Glossary: Freshwater Pearls
What Are Freshwater Pearls?
One of nature’s miracles, pearls are the only gemstone created by a living organism. Most people are familiar with ocean oysters which produce coveted pearls of varying colors and qualities. Many people are surprised to learn that you can also harvest freshwater pearls from the world’s rivers and lakes.
Saltwater Pearls vs. Freshwater Pearls
While essentially identical to traditional pearls in composition, freshwater pearls have some distinctive differences from their saltwater counterparts. The primary difference is the environment where they form. While freshwater pearls are found inside freshwater mussels, saltwater pearls only come from saltwater oysters that live in sea and ocean environments.
Another important difference is the market price. In most instances, saltwater pearls tend to be costlier than freshwater pearls because they are harder to find or cultivate. At the same time, freshwater pearls tend to be a little less durable than saltwater pearls, although it’s important to note that durability depends greatly on where you shop. Still, it’s generally best not to wear freshwater pearls when showering or swimming to promote a longer lifespan.
Usually smaller than saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls do come in a wider array of colors and shapes. They are also more affordable than saltwater pearls, making them a trendy choice for everyday jewelry.
Where Do Freshwater Pearls Come From?
Both saltwater and freshwater pearls come from creatures known as mollusks, which are organisms that have hard shells, soft bodies and no backbones. There are several different kinds of mollusks, but the primary pearl-producing groups are saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. Oysters live in the oceans and seas, while freshwater mussels are found in ponds, rivers and lakes.
Most of the world’s freshwater pearls come from Biwa-shelled Hyriopsis schlegeli and triangular-shelled Hyriopsis cumingi, which are commercially cultivated in China. They also come from bivalve mussels that live in Japanese creek bottoms, riverbeds and lakes. Some freshwater pearls also originate in the United States Mississippi River Basin, but China's pearl cultivation holds a dominant position in the worldwide freshwater pearl market.
To make freshwater pearls, every mussel undergoes a process called nucleation, where experts implant 24 to 32 small encapsulated tissues. Once the tissues are implanted, the mussel will naturally form a sac and begin secreting a substance called nacre, which is a lustrous calcium carbonate compound that forms the actual pearl. Over two to seven years, layer after layer of nacre will surround the gem, increasing its size. In most cases, each mussel will form more than 24 pearls within a single shell.
After harvesting, cultivators carefully sort through millions of pearls, matching them by color, size, shape and quality. Loose pearls are then available for sale individually and in temporary strands of matched pearls known as “hanks.”
Freshwater Pearl Colors
The primary colors of freshwater pearls include gray, cream and white, but there are also pastel hues, including orange, pink, lavender and yellow. Higher-quality pearls will sometimes have blue, green and pink accents, while lower-grade pearls will lack any desirable accent at all.
Black, mauve, cream and white are the most popular colors; however, unlike their saltwater counterparts, black freshwater pearls have to be artificially dyed. In all the world’s freshwater and saltwater bodies of water, only Tahitian pearls have a naturally occurring color, ranging from charcoal gray to plain black.
Freshwater Pearl Shapes
While most freshwater pearls have a spherical shape, only about one in 20 pearls are perfectly round. The rest are nearly round, baroque, semi-baroque and button-shaped. Years ago, only round pearls were used in jewelry. These days, however, more and more people are embracing the beauty of irregularly shaped pearls.
Freshwater Pearl Sizes
Average pearl sizes typically range from 8.0 mm to 16.0 mm. The most popular jewelry-grade pearl sizes fall between 8.0 mm and 13.0 mm, especially for Tahitian pearl rings, pendants and earrings. The size of a freshwater pearl will generally depend on the quality of the growing season. That said, in most cases, freshwater pearls will range in size from 2.0 mm all the way up to 15.0 mm, with sizes exceeding 10.0 mm quite rare.
Freshwater Pearl Jewelry
Timeless and endlessly versatile, this June birthstone brings beauty and sophistication to any look. Whatever the setting, there’s always a way to add a touch of elegance with the right piece of pearl jewelry.
Freshwater Pearl Necklace
A freshwater pearl necklace is a great way to honor milestones, such as anniversaries, graduations and the birth of a child.
Freshwater Pearl Earrings
True classics that stand the test of time, pearl studs pair easily with traditional jewelry staples, while pearl drop earrings add alluring luster to formal attire. Dangling vintage-inspired styles make romantic pearl gifts that beautifully complement white, yellow and rose gold engagement rings.
Freshwater Pearl Bracelet
Cultured freshwater pearl bracelets deliver a stylish splash of elegance to formal gowns, professional ensembles and smart yet relaxed attire.
Freshwater Pearl Drop Earrings
Lustrous pearl drop earrings look lovely with just about anything, from breezy summer dresses to elegant gowns. Traditional and versatile, real freshwater pearl earrings define elegance and style, adding a touch of class to dressy and casual occasions.
Freshwater Pearl Value
Freshwater pearls are the most abundant and affordable pearl variety on the market. While they can be made to look similar to Akoya pearls, freshwater pearls are up to 80% less expensive in some instances. This is due to several factors.
For one, saltwater pearls are more likely to have perfectly round shapes and range from four to ten mm in size, so there’s great variety to choose from. Because spherical pearls tend to be the most popular shape, they are in high demand. This is one of the biggest reasons saltwater pearls tend to come with a bigger price tag. They are also considered more valuable due to relative scarcity since the freshwater mussel is more abundant than saltwater varieties.
Saltwater pearls also tend to have a more brilliant luster than freshwater pearls. In many instances, freshwater pearls are dyed to create a shinier look, while saltwater pearls are 100% natural without dye. On average, freshwater pearls will have a softer luster that makes them appear less glossy. That said, over the last few years, there have been dramatic improvements in farming techniques that have significantly improved the luster of freshwater pearls.
Unfortunately, there is no official system for grading freshwater or saltwater pearls. Therefore, jewelers tend to use their own classification process to rank the surface, shape, luster and color of each gemstone. That’s why it’s important to shop at a reputable local jewelry store such as John Atencio, who has worked hard to establish relationships with some of the world’s most celebrated pearl suppliers.
Freshwater Pearl Maintenance
Because they are relatively delicate, freshwater pearls require special care. You should never clean your pearl jewelry with steam or ultrasonic cleaners. Instead, gently clean each pearl using a soft microfiber jewelry cloth to remove surface debris. If there is stubborn dirt or sticky matter, you can either gently wash them using water-based dish soap and clean, cold water, or take them to a professional jeweler for a detailed cleaning.
Never store freshwater pearl jewelry in hot environments since this can cause the gemstones to split, crack or become discolored. You should also avoid storing your pearls in airtight containers because the lack of moisture can cause them to crack. Keep your pearl jewelry separate from diamonds and other gemstones to avoid scratching the nacre. If you have a strung pearl bracelet or necklace, always lay it out flat when it’s not in use.