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.
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.
South Sea Pearls
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.
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.
Now, let’s move from saltwater to freshwater.
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.
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.
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.
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!