So, saltwater pearls may appear to be stealing most of the glory in terms of quality and desirability as a whole, but there is a lot to be said for the freshwater pearl.
While they may not quite compare in terms of overall quality, the freshwater pearl has certainly been on a journey. And on that journey, the cultivation techniques have greatly improved and yielded some fantastic results!👏🏻
Today, we are going to dive into everything you need to know about freshwater pearls so you can decide for yourself whether or not they are the type of pearl for you!
The freshwater pearl can be found inside of a freshwater dwelling mussel. Large freshwater ponds and lakes are home to the mussels that grow the freshwater pearl in a similar way that the oyster develops its saltwater cousin.
For the freshwater pearl, the mussel is inserted with a foreign material that the mussel cannot expel.
In irritation, and to protect itself from the agitation of the foreign object, the mussel coats the foreign object with a silky nacre which in time forms into a satiny freshwater pearl. The farmers slightly open the mussel and make small slits inside both mantle tissues before placing the foreign body inside.
The foreign substance is sometimes the mantle tissue itself or it could be a bead nucleus (but more on that in a hot tick!)
While China gets a lot of attention surrounding freshwater pearls, the original cultivation of these luscious globes began in Japan following the cultivation of the saltwater pearl.
After the initial success of saltwater pearl production, the Japanese farmers began experimenting with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a wondrous lake near Kyoto.📌
The 1930s is where freshwater pearl crops started appearing and they have only expanded and grown in popularity since then. Up until recently, all freshwater pearls were considered "Biwas" in reference to their heritage but, when pollution endangered the pearl farms and production slowly diminished…It was China who filled the gap in the market.
The Third Chinese Pearl Wave came along in the 1990s and China upturned the market with a pearl revolution! Pearls that matched the quality and luster of the original Biwa pearls (and sometimes even surpassed it).
Alright, now we’re going to start getting into the nitty-gritty of it. There is more to meet the eye to the often considered less-superior freshwater pearl that may surprise you.
There are two different cultivation techniques when it comes to pearl cultivation techniques: tissue-nucleated and bead-nucleated.👨🏻🏫 Don’t freak out! If you’re wondering, "What are you talking about?!" We’re going to break it down for you right now…
As we know, for the mussel to produce a pearl it must be inserted with a foreign substance in which to wrap its glossy nacre. And it is this part of the cultivation process which distinguishes which is a tissue-nucleated pearl and which is a bead-nucleated pearl.
Unlike the saltwater pearl, traditional cultured freshwater pearls use the tissue-nucleated (also known as non-nucleated) technique to produce the pearls inside the mussel.
What does this mean?
The foreign object placed inside the mussel is actually a piece of donated mantle tissue which in this technique, is what is regarded as the "nucleus".
This contributes to a number of varying factors when it comes to these particular types of freshwater pearls:
The non-nucleated technique is the term used for a tissue-nucleated mussel. And these do account for most freshwater pearls which explain the varying shapes produced from the freshwater mussel.
A bead-nucleated (or nucleated) pearl contains a mother of pearl bead which acts as the irritant within the mussel or oyster. This cultivation technique is mostly used for saltwater pearl production however, a revolution in freshwater pearls cultivation means that certain types of freshwater pearl can be found with the bead nucleus (we discuss this further a little later on!)
They produce pearls that are closer to the perfectly round shape we often imagine a pearl to be and can also be bigger in size.
We’ve touched upon a few areas already in which the freshwater pearl is typically cultured but let’s look into this in a little more detail.
Lake Biwa, Japan is truly where this all began. Although this is sometimes forgotten now that China is at the forefront of freshwater pearl production.
But the ORIGINAL cultured freshwater pearl followed in the footsteps of the saltwater pearl, which originated in Japan.🎌 Lake Biwa was the first freshwater lake where pearl farmers experimented with the creation of pearls formed within a mussel.
A large and outstanding lake near Kyoto in Japan, Lake Biwa was where the all-nacre Biwa pearls were cultivated, offering colors and luster not commonly seen in the saltwater pearl.
Lake Biwa pearl production thrived until pollution threatened the crops in the mid-1980s. Now, very few pearls are farmed in this region.
Today, China takes the lead for freshwater pearl production. When the Lake Biwa pearl production began to diminish, China was there to fill the gap!🏃🏻♀️
The Hyriopsis Cumingii (triangle shell) is the main source of freshwater pearls cultivated in China. Arguably, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Chinese pearl farmers actually mastered the technique of producing high-quality pearls.
Up until this point, China had experimented and tested with less than adequate results.
Their pearls were sometimes compared to "Rice Krispies" due to their low quality, odd shapes, and lack-luster appearance.
These can produce bigger and rounder freshwater pearls that are incredibly desirable and sought after!
These mussels would continue secreting nacre within the pearl sack and form what are known as "souffle" or "keshi" pearls of unusual shapes and sizes. Quite exquisite and wonderfully unique!
The United States also plays its part but cannot compare to the sheer volume and production of pearls produced in China.
The Mississippi River Basin is an established area for freshwater pearl production with the first experimental freshwater pearl cultivation founded in Tennessee in 1963.
Unsurprisingly, the scale of freshwater pearl farming is very limited in comparison to China!
