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Freshwater Pearl Grading Guide

Freshwater Pearl Grading
The world of Freshwater pearls is the fastest evolving of all cultured pearl types. New shapes, colors, sizes and textures are being introduced at breakneck speeds, with new varieties making debuts yearly at the international pearl shows.

This guide to A-AAA Freshwater Pearl Grading is going to deal primarily with the classic near round to round white Freshwater pearl, which is the most popular of all Freshwater pearl varieties available today. Read the whole article, or use the links featured in the Table of Contents to skip ahead directly to parts that concern you.

Why Choose Freshwater Pearls?

Freshwater Pearl Glamour Shot

Freshwater pearls are unique in that they are the ONLY tissue-nucleated cultured pearl in the world. Why is this an awesome, wonderful thing? A few reasons (to start!):

  1. It creates a pearl composed of solid crystalline nacre, the closest you can get to the way a natural pearl is formed in the wild.
  2. It creates an incredibly durable pearl that will withstand the tests of time, wear and tiny hands.
  3. Rather than a glossy shine, a Freshwater pearl possesses an elegant glow that slowly reveals itself under the steady gaze of the wearer: Silky, touchable and radiant, fine AAA Quality Freshwater pearls can look just as beautiful as any saltwater pearl.
  4. Their natural shades of Pink/Peach, Lavender and White are untreated by any chemical or dye process, and will never discolor or fade if cared for properly. New, intense colors and metallic overtones are becoming available, making cultured Freshwater pearls one of the most colorful pearl types on the market today!

Creation of a Freshwater Pearl

Cultured Freshwater pearls are grown in the freshwater pearl mussel, Hyriopsis cumingii (along with other hybridized mussels indigenous to the area) in freshwater lakes and man-made aquaculture ponds that also contain fish, shellfish and rice to support the small pearl farmer collectives in China.

The Freshwater pearl mussels are nucleated with 1.0mm squares of donor mantle tissue within the body of the mussel.

Freshwater Pearl Harvest China

Pearl sacs form around each square of donor mantle tissue, and the mussel begins to secrete nacre, covering the irritant with concentric layers of semi-transparent aragonite crystalline platelets and conchiolin, which is the organic “glue” binding the layers together. Inside the newly forming pearl, the square of mantle tissue at the center begins to deteriorate, leaving a pearl that is composed of solid crystalline material.

Cross Section FW Nacre Layer Breakdown

The tissue squares are seeded throughout the soft body of the mussel, up to 25 times on each side of the shell, creating a potential harvest of up to 50 pearls per mussel. The sheer volume of cultured Freshwater pearls dwarfs that of other cultured pearl types many times over each year, contributing to their lower price points.

Shape is Key

Freshwater Pearls Harvest Shape

Solid-nacre pearls have no mother of pearl bead nucleus to give the mussel a perfectly round ‘template’ to form nacre over, so the majority of Freshwater pearl harvests contain semi-baroque and baroque pearls (see the image above for an example of the variety of shapes, sizes and colors a single mussel can produce!).

True round-shaped Freshwater pearls, while a major goal of pearl farmers everywhere, remain a tiny percentage of each yearly harvest – less than 3% - and are a MAJOR factor in determining a pearl’s overall quality grade.

A-AAA Quality Freshwater Pearl Grading Breakdowns

Grading Slice Elite Gem Freshwater

  • Represents the top .03% of yearly pearl harvests
  • Very near true round shape; Less than 5% deviance from spherical shape.
  • Excellent luster; very sharp with high rate of reflection.
  • Reflected light shows mostly crisp, distinctive edges.
  • Excellent luster; very sharp with high rate of reflection.
  • Blemish rate between 0-5% on each pearl surface.
  • Earrings will set clean.
  • Strands will be clean to the eye upon inspection.
  • Near-perfect matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

Grading Slice AAA Quality Freshwater Pearls

  • Represents the top 1% of yearly pearl harvests
  • Mostly round to the eye upon close inspection.
  • Excellent luster; sharp with high rate of reflection.
  • Reflected light is fairly crisp, some satining near edges.
  • Blemish rate less than 5% on each pearl surface.
  • Earrings are round shape, and will set clean.
  • Strands will be clean to the eye upon inspection.
  • Near-perfect matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

Grading Slice AA+ Quality Freshwater Pearls

  • Represents the top 5% of yearly pearl harvests
  • Slightly off-round to ovalish in shape.
  • Very high luster; fair rate of reflection.
  • Reflected light is bright with some blurred edges.
  • Blemish rate less than 5-10% on each pearl surface.
  • Earrings are button-shape, and will face up clean.
  • Strands will be mostly clean to the eye upon inspection.
  • Very good matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

Grading Slice AA Quality Freshwater Pearls

  • Represents the top 10% of yearly pearl harvests.
  • Visibly off-round.
  • Good to fair luster; medium rate of reflection.
  • Reflected light sources display blurred edges.
  • Blemish rate less than 20% on each pearl surface.
  • Earrings are button-shape, may feature an inclusion.
  • Strands will display spotting and blemishing.
  • Good to fair matching; may find variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

Grading A Quality Freshwater Pearls

  • Commercial grade pearls.
  • Visibly off-round.
  • Fair to poor luster; low rate of reflection.
  • Reflected light sources are blurry.
  • Blemish rate less than 50% on each pearl surface.
  • Strands will display spotting and blemishing.
  • Fair matching; will find variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

AA+ vs AAA Quality Pearls - Which Should You Choose?

