Pearls Guide - Characteristics and Value of Freshwater Pearls

Introduction to Freshwater Pearls

If you want to buy cultivated freshwater pearls, and learn about them and the tricks and pitfalls for which you must be wary, or if you own some and want to know more about them, or if you're just interested in pearls, this is the guide for you.

This hub will tell you about cultivated pearls - where they come from, the factors affecting their value and appearance, and about the grading systems for freshwater pearls.

Freshwater pearls can be natural pearls; pearls grown by chance and no human intervention. Natural pearls, however, are very few and far between, and extremely expensive.

But freshwater pearls can and are cultivated, too; commercial cultivation at the moment is all in China, although in the past there were also Japanese freshwater pearls available.

High quality metallic lustre pink Chinese Freshwater Pearls

A necklace of even-sized 7-8mm cultivated freshwater pearls with high lustre. (c) A Jones 2012
A necklace of even-sized 7-8mm cultivated freshwater pearls with high lustre. (c) A Jones 2012

These are genuine pearls, formed over years in the mussel, but the process is initiated by human intervention.

Chinese cultivated freshwater pearls are the most commonly-available pearls on the market. They are also the cheapest.

"Cheapest" doesn't mean "very cheap", however. Nor does it mean nasty and unpleasant.

Freshwater pearls can be absolutely gorgeous, come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colours (both natural and dyed) and also a wide range of prices.

This hub tells you about freshwater pearls - how they are grown, the different sizes, shapes and colours available, and the factors which affect the pearls' value.

Cultivated Chinese Freshwater Coin-Shaped pearls

These pearls are shown on a necklace with peridot and aquamarine chips in between the pearls. These pearls are cultivated freshwater pearls, and are dyed this colour.  (c) A Jones 2012
These pearls are shown on a necklace with peridot and aquamarine chips in between the pearls. These pearls are cultivated freshwater pearls, and are dyed this colour. (c) A Jones 2012

How Freshwater Pearls are Cultivated


Freshwater pearls are, typically, almost all nacre. Seawater pearls, such as Tahitian, Akoya or South Sea pearls, are usually formed of a layer of nacre over a mother-of-pearl bead. The layer of nacre might well be less than 1mm – the minimum standard for Tahitian pearl legal export, for example, is 0.8mm of nacre.

Freshwater pearls are mostly formed around small pieces of tissue inserted into the oyster. This means that they tend to be less round than seawater pearls, but tougher. The nacre is most unlikely to wear away over time, or peel away from the bead, as there is no bead to be exposed by wear or peeling

Some freshwater pearls have, over the last few years only, been cultivated around beads or other objects. They are the exception, rather than the rule, and tend to be bigger and more elaborate in shape than average. It's unlikely you'd buy these accidentally, as they are usually more expensive, bigger, and advertised as being bead-nucleated.

Some of the biggest cultivated freshwater pearls are grown as a result of bead nucleating, and they results can be very unusual, as well as large – either beautiful, or ugly, depending upon your taste, but certainly interesting and out of the norm.

There are also some freshwater pearls which are nucleated with other material, such as the souffle pearls which first came on to the market about 3 or 4 years ago. These appear to have been nucleated with mud, which gives them a very odd appearance. They are, I'm told, very smelly to drill, as the mud comes out in an odious gush. They don't stay smelly, though, so don't worry that you'll have an odoriferous necklace or earring to worry about.

The souffle pearls are also much lighter than either full-nacre freshwater pearls, or beaded saltwater pearls, as they are hollow in the middle, where the mud once was.

A mixed necklace of freshwater pearls

A necklace of mixed Chinese Freshwater Pearls. This shows very large (12mm) round white pearls, long thin white pearls,and dyed black-peacock keishi pearls. c
A necklace of mixed Chinese Freshwater Pearls. This shows very large (12mm) round white pearls, long thin white pearls,and dyed black-peacock keishi pearls. c

Factors affecting the value of Freshwater Pearls


Several factors affect the value of freshwater pearls. The main ones are as follows:

  1. Size
  2. Surface quality
  3. Lustre
  4. Shape

The most expensive and valuable cultivated freshwater pearls are the large, round, entirely smooth and flawless ones with a very high lustre. The top tiny percentage of the pearl harvest are known as “gem quality” pearls, and have an almost magical glowing lustre, and a completely smooth surface.

Baroque white cultivated Chinese freshwater pearls

These are high lustre white baroque pearls, shown with silver beads and amethyst chips at the top. (c) A. Jones 2012
These are high lustre white baroque pearls, shown with silver beads and amethyst chips at the top. (c) A. Jones 2012

The Different Sizes of Freshwater Pearls


Cultivated freshwater pearls vary greatly in size. The smallest are as tiny as 1.5mm, and the largest tissue-nucleated pearls can be very large indeed, some as much as 20mm+ (these are rarely round pearls, at the largest sizes).

