Everything You EVER Wanted to Know About Cultured Akoya Pearls
Known as “The Classic” the world over, the cultured saltwater Akoya pearl gleams with its trademark bright, mirror-like luster, and features a pastel array of flattering pearl overtones in Rose, Silver and Cream.
The Ultimate Guide to Akoya Pearls by PurePearls.com will provide you with almost everything you could ever want to know about this iconic pearl type. From its history and origins to a breakdown of their most popular colors, sizes and much more. And of course, TONS of Pure Pearls’ gorgeous pictures and visual aids so when you begin shopping you know exactly what to look for!
Use the Table of Contents below to skip to the parts of the article that interest you the most, or read the entire article to become an Akoya Pearl Master!
Table of ContentsUse these links to navigate this article:
- Akoya Pearl Basics
- What Makes Akoya Pearls Beautiful?
- Akoya Pearl Origins
- Akoya Pearl Farms
- Akoya Pearl Shapes
- Akoya Pearl Colors
- Akoya Pearl Overtones
- Akoya Pearl Sizes
- Akoya Pearl Grading
- AA+ vs. AAA Quality Akoya Pearls
- What Are Hanadama Akoya Pearls
- Common Akoya Pearl Treatments
- Akoya Pearl Jewelry Guide
Akoya Pearls: The Basics
- Cultured Akoya pearls are known for being perfectly round in shape, highly lustrous, with an almost glossy appearance, and feature very good to incredibly detailed reflections in their surfaces.
- The pearls are usually remarkably well-matched, with little to almost no visible variation in overtone, luster or surface quality from pearl to pearl throughout a layout.
- These pearls traditionally feature a white primary body color, and are tinged with Rose, Silver or Cream Overtones, flattering to all complexions.
- Akoya pearls are cultured in the pinctada fucata martensii saltwater pearl oyster - the smallest of all pearl-bearing oysters – and so are some of the smaller-sized pearls you can purchase today, generally ranging from 6.5-9.5mm. This makes them perfect for use in more versatile jewelry styles, like classic understated stud earrings, or the timeless princess length pearl necklace.
Now that we’ve touched on the basics, let’s dig in deeper to understand all the various pearl attributes in more detail!
What Makes Akoya Pearls Beautiful?
Akoya pearls are the result of a process that’s been developed over the last century between humans and Mother Nature.
The pearly substance that makes up the layers of a pearl is called “nacre”. Nacre is a combination of microscopic aragonite platelets composed of calcium carbonate, and bound together with an organic type of “glue” called conchiolin.
Aragonite platelets are semi-transparent white, brown or grey in color, and are able to both reflect and refract light rays striking their surfaces, giving pearls their trademark luster and subtle glow. The tighter and more compact this arrangement of crystalline layers is, the brighter the luster the pearl displays and the greater the amount of orient or iridescence.
This internal structure is what gives pearls their beauty, and makes them worthy of their designation as a precious gemstone.
For those interested in reading more about the science of Akoya pearl formation, visit: the Pure Pearls Insider's Guide to Grading Akoya Pearls.
Akoya Pearl Origins
The true origin of cultured Akoya pearls does not belong to any one inventor; there are actually four men who deserve credit for bringing these beautiful gems to the world.
Cultured Akoya blister pearls (half pearls formed on the inside of the shell) were successfully grown and harvested for the first time in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto – the man known today as the “Father of Cultured Pearls”.
The perfectly spherical Akoya pearl we recognize today is really the result of a technique we call surgical grafting, properly known as the Mise-Nishekawa Method.
While Mr. Mikimoto was not the first person to successfully culture a whole, truly round Akoya pearl, he was the first to standardize the process.
And he was a genius at marketing his pearls.
By 1916, the first truly round cultured Japanese Akoya pearl jewelry line by Mikimoto made its appearance, sparking controversy with jewelers and industry professionals, and a flood of interest from pearl lovers that had never been able to afford fine quality pearls ... until now.
The cultured Japanese “Mikimoto” Akoya Pearl Necklace rocketed to fame in the US during the late 1940s as World War II came to an end. Young GI’s returning from their overseas engagements bought the fine white pearl necklaces in droves, and brought them home to their wives and girlfriends – cementing their place as The Classic White Pearl Necklace in American’s minds and hearts for generations to come.
One of the most famous examples of the Classic Akoya Pearl Necklace comes from Marilyn Monroe, who received her Mikimoto pearl necklace as a honeymoon gift from her husband, Joe DiMaggio.
