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When it comes to buying fine pearls, there’s one question you must know the answer to first: Do you want to buy saltwater pearls, or Freshwater?
If you don’t know the answer to this question yet, don’t worry! That’s exactly what this post is all about.
“Saltwater pearls” are cultured pearls that are grown/farmed in saltwater pearl oysters all around the world.
Saltwater pearls can be ANY pearl type: Japanese Akoya, Tahitian pearls or White South Sea and Golden South Sea pearls. So just remember that when you tell your jeweler you’d like to purchase saltwater pearls don’t forget to specify what types of pearls you want to buy.
Most often, pearl shoppers are after the classic white Akoya pearl, which is known for being perfectly round, white in color, highly lustrous and beautifully matched.
The Japanese Akoya versus Chinese Freshwater pearl comparison is what we’ll be primarily dealing with, but for completeness’s sake we will also include other pearl types.
Saltwater Akoya pearls are THE Iconic white pearl type, and easily the most popular and well-known of all cultured pearls today.
“Freshwater pearls” are cultured pearls that are cultivated in mainly freshwater ponds, rivers and lakes throughout China. Freshwater pearls are known for being durable, colorful, off-round in shape and budget friendly. They are an excellent option for inexpensive pearl jewelry gifts and for artisans looking to add unique pops of color to their jewelry designs without adding too much overhead to their designs.
Freshwater pearls are a fun, affordable alternative for pearl lovers everywhere.
So that’s it in a nutshell.
For the rest of you looking for a deeper, more in-depth explanation keep reading!
Saltwater cultured pearls can refer to ANY pearl type cultured in a saltwater pearl oyster. That can mean:
Each of these cultured pearl types are what we call “bead nucleated”. That means that a perfectly round mother-of-pearl nucleus is inserted into the saltwater oyster's gonad along with a tiny, 1.0mm square of donor mantle tissue.
The donor mantle tissue piece helps stimulate the formation of the pearl sac and influences the final pearl’s color. The saltwater oysters envelop the nucleus in a pearl sac and then begins to secrete layers of nacre around the bead, gradually smoothing over the irritant and eventually forming a beautiful pearl.
I created this diagram to illustrate roughly the various layers that make up a cultured Akoya pearl.
Fun Fact: The legend of pearls formed around a bit of sand is not quite true! Most often, wild pearls are created after the oyster has trapped a parasite that has burrowed inside its shell, or flotsam that irritates the soft body of the mollusk. Only incredibly rarely is a pearl produced by growing around a grain of sand.
Akoya pearls are grown in the Pinctada fucata martensii saltwater oyster. The Akoya pearl type is known as the smallest saltwater pearl type, ranging in size from tiny 3.0mm seed pearls up to 9.5-10.0mm at their largest.
Sunset on an Akoya pearl farm in Japan.
Larger saltwater pearl types like White South Sea pearls and Golden South Sea pearls have bigger pearl nuclei and spend much longer in the water growing thick layers of nacre.
South Sea pearls, grown in the Pinctada maxima saltwater pearl oysters, are known to have the thickest of all nacre layers. The harvests consist of pearls ranging from 9.0mm to 16.0mm in size, and sometimes even larger.
Black Tahitian pearls are cultivated in the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera saltwater oyster in the lagoons and atolls of the French Polynesian islands and spend an average of 24 months in the water.
Naturally colored Black Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia are one of the most colorful and popular saltwater pearl varieties in the world.
Tahitian pearls are also one of the larger pearl types you can buy. Sizes start at 8.0mm and go up to 16.0mm and sometimes larger. These larger sizes make for some beautifully impressive Black Pearl Necklaces, Earrings and Pendants.
Their natural shades of dove to charcoal grey colors and trademark colorful overtones of Peacock, Rose, Blue-Green, Green and Silver make Tahitian saltwater pearls amongst the most popular cultured pearls in the world for pearl lovers.
