Types of Pearls: Decoding the Mystery

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of “pearl words” thrown around…South Sea, cultured, freshwater, etc… but what do they all mean? Well I’m here to break it down for you, so that the next time you’re shopping for pearls, you’ll know what you’re looking at.

First of all, there are natural pearls and cultured pearls. Natural pearls are VERY rare; so rare, in fact, that you’ll seldom see them for sale in the marketplace. You’re more likely to find natural pearls at antique stores and auctions. Cultured pearls, on the other hand, means that man has played a role in the pearl’s creation. This happens when a little mother-of-pearl bead or piece of tissue (called the nucleus) is inserted into an oyster. Since the oyster looks at this as an irritant, it develops a pearl sack around it as a defense mechanism. As time goes by, layers of nacre grow around this bead, and eventually, a pearl is made. Pretty cool, hm?


Photo from pearl paradise.com
Photo from pearlparadise.com

The next thing to know is that there are saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls. In the saltwater category, there are: Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian. Freshwater pearls are a category unto themselves. And just to complicate matters, Keishi pearls can be found in both fresh and saltwater. So let’s start with the saltwater varieties.

Akoya Pearls

akoya pearl necklace
Akoya pearls are what you typically are thinking of when you imagine the traditional strand of pearls. They are by far the most popular of all varieties, and they were made popular by Mikimoto at the beginning of the 20th century. They are a smaller pearl, usually ranging in size from 2mm-10mm, and they are usually from Japan and China. Here’s a helpful chart to help you get an idea of pearl sizes.

pearl size Photo frompearlparadise.com
Akoya pearls typically come in white and creams, though they can branch into blue, silver, and even sometimes black. (chart from americanpearl.com) They are known for having the best luster of all the types of pearls.


Akoya pearl colors
Akoya pearl colors

South Sea Pearls

South Sea pearl necklace
South Sea pearl necklace

These are the most valuable of all the pearls, and they come in the largest sizes, ranging from 9mm-20mm. They come from Australia, the Phillipines, and Indonesia. They are produced in the silver and gold-lipped Pinctada Maxima, giving them their silvery and golden colors.

Tahitian Pearls


Tahitian pearl necklace
Tahitian pearl necklace

While the name might give you the impression that these pearls only come from Tahiti, that’s not entirely true. They come from the black-lipped Pinctada maxima from the French Polynesian islands, including Tahiti. Traditionally called black pearls, these pearls can come in a range of colors as well, from purple to green to grey.  (chart from americanpearl.com) They range in size from 8mm-16mm.


Tahitian pearl colors
Tahitian pearl colors

Now, let’s move from saltwater to freshwater.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater Pearl Necklace
Freshwater Pearl Necklace

Here’s an example of a pink freshwater pearl necklace. These types of pearls are usually from the the lakes, rivers and ponds of China. While some may confuse these pearls with Akoya pearls, upon closer inspection you can usually tell that they are not nearly as lustrous. These pearls have a much lower price-point, making them very popular on the consumer market. In addition, they come in a wide variety of sizes (2mm-16mm), colors and shapes.

Keshi Pearls


Keshi Pearls
Keshi Pearls

As I mentioned earlier, these small Keshi pearls can be found in both fresh and saltwater. They are actually a mistake from the whole culturing process! They occur when an oyster spits out the implanted bead. (I’d like to see that happen live!)

Now that you’ve got an idea about the main types, sizes and colors of pearls, there are a couple other things you should be aware of when shopping for pearls. The first is the luster, which I’ve already referred to. This talks about how much light is reflected from the pearl. In the case of Akoyo, the most lustrous, you can often see reflections of objects right in the pearl! This visual from pearlparadise.com really puts it into perspective. The more lustrous a pearl, the higher quality it is.


Grades of pearl luster
Grades of pearl luster

You also need to take into account the quality of the pearl’s surface. Is it spotted, bumpy, or wrinkled? Are there any abrasions? All these can affect the quality and value of the pearl.

Finally, there are numerous shapes that pearls come in. Though it’s certainly a matter of personal preference, the round pearls are the rarest and most valuable. (photo from bestcutgems.com) Though I know quite a few people who prefer baroque over all other shapes.


Pearl shapes
Pearl shapes

When you do select the perfect pearl necklace for yourself, I also advise having it strung with knots between each pearl. Not only does this protect you from losing all the pearls should the necklace break, but it also keeps the pearls from scratching each other. Look forward to a future article I have coming on how to care and store for your pearls!

Vibe’s by Lene Vibe Dahlgren

One of the coolest parts of attending the Couture jewelry show was meeting designers from all over the globe. Case and point…meeting Lene from Copenhagen, Denmark, and learning about her “magical” line, Vibe’s, the likes of which I’d truly never seen before!

vibe's jewelry denmark
Learning about Lene's line

The Vibe’s studio and shop are located in a quaint two-story terra-cotta colored building built back in 1750. One of the key selling points to Lene was the antique safe from 1820. No, this safe is not used for securing jewelry. In fact, it would be useless considering it has a huge hole in the back of it from a robbery back in the “olden days.” No…Lene uses the safe to store her port wine, which she enjoys sharing with special customers. Love that!

So back to the jewelry…the Vibe’s line is inspired by the fairy tales of Hans Christen Andersen. When you think of these tales, you envision fairies dancing, mystical animals moving through the enchanted forest, and other whimsical creatures. This is exactly what you’ll find in her designs. Check out the exquisite detail in this ring, from the little insect to the tiny sea shell!

vibe's ring
Amazing detail!

And here are some more examples of her rings. Notice the raw, yet carefully curated beauty in each creation.

vibe's rings
Fit for a wood-nymph princess!

You’ll notice a variety of pearls in her line, from baroque South Sea to Keshi to freshwater. Combined with other gems and brushed 18K gold, the result is quite stunning. Each time you look at her pieces, you’ll notice more and more detail.

vibe's necklaces
I love the snails!

I think part of the reason Lene has such a vivid, fantastical imagination is that she treasures children and appreciates how they see the world. In fact, she always travels with drawings by her 4 1/2 and 7 1/2 year old children.

lene vibe dahlgren
Showing me the art in her "portfolio"

Personally, I would love to visit her shop in Copenhagen one day. But luckily, I can still see her work in person at one my FAVE jewelry stores in the USA, Fragments in New York City. This store is definitely a must-see on your next trip to the Big Apple!