In Depth: Freshwater Pearls

The Freshwater pearl looks remarkably similar to the Akoya pearl, yet Freshwater pearls are available for almost 1/5 the price of Akoya saltwater pearls!

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Production is so large that even lovely lustrous specimens are affordable, particularly in off-round shapes. For that reason, freshwater cultured pearls are considered one of the jewelry world’s biggest bargains.

One reason for their abundance is due to the fact that each mollusk/mussel is able to produce dozens of pearls. Unlike their saltwater cousins, which are only able to grow one pearl per shell.

The Freshwater pearl looks remarkably similar to the Akoya pearl, yet Freshwater pearls are available for almost 1/5 the price of Akoya saltwater pearls.

The Freshwater pearl looks remarkably similar to the Akoya pearl, yet Freshwater pearls are available for almost 1/5 the price of Akoya saltwater pearls, making them truly a great bargain.

HISTORY & LORE:

The oldest recorded reference to pearls in human history is the 7,500 year-old “Umm Al Quwain Pearl“, which was found in a grave in a place that is now known as the United Arab Emirates.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer look at Akoya Saltwater Pearls”

Researchers clarified that natural pearls were important in funeral rituals where un-pierced pearls used to be delivered at the Umm Al Quwain cemetery and others where they were placed over the deceased’s face, especially over the upper lip.

Discovered by French researchers in the Emirate of Umm al Quwain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the pearl was believed to have originated between 5547 and 5235 BC.

Discovered by French researchers in the Emirate of Umm al Quwain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), this 2mm sized pearl was believed to have originated between 5547 and 5235 BC.

In ancient China, people believed that pearls provided protection from fire and dragons, and whilst pearl superstitions and folklore vary greatly, they are widely considered to encourage good health and prosperity.

Freshwater pearls are typically found in mollusks known as mussels and can come from any freshwater source such as rivers, lakes and ponds. Russian, European and North American rivers and lakes have all produced pearls throughout recorded history.

The Abernathy Pearl, also known as "Little Willie" was found in Scotland in 1967 and is considered by many the most perfect natural "non-cultured" freshwater pearl ever found.

The Abernathy Pearl, also known as “Little Willie” was found in Scotland in 1967 and is considered by many the most perfect natural “non-cultured” freshwater pearl ever found.

The Abernathy pearl is considered by many the most perfect freshwater pearl ever found. It was discovered in 1967 by a professional pearl-diver named Bill Abernathy on the banks of the river Tay in Scotland.

CULTURE:

Although the Japanese freshwater pearl industry has nearly ceased to exist, it has a special historic place as the first country to successfully cultivate whole freshwater pearls in an area known as Lake Biwa.

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The first harvest of Chinese pearls appeared on the market in the early 1970s and since then the pearl that comes mostly from the “Hyriopsis Cumingi” mussels grown exponentially in large quantity.

Sadly due to pollution most of the freshwater lakes in Japan can no longer sustain the lives of the freshwater mollusks. Instead production has moved to the lakes of China in the area of Shanghai. The Chinese now produce 95% of the world’s freshwater cultured pearls.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer Look at South Sea Pearls”

Freshwater cultured pearls can be created in a spectrum of colors. Different colors such as white, pink, orange, and other pastels can be achieved through natural means, including the pearl mollusk’s genetics, their diet, and the amount and type of trace metals in the cultivating environment.

Pearls being sorted by size and shape before being strung in strands ready for the wholesale market.

Pearls being sorted by size and shape before being strung in strands ready for the wholesale market.

Different colors can also be created using various processes such as color treatment with dyes as well as through irradiation.

Freshwater pearl harvests are typically bought while still in the shell. After harvest the pearls are delivered to a first-stage factory, which is responsible for cleaning and sorting the pearls by size and shape.

QUALITY:

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The quality of each cultured freshwater pearl is determined based on it’s color, size, shape, surface blemishes, luster, and nacre thickness.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer Look at Tahitian Pearls”

Freshwater pearls appear in a wide range of colors, largely achieved by controlling it’s growth environment, as well as through dye and irradiation treatments.

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Freshwater pearls range in size from 2 millimeters to as large as 12 millimeters. Larger pearls command higher prices (with all other factors being equal). The most popular sizes are the 6.0-7.0 mm, the 7.0-8.0 mm and 8.0-9.0 mm ranges.

Freshwater pearls can be found in all the shapes possible: all beautiful in their own right — “round,” “drop,” “button,” “oval,” “semi-round,” “circle — or “ringed”,” “baroque,” and “semi-baroque.”

Pearls that are perfectly round or show only the slightest variation from a true round shape are the most valuable. Perfectly round pearls represent less than 0.0025% of each harvest, whereas those that feature slight variations from a true round about 3%.

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The appearance of the surface of the pearl is perhaps one of its most critical characteristics. The surface should be smooth and clean, without bumps, spots, discolorations, or other disfiguring characteristics.

Blemishes such as pits (see above), chalky spots, and ridges all affect a pearl's quality and price.

Blemishes such as pits (see above), chalky spots, and ridges all affect a pearl’s quality and price.

Luster refers both to a pearl’s brilliance — the way its surface reflects light — and its inner glow: the way it refracts light.

Luster is the most important factor in determining the value of a pearl. Freshwater pearls are known for their ‘satiny’ luster, which is softer and less intense than the saltwater akoya pearl.

Freshwater pearls with Excellent luster (top) and those with Good luster (bottom).

Freshwater pearls with Excellent luster (top) and those with Good luster (bottom).

Nacre is the substance from which the pearl is actually created. Pearl characteristics such as color and luster are actually characteristics of the nacre itself. In general, the thicker the nacre, the more valuable the pearl.

CARE:

It is very important to realize that pearls are very susceptible to damage from chemicals and the environment so special care needs to be taken when wearing as well as storing them.

Warm water and a mild detergent are the best way to clean your pearls.

Warm water and a mild detergent are the best way to clean your pearls.

You will find our article “How to Clean Your Pearls” extremely useful for providing your pearls with the proper care they deserve.

After all, they are the only gemstone that is made by a living creature!

We hope this article has given you a bit more of a background on freshwater pearls, but should you have any additional questions about this or any other jewellery related topics, you can always: “Ask Our Jeweller”

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This article was compiled from my personal knowledge as a gemologist, as well as numerous online sources, individuals and textbooks. If you have something to add to this article that you feel would be of benefit to others, please, do not hesitate to contact us.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow, it’s amazing that pearls were used in funeral rituals in the past. I’m looking for freshwater pearls for sale to give to my sister. She would love to learn that Japan is the first country to cultivate freshwater pearls. Great info!

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