Japanese Akoya vs Chinese Freshwater Pearls
Compare and Contrast with a Pearl Expert!
So you’re looking for “white pearls” that look nice and you found a great deal on a Japanese Akoya Pearl Necklace, BUT then you found a comparable White Freshwater Pearl Necklace for a few hundred dollars less aaaannnnnddddd you’re stuck.
I wrote this article to answer one of the Top 5 Frequently Asked Questions of All Time: Which white pearl type should I choose? Freshwater or Akoya?
Use the Table of Contents below to navigate this article by either reading each section consecutively, or just jump ahead to the parts that you have specific questions about.
Table of ContentsUse these links to navigate this article:
- Pearl Structure - Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls
- Pearl Shapes - Perfect Round vs Very Slightly Off to Off-Round
- Pearl Luster - "Ball Bearing" vs "Satin Glow"
- Pearl Inclusions - Commonly Observed Blemished by Pearl Type
- Pricing Issues: Why the Big Jump?
- Decision Time - An Expert's Thoughts
I’m going to let you cheat here, and answer your question RIGHT NOW, then break down the Why’s and How’s throughout the article in more detail. But for those of you that just want a short and sweet answer, here it is:Choose Freshwater Pearls If:
- You’re worried the pearls will be handled roughly and/or lost. The lower price points will make them relatively easy to replace, and these are HIGHLY recommended as “first pearls” gifts for young girls and ladies.
- Your budget is under $300 but you still want a pretty white pearl necklace – the White Freshwater pearls will hit all the right notes for a good price.
- Slight to moderate variation in pearl shape and a softer pearl glow doesn’t matter that much as long as the pearls give off the overall impression you want.
- You’re looking for an “every day” strand of pearls that can stand up to hot days, children’s sticky fingers, perfume spritzing, an office meeting and more.
- Only that high-end, classic “Mikimoto” style of pearl necklace will do.
- Perfectly round pearl shapes, and a Very High to Excellent pearl luster matter to you.
- Your budget is $350 and up to get the Classic White Pearl Necklace you really want.
- You’re looking for a very special keepsake strand of pearls that will be treasured and cared for well over the years, and possibly handed down to the next generation.
- The pearls are meant to be worn in “nicer” settings i.e., weddings, dinner parties, office meetings, church, holidays, family get-togethers, etc.
That’s pretty much it for the short and sweet side of things.
For the rest of us pearl nerds that want to know the reasons why that list is the way it is, keep reading!
Pearl Structure - Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls
Saltwater Akoya pearls are what we call “bead nucleated”. What this means is that a perfectly round nucleus composed of polished shell material is surgically inserted into the gonad of the host oyster in order to begin pearl formation. The spherical nucleus is also excellent for providing the oyster with a “template” of sorts that aids in the creation of perfectly Round pearls.
The Akoya pearl oyster is the smallest pearl-bearing saltwater oyster currently being used to create pearls today. It can only accommodate one or two bead nuclei at a time, and after the implantation surgery, the pearl is left to grow for a period of 18 months to two years ... the longer the better, as this allows the pearl to acquire thicker nacre layers.
This structure translates into some (pretty cool) things you should know:
- Originating in Japan, these bead-nucleated cultured pearls are infamous for being perfectly round in shape. We call them “Eight Way Rollers” in the Pearl Industry as these pearls will roll evenly in every direction when placed on a flat surface.
- Akoya pearls can feature incredibly sharp, and highly reflective Luster. Very fine Akoya are like looking into a convex mirror and display extremely detailed reflections – often you can see your face smiling back at you, along with other surrounding objects (like my camera, haha!).
- Due to their perfectly round shapes, cultured Akoya pearls have a reputation for near-perfect matching. Akoya pearl strands will feature little to no variation from pearl to pearl throughout any given layout.
- Akoya pearls should be properly cared for to keep their crystal looking bright and shiny. These pearls are sensitive to oils, perfumes, smoke, chlorine and other chemicals found in our environments. Wipe them down with a damp, soft cloth after every wear to remove residues.
Freshwater pearls from China are traditionally “tissue nucleated” meaning that tiny, 1.0mm square pieces of mantle tissue are harvested from a donor mussel, and are then inserted into small incisions made throughout the soft body of the host mussel. These pieces of donor tissue serve as nuclei that stimulate pearl sac formation, and eventually, form our beloved, colorful cultured Freshwater pearls.