We NEED to talk about the two famous and revolutionary freshwater pearl varieties that have given the freshwater pearl an entirely new representation in terms of quality and outstanding beauty.🥳
The Freshwater AK pearl and the Edison pearl have adopted the same cultivation technique as the saltwater pearl, using a bead nuclei (rather than a tissue nuclei).
And the results have been incredible!!
Let’s find out more about these two famous branded freshwater pearls…
While there is usually quite the difference in quality between the freshwater pearl and the saltwater pearl, freshwater AK pearls certainly rival that of the Akoya saltwater pearl.
They appear very similar in size and shape and the developed sophistication of the freshwater AK pearls even rivals the Akoya in luster and the smooth surface, and is considered superior to the Akoya!
Even the most extravagant of gems can be subject to treatment (take the diamond for example!) And freshwater pearls are not any different.
While a good quality freshwater pearl does not require any sort of treatment and is available at an affordable price, some are subject to a range of quality enhancements to improve color, surface quality, or luster quality.
The three common treatments that freshwater pearls may undergo include:
Lower quality freshwater pearls often require treatment of some sort to enhance the overall quality and appeal, but with the rise in higher quality freshwater pearls…There are many that require no such treatment.
Let’s look at the different characteristics of freshwater pearls in comparison to saltwater pearls:
|Characteristics||Freshwater Pearls||Saltwater Pearls|
|Sizes||Freshwater pearls can be found in a vast range of sizes. They typically begin at around 2-3mm and can reach between 9-10mm in size. However, the recent bead-nucleated freshwater pearls can grow even bigger than this and reach sizes of up to 16mm!||The famous saltwater pearl variety Akoya ranges from 2-8mm in size. While most other saltwater pearls are larger than Akoya pearls and can reach up to 16mm.|
|Shapes||They come in all different types of glorious shapes! Often the bead-nucleated freshwater pearls create the closest to the round shape with most of the tissue-nucleated (non-nucleated) freshwater pearls including drops, baroque, semi-baroque, buttons, off-round, and more abstract shapes also.||We see more perfectly round saltwater pearls than the freshwater counterparts due to the bead nucleus although saltwater pearls are also formed in a variety of shapes.|
|Colors||They are found in body colors of white, yellow, orange, lavender, violet, and pink with varying overtones including blue, green, etc.||Saltwater pearls come in white, yellow, gray, brown, black body colors and also have a range of overtones, such as pink, blue and violet.|
|Surface Quality||All pearls tend to have some sort of surface blemish. Freshwater pearl blemishes are usually seen as white chalk-like spots, tiny pinpricks, or small streak-like marks across the surface. Nucleated freshwater pearls tend to have a smoother finish than their tissue-nucleated counterparts.||Saltwater pearls also have similar blemishes to freshwater pearls. Wrinkles are a typical characteristic on the surface of Akoya pearls, whilst threads are a common blemish that appears on Tahitian and South Sea pearls.|
|Nacre Quality||Freshwater pearls have a thicker nacre than saltwater pearls with tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls being solid nacre.||The Akoya pearl variety has the thinnest nacre. Other varieties generally have a nacre thickness of at least 0.8mm|
|Luster Quality||Freshwater pearls generally display a soft and satiny luster. A diffused glow that offers a subtle and luxurious luster.||The Akoya pearl has the brightest and sharpest reflection in the saltwater pearl category. The South Sea pearl is famous for their silky luster, while the Tahitian pearl has a chic and metallic look.|
The quality of freshwater pearls is usually determined by the 7 quality factors (6 of which were mentioned above!):
While there is no standardized grading system for pearls in the same way there is for say, diamonds, the A-AAA grading system is one that is widely adopted by jewelers.📝
In this grading system, AAA represents the highest quality pearl A represents the lowest quality of pearl (typically for commercial use). Four to five of the seven quality factors above are used in tandem with the A-AAA grading scale to determine the quality of a freshwater pearl and those factors are; surface quality, luster, shape, matching, and sometimes include nacre thickness.
Let’s break down each layer of the A-AAA grading system:
In comparison to the glamor and quality of the saltwater pearl, the freshwater counterpart can be anywhere up to 20%-50% cheaper.
The fast growth rates and often non-nucleated cultivation technique generally produce a comparatively lower quality of pearl with less uniformity and lower quality luster.
While the likes of the freshwater AK pearl and the Edison pearl are certainly beginning to rival the quality of saltwater pearls, they still don’t quite match up with the overall beauty and quality of saltwater gems.
As always the rarity of any given gem adds to its value and with saltwater oysters only able to produce up to 2-3 pearls per harvest, freshwater pearls are often in higher demand.
Today, some freshwater pearls can be found in wonderfully high quality, exhibiting a sumptuous silky glow and a wonderful delicate color yet, for the most part, they make for an affordable alternative to the higher-priced saltwater pearls.
And that’s it! You are now fuelled with all of the knowledge you need for your next pearl buying decision.🙌🏻
As an affordable option that in modern times can now be found in much higher quality than the history of freshwater pearls are used to, they make for a very popular pearl of choice.
Just be careful! Pearls are a soft and delicate gem no matter which variety you opt for. With that said, be sure to follow our top tips for caring for a freshwater pearl:
With that, enjoy your next pearl shopping trip and keep this information in mind when you’re scouting for your next exquisite pearl item. If you haven't familiarized yourself with the saltwater pearl, don't hesitate to go over this in-depth guide.