Buying Saltwater Pearls: Types, Characteristics, Value & More

You may have heard a few distinguishing categories for the beloved pearl. One of which being the difference between saltwater and freshwater, am I right?

Well, today, we are going to give all of our attention to the saltwater pearl. Saltwater pearls have a much longer cultivation history making the process a little bit more mature and the glossy balls of joy a true sight to behold. Even though there are a few criteria (luster, nacre quality, etc.) to distinguish the quality between two gems, we must remember that personal preference also has a huge part to play!

Pearls have a soft spot in our hearts and a safe space in our jewelry boxes, but what makes saltwater pearls worth knowing about?

Let’s find out!👯

A Quality Saltwater Pearl

Basics: What are saltwater pearls?

Now, it might seem obvious but it wouldn’t be right for us to skip over the basic details, now would it?

Saltwater pearls are formed inside of an oyster that lives in saltwater. The exotic oceans just off the coast of places such as Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and French Polynesia (and many more) are home to many saltwater pearl varieties.

For saltwater pearls to form, an irritant (also known as a nucleus bead for cultured pearls) is placed inside the oyster which gradually wraps the intruder with nacre—a silky soft material—to protect itself from the agitation of the unwanted guest.

Steven KwokIGI Certified Pearl Grader
All saltwater pearls are nucleated (whether by a natural irritant like sand or cultured with a bead nucleus). This is different to freshwater pearls that can be cultured with or without a bead nucleus but instead use mussel tissue.

Depending on where the saltwater pearl grows and a variety of other conditions, these saltwater pearls can appear in all different shapes, sizes and luster…as we are about to find out.

The major types of saltwater pearls

There are three main types of saltwater pearl worth mentioning here today: Akoya pearls, South Sea pearls and Tahitian pearls.

We’re going to break down each one so you can really get to know your stuff!😚

⚠️But before we do, l think we should share a few essential bits of information with you:

  • Each different type of saltwater pearl is produced in a specific place that encourages certain shapes and sizes, colors and tones, luster quality, nacre thickness and quality which all affects the value of the pearl.
  • The size and type of oyster in which the pearl is cultured as well as other factors including the temperature, climate, saltwater ingredients and production circle will lead to the differences in the saltwater pearls.

So does it matter whether you know which particular type of saltwater pearl you are purchasing? I’d say so!

Akoya Pearls

Facts about the Akoya Pearl

  • The Akoya pearl is a cultured saltwater pearl from the Akoya oyster also known as Pinctada fucata martensii.
  • They rarely produce more than two pearls per harvest.
  • The oysters are often nucleated with a mother of pearl bead and a smaller piece of mantle tissue. It is this particular nucleus that makes the Akoya bead more perfectly round in shape.
  • Akoya pearls are usually smaller in size than other varieties with the average Akoya pearl being 6mm. They can however range from as small as 2mm up to 10mm (but these are incredibly rare!)
  • Most Akoya pearls are round in shape yet the occasional baroque or keshi pearl pops up each harvest.
  • Unless they are color treated, Akoya pearls are naturally neutral in color and overtone. Most are white to gray with a pinkish, greenish or silver overtone and have a mirror-like shine!
  • These stunning beauties are mostly farmed in Japan, the Akoya capital of the world! China is also a close runner up for Akoya production.

The history of Akoya pearls

The Akoya pearl truly begins with the humble curiosity of one particular individual named, Kokichi Mikimoto.

Kokichi began experimenting with pearl cultivation in the 1800's, convinced that he would be capable of farming pearls. Unsuccessfully he dedicated himself to years of trial and error with very little success trying to form a magnificent pearl, a cultivation process he was determined to make work.

In 1905, after 12 years of trying and failing, Kokichi grew his first perfectly round pearl. With the small amount of mother of pearl as the nucleus, he was finally able to own a gem that had ordinarily been saved for the upper classes.

Indeed, when he brought his pearls to market it caused much confusion as people did not believe them to be real pearls!

Kokichi educated consumers on the production of cultured pearls and Kokichi had unknowingly created an entirely new industry for cultured pearls to exist!

South Sea Pearls

There are two different types of sub-varieties to look at when it comes to the South Sea Pearl: white South Sea pearls and golden South Sea pearls.

White South Sea PearlsGolden South Sea Pearls
Produced in the silver-lipped Pinctada maxima South Sea oyster.Cultivated in the gold-lipped South Sea pearl oyster also known as Pinctada maxima.
Most white South Sea pearls are produced along the northwest coast of Australia.🌏They have a natural warm, golden tone and as like the white South Sea pearls, are typically larger than other saltwater pearl varieties.
The silver-lipped variety produces pearls that generally have white, silver, aqua or blue overtones.The value of these pearls is heavily dependent on the quality of the color. The deeper the golden color of the pearl, the more valuable it is considered to be.
They have fantastic luster quality making them a prized possession by collectors.😻The deepest golden tone is referred to as 24 karats, the most valuable color of all South Sea pearls!
White South Sea pearls have a beautiful soft white color that gives them a silky luxurious appeal.The color of the golden South Sea pearl ranges from creamy white to deep gold.
These pearls can grow at an average size of between 10 to 13mm with some being found as big as 20mm!
South Sea pearls have a thicker nacre than other saltwater pearls and because of this can be found in a variety of shapes. A typical harvest will yield drop pearls, baroque pearls, button pearls and circled pearls.
They can take up to 2-4 years to grow which is almost double the amount of time an Akoya pearl takes to cultivate!