This gift practically made Akoya pearls as American as Apple Pie!
To Learn More About the History of Cultured Pearls, visit: Pearl Origins.
The Akoya Pearl Farms
Originally farmed only in Japan, the practice of culturing the saltwater Akoya pearl eventually spread to other Asian countries where the pinctada martensii oyster can also be found. The pearling area map below shows the known farming countries that culture Akoya pearls. These are:
Japan cultures Akoya pearls from the P. martensii pearl oyster – the smallest of all pearl bearing oysters. P. martensii is also called the "white butterfly" shell, named for the highly iridescent, creamy white to blue-ish white mother-of-pearl found on the interior of the shell.
The P. martensii only grows to about 7 to 8cm in diameter at maturity. The oysters are all bred and raised in hatcheries in order to cultivate preferred characteristics and stronger, hardier molluscs that are able to reliably produce high quality Akoya pearls.
The colder Pacific Ocean waters surrounding Japan are ideal for culturing the Akoya pearl. The oyster’s metabolism slows and begins producing nacre in finer, more tightly compacted layers … it’s actually this very reason that Akoya pearls are normally harvested during the wintertime, typically November through February.
Japanese pearl divers, called Ama’s, are still operating today to retrieve lost or fallen oysters – especially after intense storms.
Vietnam has become a player in Akoya pearl production over the last two decades; the first commercial Akoya pearl farms were launched in Vietnam in 1992.
Vietnamese farmers cultivate Akoya pearls using the Pinctada chemnitzii pearl oyster, which have been raised in pearl hatcheries beginning in 2001.
Generally we see rarer, uniquely-colored pearls coming out of Vietnam: natural Sky Blue, Silver-Blue, Golden and Yellow pearl colors are common.
*China had been making steady gains in Akoya pearl farming – both in terms of harvest volume and competitive, quality pearls for a good price in smaller sizes of 7.0-7.5mm and under. The P. chemnitzii oyster (also farmed in Vietnam) is also known as the Chinese Akoya Oyster or “Akoya gai”, and was the variety mainly used to cultivate Akoya pearls in China.
In 2008 and 2009 the Chinese coast was hit with a series of massive storms; the devastation to the pearl farms in the area was total, and the vast majority of small Akoya pearl farmers abandoned their farms.
As of this writing in 2017 there is no active Chinese Akoya pearl industry to speak of, and the vast majority of Akoya pearl production once again comes solely from Japan (> 95%).
To learn more about Pearl Farming visit: https://www.purepearls.com/pearl-farming.html.
Akoya Pearl Shapes
Saltwater Akoya pearls are known the world over for being perfectly round and symmetrical in shape, with little to no variation from pearl to pearl throughout a necklace or bracelet layout.
Akoya pearls are classically perfectly round in shape, as seen above. In the jewelry industry, these are called “Eight Way Rollers”, as they’ll roll evenly in all directions.
Other shapes exist, but are considered rather rare as the vast majority of Akoya pearl production is focused on producing valuable true round pearls.
Other shapes include free-form baroque Akoya, keshi shapes and drops.
Pictured here are Free Form Baroque Akoya pearls – very rare.
Akoya Pearl Colors
The most famous and traditional Akoya pearl color is White, which itself is tinged with three pearl overtones of either Rose (pronounced rosé), Silver or Cream/Ivory.
Other natural Akoya pearl colors are Blue, Silvery-Blue and rarely, shimmering shades of Gold and Yellow.
Black Akoya pearls are quite common, and the product of a color-treatment process, usually dye. The pearls display a Midnight Blue-Black or Midnight Blue and Greenish-Black body color, with little to no iridescence.
The photo above features traditional White Akoya, natural color Blue Akoya and dyed Black Akoya pearls in their native pinctada shell.
To learn more about pearl colors, visit: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Pearl Colors.
Akoya Pearl Overtones
A pearl’s “overtone” can be defined as a secondary color that appears to shimmer over the main body color of the pearl.
There are three traditional overtones for white Akoya pearls. These are:
- Rose (also pronounced rosé): this is the most traditional overtone, and is a faint to deeper tinge of pink color over the white primary body color. Blondes and women with fair complexions benefit the most from this overtone choice. The pink hues will warm up against fair skin and light hair, enhancing the pearl’s sparkle.