The primary difference between the AA+ Quality and AAA Quality Freshwater pearl is one of SHAPE. It’s the most visible and easily quantified value attribute between the two qualities; the next two differences will be that of Luster and Surface Quality. To learn more about all the pearl value factors, visit: Pearl Grading Overview Page

Our AAA Quality pearls are going to have sharper, brighter luster and less blemishing- between 1-5% of the pearls' surfaces on the strand overall will feature some type of inclusion (usually chalky spots or thin ridges where organic material has accumulated) and most importantly, the shape will be round to the eye from a distance of 12-inches approximately, and up close inspection (less than 6-inches) will reveal nearly true-round pearl shapes, with a few slightly off-round pearls detectable.

Freshwater Pearl Share Mostly Round

Our AA+ Quality pearls will have luster that is nearly comparable just not quite as crisp and the blemish rate will be between 5-10%; the shape will be mostly eye-round from a distance of 1-3 feet, and upon close inspection (less than 6 inches), you’ll begin to notice a slight egg or oval-ish shape to some of the pearls, however this is not the case for all the pearls in the strand.

Freshwater Pearl Shape Off Rounds are Common

We also offer our Gem Quality, Elite Collection pearls, which are the cream of the crop in Freshwater pearls. Our Elite Collection pearls represent the top .03% of each yearly pearl harvest, and are culled from the regular necklace lots due to their near-perfection in shape, luster that looks almost as sharp and reflective as Akoya pearls, and near-flawless surfaces… these are my very favorite Freshwater pearls.

Freshwater Pearl Shapes True Rounds Are Rare

Typically these pearls are used for earrings, rings and pendants because their quality is so good, but we bid a little more to have them set aside and fully-drilled for us to make Freshwater pearl jewelry that is a bit above and beyond what you’ll normally see in brick and mortar jewelry stores.

Their blemish rate is less than 1-3% overall, luster will be very bright, with crisp, defined edges of reflected light in the pearls’ surfaces, and you should be able to make out some detailed facial features reflected in the surfaces as well. They are the best of the best that Freshwater pearls have to offer, at half the price of an equivalent Akoya pearl.

Shop Customer Favorites Freshwater CTA

White Freshwater Pearl Necklace, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$676.00
Your Price: $169.00
White Freshwater Pearl Rope 54-Inches, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$1,636.00
Your Price: $409.00
White Elite Collection Pearl Necklace, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$1,077.00
Your Price: $359.00

Common Freshwater Pearl Blemishes

Freshwater Blemishes Chalky Spots

Chalky spots are easily the most common of Freshwater pearl inclusions. They’re exactly what they sound like: dull, chalky-looking areas on the pearl surface.

Freshwater Blemishes Pit Inclusions

Pits or pitting blemishes are similar to pin-prick inclusions spotted on saltwater cultured pearls. They are circular indentations on the pearl’s surface. The majority of them are small-sized and won’t be too noticeable, but are generally larger than a single pin-prick. Thankfully, these inclusions are colorless and only noticeable upon up-close inspection of 6-inches or less.

Freshwater Blemishes Ridges on Pearls

Ridges are an inclusion that is unique to Freshwater pearls, quite likely due to their solid-nacre composition. Ridges are totally covered in nacre, so they’ll be whatever color the pearl is, i.e. white for white, pink for pink and so on.

Freshwater Blemishes Score Marks

Score marks or scoring begins with a small pin prick or pit, and then appears to be drawn off lightly over the surface of the pearl … they can look like small comets or shooting stars for those of us with a romantic viewpoint.

Freshwater Blemishes Dyed Black Pearls

For dyed pearls such as our Black Freshwater pearls, up close inspection of the surfaces will often reveal a slight graininess or tiny dark speckles where the dye has concentrated. This is a natural part of the color-treatment process, and does not affect the durability or overall loveliness of the pearls.

In Conclusion ...

You can think of pearl inclusions as a built-in certificate of authenticity – they’re a natural left over of the creation process. You’ll never see inclusions like this, or the subtle variations that make a pearl a true one of a kind with man-made synthetic beads!

The majority of Freshwater pearls’ inclusions will match the pearl’s natural color and/or are colorless, blending with the pearl surface making them nearly invisible to the casual observer. Keep in mind that A-AAA Freshwater pearl grading benchmarks count for the individual pearl, as well as the entire strand overall, so the 10% allowable blemish rate on even our lowest quality AA+ Freshwater pearl strand will still keep you squarely in a nice, high quality strand of pearls!

When choosing fine Freshwater pearls, the biggest, most important considerations to keep in mind are consistently of shape, and a fine, bright luster!

Shop Customer Favorites Freshwater CTA

White Freshwater Double Strand Pearl Necklace, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$1,596.00
Your Price: $399.00
Black Freshwater Pearl Necklace, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$676.00
Your Price: $169.00
Black Freshwater Pearl Rope 54-Inches, 7.0-8.0mm
Retail Price:$1,227.00
Your Price: $409.00

Ready to learn more about pearl grading? View the rest of our pearl grading guides:

Freshwater Grading Tahitian Grading South Sea Grading

About the Author

Ashley McNamara Pure Pearls CEO 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 me with any questions or issues – I am always happy to help!
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