I get a lot of questions about Akoya pearls, so I thought I’d put together a blog post regarding these gorgeous gems to try and explain a few basics to make purchasing these pearls (especially online!) a bit easier for everyone!
General Information, and a Little History
The term ‘saltwater cultured pearl’ used to be used exclusively for Japanese Akoya pearls, as those were the only cultured pearls available for pearl lovers around the world. Mikimoto Pearl Jewelry was the ‘go-to’ place to purchase a classic white pearl necklace, as they specialized in fine Akoya pearl jewelry. The founder, Kokichi Mikimoto, is widely credited with bringing cultured Akoya pearls to the world, and is known as the “Father” of the cultured pearl industry.
The “Father” of cultured pearls, Kokichi Mikimoto
These days, Mikimoto no longer cultures their own Akoya pearls- they sold their farm and focus solely on high-end retail and designer jewelry, and the term “saltwater cultured pearl” can mean just about anything from Akoya to cultured black Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia to White South Sea pearls from Australia- there’s a myriad of choices out there for the modern pearl shopper to consider!
Where Do Akoya Pearls Come From?
Akoya pearls are the small, round and white cultured saltwater pearls that come from Japan, China and most recently, Vietnam. They are cultivated in the Akoya pearl oyster, Pinctada fucata martensii. This is the smallest of the saltwater pearl oysters and only grows to about 6-inches at maturity.
Cultured Akoya pearls come from the Pinctada fucata martensii pearl oyster which is farmed in Japan, China and recently Vietnam.
The best Akoya pearls originate in Japan; the Japanese farmers traditionally focus on the larger sizes, about 7.5mm and up, and allow their pearls to accumulate thicker nacre which gives the pearls a more lustrous appearance. Because we only like to offer the very best Akoya pearls available, we make a point to source only Japanese Akoya pearls whenever possible.
Akoya Pearl Sizes
One of the smaller cultured pearl types, the Akoya range in size from about 3.0-9.5mm, with average sizes starting at 6.0-6.5mm up to 9.0-9.5mm. Rarely these pearls attain sizes of 9.5-10.0mm, but they are very hard to find, and very expensive!
The most popular and versatile sizes are the 7.0-7.5mm through 8.0-8.5mm; these pearl sizes are perfect for classic stud earrings and necklaces. The smallest 6.0-6.5mm sizes are ideal for very petite ladies or young girls under 16 receiving their ‘first pearls’ to wear for special occasions.
What are Overtones?
Traditionally known as the “White Pearl”, Akoya pearls have both a main body color and an overtone, or tint of color that shades the pearl a faint pinkish, creamy or silvery hue. The body color of these pearls will traditionally be white, although recently, natural shades of Silvery Sky-Blue are also available, and we can’t forget the color-treated black Akoya which exhibit a distinct blackish-Midnight Blue color.
The traditional Akoya pearl overtones are Silver, Rose and Cream. Each one is beautiful and has something to recommend it!
Black Akoya pearls are color-treated and display a distinctive Blackish Midnight Blue or Greenish Blue hue.
Choosing the right overtone is a fairly easy decision once you know how the colors complement or contrast with various skin tones. Check out the photos and descriptions below for tips on picking the right pearl overtone for you!
Rose overtones look lovely on women with fair or pale complexions and light blonde or light brunette hair- the pink hues warm up against her skin and positively sparkle! This overtone warms up nicely when paired with traditional yellow gold clasps or other mountings!
Silver is by far the most popular overtone, simply because it is closest to a ‘true’ white- the subtle blue and green hues naturally present in the pearl cool down its overall appearance, enhancing the whiteness of the pearl. This overtone is highly recommended for women with tan, olive or brown skin tones and hair, as the pearls will contrast with her darker complexion making the gems seem whiter, brighter and larger. Choose white gold clasps and findings to keep the overall tone of these pearls ‘cool’.
Cream is my personal favorite, which adds a touch of French Vanilla to the pearl’s appearance and looks universally beautiful on just about everybody. Cream is highly recommended for redheads, those of us with pink or reddish undertones in their skin and older women with grey and silver hair. The very best Cream overtones will feature flashes of Rose and Violet iridescence, lending these pearls a depth and beauty that is unmistakably gorgeous! Classic yellow gold clasps and mountings will enhance these pearls’ sparkle and warmth!
What is Luster?
Of all the value factors for pearls, luster is what makes or breaks the pearl, and is commonly acknowledged as what gives the most value to a pearl, all other factors being equal. Luster can be described as the pearl’s ‘shininess’ i.e. how well the pearl reflects light.
The top pearls in the picture above exhibit 'Excellent' luster - notice how reflected light sources are very crisp and defined? The lower strand features 'Low' pearl luster that is what we’d call ‘satiny’; reflected light sources are blurred and not very well defined around the edges. Notice that you can see me taking the picture in the top strand - hi, there!!
What are the Differences in Pearl Quality?
The primary difference between our AA+ Quality and AAA Quality Akoya pearls is one of luster, as this pearl type is known for being perfectly round in shape and blemishing takes up a minimal amount of space on each pearl's surface.
Our AAA Quality Akoya pearls will all feature Excellent, sharply defined luster and our AA+ Quality Akoya pearls also exhibit Very High Luster, but you may notice some slight blurring on the edges. You should be able to see most of your face reflected in the surface of the pearls for both pearl qualities.
To learn more about the A-AAA Akoya pearl grading scale, you can visit our Pearl Education Section.
We only carry the top 10% of each yearly Akoya pearl harvest, so you’ll only find AA+, AAA and Hanadama quality pearls on our site. The differences between our AA+ and AAA quality Akoya pearls are subtle, and are really only noticeable when you have both qualities together for a side-by-side comparison. The recent photo above (05/2014) has not been enhanced in any way.
What are Hanadama Akoya?
We also offer Japanese Hanadama Akoya pearls which are simply put, the very best Akoya pearls available. These pearls are a step above the normal AAA grade due to their measurably thicker nacre layers and more intense luster.
A beautiful example of Hanadama Akoya pearls with bright Rose overtones. Yes, please!
This close-up of one of our Hanadama Akoya pearl necklaces illustrates their intense luster and beautiful surface quality. These photos have not been enhanced in any way.
The pearls have been sent to the Pearl Science Laboratory of Tokyo, Japan to be evaluated and certified. If the pearls qualify, they will be issued an individually numbered Hanadama Gemological Certificate which details nacre thickness, teri-value, rate of luster and iridescence or the measure of color-play on the surface of the pearls.
Hanadama certificates are issued for Akoya pearl necklaces and matched pairs of loose pearls for earrings. Due to the exploding popularity of the Hanadama title, counterfeit certificates have been surfacing on the internet. Certifying Hanadama pearls is an expensive process, so beware of sellers issuing certificates for “off” lengths like 24-inches, 32-inches, single pearls etc., this could be a red flag that the certificate may be a fake.
So, what are your best options?
Akoya pearls are considered universally to be "The Classic White Pearl", so some of the best gift ideas are almost always the jewelry basics- timeless pearl stud earrings or a princess-length white Akoya pearl necklace will never go out of style! You can check out our most popular Akoya pearl gift ideas for inspiration, or go straight to the good stuff below!
Classic White Akoya pearl stud earrings are always a beautiful and elegant choice.
Absolutely stunning, the classic 18-inch Akoya pearl necklace will never, ever go out of style and is guaranteed to put a smile on her face!
Of course, if you have any custom design ideas, or have additional questions I am always happy to help, so feel free to send me an email at Ashley@purepearls.com. I hope this small tutorial helps in your quest for the perfect pearls!
Happy Pearl Hunting!!