Price goes up significantly as the size of each pearl increases. There is not much difference in price between, for example, a 5mm and a 6mm gem quality pearl. But there is a significant difference between a 7mm pearl and an 8mm one, and with each increase of 1mm in size, the price jump is correspondingly greater.

The larger a pearl is, the longer it has (all other things being equal) had to stay in the shell in order to grow, and this means fewer harvests, more natural wastage, more malformation of pearls, etc.

And the more likely it is, over time, that a pearl will develop an odd shapes, or flaws, circles, and other marks on it.

Surface Quality, Flaws, and marks on Freshwater Pearls


Most pearls do have flaws. They are organic gems, and as each pearl is grown in a living creature, they vary hugely. Pearl-lovers tend to see marks, circles or bands as “features” rather than “flaws”, of course. And they do show the organic, natural origin, and can make a pearl more interesting, rather than less.

A gem quality pearl should have no surface marks or circles or bands at all, though.

Freshwater Pearls and Lustre

Lustre (also spelled "luster") is hard to define. Pearls are not diamonds or sapphires – they don't refract light in the way that a gemstone does.

Lustre is the sheen, the reflection, the glimmer that pearls have – or should have. It is the quality and the quantity of light shining on a pearl which is reflected from the service and just beneath the surface.

Otherwise perfect pearls, round and flawless, are less valuable if they are dull and boring.

Conversely, weird and wonderful pearls can have a lustre than makes them really lovely. Freshwater pearls tend to have a little less lustre than saltwater pearls, such as Tahitians, Akoyas, or South Sea pearls.

Natural coloured lavender freshwater pearls

These are rice or oval shaped pearls. Each is about 9mm long, and the lavender colour is a natural one, not dyed.
These are rice or oval shaped pearls. Each is about 9mm long, and the lavender colour is a natural one, not dyed.

Freshwater Pearls in Different Shapes

The shape of a pearl is very important in determining its price. Round pearls are the most expensive, followed by off-round pearls (which might well look round from a respectable distance).

Cultivated freshwater pearls can also be found in many other beautiful and wonderful shapes, such as rice or drop pearls (oval), or coin pearls, or “keishi” pearls, which are usually cornflake-like, and all manner of baroque shapes.

While round pearls are seen as the classic pearl look, some of the other shapes in freshwater pearls are fascinating and interesting, and can also be quite valuable, depending on the lustre and colour.

Coin shaped pearl on an earring

This champagne-gold coloured coin pearl is about 14mm from top to bottom. It is a dyed colour, not a natural one. It is shown on an earrings with smaller white round pearls above it.  (c) A. Jones 2012
This champagne-gold coloured coin pearl is about 14mm from top to bottom. It is a dyed colour, not a natural one. It is shown on an earrings with smaller white round pearls above it. (c) A. Jones 2012

Grading systems

Some pearls, such as Akoya and Tahitian pearls, have official grading systems. Tahitian pearls, for example, are only exported from French Polynesia after they have been officially graded for export, and have to meet certain criteria to qualify. Tahitian pearls are therefore graded as A, B, C, and D standards.

Top-quality Akoya pearls, likewise, have an official grading system for the top pearls, called Hanadama. Pearls can only be sold in this way in they have a certificate from Japan stating that they meet the standards.

There is no official system such as the seawater pearls system for freshwater pearls. Many sellers or wholesalers will describe particular pearls according to grades such as A (the lower-quality pearls) to AAA, and often have a top grade for their best pearls, such as “gem quality” or “Freshadama” or similar. But it would be a mistake to assume in any way that AA pearls from one seller are the same as AA pearls from another. Firstly, the grading systems should be used to compare pearls from the same seller, so that AAA pearls from Seller X are (or should be) superior to A pearls from the same seller.

A reputable seller should always explain the criteria used to grade their pearls, and explain what, for example, “AA” means in terms of shape, lustre, flaws, and in other respects. If in doubt, ask, and be careful.

Very large baroque freshwater pearl

This photo shows a very large (17mm across) white baroque freshwater pearl, with very high lustre and silvery overtones. It is not dyed. It is on a necklace, with lapis lazuli and round cream coloured freshwater pearls. (c) A. Jones
This photo shows a very large (17mm across) white baroque freshwater pearl, with very high lustre and silvery overtones. It is not dyed. It is on a necklace, with lapis lazuli and round cream coloured freshwater pearls. (c) A. Jones

Freshwater Pearl Colours

Freshwater pearls come in all colours - some are natural, some are dyed.

Natural colours for cultivated freshwater pearls include white, cream, ivory, and all shades of pink, peach, and lavender (purples). Common dyed colours include silver, grey, black, and peacock-like shades, designed to look a bit like Tahitian pearl colours. There are a few silver-grey freshwater pearls which are natural, and a lot of natural white or pink or lavender shades with a silvery tone to them.

A reputable seller should always state whether pearls are dyed or not.

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