Tahitian Pearls

OK, now for something a little…different! The Tahitian pearl is certainly a jaw-dropper for anyone looking for a bit of character. A twist on a classic, if you will!

Facts about Tahitian Pearls

  • Tahitian pearls are grown in the black lip oyster also known as the Pinctada margaritifera saltwater pearl oyster.
  • People often call the Tahitian pearl a "black" pearl although this is not really the case! The dark body tone of the Tahitian pearl may give the appearance of being black but in actuality they reflect a rainbow-like overtone of colors including greens, blue’s purples and metallic silvers.✅
  • Pearl farmers may aim for perfectly round Tahitian pearls but for the most part, they come in a vast variety of shapes with baroque cultured pearls being among the most valued.
  • Less than 10% of all Tahitian pearls harvested are actually round!
  • Tahitian pearl nacre creates a sumptuous satin luster that has a deep and full reflection, incredibly satisfying to the eye!
  • They can grow from sizes anywhere between 8mm and 16mm, and sometimes larger!

Pssssssst! And here is something extra for you!

Tahitian pearls are not actually grown in Tahiti!
Tahiti is the main trading spot for all producers of the Tahiti pearl. Black-lip pearls are actually farmed in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and the Micronesian Islands.
Saltwater Pearl Farming in Southeast Asia
Saltwater pearl farming in Souteast Asia

Saltwater pearls vs. Freshwater pearls: The differences

Okay so, time for a broad overview of the main differences between saltwater and freshwater pearls.

Because as mentioned before, time and innovation has been able to close the gap between the quality of the two but there are still some major characteristic differences that set the two apart.

And they’re worth knowing about!

Saltwater PearlsFreshwater Pearls
Grown in saltwater oceans off the coasts of Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Japan and French Polynesia.Grown in mussels found in various freshwater sources such as rivers or lakes in places such a China, Japan and USA.
Are grown slowly over several years.Are grown quickly and can take less time to develop as saltwater pearls.
Are formed around a significant bead nucleus that allows for a smoother coating of nacre.For non-nucleated freshwater pearls, the inserted mussel tissue (used as an irritant) is much smaller and as a result of this, the pearl is almost made of nacre.
Saltwater pearls require more care as they are less durable due to their thinner nacre.Freshwater pearls are less prone to chipping because of the thicker nacre.
Akoya pearls are smaller in size, but other saltwater pearls are typically larger than freshwater pearls.Today freshwater pearls can be grown to much bigger sizes but are still typically smaller than the saltwater pearl.
The bead nucleus of saltwater pearls often results in better spherical shapes but can often be found in baroque and abstract shapes.The mussel tissue in freshwater pearls encourages oval, button-shaped, baroque, semi-baroque-shaped or keshi pearls. Only 5% of freshwater pearls are perfectly round.
Saltwater pearls have a superior luster and luxurious glossy appearance.👏🏻Freshwater pearls can have a lovely luster but do not often compare to the saltwater pearl in tone and depth.
Saltwater pearls tend to be found in white, creamy colors with the gold and black varieties being a popular alternative.Freshwater pearls are known to be found in a range of colors such as white, cream, lilac and pink.

Are saltwater pearls more valuable than freshwater pearls?

The short answer? Yes.

Saltwater pearls are considered more valuable. This is because the saltwater oysters produce far fewer pearls over the harvest and so they are considered to be more rare.

And rarity always adds value! Also, the higher quality luster and appearance make them incredibly desirable to consumers and collectors.

Freshwater pearls are considered less valuable as a freshwater mollusk can produce up to 50 pearls per harvest and they often do not have the same luster and color quality. But they are a great affordable option to add to any wardrobe!

How to care for saltwater pearls?

So, you’ve decided that a saltwater pearl is just the one for you? Great!

While there can be a range of nacre thicknesses, we must account for the fact that generally, the saltwater pearl has a thinner nacre than its freshwater counterparts so we must consider this when providing some much-needed TLC.

Here are some things to consider when looking after a saltwater pearl:

  • Store them separately to other gems—most other gems will be harder than the glossy saltwater pearl. So, to avoid any damage or scratching from the other stunning pieces in your jewelry box, keep the saltwater pearl in a compartment of its own.
  • Do not use ultrasonic cleaners! Your pearl will not thank you for it!
  • Wipe gently after every use to remove any perspiration, chemical or dirt that may have found its way onto the pearl throughout the day.
  • To preserve the luster, keep away from everyday chemicals such as hairspray, lotion, washing up liquid, perfume etc.
  • Or best advice? Make sure your pearl is the last to go on and the first to come off!✅

Everything you need to know about saltwater pearls

I think you’ll agree, that once you have some more knowledge, there’s a lot to learn about these little saltwater orbs of joy.

As with most gems, there’s a saltwater pearl out there to fit every kind of character and personality. You may prefer the classic, round soft white pearl that so perfectly sits upon the neck of a bride to be with its simplicity and timeless fashion.

Or you may prefer the quirky and unique vibe provided by a "black" Tahitian beauty with all its lumps and bumps!

Whatever you decide, a saltwater pearl is a pearl of quality and luscious appeal. Treat it with care and it will do the same for you!🤗

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