Freshwater pearl mussels can be nucleated in this manner up to 25 times on each side of the shell, so a potential pearl harvest from even a single mussel absolutely dwarfs that of any other pearl type. This larger harvest volume accounts in part for their lower price points.
As the Freshwater mussel begins to create a pearl, it envelops the mantle tissue nucleus in a pearl sac and the donor tissue square slowly begins to degrade. This will continue throughout the 2-3 year formation period, until nothing remains in the core of the pearl … Basically, it creates a pearl made up of 100% solid crystalline nacre.
This means a few (cool) things you should know about:
- Freshwater pearls are the closest in pearl composition that you can get to a natural pearl formed on its own in the wild.
- Freshwater pearls are EXTREMELY durable, and if cared for properly, will retain the original color, luster and orient for decades to come.
- Freshwater pearls will feature a softer, more subtle glow than that of their saltwater cousins due to the way in which light reflects and refracts off the various layers of crystal.
- With no round inner “template” bead nucleus to work with, the Freshwater pearl mussel still does a pretty great job of producing smooth shapes that are often round to the eye.
Evolution in Freshwater grafting technology is producing larger and more perfectly round pearl shapes every year … Perfectly round Freshwater pearls with bead nucleus are literally just over the horizon, and due to the larger sizes the Freshwater pearl mussel is capable of producing, they will soon be contenders in the South Sea pearl market. It’s perhaps a decade or so away, but affordable, perfectly round Freshwater pearls are on their way!!
To see a great example of the evolving bead-nucleated Freshwater pearl, check out our totally smooth, 11.0-15.0mm Drop-Shaped Edison Pearls.
In my opinion, cultured Freshwater pearls are THE pearls to watch over the next few years in terms of innovation!
Pearl Shapes - Saltwater vs. Freshwater Pearls
The biggest MAJOR difference between the Freshwater and Akoya pearl type is … SHAPE.
Cultured Akoya pearls are known for being perfectly round … baroque Akoya are of course available, but they’re rare, and more of a collector’s item at this point in time. The vast majority of Akoya pearls you’ll run into in stores and online today are perfect rounds.
Freshwater pearls have a much, much larger variety of shapes, the most common and distinctive of them being either potato shapes, or off-round / oval shapes. The higher up in quality these pearls get, the rounder the pearl.Akoya Pearl Shapes
- AA+ Quality Akoya Pearl Shape: Perfect Round
- AAA Quality Akoya Pearl Shape: Perfect Round
- AA+ Quality Freshwater Pearl Shape: Visibly Off-Round to Oval and Egg Shapes, Moderate Variation in Matching Pearl to Pearl Throughout a Necklace Layout.
- AAA Quality Freshwater Pearl Shape: Slightly Off-Round to Near Round Shapes, Slight to Moderate Variation in Pearl Matching Throughout a Layout.
- Gem Quality Elite Collection Freshwater Pearl Shapes: Round to the Eye, Less than 3% Variance from True Round. Very Slight to Almost No Variation in Pearl Matching Throughout a Necklace Layout.
Let’s break this down even further into a comparison between pearl types and each grade: AA+ Quality, AAA Quality and Gem/Elite Collection.
Pearl Luster - Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls
This is another major area where the two pearl types differ … but that’s NOT a bad thing! I think there’s an idea that Freshwater pearls aren’t as “nice” as saltwater Akoya pearls. It can be kind of correct in that the Freshwater aren't as valued as the Akoya, and don't have the same attributes as what the Akoya are famous for, which is that “ball-bearing” shine and perfect roundness.
That said, there is a lovely, subtle “glow” that many Freshwater pearls display … I think it’s particularly visible in the AA+ Qualities and the Metallic Freshwater pearls. If the attribute of Shape isn’t the biggest deal in the world to you, then you may just be a Freshwater pearl lover!
Let’s go over the characteristics of Luster as seen in each pearl type, and we’ll examine some real-life comparison pictures to really bring it all home.Akoya Pearl Luster
Japanese Akoya pearls are gorgeous ... they're been popularized throughout the world as the classic white pearl, having been the first perfectly round cultured pearls introduced into the jewelry market in 1912 by Kokichi Mikimoto.
