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Pearls: The Ultimate Guide to Every Type (Plus Jewelry Inspiration)

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Pearls range in color, size, luster, shape and price. Review the details of each type of pearl (see our guide below) to determine which cultured pearls are right for you. From pendants to earrings, pearl jewelry is beautiful, classic and timeless. 

Above all, we recommend purchasing your pearl jewelry from a highly reputable vendor. This will ensure your jewelry is high-quality and will last for years to come. For the best pearl jewelry at an excellent price, we recommend Blue Nile and Brian Gavin Diamonds. Choose something special for yourself or for someone you love.

What are pearls really? How are they made?

Pearls are smooth, hard layers of nacre with a lustrous appearance that are used to create beautiful jewelry. Pearls are made by a mollusk when an irritant comes in contact with it inside an oyster’s shell. Whether the irritant is a parasite, grain of sand, or piece of food, the mollusk secretes nacre for protection. The nacre layers build up to form the pearl. 

Pearls come in a variety of shapes: round, oval, pear, semi-round, button, baroque, drop, and circle. Pearls are most commonly white and black, but they can also be other colors including green and pink.

For many centuries, pearls have been a symbol of beauty and elegance. They remain a popular choice for jewelry, including braceletspendants and earrings. Many classic and modern styles of jewelry are available in each type of pearl.

Types of Pearls

There are two types of pearls: natural pearls and cultured pearls. Both are beautiful options for fine jewelry including necklaces and earrings.

With natural pearls, the mollusk comes from an organism in the water. They can form in saltwater or freshwater. Natural pearls are incredibly rare. Most natural pearls have already been harvested, making them extremely costly and difficult to find. If you’re in the market for pearl jewelry, it’s highly likely that you’ll be considering cultured pearls.

Freshwater Cultured Pearl Graduated Strand Necklace

For cultured pearls, the mollusk (usually a tiny bead) is inserted manually. There are two main categories of cultured pearls: freshwater and saltwater. Freshwater pearls are grown in mussels in lakes, rivers, ponds, and reservoirs. Most freshwater pearls are from China. Saltwater pearls are grown in bays and inlets across Asia and Australia. There are three main varieties of saltwater pearls: Tahitian pearls, South Sea pearls, and Akoya pearls. In general, saltwater pearls are considered more valuable than freshwater pearls.

Natural Vs. Cultured Pearls

Natural pearls are incredibly rare and expensive, while cultured pearls are widely available and affordable. Jewelry on the market today is made almost exclusively with cultured pearls. Natural pearls are made without human intervention, whereas cultured pearls require human involvement. Natural pearls are nearly all antiques and are sold at auctions for huge price tags.

How to Evaluate Pearls

There are a few criteria to consider when choosing your pearls.

First, you want to gauge the level of luster: how shiny or reflective the pearl is. The more shiny, the more beautiful the pearl is, and often times, the more expensive.

Second, look at the surface quality. Are there imperfections or blemishes? The clearer the pearl’s complexion, the more valuable it is.

Third, take note of the pearl’s shape. Pearls that are nearly perfectly round tend to be worth more than pearls that are oval or off-round. However, some people prefer different shapes, like these baroque pearls from Blue Nile.

Fourth, consider the size of the pearl. The larger the pearl, the more expensive it will be.

Remember, though, that the style of pearl you choose is up to you. For example, maybe you prefer a smaller pearl or one that’s a teardrop shape like this one from Blue Nile. Overall, read through our guide and view the sample jewelry to see which pearl variety catches your eye the most.

Saltwater Pearls

What are Saltwater Pearls?

Saltwater pearls are produced by mollusks implanted inside of an oyster that lives in salt water. Originally from oceans near Thailand, Indonesia, Tahiti and Australia, saltwater pearls can be grown in other parts of Asia, including China, Japan and Vietnam. Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls are all varieties of saltwater pearls.

Cultured saltwater pearls range in their size from approximately 2mm to 15mm. They’re usually round in shape and white or cream in color (except for Tahitian black pearls). The luster of saltwater pearls is dependent on the variety along with the specific pearl strand. Therefore, it’s important to review the pearls closely before purchase.

How Expensive are Saltwater Pearls?

Saltwater pearls tend to be more expensive than freshwater pearls because they take longer to cultivate. The mollusk only produces one pearl at a time in saltwater oysters whereas freshwater oysters can produce up to 30 pearls.

While saltwater pearls are more expensive, it can be difficult to tell the difference. This Akoya pearl necklace from Blue Nile, for instance, is made of saltwater pearls and this pearl strand necklace also from Blue Nile is made of freshwater pearls. The difference is slight, and your decision should be made on personal preference and budget.

Saltwater Pearl Jewelry

Because of their nearly perfectly round shape, saltwater pearls make for stunning necklaces, earrings and bracelets. The pearls vary in size, color and luster, so be sure to review a few styles before making your purchase.

Saltwater Pearl Earrings

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant
Pearl and Diamond Pendant

Saltwater Pearl Necklaces

Saltwater Pearl Bracelets

Freshwater Pearls

What are Freshwater Pearls?

Different than saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are grown in mussels in rivers, lakes and ponds. Most freshwater pearls come from China, and you’ll see some jewelers market their pearls as Chinese freshwater pearls.

