Natural, uncultured pearls are the most expensive of all pearls but are very rarely seen in today's market. Nowadays they only make appearances as antiques.
Pearl Type Guide 101
Pearl culturing is now absolutely standard across the industry. The process starts with "nucleation". Spherical beads are implanted into the oyster along with tissue from another mollusk. In a defensive response, the oyster coats this invader with layers of slightly iridescent "nacre", which is the attractive outside of the pearls we see today.
The first thing to consider is the provenance of the pearl. Different pearl varieties from different locations command different prices. Akoya pearls, South Sea pearls and Tahitian pearls are considered the highest quality and command premiums. However, Freshwater pearls dominate the market and offer buyers attractive pearls at affordable prices.
Here are the major pearl varieties:
Akoya PearlsIf you are looking for the classic set of pearls, look to Akoya pearls: round, white, lustrous with a rose glow, ladylike and demure. Akoya pearls are considered among the finest and most popular in the world.
Pearls are named after the Japanese word for the relatively small Pinctada Fucata oyster. Most Akoya are cultured in saltwater oysters in the cold waters off the islands of Japan, these oysters are nucleated with as many as five beads ranging from 2mm to 6mm in diameter. Only about one out of five nucleated Akoya produces pearls and only a fraction of these are of gem quality. They range in size from 2mm to 10mm, with the bulk of production between 7mm and 9mm. Most are white to cream, with luster ranging from rose to golden.
Akoya cultured pearls are very lustrous, almost always consistently round, perfectly matched, and are bleached to perfect whiteness. No other type of pearl can match the ball-bearing steely luster of a high quality Akoya.
South Sea PearlsSouth Sea pearls are exceptional quality pearls range from silver to white, cream, and golden colors. Much larger than the average pearl, ranging from 8mm up to jawbreaker-like 22mm sizes, with the bulk of the production between 10mm and 14mm. These are the rarest and extraordinary pearls you will find in jewelry due to the smoothness and roundness of these pearls are exceptional.
South Sea pearls are grown in the jumbo pinctada maxima oyster in the warm waters of Australia, Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, and other areas of Southeast Asia. This oyster is much larger than the oysters that produce Akoya and Freshwater pearls, so the pearl that it produces is much larger as well. Because of the rarity and sensitivity of this type of oyster, cultivation of these pearls is much more difficult, making them more expensive.
Tahitian PearlsTahitian Pearls are named after the tropical island of Tahiti, which is now farmed not only in Tahiti but also the Cook Islands and other places in the South Pacific. Tahitian pearls are larger than Akoya pearls because the oyster is larger. They range from 7mm to 20mm, with the bulk of production between 10mm to 14mm.
Tahitian pearls offer a dramatic touch. The natural black color of these pearls comes from the color of the oyster's black lips, but their color can range from metallic silver, to the color of black. And within this range of colors they can have bluish, purplish, or greenish overtones. Tahitian cultured pearls are cultivated from the black-lipped variety of the pinctada margaritifera oyster which reaches a foot or more in diameter, and produces very large pearls. This oyster is very sensitive to the pearl culturing process, which makes the pearls very costly to produce.
Freshwater PearlsOur round Freshwater pearls make an excellent, affordable gift of good quality pearls. As opposed to rice-shaped Freshwater pearls, these pearls are mostly round with the 6mm to 8mm and look very similar to Akoya pearls when worn, which are available for a much lower price; 6mm to 9mm fancy colored pearls, round to off round, in lavenders, pinks, and peaches; and a few rare large round strands in mixed fancy colors that are similar in size and feeling to mixed color Tahitian strands.
Although historically originating in Japan around Biwa Lake (north of Kyoto), Chinese Freshwater pearls are also cultivated in China since the beginning of the 1970s on the Yangtze River in Eastern China. Freshwater pearls are the product of an elaborate process in which a single resilient mussel can be harvested many times, yielding several pearls at a time.
The Freshwater pearl looks remarkably similar to the Akoya pearl, but Freshwater pearls are available for almost half the price of Akoya pearls. The only tradeoff is that Freshwater pearls are generally smaller, less symmetrical, and not as well matched when strung on a strand. But if you are looking for affordable pearls, Freshwater pearls are the perfect gift with the best value of all types of the pearl family.
In addition to the major types of pearls there are the pearl oddities: Abalone pearls, Circle pearls, Keshii pearls and Mabe pearls.