The ideal of that bright shine, and perfection of matching from pearl to pearl throughout their layouts has been enshrined in the modern public consciousness as what pearls "should" look like, and that's very hard to shake, especially for someone who doesn't have a working familiarity with all the various pearl types.
Their trademark Luster is often described as "Ball-Bearing" or "Mirror-Like" ... it is very bright, with a very high rate of Light Return on the surface of the pearl, and objects reflected in their surfaces are anywhere from fairly to incredibly detailed depending on the quality of the pearls.Freshwater Pearl Luster
Pure’s Elite Collection (and my Metallic pearls) have very fine Luster, but it's different than the bright, glossy shine of the Japanese Akoya ... this pearl type’s luster is subtler, more of a glow that appears to emanate from within the pearls themselves.
As discussed earlier in the article, this softer, more satiny shine is due to the pearl's structural composition, which is 100% solid crystalline material.
Light striking and penetrating the surface of the pearl has much farther to travel when returning to the viewer, breaking up and dispersing through millions of layers of crystalline platelets, and creating a visual phenomenon of depth and glow.
Because pictures are worth a thousand words, let’s take a look at a series of Akoya vs Freshwater Pearl Luster comparison images, broken down by pearl grade.
A quick note about Metallic Freshwater pearls ...
“Metallic” Freshwater pearls feature Luster that is VERY close to that of the Akoya pearl: Sharp, crisp, highly reflective and with a Very High rate of light return.. Metallic Freshwater pearls represent 1 in every 3,000 pearls harvested, and they’re chosen for their Luster, NOT their Shape. Consequently, many Metallic pearls feature AA+ Quality, Off-Round to Oval-ish pearl shape.
Blemishing - Freshwater vs. Akoya Pearls
Akoya and Freshwater pearls both have their own distinct blemishes (also known as inclusions). Below are some photos that illustrate the most common blemishes you’ll see on each pearl type. Note that pearl inclusions are HARD to photograph, so some smaller marks have been enlarged and sharpened to make them more visible for this article.
Both pearl type’s inclusions are generally:
- Very Small to Tiny in Size
- Visible Only Upon Close Inspection (6-Inches or Less)
- White or Colorless
- Do Not Impact the Durability of the Pearl
For these reasons, selecting a pearl necklace based on inclusion types would not be recommended, and is the very last thing I would personally consider on the list of attributes when deciding the two pearl types. That said, it’s still instructive to view the images so you know what to expect!
For Akoya pearls, you’ll mainly notice pin prick blemishes, lighter or darker areas of organic conchiolin build up visible just under the surface crystal, and small, white wrinkles in the surface nacre.
Freshwater Pearl Inclusions are mostly dull white "chalky spots" and subtle ridges in the pearl.
For a more detailed breakdown of each pearl type’s inclusions, I highly recommend reading these two articles:
The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Akoya Pearl Grading
The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Freshwater Pearl Grading
Pricing Issues - Freshwater vs. Akoya Pearls
A lot of us are stunned when you first encounter the rather large difference in pricing between saltwater Akoya and Freshwater pearls. It can range from $150 to thousands of dollars depending on the pearls in question.
This AAA Quality, 32-Inch, 8.0-8.5 Akoya Pearl Necklace retails for over $5,000.00 and was recently completed for a Custom Design customer. A comparable necklace created in our 8.5-9.0mm Gem Quality, Elite Collection Freshwater pearls would run around $1,800.00.
There are a couple of reasons for the pricing disparity when it comes to Freshwater versus Akoya pearl types. These are:
- Valued Pearl Attributes
- Pearliculture Techniques and Difficulty
Freshwater pearl mussels are nucleated up to 25 times on EACH SIDE of the shell. This means that each mussel has the potential to produce 50 pearls each at harvest time. Their growth time in the water is about 2-3 years on average, however the Freshwater pearl mussel is a hardy little guy, and readily creates pearls.
The Akoya pearl saltwater oyster, pinctada fucata martensii, by contrast is the smallest of all pearl-bearing mollusks, and can only be seeded with up to 2 nuclei at a time and optimally, with only a single bead nucleus to produce finer pearls.