- Silver: easily the most popular white Akoya overtone. Silver shows as a bright white or silvery-blue sheen over the white primary body color of the pearl, with cool undertones of faint blue or green. Dark brunettes or women with Olive or Mediterranean complexions look best wearing Silver, as this overtone choice contrasts with the darker colors and makes the pearls appear larger and brighter.
- Cream / Ivory: think of this as a tinge of French Vanilla over the warm primary white body color of the pearl. Redheads or women who blush easily (pink to red undertones of the complexion), or older women with grey or silver hair favor this overtone, as its warm hues won’t clash with their skin and hair.
Use the slideshow to see each Akoya pearl overtone of Dark, Medium and Pale skin tones.
To learn more about pearl overtones, visit: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Pearl Overtones.
Akoya Pearl Sizes
The Akoya pearl oyster, p. martensii, produces pearls ranging from 2.0mm tiny “baby” pearls up through 9.0-9.5mm regularly, and 9.5-10.0mm at their largest.
The photo above shows the most popular Akoya pearl necklace sizes, from 6.0-6.5mm to 9.0-9.5mm.
The most popular Akoya pearl necklace size range starts at 7.0-7.5mm up through 8.0-8.5mm. This size range is considered the most popular and versatile for all occasions and builds. For young girls and "first pearls" necklaces, we recommend the smaller sizes of 6.0-6.5mm and 6.5-7.0mm.
To learn more about pearl sizes, and to see how they look when worn, I highly recommend you visit: Pure Pearls Ultimate Guide to Pearl Sizes (you won’t regret it!)
Akoya Pearl Grading
Pure Pearls employs the A-AAA Grading Scale for all our Akoya pearls, with ‘A’ representing a commercial grade, and ‘AAA’ representing the best quality you can buy.
The A-AAA Grading Scale takes into account all 7 pearl attributes when evaluating pearls. These are:
- Surface Quality (blemishing)
- Symmetry of Shape
- Pearl Size
Pure Pearls only stocks Akoya pearls in the AA+ Quality, AAA Quality and Hanadama Collection grades, so you can always be 100% sure that you’ll get fine Akoya pearls from the top 10% of each yearly harvest.
To read a detailed breakdown of the Akoya Pearl Grading Scale (including close-up pictures of each grade and the specific criteria for each pearl grade), visit: Pure Pearls Insider’s Guide to Akoya Pearl Grading
AA+ vs AAA Quality Akoya Pearls
The answer to this question lies within a balance of beauty and budget. Both our AA+ Quality and AAA Quality Akoya pearls will feature:
- Very High to Excellent Luster
- Perfectly Round and Symmetrical Shapes
- Excellent Matching Throughout
- Beautiful, Even Color Saturation and Overtones
- Fine Presentation When Worn
The AA+ and AAA Quality Akoya pearl grades are quite close in appearance to the casual observer; the pearls will all appear perfectly round, highly lustrous and evenly matched.
As you can see in the comparison image above, the main difference between the AA+ Quality and the AAA Quality Akoya pearls is LUSTER (and this of course is the same issue when comparing the AAA versus our Hanadama Akoya as well!). Pearl luster on higher grade Akoya pearls will be sharper, brighter and have a greater visual ‘depth’ than that of lower grade Akoyas.
All Akoya pearl jewelry listings on Pure feature drop-down menus located on the right side of the page. This allows you to customize your pearls to your pearl grade of choice, AA+ or AAA Quality.
What Are Hanadama Akoya Pearls?
Hanadama Akoya pearls are the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to each year’s harvests.
These are AAA Quality pearls that are so fine in appearance and nacre thickness, that they’ve been set aside immediately after harvest to await special matching into pairs and hanks. Once assembled, the pearls are sent to the Pearl Science Laboratory of Tokyo, Japan.
Hanadama Akoya pearls feature some of the finest luster and orient seen in this pearl type.
There, the pearls are x-rayed to measure nacre depth, and evaluated for teri-value, luster and Orient (the PSL terms the famous soap-bubble effect Aurora), and are photographed and issued an individually numbered gemological certificate guaranteeing the pearls’ quality.
To learn more about these incredibly gorgeous pearls, including examining a copy of a real PSL Certificate, visit: Pure Pearls Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Hanadama Akoya Pearls.
Common Akoya Pearl Treatments
Akoya pearls when initially harvested are called "hamage". These pearls feature a cool, greenish undertone to them which is universally considered to be not optimal for use in fine jewelry.
