Although pearls were once sought in the wild, many of today’s most beautiful pearls are “cultured” and farmed, meaning the oysters or mussels are manually treated with an irritant designed to stimulate pearl production.
The process of “seeding” the oysters and mussels, however, does not necessarily guarantee a pearl. In fact, although millions of irritants are planted inside shellfish, it is estimated only 50 percent will grow to adulthood and produce a worthy gem.
One of the reasons why real pearl jewelry is so highly valued is that it may require sorting through 10,000 pearls to find 50 matched pearls suitable for a high-quality, 16- inch necklace.
Freshwater Pearls Vs. Saltwater Pearls
Pearls occur in both fresh water (mussels) and salt water (oysters).
Freshwater pearls are more commonly found than their saltwater counterparts, making them generally more affordable. (Even so, it’s not unheard of for an especially rare and flawless freshwater pearl to command top dollar.) But that doesn’t mean these pearls are any less attractive. Freshwater pearls boast colors ranging from traditional white hues to alluring lavender shades. Freshwater pearls are primarily farmed in China, but they are also produced in Japan and in the Mississippi River Basin of the U.S.
Saltwater pearls, which include Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls, can be found in bays, inlets, and atolls throughout the central Indo-Pacific region. Saltwater pearl varieties differ in color, shape, size and, of course, price.
South Sea pearls are the most rare — and largest in size — of all pearl varieties and come in white and gold. Tahitian pearls, with their plethora of exotic dark colors, are considered second only to South Sea pearls in terms of value.
Akoya pearls are the most abundant cultured saltwater pearl. Boasting a consistently round shape, this variety is often referred to as the classic pearl, known for a brilliance and luster so clear you can sometimes see your reflection. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tend to be the most affordable saltwater pearl.
Natural Pearls Vs. Cultured Pearls
Cultures throughout the world have cherished the pearl for centuries. Pearls are naturally breathtaking — unlike precious gems, they don’t need to be mined, polished, or cut. For this reason, they have long been regarded as a symbol of purity andbeauty.
In today’s jewelry industry, cultured pearls are the standard. It takes pearl farmers less than two years to produce a pearl, whereas natural pearls can take up to 10 years to fully form. In order to determine a natural pearl from a cultured pearl, use of an x-ray and trained eyes are necessary. The outer layers of both are the same material. It's the inner core or nucleus of the pearl that is different.
Although natural pearls still exist in nature (historically they were found in the Persian Gulf), they are extremely rare. A natural pearl is likely to fetch a high price on the market, regardless of its size or color. In fact, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a perfect strand of natural pearls to command hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Use this chart to note the differences between freshwater pearls and the three primary varieties of saltwater pearls.
||China, Japan and U.S.
||2mm to 15mm+
||Multiple shapes available
||Ranges from white to various shades of pastel pinks and lavenders
||Most commonly produced pearl
||China, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Thailand
||2mm to 10mm (7mm is average)
||Neutral white to cream
||French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Micronesian Islands
||8mm to 18mm
||Drops, baroques, buttons and circles (round is most valuable)
||Primarily black, but can range from creamy gray to iridescent peacock
||Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia
||8mm to 20mm
||Baroque to round
||Mostly neutrals — silver, white, cream and golden colors
||The most rare pearl, especially those exhibiting golden colors
Classic pearl necklaces range in traditional lengths from short chokers to long, rope length strands. Your fashion sense and personal style will dictate the design that’s right for you.
14 to 16 inches – Choker
This is the average choker length, fitting closely around the neck and falling just above the collarbone. It is a becoming length for most necklines and is often very popular with younger women, as it lends a sweet look to any outfit. Chokers with a little more length—closer to 16 inches—could possibly work when coupled with a pendant or pin for an additional accent.
18 inches – Princess
This length is often referred to as the princess length and is a very popular choice. It falls directly at or a little below the collarbone, allowing a little more drape than the choker lengths. Pendants are quite becoming when added to chains of this length, which is one of the reasons this is one of the most common necklace lengths.
20 to 24 inches – Matinee
At this length, sometimes referred to as the matinee length, a necklace falls further past the collarbone and begins to make a statement that is slightly bolder than the choker or princess lengths. This is the preferred length for either low necklines or to accompany a turtleneck. It is also often used for layering with other lengths. The 24-inch matinee is an intermediate length between the shorter matinee and longer opera lengths. It’s a common choice for eveningwear or for styles and pendants, necklaces or strands that need to make a statement or splash. It’s also an acceptable business-style length. Falling below the neckline, the 24-inch length begins to remove emphasis away from the neck area.
30 to 36 inches - Opera
The bold, attention-getting opera length is surprisingly versatile for an array of body shapes. Typically saved for formal occasions, the opera length can work equally well in a single- or double-strand style.
36+ inches - Rope
Longer (36+ inches) styles are known as rope necklaces. Like the opera length, they can work In single or double-strand styles, and are usually reserved for formal events or business. They can also be knotted for a different look.