Cultured Freshwater pearls are grown in fresh water rivers, lakes and ponds in China. These pearls are known for having a large variety of shapes from off-round to oval-ish, chunky potato and crinkly rice crispy shapes, coins, baroques and drops to near-perfect rounds. Freshwater pearls come in a rainbow of pastel colors like Lavender, Pink, Peach and classic White.
Freshwater pearls are considered the “inexpensive” pearl type, and are favored by beading hobbyists, jewelry designers, and pearl junkies who just love pearls.
Freshwater pearls in their native mollusk shell.
Freshwater pearls are cultured in the hyriopsis cumingii freshwater pearl mussel, which can grow up to 25 pearls on each side of its shell at a time. That’s a potential of 50 pearls per harvest, per freshwater mussel … which is a LOT of pearls!
The pearls are “tissue nucleated”, which means that a small 1.0mm square of mantle tissue from a donor mollusk shell is inserted into an incision in the host mussel’s soft body. The mussel then creates a pearl sac around each square of tissue and then begins secreting nacre around the irritant.
The tissue nucleus inside the pearl slowly degrades over time, leaving a pearl that is 100% solid nacre. This means that the pearls are very similar to composition to naturally occurring pearls, and are very durable!
A Freshwater pearl harvest absolutely DWARFS that of any other pearl type. The sheer volume of pearls created each year is part of the reason why Freshwater pearl jewelry is not as expensive as saltwater pearls.
Akoya saltwater pearls are known for being highly lustrous and stunningly reflective … the pearls are often said to have “mirror-like” or “ball-bearing” luster.
Part of the reason for this is that Akoya pearls are cultured in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean in Japan. The cooler temps slow down the oyster’s metabolism, which causes the nacre layers to be very densely compacted around the nucleus.
Luster is what makes or breaks pearls as a precious gemstone. With both freshwater and saltwater pearls, the better luster of the pearl, the more valuable it is.
The thicker the nacre layers are, the more a pearl will display its famous “glow from within”, and the sharper the luster will be.
Akoya pearls are known for being extremely reflective; peering into the surface of an Akoya pearl is a lot like looking into a mirror. You’ll be able to recognize your facial features: the shape and most details of your eyes, your nose, and your smile (you can even see your teeth!).
As with all pearls, the higher in quality and luster you go, the more detailed your reflection will be. The photo above compares our AAA Quality Akoya pearls with our Certified Hanadama Akoya pearls, which is the highest quality available.
Hanadama pearls are famous for their extremely high luster, shimmering iridescent Orient and thick nacre layers.
The larger, more exotic types of pearls such as black Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls are known to have more of a softer, more “satiny” luster.
Both White and Golden South Sea pearls often feature a gorgeous internal glow that appears to emanate from within due to their very thick nacre layers. Luster can be as high or higher than that of the Japanese Akoya but you will only see that in the AAAA and Gem qualities with particularly fine nacre composition.
Loose Baroque White South Sea pearls showing their trademark “satiny” luster.
Freshwater cultured pearls also have what pearl experts call soft, satiny luster. This is characterized by diffused edges of reflected light sources (those little white squares of light reflected on the surface of the pearls).
Objects and faces reflected in the pearl’s surfaces are closer to shapes and outlines, with little detail.
These cultured Chinese Freshwater pearls are beading quality, around a “A” grade, but useful for illustrating the degrees of luster you can see with Freshwater pearls.
These lovely AAA Freshwater pearls have some beautiful shine, great light return and a high degree of reflectivity. Perfect for fine Freshwater pearl jewelry.
The higher up in pearl quality you go, the better those reflective capabilities are going to be. Correspondingly you’ll see much less satining on the edges of reflected light sources on the pearl’s surfaces.
Pearl Shape is probably the most obvious point of comparison you can use when deciding between saltwater and Freshwater pearls. Cultured pearls come in a wonderful variety of shapes, from totally freeform baroques to romantic drops to perfectly round pearls.
Most people want and recognize the most iconic pearl shape of all: Perfectly Round.
Akoya pearls are famous for their perfectly round shape; they are known in the pearl world as “Eight Way Rollers” as these pearls will roll evenly in all eight directions on a flat surface.
