When most of us think of pearls, we picture the classic, creamy, white, perfect spheres that one sees adorning the necks of high-society ladies in films. Think Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s! These, however, are only one among a wide variety of pearl classifications. In fact, there are several types of pearls that differ greatly in colour, size, shape, and place of origin. They’re not all perfectly round and creamy!
Over the years, natural pearls have become increasingly rare as we have harvested them at an incredibly rapid rate. In truth, the vast majority of pearls sold nowadays are what we call “cultured pearls” – meaning they have formed only due to human intervention. They are still true pearls, but they’ve not occurred naturally.
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How Are Cultured Pearls Made?
To begin growing a cultured pearl, technicians must implant a small section of shell along with mantle tissue from similar molluscs into an oyster. They are then carefully returned to the ocean in individual mesh pockets and left to secrete layer after layer of glossy nacre that eventually forms the pearl.
The oysters are periodically brought onto land for cleaning and a health assessment. Pearl technicians take every conceivable measure to protect the oysters from disease and damage.
Now you know where most pearls come from, let us take a look at the different types of pearls and how to distinguish them from one another.
The image that comes to mind for most people when thinking of pearls is likely that of the Akoya pearl – the characteristic luxurious white sheen is exclusive to this variety. Akoya pearls are farmed using the Pinctada fucata martensii saltwater oyster found in the colder coastal waters of Japan, Vietnam, and Southern China.
Japan has long been the world leader in the cultivation of Akoya pearls, producing the most consistently high-quality specimens in the world. While Akoya pearls are typically white, some may possess golden or silvery-blue undertones.
Akoya pearls typically range in size from 2mm to 9mm, with the biggest and most valuable reaching up to 10mm (although this is exceedingly rare).
As the name suggests, this type of pearl is grown inside freshwater mussels as opposed to ocean molluscs. They are the most affordable and common kind of pearl on the market, although the finer specimens can still fetch a hefty price.
Freshwater pearls hail primarily from China and can vary greatly in colour. Typically, they come in pastel shades of peach, lavender, pink, and white. They are often treated with special dyes to enhance or change their colouring. Freshwater pearls dyed black are known as “Peacock pearls” due to their shimmering violet iridescence.
Freshwater pearls can range in diameter from 2mm to 12mm, with some new varieties reaching up to 15mm.
Tahitian pearls are harvested from black-lipped oysters in the temperate coastal waters of French Polynesia. They are known for being the only naturally occurring “black pearls” – typically sporting a glossy, metallic, grey colouring. Darker pearls are less common than lighter once and therefore fetch a higher price.
They are prized for their size as well as unique colouring, ranging from 8mm to 15mm. Tahitian pearls that exceed 15mm are quite uncommon and fetch outrageous prices. Any Tahitian pearl under 0.8mm is too small for export.
The Tahitian and South Sea pearls are the only ones on the market that never receive any form of colour treatment after harvest. Their exceptional colouring and lustre are what makes them so popular.
South Sea Pearl
These highly sought-after treasures are typically the largest and most expensive variety of pearl. Part of their mystique is the fact that they are grown in the infamous “coral triangle” – a section of treacherous water that lies between Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The area is notorious for sharks and pirates (yes, actual pirates).
South Sea pearls range in size from 8-20mm, with pearls larger than 15mm going for tens of thousands of US dollars. Depending on the type of oyster they form in, they can be a silky white (similar to an Akoya), a sleek silver, pastel pink, or a rich gold.
Large, perfectly round South Sea pearls are unquestionably the most prized and valuable types of pearls on the market, which is why people are prepared to go to drastic lengths to farm them.
Pearls are assessed by numerous factors, the key one here being shape. There are two primary shape categories that all pearls fall into: traditional and baroque. Traditional pearls are round while baroque pearls are virtually anything else.
Some prefer baroque pearls for their unique shapes, although traditional pearls are generally more valuable. The price of a traditional pearl depends on its size – the bigger, the better. Baroque pearls fetch higher prices based on colour and sheen. Since the white and pink baroque pearls are far more common, patrons will spare no expense to obtain the darker ones.
Baroque pearls are further classified by their shapes.
As the name suggests, these are two pearls that have fused to form one. They can be symmetrical or mismatched, and they are favoured among jewellers for crafting stud earrings.
These are characterised by their flat, round shapes and smooth, reflective surfaces. They are used in all sorts of jewellery, from necklaces, to earrings, to bracelets and beyond.
These pearls are typically small, rounded specimens that do not meet the strict spherical dimensions of traditional pearls.
Resembling the shape of an eggshell, these bottom-heavy pearls are generally used in hanging jewellery. The jeweller will drill down through the centre of the egg pearl to best display its unique shape.
Like coin pearls, these are flat, reflective specimens that have also formed into the shape of a heart. They are popular when creating romantically themed pieces of jewellery.
One of the rarest varieties of baroque pearl, these occur when the oyster rejects part of the seed but carries on developing the specimen. They are typically elongated pieces of nacre that bear a remarkable lustre.
Pearls are fabulous and fascinating, and they make wonderful gifts, either for someone else, or if you want to spoil yourself. They’re especially suitable for 30th anniversary gifts, also known as the pearl anniversary. Now that you know more about the different types of pearls, you can choose the ones that appeal to you most.