliculture) decreed that all Tahitian pearls must have 0.8mm of nacre thickness on both sides of the pearl in order to qualify for export from the island country.

Tahitian pearls are most famous for their naturally dark body colors, and nearly endless array of colorful overtones that can range from pale silver to dark emerald green, peacock, rose and even blue! They are also known for their large sizes, which can get large enough to dazzle even the pickiest of pearl lovers.

 

Close Up of Green and Rose Tone Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: Tahitian pearls are cultured in the black-lipped pinctada margaritifera saltwater pearl oyster, one of the largest oysters which can reach nearly 12-inches in diameter at its maturity. The black “lip” of the oyster is what imbues the pearls with their trademark black and gray colors.
    • Pearl Sizes: Because the oysters are so large, they are able to create large pearls. Tahitian pearls range from 7.0-8.0mm at their very smallest up through 16.0-17.0mm and sometimes even larger.
    • Pearl Colors: Tahitian pearls are black pearls that aren’t really “black”, but rather a range of dark gray body colors, with a famous range of colorful secondary colors called overtones that help make these pearls incredibly colorful! Some pearls can be pale silver or dark midnight black, but often Tahitian pearls shimmer with a rainbow of greens, peacocks, rose, gold, teal, blue and much, much more.
    • Common Treatments: The vast majority of pearls are not treated in any way, and all colors are 100% natural. Rarely, some Tahitians are dyed to attain a dark chocolate brown, which are called “Chocolate” Tahitians.
    • Pearl Shapes: Tahitian pearls take on a variety of shapes almost as varied as their colors. Tahitian pearls can be free-form Baroque, circled Baroques (called circlé), smooth, symmetrical Drop-Shapes and perfect Rounds. Perfectly Round pearls are the most rare, and most expensive, followed by smooth Drops, then Baroque pearls.
    • Price Range: Prices range from a little over $300 to over $50,000 or more, depending on the jewelry type and size of the pearls.

 

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White South Sea Pearls

Known as the “Queen of Cultured Pearls” White South Sea pearls certainly live up to their name due to their regal elegance, large sizes and undeniable elegance. The largest, rarest and most expensive pearls in the world, White South Sea pearls are loved for their bright, silver-white colors, eye-poppingly large sizes and shimmering, ephemeral luster.

The very best White South Sea pearls come from Australia, which is known to produce the purest white body color and bright silvery overtones. White South Sea pearls are also farmed throughout the Philippine Island regions, but the colors are warmer, verging on a solid cream rather than the bright bluish-white color of South Sea pearls from Australia.

 

White South Sea Pearls in Oyster Shell

White South Sea Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: White South Sea pearls are cultured in the silver-lipped pinctada maxima saltwater pearl oyster, the largest pearl-bearing oyster in the world. Found throughout the South Pacific and Indian Oceans including the Philippine Islands, the very finest White South Sea pearls with the cleanest colors are known for originating on the coasts of Western Australia.
    • Pearl Sizes: Because of the oyster’s size, White South Sea pearls are one of the largest in the world. Pearls range from 8.0-9.0mm at their very smallest up through 17.0-18.0mm and larger, with the largest examples attaining 21.0mm in size.
    • Pearl Colors: White South Sea pearls are famous for their bright, silvery-white body colors, with subtle overtones of rose, silver and cream. Rose is the rarest overtone, and Silver is the most prevalent and popular. The silver-lipped oyster also produces blue and gray-tinged pearls called “Silver-Blue” South Sea pearls which are a collector’s item.
    • Common Treatments: None. White South Sea pearls are naturally colored, and only scrubbed with salt and waxed bamboo chips after harvest.
    • Pearl Shapes: White South Sea pearls have a variety of shapes like Tahitians which can range free-form Baroque, circled Baroques (called circlé), smooth, symmetrical Drop-Shapes and perfect Rounds. Perfectly Round pearls are the most rare, and most expensive, followed by smooth Drops, then Baroque pearls.
    • Price Range: Prices range from a little over $500 to over $100,000 or more, depending on the jewelry type and size of the pearls. Necklaces will average $2,000 to $40,000, and earrings will be in the $500 to $3,000 average price range.

 

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Golden South Sea Pearls

Golden South Sea pearls have earned the nickname “Rolls Royce of Pearls” for their large sizes and sumptuous, natural golden colors. Farmed primarily in the tropical Philippine Islands and Indonesia, these rare and gorgeous pearls are the epitome of luxury and style.

