A Simple Guide to The Different Types of Pearls

A guide to pearls - Eshly Jewellery

Pearls are seeing a revival in fashion and jewellery. Seems like everywhere you look nowadays, they’re there, front and centre. Even in google searches, you can see fashion articles dating back to 2014 identifying this trend. Pearls are no longer seen as dated or ‘grandma’s jewellery.’  Though they symbolise classic beauty and elegance, they’ve taken on a modern vibe too. Pearls are even more popular than diamonds among today’s younger generation. 

Pearl jewellery remains a popular choice for jewellery like bracelets, necklaces, pendants and earrings. Here are 10 pearl necklace designs to try today. This is in part because of the vast amount of celebs sporting pearls, haute couture runway collections integrating pearls into their designs, and the simple fact that pearls are endlessly versatile. They come in a variety of colours, shapes, lustres, sizes and prices- each contributing to a unique style and aura.

Keep scrolling for Eshly Jewellery’s simple breakdown of the different types of pearls.

What’s so special about pearls?

Pearls are a phenomenon. Unlike gemstones that are mined from the earth, it’s mind-blowing to consider that living organisms produce pearls. In fact, their very existence can be considered a wonder of nature, being that the pearl is only formed when an irritant enters an oyster shell.

What’s the difference between natural and cultured pearls?

A natural pearl is formed when an irritant- a piece of sand, parasite, or shell- becomes accidentally lodged in an oyster’s inner body. This causes the oyster to secrete a crystalline substance called nacre, which builds up around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed.

Natural pearls are incredibly rare and expensive because they’re made without human intervention. They’re so rare, in fact, that natural pearls are nearly all antiques and are sold at auctions for high prices.

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In contrast, cultured pearls require human intervention. Cultured pearls are formed through the same process as natural pearls, the only difference being that the irritant (usually a small bead) is implanted manually by a technician into the oyster. Because these oysters are mass-grown in pearl farms, cultured pearls are widely available and affordable. Ninety-five percent of pearl jewellery on the market today is made almost exclusively with cultured pearls.

Let’s dive into the different types of cultured pearls from which to choose. There are 4 types of cultured pearls: Freshwater, Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian.

Freshwater Pearls

Size range  2mm to 15mm (3mm-10mm is most common)
Shape range oval, baroque, button and round (rare)
Colour range white, cream, pink, lavender
Famous for least expensive, diverse selection of colours and shapes, most durable
Best jewellery style artistic, modern statement pendants, earrings, necklace strands, bracelet strands

Freshwater pearls are the most affordable pearls on the market today. They are grown 20-30 pearls at a time in mussels (not oysters) in lakes, rivers, ponds, and reservoirs mostly in China.

Freshwater pearls are often called the fashion-forward pearl because they are so versatile, coming in many shapes, sizes and colours. Over 90% of freshwater pearls are of irregular, asymmetrical shapes. Freshwater pearls are not created with a bead nucleus, but rather by inserting tissue from a mussel into the harvesting mussel. The result is a pearl that is composed entirely of nacre, making it more durable than saltwater pearls. Because freshwater pearls are commonly dyed, you can find a freshwater necklace in virtually any colour you’ll need to match your outfit.

Akoya Pearls

Size range 2mm-10mm (7mm is most common)
Shape range round and baroque
Colour range white (rose, cream, or silver-blue overtones)
Famous for perfectly round, highest luster pearls, competitive prices
Best jewellery style classic necklace strands, bracelet strands
If you’re looking for the classic strand of white, round pearls, you’re probably looking for Akoya pearls. Most Akoya pearls on the market are harvested in Japan, while a smaller percentage come from China, Korea and Vietnam. These are the most popular saltwater pearls, sought after for their luster, affordability and perfectly rounded shape.


South Sea Pearls

Size range 8mm-20mm (10mm-14mm is most common)
Shape range round, pear, drop, oval and baroque
Colour range white and gold
Famous for largest shape, high luster, deep gold hues, most expensive pearl type
Best jewellery style statement pendants, rings and earrings. 
South Sea Pearls are considered the Rolls Royce of pearls. They’re produced in the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Australia. They’re the largest of all pearl varieties; South Sea pearls over the 15mm size are very rare and command high prices. Because most are irregular in form, South Sea pearls that are perfect spheres come with big price tags and make show-stopping statement pieces. The golds are considered the most valuable colour. The deeper the gold, the higher the price.


Tahitian Pearls

Size range 8mm-16mm
Shape range round and baroque
Colour range black, grey, dark green, purple, peacock overtones (pink and green)
Famous for large shape, only naturally dark pearls, 2nd most expensive after South Sea
Best jewellery style eccentric necklace strands, bracelet strands, modern rings, earrings

Tahitian pearls are farmed near several of the French Polynesian islands. They’re the only naturally dark pearls on the market. Though they’re sometimes listed as black pearls, they’re rarely a true black. Their colour usually has overtones of other hues such as dark green, purple, grey and pink. Their vibrant luster appeals to those who prefer a dark, colourful pearl to a white pearl. Tahitian pearls are often round but can also be found in the baroque style (with rings across the pearl’s surface). The irregularities often show-off more colour and shimmer because the light can reflect off the many angles.

Look for the 5 S’s

What to look for when buying pearls? When shopping for fine jewellery pearls, there are so many things to consider. It takes a professional to really see the whole picture and decipher the details. In brief, the most important things to look for when shopping for cultured pearls are the five S’s: shape, shade (colour), size, surface and shine (luster). Normally, the more perfect the round spherical shape, the more valuable the pearl. As for size, the bigger it is, the more rare it is; this definitely increases its worth. The clearer the surface to the naked eye, the higher the appraisal of the pearl. The more mirror-like shine to the pearl, the higher the price it will command.

Eshly Jewellery hopes that this article has armed you with the wisdom you’ll need when shopping for your next piece of beautiful pearl jewellery. 

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