Understanding Akoya Pearls – The Complete Guide

The first pearls to be successfully cultured, Akoya pearls are classic and stylish. For over a hundred years, Akoya pearls have been the gold standard for lustre and beauty in the jewellery world.

by Reema Farooqui

White, round and gleaming, orbs of lustre and iridescence, Akoya pearls are what come to mind when we think of the perfect pearl. For most jewellery lovers, having a piece of Akoya pearl jewellery, such as a graduated pearl necklace or a pair of shining Akoya pearl ear studs, is an essential part of their jewellery box.

According to the Gemological Association of America (GIA), many customers think of white or creamy white Akoya pearls as the classic item of jewellery, especially when worn as single-strand necklaces. An 18-inch necklace of graduated Akoya pearls is a jewellery box staple that can never go wrong.

What are Akoya Pearls?

One of the most desired gems in the world, Akoya pearls are loved for their sharp lustre, round shapes and beautiful colours and overtones. These pearls grow in the Pinctada Fucata oyster, which is a saltwater mollusk.

Akoya pearls are special because they were the first pearls to be cultured. More than a hundred years ago, in 1890, the first cultured pearl farm was established by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan.

After many rounds of trial and error, Mikimoto was finally able to cultivate an Akoya pearl at his pearl farm in 1893. A magnificent feat of science, technology, ambition and determination, that one semi-spherical cultured pearl changed the world of jewellery forever.

However, it was not until 1916 that Mikimoto began mass-producing cultured pearls at his pearl farms. As a result, the cultured pearl industry was established and soon became an important part of international jewellery stage.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, cultured Akoya pearls were being used in fine jewellery not only in Japan but also by many heritage jewellery houses in Europe.

Are Akoya Pearls Cultured?

Yes, Akoya pearls are cultured in pearl farms. From the time the pearl oysters are babies to when they produce a pearl, the pearl cultivation process for Akoya pearls can take a few years.

Generally, pearl farms start with baby oysters or spat, which are allowed to grow into 2 or 3 year old juveniles before they are nucleated with a bead.

The farms then have to wait for another 18 months to 2 years before the bead-nucleated oysters are harvested for their pearls. This is because it takes almost two years for an oyster to grow thick and shiny layers of nacre around the bead.

The thicker the nacre, the more iridescent and shinier the Akoya pearl, which in turn makes it beautiful and very desirable.

Where do Akoya Pearls come from?

The Pinctada Fucata saltwater oyster is naturally found in the Indo-Pacific area. Today, Akoya pearls are farmed and produced in many countries. These include Japan, China and Vietnam. Very recently, Akoya pearls have started being cultivated in Eastern Australia with good results.

Common Colours for Akoya Pearls

Akoya Pearl Colours

Akoya pearls come in a range different natural colours. These include white, cream, grey-blue, blue and gold.

White is the most common colour for these pearls. Blue and gold Akoya pearls are lovely but rare.

Black Akoya pearls are always colour-treated but are also very popular among jewellery lovers. These pearls have a jet-black body colour.

Akoya Pearl Overtones

However it is their colourful overtones that give these pearls a whole range of different hues. Overtones are the iridescent secondary colours that shimmer on the surface of pearls. These colours are separate from the body colour of Akoya pearls.

The most common overtones for Akoya pearls are rose or blush pink, cream, aquamarine, silver, green, gold and violet (which is most often seen on blue Akoyas).

White Akoya pearls with rose overtones are very popular among pearl lovers and are often compared to the blush-pink colour of sakura (cherry blossom) flowers.

Blue Akoya often exhibit silver, aquamarine, green, violet or even slightly pink overtones. Gold Akoya pearls often come with silver, green, pink and gold overtones.

Vietnamese Akoyas have brighter and more vivid natural colours and overtones as compared to their Japanese counterparts.

Colour-treated black Akoyas often show blue-black or green-black overtones.

Akoya Pearl Shapes

Akoya pearls are loved for their perfectly spherical shapes. A perfectly symmetrical, round Akoya pearl is the most desired shape for this pearl.

However, as with most pearls, other shapes can also be found in Akoya pearls. The most common shapes include:

Round: These Akoya pearls are perfectly round. They are symmetrically spherical. As far as shapes go, round pearls are the most desirable and hence the most expensive Akoya pearls.

Near Round: These Akoya pearls appear round to the eye but they are not perfectly spherical. When rolled on a flat surface, these pearls have a distinct “wobble.” They offer great value for money because they look like round pearls but don’t have round pearl price-tags.

Semi-Baroque: These Akoya pearls do not have a perfectly round shape but they have symmetry. No two baroque Akoya pearls are exactly alike making them very unique.

Button, oval and circlé pearls rarely if ever appear in Akoya pearls.

Akoya Keshi pearls often have free-form, irregular and organic shapes.

Pearl Sizes

Akoya Pearl Sizes

Akoyas most often come in sizes ranging from 3 mm to 9mm. But these pearls can be found in smaller and larger sizes as well.

For instance, the 1 – 2mm tiny “baby” Akoyas are very rare and can only be sourced from a handful of pearl farms.

By contrast, these days you can find larger size Akoya pearls, in sizes between 9mm and 11mm! The 10 – 11mm category is once again very rare and only a few pearl farms grow pearls to these sizes.

