Pearl Types: the Insider's Guide to Cultured Pearls

Learning About Cultured Pearl Types

Cultured pearls come in 5 main varieties: Akoya, Tahitian, Freshwater, White and Golden South Seas and Sea of Cortez pearls. Each type of pearl has its own unique beauty to offer today’s pearl lovers.

This short, visuals-rich overview will provide you with the “Quick-Start” info you need to make an informed decision about which pearl type you’d like to buy.

Akoya Pearls

Perfectly round in shape, white and shining with bright, mirror-like luster, cultured saltwater Akoya pearls are The Classic White Pearl  that every woman wants to have in her jewelry box.

Cultured Japanese Akoya Pearls on Blue Silk - Glamour Shot

Farming for Cultured Akoya Pearls Are Map

Cultured Akoya pearls are grown in the Pinctada fucata martensii saltwater oyster, native to the colder waters of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan, and abutting southern China and Vietnam, as shown in the map above.

Akoya Pearl Fast Facts:

  • ORIGIN:  Akoya pearls are cultured in Japan, China and Vietnam. Japan is the acknowledged leader in Akoya pearl production – known to produce the best, most consistently beautiful Akoya pearls in the world.
  • SIZES:  Akoya pearls range in size from 2.0-3.0mm up through 9.0-9.5mm, and very rarely, 9.5-10.0mm.
  • COLORS:  Traditional Akoya pearl colors are most famously white, but also include natural Silvery-Blue and even Golden hues.
  • COMMON TREATMENTS:  Dyed black Akoya pearls are also very common, and feature a very distinct Midnight Blue-Black color.
  • SHAPES:  The most valuable and traditional Akoya pearl shape is a true, perfect Round, but free form Baroque shapes are also available.
  • PRICE RANGE:  Prices range from $75 to the high thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls.
  • GOOD TO KNOW:  The BEST Akoya pearls are known as “Hanadama” Akoya which in Japanese means “Flower Pearls”.


Learn More About Akoya Pearls
The Ultimate Akoya Pearl Grading Guide
The Insider's Guide to Hanadama Akoya

Freshwater Pearls

Cultured Freshwater pearls from China present a rainbow of beautiful natural colors, and an incredible variety of sizes and unique shapes that range from free form baroques to perfect rounds.

Cultured Freshwater Pearls on Grey Silk - Glamour

Major Freshwater Pearl Farming Areas Map

Less expensive than saltwater cultured pearl types like Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea pearls, Freshwater pearls are farmed in natural and man-made freshwater lakes and ponds in China.

Grown in the Hyriopsis cumingii  “Triangle shell” Freshwater pearl mussel, the yearly Freshwater pearl harvests dwarf that of saltwater cultured pearls many times over by volume.

Freshwater Pearl Fast Facts:

  • ORIGIN:  99.99% of all cultured Freshwater pearls are farmed in China’s Freshwater lakes and man-made aquaculture farms.
  • SIZES:  Freshwater pearls range in size from 2.0-3.0mm up through 11.0-12.0mm, with new experimental varities attaining sizes of 14.0-15.0mm!
  • COLORS:  The Freshwater pearl mussel produces a variety of natural colors, most typically pastel shades of pink, peach, lavender and white.
  • COMMON TREATMENTS:  Dyed black Freshwater pearls are commonly referred to as Peacock due to their highly iridescent blue-green and violet hues. Other dyed Freshwater pearl colors include red, gold, green, purple, blue and pink.
  • SHAPES:  The most valuable Freshwater pearl shape is as close to a true round as possible, but symmetrical and free form Baroque shapes are also widely available.
  • PRICE RANGE:  Prices range from $30 to the high thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls.
  • GOOD TO KNOW:   MOST cultured Freshwater pearls are “tissue-nucleated” meaning that a small, 1.0mm square piece of donor mantle tissue is used as the nuclei to begin pearl cultivation inside the mussel. As the pearl grows, the donor tissue degrades, leaving a pearl that is nearly 100% solid crystalline nacre. This means that Freshwater pearls are VERY durable!


Learn More About Freshwater Pearls
The Ultimate Freshwater Pearl Grading Guide

Tahitian Pearls

Cultured Tahitian pearls are the most famous and prevalent naturally Black cultured saltwater pearls in the world.

Main, primary body colors range from pale Dove Grey to very Dark Charcoal Grey (and rarely, a near true, jet black color), and the pearls shimmer with gorgeous, iridescent overtones (secondary colors) of Peacock, Green, Blue-Green, Silver/Steel, Cherry and more.

Black Tahitian Pearls Shimmer with Natural Peacock Overtones and are from French Polynesia

Cultured Tahitian Pearl Farming is Spread Over a Wide Area in the South Pacific Ocean

Tahitian pearls are farmed in the tropical atolls and saltwater lagoons of the islands in French Polynesia. Grown in the Pinctada margaritifera saltwater pearl oyster, which can attain sizes of up to a foot in diameter, Tahitian pearls are one of the largest cultured pearl types in the world.