 

Rows of Baroque Golden South Sea Pearls

Golden South Sea Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: Golden South Sea pearls are cultured in the gold-lipped pinctada maxima saltwater pearl oyster, a variety that is slightly smaller in size than the pinctada maxima used to culture White South Sea pearls. Found throughout the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, the gold-lipped p. Maxima oyster is farmed in Myanmar (Vietnam), South-East Asia, Indonesia and Australia, but the very best Golden South Sea pearls with the deepest Golden hues are from the Philippines.
    • Pearl Sizes: Similar to White South Sea pearls, Golden South Seas are one of the largest pearl types you can buy, albeit the size range is slightly smaller than their White South Sea cousins. Pearls range from 8.0-9.0mm at their very smallest up through 16.0-17.0mm and rarely larger than that.
    • Pearl Colors: Golden South Sea pearls are known for their luxuriant shades of natural Gold colors. These can range from pale champagne or pale yellow and gradually get deeper in tone to finally reaching 24K Gold which is the rarest and most sought after. The rule of thumb with Golden pearls, is the deeper the color, the more valuable the pearl (all other factors being equal). Overtones include neutral gold, silver, rose and bronze (green).
    • Common Treatments: None. Golden South Sea pearls are naturally colored, and only scrubbed with salt and waxed bamboo chips after harvest.
    • Pearl Shapes: Golden South Sea pearls have a variety of shapes like free-form Baroque, circled Baroques (called circlé), smooth, symmetrical Drop-Shapes and perfect Rounds. Perfectly Round pearls are the most rare, and most expensive, followed by smooth Drops, then Baroque pearls.
    • Price Range: Prices range from a little over $350 to over $100,000 or more, depending on the jewelry type and size of the pearls. Necklaces will average $2,000 to $40,000, and earrings will be in the $500 to $3,000 average price range.

 

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Freshwater Pearls

Cultured Freshwater pearls from China are known worldwide for being colorful, fun and inexpensive to work with. Their evolution from crinkly textured “Rice Crispy” pearls to ringed “Potato” pearls to the slightly off-round competitors to Japanese Akoya today has been nothing short of remarkable.

Their soft, satiny luster is subtler than that of the saltwater Japanese Akoya, but that is exactly what we love about them! Instead of the bright, hard shine the Akoya offers, Freshwater pearls offer up a softly shimmering luster that sometimes appears to glow from within. Combine that with their very attractive price points, and we think you’ll agree that Freshwater pearls are a diamond in the rough that you can’t afford to pass up.

 

Colorful Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater Pearl Facts

    • Pearl Origins: Freshwater pearls are farmed in rivers, lakes and aquaculture ponds in China. Unlike every other cultured pearl type, Freshwater pearls are grown in the Freshwater pearl mussel Hyriopsis cumingii (the triangle shell). The Freshwater pearl mussel can be nucleated up to 25 times on each side of its shell, yielding up to 50 pearls per mussel at harvest.
    • Pearl Sizes: Freshwater pearls have a wide range of sizes, starting at small 2.0-3.0mm “seed pearls”, up to 11.0-12.0mm sizes. Newer techniques in culturing Freshwater pearls, specifically bead nucleating them the way saltwater pearls are, has yielded pearl sizes large enough to attempt to compete with White South Sea pearls. These pearls are called “Edison” pearls, and routinely can be found in sizes starting at 13.0-14.0mm up to 17.0mm large!
    • Pearl Colors: Freshwater pearls came in a beautiful array of natural colors: pink, peach, lavender and white. Bead nucleated Edison pearls appear in even more intense, fantastical colors like royal purple, magenta and copper.
    • Common Treatments: Often lower quality Freshwater pearls are dyed. This can include any color of the rainbow from fire engine red to bright lemony yellow and jet black. Pearls of Joy only sells dyed black Freshwater pearls, which often appear an iridescent dark blue or a variation of peacock green.
    • Pearl Shapes: Freshwater pearls are known for their near-round to off-round and ovalish shapes. Very rarely are Freshwater pearls perfectly round like Akoya pearls or any other bead-nucleated pearl type - there is usually some faint variation off the perfect sphere. This is because Freshwater pearls are tissue nucleated, meaning that rather than a round mother-of-pearl bead in the center of the pearl like all other saltwater pearls, a tiny piece of donor mantle tissue is all that is used to coax the mussel into forming a pearl sac and creating a pearl. This causes the off-round shapes that most Freshwater pearls possess … but it also means that Freshwater pearls are solid nacre, and very, very durable! Other shapes include free-form Baroques, crinkly Rice Crispies, ringed Potato pearls, smooth, symmetrical Drop-Shapes and very rarely, perfect Rounds. Perfectly Round pearls are the most rare, and most expensive, followed by smooth Drops, then Baroque pearls.
    • Price Range: Prices range from a little over $100 to over $5,000 or more, depending on the jewelry type and size of the pearls. Necklaces will average $250 to $2,000, and earrings will be in the $100 to $800 average price range.

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