Freshwater Pearls – What are They and Should I Buy Them?

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Freshwater pearls are the most affordable pearl variety on the market today and offer excellent value to anyone who wants to venture into the world of pearls. Often called the ‘fashion-forward’ pearl, freshwater pearls come in a range of colors and shapes and are used in modern designs and jewelry styles.

You might be wondering how this pearl variety differs from other types of pearls and whether it is the right kind for you. Keep reading as we cover everything you need to know before you buy a freshwater pearl.

What Is a Freshwater Pearl?

Freshwater pearls are created by using freshwater mussels in lakes, rivers and ponds. Most freshwater pearls on the market today come from rivers and lakes in China, although USA and Japan have a small fraction of the market. A freshwater mussel can have up to 50 pearls at a time (compared to the two to five pearls that saltwater oysters can contain).

All freshwater pearls have been cultured, meaning that they were grown in pearl farms using science and technology rather than in nature by accident. This is where a trained technician implants an irritant in the mussel to stimulate the formation of a pearl. While a bead nucleus is commonly used in Akoya and other saltwater pearl farming, with freshwater pearls the method is somewhat different. Here, the tissue of a donor mussel is placed in the host mussel to stimulate nacre secretion.

The result of this method is that freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, as they do not contain a bead nucleus. The thicker nacre generally results in a durable, beautiful pearl.

Freshwater Pearl Colors and Overtones

Freshwater pearls come in a wide range of colors, unlike other pearl varieties. The main body colors for these pearls include white, cream, gray, as well as pastel shades such as yellow, lavender, pink and orange. High quality freshwater pearls have overtones of pink, green and blue although lower quality gems do not display any desirable overtones.

The most popular colors for freshwater pearls are white, cream, lavender and black. However, black freshwater pearls are not natural in that they have been dyed to obtain their color. Only Tahitian pearls are naturally charcoal to black in color; all other black pearls on the market have been dyed.

Freshwater Pearl Shapes

Although pearls are quintessentially perfectly spherical in shape, only about 5% of all pearls are perfectly round. The rest come in a variety of shapes, including near round, button, semi-baroque and baroque. In the past, only round pearls were considered worthy of being set in jewelry but today an increasing number of people are seeing the beauty of irregular shaped pearls.

Most freshwater pearls are oval or near round in shape, while about 30% are baroque or semi-baroque. Round freshwater pearls can be quite rare due to the nucleation process employed by freshwater pearl farmers. As I mentioned above, these pearls are not bead nucleated, which means that they are more likely to form in irregular shapes.

Freshwater Pearl Sizes

Freshwater pearls have the widest size range of all pearl varieties, and typically range from 2.0 mm to about 15.0 mm. However, sizes over 10.0 mm are much rarer. The growth period for freshwater pearls varies from farm to farm, which is why you can find freshwater pearls in a wide range of sizes.

Freshwater Pearl Luster

Luster is the most important aspect to consider when buying a pearl. It is the luster that causes a pearl to shimmer and shine and really catch your eye. The higher the luster in a pearl, the more valuable it is.

Generally, saltwater pearls such as Akoya and South Sea pearls have better luster compared to freshwater pearls. This is a general rule of thumb, but there are always exceptions and it depends on the individual pearls.

Freshwater Pearls Value

Freshwater pearls are the most affordable pearl variety on the market. They are also the most abundant. While they look similar to Akoya pearls, freshwater pearls can be up to 80% less expensive than an Akoya. Compare the two 18 inch pearl necklaces below. While they look very similar, the difference in price is almost $500!

7.0 to 7.5 mm Akoya Saltwater Cultured Necklace 

7.0 to 7.5 mm Freshwater Cultured Pearl Necklace

Freshwater Pearl Jewelry

Freshwater pearls can be found in all popular types of pearl jewelry. These include pearl necklaces, bracelet strands, pearl stud earrings, and pearl pendants.

Freshwater pearl studs are a great addition to any jewelry collection. They’re very affordable and suit almost any budget. Pearl studs go great with any outfit and add a level of chicness and style.

Freshwater Pearl Stud Earrings
See these pearl studs here
baroque pearl pendant
Unique pearl pendant. See this pendant here.

If you want a more unique alternative to the traditional pearl strand, there are many options on the market.

Grading Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls have no universally accepted grading standard but two grading systems are commonly used. This can make it very difficult to compare pearls across vendors and choose the best one for you. Most retailers have their own standards, even though they may follow the A-AAA or A-D grading scale often used for pearls. When grading freshwater pearls, the surface quality, shape and luster of the pearl is evaluated.

The AAA to A Scale

AAAAlmost flawless, this is the highest quality pearl. Features include: perfectly round, virtually free of surface blemishes and defects with highly reflective luster. Up to 95% surface is blemish free.
AAHigh luster, with about 90% of surface free of blemishes or defects. Good quality with near round shape.
ALow luster and 70% of surface free of blemishes and defects. Shape is off round.

Some retailers add a fourth grade, AAAA or AAA+, to this scale. Often retailers do this to add a premium to a high quality pearl and make it seem that the pearl is even better than the highest standard. After all, a pearl graded AAAA must be better than AAA, and therefore the higher price is justified, right? Wrong. Most times, you’ll see that a retailer’s AAAA or AAA+ pearl is the same as a standard AAA pearl.

The Tahitian A-D System

With this method, pearls are graded into four categories with A being the highest. While this system was originally used in French Polynesia to grade Tahitian pearls, it is now used to grade other pearl varieties as well.

AThe highest quality pearl, with excellent luster and round shape. Less than 10% of minute surface blemishes.
BHigh luster and round shape. Some noticeable defects that may cover up to 30% of surface area.
CMedium luster. Surface imperfections may cover up to 60% of surface area.
DOver 60% of blemishes and defects cover the surface. Luster is not considered in D grade due to high percentage of defects.

How to Care for Freshwater Pearls

It’s easy to take care of your pearls at home by simply using tepid water and mild detergent to clean them. Ensure that the water you use is not too hot or too cold, as this can damage the surface of your pearls. Use a soft cloth to wipe off any grime and gently rinse the pearls to wash off any residue.

Don’t soak your pearls or submerge them in water. Soaking can damage the nacre as well as the string of the strand, compromising its durability. Avoid using any harsh chemicals or ultrasonic cleaners as these can damage your pearls.

When storing your pearls, avoid direct sunlight or hot environments as these can dry out the pearls and cause them to become brittle and lose their color. Placing a damp cotton ball along with the pearls in a fabric pouch will ensure that they remain hydrated.

Pearls are very soft and must be stored separately to avoid scratches from other objects.

Where to Buy Freshwater Pearls

There are many retailers that offer high quality pearls at great prices. For a wider range of choice, taking your search online is a great idea. However, always vet the retailer you choose to purchase from. Ensure that the retailer is reputable, knowledgeable and licensed and offers a solid return policy.

While you can find great pearl jewelry at branded retailers such as Tiffany’s, Bvlgari or Mikimoto, these come with a very high premium. Rather than splurging on a brand, you can find high quality freshwater pearl jewelry at a much lower cost at other retailers.

Ready to browse for freshwater pearls? Amazon has most of the popular pearl vendors on their platform making it quite convenient to compare prices and choose the right piece for you.

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