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!

Jane Bohan: Designer

Right now my mind is drifting to the beach (as it often does), and I’m picturing Jane Bohan out in the waves on Fire Island. I think this talented designer loves the beach as much as I do, and she often finds her inspiration there. In fact, a surfboard was the thought in the back of her mind when she designed this turquoise necklace!

Jane Bohan necklaces
These necklaces are part of her Barcelona collection, with inspiration coming from the famous Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi. Here’s an example of his architectural style.


Jane has done a fabulous job interpreting the line and design of his work into her jewelry.

jane bohan earrings

I tried on one of her bracelets from this collection, which features three stations with green quartz and mixed metals.

jane bohan bracelet

Jane started her hand-fabricated line back in 1983, when she was working with mostly brass and sterling. She has now transitioned to gold and precious stones. She thrives on creativity, and ideas come to her when she’s out and about in her daily life. Clearly her time by the sea was inspiration for her opalescent waters collection. The depth of the labradorite in this ring summons a feeling of diving down into the sea.

jane bohan labradorite ring

Pearls are most definitely one of Jane’s signatures. While speaking with her at the Couture show, I was admiring this new bracelet, made of south sea pearls, and oxidized silver fishbone chain with 18K gold accents. Delicious!!

jane bohan south sea bracelet
Jane described her line as, “…sensual, sophisticated, and feminine,” and I couldn’t agree more. There were so many soft blush-colored tones in her pieces, which would flatter a wide variety of skin tones. You’ll notice the texture on these rose gold and diamond earrings. Texture, is in fact, extremely important to her.

jane bohan rose gold diamond earrings
The junipers in her back yard were the impetus for the texture on these rings I tried on.

jane bohan rings

It was an absolute pleasure meeting Jane and trying on all her goodies! Her line is sold at various high-end retailers around the country, so you can go try on for yourself. (Click here for a complete list of stores.)

jane bohan and amy roseveare

Into the Jewelry Box: Debra

In this second installment of “Into the Jewelry Box” I found myself in a second story flat in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Eclectically decorated with Asian influences and luxe fabrics, this was definitely a stylish home! Debra is a life-long minimalist by choice, and a quick peek into her closet definitely confirmed this! Her entire wardrobe is comprised of white, charcoal and black garments with clean, elegant lines.

debra's closet
Walking into her bedroom, she had all her jewelry laid out for me. That’s when it really struck what a minimalist she really is. If I tried to lay out my jewelry, I’d probably have to use the floor of my whole little apartment! But Debra’s perfectly curated collection was easily displayed on her dresser, in front of her Asian-style jewelry box — love how she has some precious objects on top of her jewelry box as well.

asian jewelry box
So let’s start with her favorite piece of all time, her stunning engagement ring, which is a 6 carat emerald cut diamond flanked by two 2 carat emerald cuts. I swear that it reflected the sunshine coming into the window all the way across the room! When I asked her if she helped picking it out, she laughed and said, “I ripped a picture of it out of a magazine and taped it to our bedroom door.” Classic.

emerald cut engagement ring
The next piece that has major significance to her is this ancient Roman coin. She gave it to her husband for their wedding, and after his passing, she had the coin bezel set and made into a necklace. I love that it’s worn close to her heart.

roman coin necklace
Debra satisfies all her earring needs with 4 pair, two sizes of diamond hoops and two sizes of diamond studs.

diamond hoops
diamond studs
The larger of the studs are two carats, and they are a daily staple for her. Her sassy silver haircut is the perfect frame for them.

diamond studs
She has a nice variety of silver bracelets that she stacks in different combinations. Many are by John Hardy, which she has been collecting the past 20 years.

silver bracelets
And she mixes and matches them with some fashion jewelry wrap bracelets and some bangles by Alexis Bittar.

wrap bracelets
alexis bittar bangles
Of her 10 necklaces (yes…only 10, but fabulous ones!), I particularly love her strand of black south sea pearls with a black diamond clasp. She picked this up for a real bargain during the recession when a jeweler friend was trying to unload some merchandise. Just the value of the clasp is now worth half of what she paid for the whole necklace at the time. Now that was a good buy!

black pearl necklace
This necklace is also killer. She had seen it in a magazine and folded down the corner. Her clever husband noticed it, and he had a local jeweler replicate it for her second wedding anniversary present. SO pretty!

pearl necklace
Having this Temple St. Clair crystal amulet pendant on a long silver chain adds some great dimension to her collection.

temple st. clair
While many people don’t think about having a watch wardrobe, Debra has, and she has 5 watches which fit every occasion that arrises, from the white sporty Michele watch to the diamond Bedat evening watch to her husband’s Cartier.

watch collection
She wears the same ring stack on her left hand every day, which consists of a couple silver rings paired with her husband’s wedding ring. One thing on her her “jewelry lust list” is a simple, slim diamond eternity band to add to the stack. I have a feeling I can help her find one…

ring stack
Also on her shopping list is a pair of black diamond hoops. With her wardrobe and silver hair, I know that this will be a perfect addition.

I so appreciate being given the opportunity to see how Debra “keeps it simple.” While she has definitely made some big investments, her cost-per-wear makes them excellent purchases. Mixing these pieces with her fashion jewelry, Debra is always accessorized to the nines. Thank you SO much for letting me into your jewelry box!! xo