Look at these perfectly round Hanadama Akoya pearl beauties!!
The classic white Akoya pearl is perhaps THE most popular cultured pearl type of all due to its consistently round and perfectly matched shapes (in addition to its stellar luster of course).
Cultured Freshwater pearls offer a wider range of shapes, with the rarest of them being perfectly round. Because of the Freshwater pearl’s lack of internal bead nuclei, these pearls usually have irregular shapes like drops, ovals and baroque.
Truly round pearl shapes represent less than
A shape-to-shape comparison is easiest to instantly see and qualify.
A head-to-head match-up of saltwater Akoya versus AAA Quality Freshwater pearls showcases the differences in shape and luster that is immediately noticeable when the pearls are side by side.
South Sea and Tahitian saltwater pearls are also available in True Round, Smooth Drops and Baroque shapes. As with Akoya and Freshwater pearls, the perfect round pearls are the rarest, and most expensive.
With the many types of pearls, Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea saltwater pearls are going to be MUCH more expensive than Freshwater pearls.
Probably the largest factor in pricing disparities between Freshwater vs saltwater pearls is that Freshwater pearls from China absolutely dwarf all other pearl types in terms of harvest volume each year.
Yearly Freshwater pearl harvests from the pearl farms of China average around 1,000 TONS.
Yes, you read that right: Tons.
The most recent figures for yearly tonnage in Akoya pearl harvests is around 25 tons … so conservatively Akoya pearls are 250% more rare than Freshwater pearls.
Also consider that most Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls all have a higher perceivedvalue than that of the Freshwater pearl. For Tahitian and South Sea pearls, their thicker nacre, natural white, golden and black colors and larger sizes all contribute to their luxury status, and these saltwater pearls all command premium pricing.
Pearl price differences can range from as little as $150 to tens of thousands, depending on the pearl type you decide to buy, pearl size and the specific jewelry design.
This gorgeous Gem Quality Double Strand Freshwater Pearl Necklace was created with 9.0mm pearls and retailed for a tad over $3,000.00. A similar luxury quality Akoya pearl necklace would have a price tag around $6,000.00 or more.
For example, a pair of pearl studs in our most popular size, 7.0-7.5mm Akoya Pearl Earrings will start at $169.00 and range up to $309.00 for our Hanadama Pearl Earrings.
Comparatively, Freshwater pearl studs in that same size start at $109.00 for our AAA Quality, and $139.00 for the Gem Quality, AAAA pearl upgrade.
Tahitian and South Sea saltwater pearl earrings are exponentially more expensive and start around $279.00 and $529.00 respectively.
When it comes to pearl necklaces, the price differences only increase.
An Akoya Pearl Necklace sized 7.0-7.5mm starts at $629.00 for our AA+ Quality and range up to $1,889.00 for the same size in our Certified Hanadama Akoya Pearl Necklaces.
A Freshwater Pearl strand in that same size starts as low as $179.00, and tops out at just $249.00!
That is a sizeable difference … is it worth it?
The answer to that is entirely up to the individual buyer.
There are myriad reasons why clients choose both Freshwater and saltwater pearls.
Some serious questions to ask before you buy:
Choosing the perfect pearls is a balancing act between budget, pearl type and quality among other attributes like personal perceived value and aesthetics.
Saltwater pearls are viewed as the more sophisticated, luxury pearl jewelry ... If your heart is set on a “Mikimoto pearl necklace”, then your best bet is sticking solely with saltwater Akoya jewelry, particularly Hanadama pearls.
On the other hand, if you’re on the hunt for something more “casual”, pearls that look good for every day wear or if you’re concerned that the pearls won’t be well cared for, then Freshwater pearls might be your best bet.
The durability of these cultured pearls and lower prices make these a perfect choice for jewelry shoppers looking to make a “first pearls” or similar purchase without breaking your budget.
I hope this information has helped you make a hard decision easier! If you still have more questions about choosing saltwater or Freshwater pearl jewelry, don't hesitate to contact us anytime at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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