Are Freshwater and Cultured Pearls the Same?

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Are Freshwater and Cultured Pearls the Same?

For decades, white pearl rings, studs, and pearl chain necklaces with clasps have been passed down from generation to generation. These days, buyers seek them out first-hand for their beautiful luster and uniqueness and are found in a variety of colors besides white including black, pink, and even lavender, making it easy to compliment your personal style. They come in a variety of sizes, typically 2mm to 20mm, but somewhere around 9 or 10mm seem to be the most popular. 

In speaking to if freshwater and cultured pearls are the same, there are really two answers to this question: yes and no. Only two basic categories of pearl exist in the world. These are the saltwater and freshwater varieties, and either type can be natural or cultured. To understand the difference, it's important to know what pearls really are.


Where Do Pearls Come From?

All pearls grow inside certain varieties of hinged-shell mollusks known as bivalves. These creatures can open or close their casings at will, and a hungry specimen spends hours under water with its shell at half-mast in hopes of catching some food. This open-door policy provides easy access to pearl-producing irritants. While any of the 20,000 species of bivalve can conceivably produce a pearl, relatively few of them actually do this with any regularity. 

How is a Pearl Formed?

Every pearl develops in response to an irritant inside the body of the mollusk that produces it. In the wild, the culprit could be a bit of dirt, a grain of sand, or a tiny parasite. Since the mollusk cannot eject the intruder, it responds by surrounding it with layers of an iridescent substance known as nacre. This is the same mother-of-pearl material that coats the inside of its shell. With the passage of time, the mollusk continues adding layers of nacre that increase the size of the pearl. The longer the irritated mollusk remains alive, the larger its pearl is likely to grow. No two mollusks are created equal, and neither is the nacre with which they come equipped. This diversity of composition is responsible for the wide variety of pearls produced by different mollusks. It is also the reason that some of these creatures are far more prolific than others.

Natural Pearls

A natural pearl is nothing more than a pearl that has formed spontaneously inside the mollusk without the aid of human intervention. These pearls are the rarest and most valuable.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls are just as real as the natural variety. They grow inside the mollusk in exactly the same way. They are not imitation, and they are not fake. A cultured pearl necklace is as genuine as its natural cousin. The majority of cultured pearls available today derive from freshwater mussels and saltwater pearl oysters. Although all pearls develop in the same way, the cultured pearl requires some human assistance to get the process started. To do this, the pearl farmer inserts a small bead or section of mantle tissue under the mollusk's shell. Nature then takes over. The animal begins to deposit layers of nacre around the irritating substance, slowly building up the cultured pearl. Cultured pearls so closely resemble the natural variety that experts often find it difficult to tell the two types apart. A final determination frequently requires the use of an X-ray to identify the initial irritant deep in the pearl's interior.

Imitation Pearls

Most imitation pearls are made of glass, plastic, or ceramic. Some manufacturers add ground seashells into the mix to mimic the texture and luster of genuine pearls. Although the cleverest faux pearls may look quite real, their weight, texture, and inferior iridescence usually gives them away.

How to Identify an Imitation Pearl

If a pearl's authenticity is ever in question, these simple tests can help.

Luster Test

Study the pearl under various light sources. Genuine pearls glow from within. If the shine is dull or comes only from the surface, the pearl is probably fake.

Magnification Test

Investigate the pearl under a magnifying glass. While a real pearl reveals inherent ridges and irregularities, an imitation looks smooth.

Rub Test

Rub two pearls together. A gritty resistance between the two indicates that the pearls are probably real.

Weight Test

Real pearls are heavier than imitations, so any that feel excessively light are most likely not genuine.

Shape Test

Because a genuine pearl is produced by nature, it is not perfectly round. A pearl that is impeccably shaped is probably an imitation.