This simple biological difference between the two mollusks creates a HUGE difference in yearly pearl harvest volume, making saltwater Akoya pearls the rarer of the two, thus more expensive.
Recent production figures peg the Akoya pearl harvest from Japan at around 25 tons annually.
The Chinese Freshwater pearl figure is around 1,000 tons annually.
This simple harvest estimate makes fine Akoya pearls thousands of times rarer than any Freshwater pearl on the market today. The mind boggles.Valuable Pearl Attributes
The Japanese Akoya pearl is known the world-over to be THE Classic White Pearl Necklace. The pearls will meet everyone’s expectations for fine Surface Quality, Pearl Shape, Luster and Pearl Matching.
I find the majority of my customers agree that the Akoya pearl just has that “certain something” … that the pearls have a more elegant presentation overall.
Because Akoya pearls have become The Standard when it comes to the classic white pearl necklace, and meet the higher quality standards for pearls (particularly in the Luster and Shape category), they are more highly valued by consumers and the Professional Jewelry market. This means they are able to command a premium price over the softer luster, off-round and slightly off-round Freshwater pearls (in combination with the rarity factor!).
Pearliculture Techniques and Difficulty
This ties into the Rarity factor as well. The difficulty involved in nucleating a batch of saltwater Akoya pearls is very high. The Akoya oysters are sensitive little guys, and must be treated oh-so gently to prevent them from either rejecting the bead nucleus or dying outright after the grafting procedure.
Basically, what I’m saying here is that there’s a LOT more blood, sweat and tears that go into the creation of even just a single Akoya pearl over their Freshwater cousins. The oysters must be placed into a protected ocean area, but still – storms, temperature and Ph fluctuations, red tide, wild animals, run off and other dangers are always lurking, and can kill off an entire year’s worth of nucleated oysters instantly. The risk is high for everyone – oysters, farmers, processors and auctions. Higher risk = higher price.
With Freshwater pearls, the only nucleus needed is a 1.0mm square piece of donor mantle tissue, inserted into the soft body of the mussel, so it’s an easier process (again, with a LOT more insertions equaling a higher amount of pearls per harvest). The man-made lakes and ponds used to culture the pearls are less subject to Ph balance disruptions, temperature fluctuations, algae blooms and pollution run off from the coast. Overall, it is a less risky proposition to produce Freshwater pearls (although please note that I’m NOT saying it’s NO risk – Nature is wild and unpredictable no matter how hard we try to control conditions anywhere). But again, less risk = lower pricing.
However, the continuing evolution of bead-nucleation grafting technology using Freshwater pearl mussels is creating an entirely new category of Freshwater pearls, with higher pricing. The successes have brought new, never seen before Freshwater pearls with outrageous colors, South Sea pearl sizes and still rarely but more often than you'd expect: smooth, perfectly round pearls.
The higher prices are due to the scarcity of jewelry grade pearls using these new techniques, however, as production ramps up and more pearls are released onto the market, these incredible pearls’ prices will surely even out so that everyone can enjoy them at mid-level market prices.
Which pearl type you choose is a balancing act between Price, Luster and Shape among other factors like perceived value and personal aesthetics.
Saltwater Akoya pearls are the higher-end, more elegant choice for pearl lovers. If these pearls will be well-cared for, worn at special events and are going to be a keepsake that’s possibly handed down to the next generation, then I recommend the Akoya.
Additionally, the Akoya will have that “Mikimoto” pearl look and feel; mirror-like luster and perfectly round pearls expertly matched throughout an entire layout or suite is definitely a special treasure that are worth the higher price points.
As mentioned at the very beginning of this article, Freshwater pearls are - for the most part- the more “casual” pearl choice, with lower price points (often about ¼ to ½ the price of their saltwater counterpoints), higher durability and more variation in shape, and a softer, more satiny luster.
I usually recommend choosing a Freshwater pearl necklace for those of us on a lower budget but want that “classic” pearl necklace look without breaking the bank, OR who want to give a special “first pearls” gift to that special someone and not worry too much about the gems being mis-handled by younger wearers.
I hope this article has helped make your decision an easier one to make! Remember, you can ALWAYS email me directly with additional questions, concerns and design ideas at: Ashley@purepearls.com
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!