The hamage Akoya are sent to the processing factories to undergo what the Japanese term "Maeshori" which consists of washing the pearls to remove oyster residue and dark stains. The pearls then are set to begin the bleaching and pinking process, which enhances the Akoya pearl's color, warmth and sparkle.
The result is a very light to moderate Rose tinge, with the brightness of the pearl's primary white body color determining whether or not the overall overtone is graded Rose, Silver or Cream. This coloration is considered perfect for most women; it is complimentary to nearly any complexion, and subtly shimmers with a light iridescence that is pleasing to the eyes.
This after-harvest procedure is so common that it's considered "SOP" for Akoya pearls and is not disclosed on gemological reports.
Akoya Pearl Jewelry 101:
Essential Classic and Modern Pearl Jewelry Designs
Popular Akoya pearl jewelry designs run the gamut from vintage-inspired classics like the simple pearl choker to modern versions of the Akoya pearl earring, accented with sparkling diamonds. We make every item by hand, to order here in our Los Angeles, CA workshop.
Fine Akoya pearl jewelry should all be matched to near-perfection with little to no variation in size, shape, body color, overtone, luster and surface quality.
Pure Pearls has assembled a breathtaking collection of Akoya pearl jewelry to suit every taste and budget. Use the slide shows below to view our most popular, most beloved Akoya pearl jewelry styles.
Akoya Pearl Necklaces
Gorgeous, absolutely unheard of natural shades of Silvery Blue to deeper Sky Blue dominate this unique strand of baroque Japanese Akoya pearls. Each pearl shimmers with iridescent overtones of Rose, Silver, Aquamarine and Green overtones. The free-form baroque shapes fire the imagination, and the larger than average sizes are very eye-catching! Choose your preferred size from 7.5-8.0mm up through 8.5-9.0mm.
Most modern cultured Akoya pearl necklaces and bracelets are graduated within one-half millimeter, meaning that strands today will feature measurements of 6.0-6.5mm, 6.5-7.0mm, 7.0-7.5mm and so on. We call these “non-graduated” strands.
Keep in mind that a half-millimeter increment is VERY small, and all pearls are assembled to feature a very subtle graduation rate, with the smallest pearls placed near the clasp and the largest showcased in the center of the layout.
Akoya Pearl Bracelets
Necklaces and bracelets are individually double-knotted between each pearl using fine matching silk thread, and finish all of our strands with matching 14K Gold clasps and French wire-wrapping to ensure the ends withstand daily handling.
To learn more about which pearl length is right for you visit: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Perfect Pearl Necklace. This helpful guide features photos of every classic pearl necklace length you can imagine, and a primer on how to properly measure pearl necklaces and bracelets.
Akoya Pearl Earrings
A PurePearls.com customer favorite, the Akoya Pearl and Diamond Dangle Earrings are elegant and fashionable. Select larger sized pearls 7.5mm and up to ensure that the pearls maintain “presence”.
Akoya Pearl Pendants
The Akoya Pearl and Diamond Cross Pendant is an elegant and timeless design motif. The Diamond Cross Pendant is made exclusively by PurePearls.com and features a choice of 14K Rose, White and Rose Gold.
To learn more about selecting the perfect pearl sizes, I highly recommend visiting: Pure Pearl’s Ultimate Guide to Pearl Sizes. Featured inside are TONS of photos, tips and charts to help you understand how these pearls “measure up”, and which Akoya pearl size is right for you.
Custom Akoya Pearl Jewelry
Pure Pearls specializes in Custom Design Pearl Jewelry; we can make almost anything you can dream up!
View some of our most recent work:
An expertly matched Triple Strand Akoya Pearl Necklace with diamonds.
Akoya Pearl and Ruby Earrings
32-Inches of Gorgeous! An 8.5-9.0mm Japanese Akoya Pearl and Sapphire Necklace by PurePearls.com
To get started building the Akoya pearl jewelry you’ve been dreaming of, simply contact us by email for pricing, photos and more!
About the Author
I’ve been with Pure Pearls for well over 10 years and am incredibly passionate about what I do! My 15 year career in the jewelry industry spans working in the precious colored gemstone wholesale sector, as well as stints in diamond bridal jewelry manufacturing division. I earned my GIA Pearls certificate in 2004.
I’ve written extensively about pearls for many online trade publications including Jewellery Net Asia, the CPAA (Cultured Pearl Association of America), and of course, Pearl-Guide.com on all things pearl-related.
Feel free to email or call me at (310) 455-5258 with any questions or issues – I am always happy to help!