What Are The Different Types of Pearls? A Complete Guide

A string of pearls is a timeless accessory that elevates any look to Audrey Hepburn status. But did you know that there are different types of pearls? You might already know that pearls come from tiny water creatures, so how can there by different varieties? Well, as you know, the ocean spans the earth, and a variety of seas and rivers supply pearls.

For example, can you spot the difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls? If you can’t, you’re not alone! Many people look at pearls as an organic gemstone used for jewelry. While that is true, the world of pearls is as vast as the ocean itself. Ready to open the shell on all the different types of pearls in the world? Let’s dive right in!

What Are Pearls?

In Sandro Botticelli’s iconic painting, The Birth of Venus, the Roman goddess floats toward the shoreline on a giant scallop shell. The painting depicts Venus as pure as a pearl. Unlike the painting, real scallops and mollusks harbor actual pearls.

There are two main types of pearl categories: cultured and natural.

Natural Pearls

How can something so beautiful grow within a mollusk shell? Like many other organics and gemstones, pearls are a product of nature’s magnificent creativity. When irritants like sand drift inside of a mollusk shell, the creature secretes layers of nacre around the irritant. As the layers compound over the course of years, a beautiful pearl takes shape. The incredible phenomenon of natural pearls is rare, making them a high-value investment.

Most natural pearls come from the Persian Gulf, but the supply has all been harvested. Natural pearls are very rare and expensive because there is such a limited supply. What’s the alternative?

Cultured Pearls

Unlike natural pearls, cultured pearls grow from a farming or harvesting process. Farmers raise the animals in conditions meant to emulate the natural environment for mollusks. Instead of irritants naturally entering the creature, farmers insert them and let the animal build the pearl naturally. As you might imagine, farmed or harvested pearls are more readily available and thus, more affordable.

Natural Vs. Cultured Pearls: Which is Better?

Distinguishing between natural and cultured pearls is nearly impossible as they both look the same. However, the origin and process of growth heavily influence the price of each pearl. Natural pearls are highly desired for being jewels from nature, while cultured pearls are a great option for those looking for pearls at an affordable price point.

types of pearls

Types of pearls: Saltwater Vs. Freshwater

We can further divide the types of pearls into bodies of water: freshwater and saltwater. As you can deduce, saltwater pearls come from the ocean. You might be surprised to learn that mollusks can live in bodies of water like rivers and lakes, but it’s true.

Saltwater Pearls

The most popular pearls are saltwater, and hail from oceans in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Tahiti. Saltwater pearls grow inside of oysters in the ocean, and the process takes a long time. Good things come to those who wait, and in this case, it’s in the form of high luster and shine. Saltwater pearls are considered higher quality than freshwater pearls, but of course, quality comes at a cost. Still, saltwater pearls are an investment into the highest quality pearls available, including the following types.

Akoya Pearls

Hailing from the Pinctada Fucata Martensii Oyster that lives in the saltwaters of China and Japan, Akoya pearls are cultured and typically around 2mm in size. Shimmering in radiant cream or white with overtones of silver and pink, these small pearls are a widely distributed pearl from the brand Mikimoto. These pearls often have a hefty price tag, however, quality has lowered since the sourcing moved to China.

Blue Pearls

Blue pearls grow in the Paua Mollusk, an Abalone sea creature that grows pearls in a range of blue shades. You’ll also find blue pearls available in colors like gold and red, as the light that reaches the pearl influences its coloring.

South Sea Pearls

These large pearls come from Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines. Ranging in size from 9-20mm, you won’t find larger pearls than these cream, white or golden-hued variety born within the Pinktada Maxima oyster.

Tahitian Pearls

If the name isn’t enough to make you fall in love with Tahitian pearls, the unique coloring and high-quality will. Tahitian pearls come from the Pinctada Margaritifera, or “Black Lip Oyster,” and are considered the most beautiful pearl available. Spanning the spectrum of grey to deep black, Tahitian pearls reflect rainbow colors from peacock to silver-white. Despite this flash of exuberant coloring, Tahitian pearls are entirely natural and unprocessed, making them a hot commodity.

tahitian pearl

Freshwater Pearls

You won’t find many affordable saltwater pearls, which is why many people choose freshwater pearls. While freshwater pearls might not shine as brightly as saltwater pearls, they are still gorgeous specimens. Freshwater pearls grow inside of mollusks that line the rivers and lakes of the United States, Japan, Australia, China, and India. An advantage of freshwater pearls is that they grow much quicker than saltwater pearls. Can you guess what that means? These pearls are widely available and abundant, making them an affordable option for buyers. Sure, they are smaller and less lustrous, but they are still beautiful pearls you can grab for a bargain.

Adorable little sea creatures also make their way to the rivers, lakes and freshwater ponds inland. Most freshwater pearls come from China, and look similar to the saltwater pearl, Akoya. Let’s have a look at the two types of freshwater pearls.

Keshi Pearls

The most diverse pearl is the Keshi pearl, which comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Keshi pearls are byproducts of the process of harvesting pearl seeds into oysters. The result is tiny pearls in exotic shapes and colors hailing from Tahiti and the South Sea.

Mabe Pearls

A unique quality specific to Mabe pearls is their flat side. Instead of being completely spherical, like other types of pearls, Mabe pearls are irregularly shaped and called “half pearls.” This is due to the growth process. Instead of growing inside of the mollusk, the Mabe pearl grows inside of the creature’s shell. Mabe pearls come in a variety of vivid colors and often have swirls of pink and gold.

Who Doesn’t Love Pearls?

Pearls signify tranquility, wisdom, and purity. Regardless of origin or category, each one of the types of pearls listed in this article is beloved for the attributes that make it unique. Jackie Kennedy said “Pearls are always appropriate,” and we couldn’t agree more!




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