Usually white in color, freshwater pearls are also produced in a range of pastel colors such as pink. Many freshwater cultured pearls are round in shape, but oval and teardrop shapes are also common.

Freshwater pearls offer plenty of luster, but tend to be slightly less shiny than saltwater pearls due to their nacre being thicker. The science of cultivating pearls has advanced, and the difference in luster is hardly noticeable.

How Expensive are Freshwater Pearls?

Freshwater pearls are almost always less expensive than saltwater pearls, because they’re cultured for a shorter duration. The mussels in freshwater can also produce up to 30 pearls at a time, making them less expensive to cultivate.

Freshwater Pearl Jewelry

Cultured freshwater pearls make for stunning and affordable jewelry. With a spectrum of beautiful colors, designs and shapes, freshwater pearl jewelry is a favorite for many.

Freshwater Pearl Earrings

Freshwater Pearl Necklaces

Multicolored Freshwater Cultured Pearl Bracelet

Freshwater Pearl Bracelets

Tahitian Pearls

What are Tahitian Pearls?

Tahitian pearls are cultured pearls of the saltwater pearl variety. Surprisingly, they are not exclusively cultivated in Tahiti. They’re farmed near several of the French Polynesian islands and come from the pinctada margaritifera cumingi oyster.

Tahitian Cultured Pearl Infinity Drop Earrings

Tahitian pearls, also known as Tahiti pearls, are naturally black in color. You may seem them listed as black pearls, gray pearls or chocolate Tahitian pearls. These colors, especially black pearls, simply mean that they are dark in nature, not that they are true black. Tahitian pearls often have a secondary hue as well, like green, blue or purple.

As far as size, Tahitian pearls range from 8mm to 18mm. Tahitian pearls are often round but can also be found in the baroque and circle styles (with circular rings across the pearl). They offer a brilliant, vibrant luster that appeals to those who prefer a colorful pearl to a white pearl.

How Expensive are Tahitian Pearls?

Because they’re a saltwater pearl, Tahitian pearls tend to be more expensive than freshwater pearls. Advancements in farming techniques have made them relatively affordable, depending on the size, style and color of the pearl.

Tahitian Pearl Jewelry

The rich tone of Tahitian pearls offers beautiful character to fine jewelry, from necklaces to bracelets. The varying tints and shapes of these black pearls offer plenty of personality. Review the styles below to get a sense of how beautiful the black Tahitian pearl can be.

Tahitian Pearl Earrings

Tahitian Pearl Necklaces

Tahitian Pearl Bracelets

Cultured Pearls

What are Cultured Pearls?

Cultured pearls are grown in either fresh water or salt water. They come from all parts of the world, including China, Australia, Indonesia, the French Polynesia, Japan and Thailand. Unlike natural pearls (where the mollusk comes from an organism in the water), the mollusk is inserted by man. Almost every pearl on the market is a cultured pearl, as natural pearls are incredibly rare and expensive.

Cultured pearls include a variety: freshwater pearls, saltwater pearls, South Sea pearls, Tahitian pearls and Akoya pearls. For this reason, cultured pearls offer a tremendous range in sizes, colors, shapes and luster.

Multi-Color Tahitian Cultured Pearl Bracelet

How Expensive are Cultured Pearls?

Because of their wide variety, prices for cultured pearls differ dramatically. Freshwater pearls, for example, are almost always less expensive than saltwater pearls. As another general rule, pearls that are cultured for longer periods of time cost more. The more perfect the shape or the more lustrous the pearl, the more expensive it will be as well. It’s best to review a variety of cultured pearls before deciding on the style you prefer.

Cultured Pearl Jewelry

From black pearls to white Akoya pearls, the options for cultured pearl jewelry are endless. Check out the sizes, styles and shapes of the various designs below to see what catches your eye.

Cultured Pearl Earrings

Cultured Pearl Necklaces

Cultured Pearl Bracelets

South Sea Pearls

What are South Sea Pearls?

South Sea pearls are a specific type of saltwater pearl. They come from the pinctada maxima oyster, which is larger than the oysters that produce freshwater and Akoya pearls. These beautiful cultured pearls are produced in the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Australia.

South Sea pearls tend to be round in shape and larger than the average pearl, ranging from 10mm to 20mm. They are usually high-quality pearls that feature a white or golden color. South Sea pearls feature a high level of luster, making them stand out next to other cultured pearls.

South Sea Pearl Earrings

How Expensive are South Sea Pearls?

South Sea pearls are of exceptional quality and are the most sought-after of all cultured pearls. Their larger size, rich luster and smooth finish make them more expensive than other cultured pearls. However, they can still be found at reasonable prices.

South Sea Pearl Jewelry

The beauty and luster of South Sea pearls make them an exceptional choice for jewelry. If you choose a strand of South Sea pearls like this from Blue Nile or a set of golden earrings, they’re bound to become a family heirloom for many generations.

South Sea Pearl Earrings

South Sea Pearl Necklaces

South Sea Pearl Bracelets

Have questions about pearls or other fine jewelry? Send our experts an email.

About the author
Michael Fried
Mike learned the diamond business from the ground-up at Leo Schachter Diamonds - one of the world's top diamond manufacturers. He has been recognized as a diamond industry expert by Time, PeopleMoney, The Daily Mirror, NerdWallet, The Times Herald, Yahoo Finance Australia, The Art of Charm, The Washington Diplomat, The Next Web, and more.
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