Tahitian Pearl Fast Facts:

  • ORIGIN:  Tahitian pearls are farmed on small pearl farm collectives throughout the French Polynesian Islands.
  • SIZES:  Tahitian pearls range in size from 8.0-9.0mm up through 15.0-16.0mm, with the average sizes ranging from 9.0-10.0mm through 12.0-13.0mm. Sizes over 15.0mm are RARE, and very expensive.
  • COLORS:  The Tahitian pearl oyster, pinctada margaritifera, also known as the “Black Lip” oyster produces a variety of naturally colored black pearls, most typically shades of pastel Dove Greys to darker Charcoal Greys. Their more famous colors like Peacock, Green, Aubergine, etc., are called Overtones and are an iridescent, secondary color that appears to shimmer over the main grey body colors.
  • COMMON TREATMENTS:  Black Tahitian pearls are 99% of the time naturally colored with no treatments of any kind other than a gentle washing and buffing after harvest.
  • SHAPES:  Perfectly round Tahitian pearls are the most valued and rare. Free-form baroque, circled baroque and smooth baroque shapes that are symmetrical comprise the vast majority of shapes in each yearly pearl harvest.
  • PRICE RANGE:  Prices range from $80 to the high thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls.
  • GOOD TO KNOW:  Cultured Tahitian pearls MUST have a 0.8mm MINIMUM nacre thickness in order to qualify for export from Tahiti to the larger pearl jewelry market.


Learn More About Tahitian Pearls
The Ultimate Tahitian Pearl Grading Guide

South Sea Pearls

White and Golden South Sea pearls are the largest and most luxurious of all cultured pearl types on the market today.

Often called the “Queen of Pearls”, South Sea pearls feature a gorgeous palette of natural Golden and White colors that shimmer with delicate overtones and are simply unmistakable.

White and Golden South Sea Pearls are the Largest and Most Luxurious of All Pearl Types

South Sea pearl farming takes place in the tropical Philippine Islands and the Northern coast of Australia

South Sea pearls are farmed in the Pinctada maxima saltwater oyster, which grows up to a foot in diameter at maturity. It is the largest pearl producing oyster in production today.

In order to maintain the genetic diversity of the oyster population, ONLY wild oysters are bred to create farm stock, and then released back to the oceans.

South Sea Pearl Fast Facts:

  • ORIGIN:  The Silver-lipped P. maxima oyster produces the White South Sea pearl, and is mainly farmed along the Northern coast of Australia. The Gold-lipped P. maxima oyster which produces Golden South Sea pearls is mostly farmed in the Philippine Islands.
  • SIZES:  South Sea pearls are generally the largest cultured pearl type. Ranging in size from 8.0-9.0mm up through 20.0mm, with the average sizes ranging from 9.0-10.0mm through 14.0-15.0mm. Sizes over 15.0mm are RARE, and very expensive.
  • COLORS:  The South Sea pearl oyster, Pinctada can be either “Silver-lipped” or “Gold-lipped” varieties, and produces natural shades of White and Gold respectively.
  • COMMON TREATMENTS:  99% of all South Sea pearls undergo NO treatment of any kind other than a gentle washing and buffing after harvest.
  • SHAPES:  South Sea pearls that are perfectly round are the most valuable and rare. Free form baroque, circled baroque and smooth baroque shapes that are symmetrical comprise the vast majority of shapes in each yearly pearl harvest.
  • PRICE RANGE:  Prices range from $200 to the tens of thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls.
  • GOOD TO KNOW:  Cultured South Sea pearls have the thickest nacre layers of all saltwater cultured pearl types, averaging around 2.0-4.0mm thick around the pearl’s bead nucleus. These extremely thick nacre layers are responsible for the South Sea pearl’s trademark “satiny” luster that imparts a subtle glow (rather than the “hard shine” of the Japanese Akoya, for example).

 

Learn More About South Sea Pearls
The Ultimate South Sea Pearl Grading Guide

Sea of Cortez Pearls

Cultured pearls from the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) in Guyamas, Mexico are THE RAREST cultured pearls in the entire world.

These pearls are also the only other naturally-colored “black” cultured pearl type besides Tahitians available on the jewelry market today.

Cultured Sea of Cortez Pearls are the Rarest Cultured Pearls in the World

The Cortez pearls are farmed at a single location in the Gulf of Mexico

Farmed on only a single pearl farm operating out of Guyamas, Mexico, Sea of Cortez pearls are incredibly colorful pearls … more intense in hue and overtone than Tahitian pearls, and with a distinct palette of “traditional” Sea of Cortez colors that sets them apart from any other cultured pearl type in the world.

Sea of Cortez Pearl Fast Facts:

  • ORIGIN:  Sea of Cortez pearls are cultured on only ONE farm in the entire world: The Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl farm in Guyamas, Mexico. The farm produces less than 4,000 cultured pearls each year including whole pearls and mabé pearls.
  • SIZES:  Size ranges from 8.0-9.0mm up through 11.0-12.0mm, with larger pearls being VERY RARE.
  • COLORS:  The Sea of Cortez pearl oyster, Pteria penguin is also called the “Rainbow Lip” oyster, which gives you a clue as to the wide range of colors this mollusk can produce. Blue-Green, Green, Pistachio, Mauve, Aubergine, Copper, Lime and Rose are just a FEW of the gorgeous hues these pearls present.
  • COMMON TREATMENTS:  NONE. Ever. These pearls are gently washed and scrubbed to remove harvest tissue, and then tumbled in waxed bamboo chips to enhance shine, but that’s it.
  • SHAPES:  Round pearls are the rarest shape for Sea of Cortez, comprising a tiny fraction of each yearly harvest. Much more common are symmetrical baroques, and then smooth drop shapes.
  • PRICE RANGE:  Prices range from $200 to the tens of thousands, depending on the jewelry type, size and quality of the pearls.
  • GOOD TO KNOW:  Sea of Cortez cultured pearls are the ONLY cultured pearl type in the entire world that will fluoresce under UV lighting. It is Mother Nature’s built-in ID system.


Learn More About Sea of Cortez Pearls
An Interview with Douglas McLaurin, Creator of Sea of Cortez Pearls