Freshwater Pearls

Contrary to popular belief, oysters do not produce freshwater pearls. This honor goes mainly to the pearl mussels that reside in rivers, ponds, and lakes. The majority of cultured freshwater pearls originate in China. A freshwater mussel can conceivably generate as many as 50 pearls at a time. However, it can take the animal between four and six years to accomplish this. Many mussels succumb to pollution and disease before the pearls have reached their peak.

Characteristics of the Freshwater Pearl

The greater thickness of a pearl mussel's nacre lends a softer luster to freshwater pearls. This additional heft also endows them with a greater durability, so they are less likely than saltwater pearls to chip or wear down. The colors available in freshwater pearls range from soft pinks, lavenders, peaches, and whites to dramatic shades of peacock and black. This variety of hue combines with their reasonable price to make the freshwater pearl a favorite of the cost-conscious consumer.

Saltwater Pearls

In contrast to the habitat of freshwater mussels, the oysters that generate saltwater pearls hail from the briny deep. Pearl oysters are native to tropical oceans, and the pearls they produce are of three main varieties: South Sea, Akoya, and Tahitian.

South Sea Pearls

South Sea pearls are among the largest and most widely cultivated saltwater pearls available today. While the average South Sea pearl measures about 13 millimeters in diameter, the largest of them often span as much as 20 mm. Native to Indonesia and Australia, the color of these pearls can vary from a pale white to a brilliant gold, and all of them shine with a satiny luster. Collectors around the world value South Sea pearls for the immense size to which they often grow.

Akoya Pearls

Connoisseurs prize Akoya pearls as much for their consistency of shape as for their reflective luster. The commonest colors of Akoya pearl are rose, soft vanilla, and bluish silver. Although their size is similar to that of most freshwater pearls, the Akoya pearl is often superior in brilliance. Some consider the Akoya pearl the crème de la crème of all cultured saltwater pearls.

Tahitian Pearls

The third variety of cultured saltwater pearl is a relative newcomer to the jewelry scene. Tahitian pearls can be had in a wide variety of shades that range from blues and silvers, to black, to a minty shade of green. The diversity of these colors rivals that afforded by any other type of cultured pearl.

Pearl Grading

No two pearls are alike, and some are more perfect than others. Pearl graders normally use one of two common systems for assigning their quality. While the AAA-A system is favored among graders of freshwater pearls, some also apply it to Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian saltwater pearls. Although many make use of both systems interchangeably, the A-D System is mainly used for grading saltwater pearls. Its use is standard in pearl-producing countries.

Pearl Grading: The AAA-A System


Gem Quality

These top-quality pearls are highly lustrous with a defect rating of 5 percent or less.


Better Quality

Although somewhat less lustrous than the best grade, these are 75 percent flawless.


Lowest Quality

The lowest-quality pearls have a defect rating of over 25 percent and a slightly inferior luster.

Pearl Grading: The A-D or Tahitian System


Extremely high in luster and 90 percent defect-free.


Very high in luster and 70 percent defect-free.


Medium in luster and 60 percent defect-free.


Since the defect rate on D-grade pearls can be higher than 40 percent, their degree of luster is considered irrelevant.

In any particular string, the buyer may encounter pearls of different grades. In cases like this, skillful mounting into sterling silver, for example, can conceal the defects in the lower-grade pearls to give the entire strand a consistent appearance.

How to Buy Pearls on eBay

To purchase pearls on eBay, just use the Search box located at the top of any page, and enter terms such as "Natural Pearls" or "Tahitian Pearls" and then browse the results. Use the category choices on the left side of the listing page to further narrow your search.


Whether natural or cultured, saltwater or fresh, pearls are typically the same shape although differ in size from 2mm to 10mm up to about 20mm. Pearls can add instant luster and style to any outfit whether in the form of rings, necklaces, or earrings. They come in beautiful colors from white to black, pink to lavender. However, since the choice of size, color, and jewelry style is subjective, the consumer should take as much time as required to locate the perfect item. A well-chosen piece of pearl jewelry will serve the purchaser well for many years to come.

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