However, the most popular size for Akoyas is 7 – 8mm. Easily available, this size range of Akoya pearls looks good on everyone, whether they are wearing ear studs, a pendant, a necklace or a pearl ring.

Akoya Pearl Grading

Akoya pearls are mainly graded on a scale that goes from AAA TO A, with AAA grade being the highest. These grades are based on seven different criteria.1


More than any other value factor, the lustre quality of Akoyas determines their value. Pearls with sharp, bright and mirror-like lustre with finely detailed reflections, will always be more valuable than pearls with less bright lustre and dull, fuzzy reflections.

Symmetry of Shape

Akoya pearls are prized for their round shapes. A perfectly round, spherically symmetrical pearl without any hint of a “wobble” will always be more valuable than a pearl that is not perfectly round.

Surface Quality

A pearl with a clean, smooth surface and minimal blemishes (95% blemish free) will be more valuable than one with spots, bumps and blemishes.


Larger pearls will always be more desirable, and so more valuable than smaller pearls. Akoyas in sizes larger than 9mm will command higher prices.

But there is a paradox here also. Top quality, tiny “baby” Akoyas in sizes less than 3 mm are rare and can be expensive.

Nacre Quality

Nacre, or the layers of iridescent material that gives pearls their unique glow, is another important value factor for these pearls. Thicker and more even nacre results in pearls that have great luster and excellent surface quality. Also, thicker nacre makes the pearls more durable.

Thin nacre can give pearls a chalky appearance or can cause the pearl to “blink” such that the inner nucleus becomes visible at certain angles. Pearls with thin nacre can chip easily and look lifeless.


Akoya pearls exhibit a range of overtones, including creamy-ivory, pink and silver. Pink or blush rose coloured overtones on white Akoya pearls are prized above all others. Natural blue Akoyas with strong a strong blue colour and intense multi-coloured overtones with shades of pink, silver, gold and green will also have a higher grade.


Matching is important for pearls set in necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Akoya pearl jewellery pieces that match for colour, overtones, lustre, size and nacre quality will always be more in demand.

Finding perfect matches for Akoya pearl jewellery can take time. It is quite common for a perfectly matched Akoya pearl necklace to be made over a number of pearl harvests.

Buying Akoya Pearls

Before you start looking for Akoya pearl jewellery, have a clear idea in mind about the quality of pearls you want to buy. This will help you determine your budget for the purchase. Or go the other way round and set your budget and then find out the quality you will be able to purchase with it.  

AAA Akoya pearls will be considerably more expensive than AA grade pearls, because of their higher quality. With their excellent lustre, superb nacre and iridescence, exquisite surface and winning colours and overtones, their allure is undeniable.

But that does not mean that AA grade pearls are not lovely. They also look very attractive when worn. Only a pearl expert will be able to tell the difference just by looking at a AA Akoya pearl strand.

A grade strands are also a good choice for someone who wants to wear Akoya pearls but may not be able to pay the premium price for higher quality. Once again, they look good when worn but they will not have the shine, lustre and attraction of a AAA grade or AA grade Akoya pearl.

Thus, from the very outset, you need to decide on the balance between beauty and budget and find out figure out what suits you best.

Then, find reputable and trustworthy sellers, fine and established jewellery brands that are renowned for their pearls or pearl specialists to purchase your Akoya pearl jewellery. Do your own research or contact a pearl expert and get recommendations.2

Shop around. Look at what is being offered by different pearl sellers or jewellery brands and compare quality, prices, variety of jewellery pieces and before/after sales services.

Make an informed decision and go for your perfect pearls.

Are Akoya Pearls a Good Investment?

Buying top quality or gem-grade Akoya pearls is always a good idea. Akoya pearl jewellery from certain fine jewellery brands will not only hold its value but in many cases add to it, provided it is worn and handled with care.

But, other than their monetary value, good quality Akoya pearls are a great addition to any jewellery collection. And if worn and stored with care, will give joy for generations to come.

For instance, a necklace of 8.0-8.5 mm graduated, top quality, white Akoya pearls is one of the most timeless and versatile pieces of jewellery. Similarly, you can never go wrong with a pair of lustrous Akoya pearl ear studs. Both can look good with a casual outfit as well as formal evening wear.

What’s more, both pieces can be a great choice for men who want to add pearls to their look.

Taking Care of Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are an organic gem. As such, they are more delicate as compared to other gems like diamonds and sapphires.

While pearls do require special care, it is easy to do and can effortlessly become part of the ritual of wearing pearls.

“Last on and first off” is the golden rule for wearing pearls. Make sure that you put on your pearls after applying make-up, putting on hair spray or wearing perfume. Also, pearls should be the first item of your outfit to be removed, before you start cleansing and washing your face.

The acid found in sweat can damage the nacre of an Akoya pearl, causing it to become dull. Never wear your pearls during a rigorous workout or any other high-intensity physical activity where there is a high chance of sweating.

It is always a good idea to wipe your pearls with a soft, clean cloth before putting them away in your jewellery box. You may make it a little damp but a dry cloth will also do the job.

Always store your pearls in a soft cloth pouch. The sharp facets and corners of metal jewellery may scratch and damage the surface of your pearls if you store your non-pearl jewellery with your pearls.

Once a year, check the knots of your pearl necklaces and bracelets. If the knots look loose, or the silk thread looks frayed, have the piece restrung to avoid the necklace or bracelet breaking suddenly. Also, if the knots look dirty (which can happen with regular wear), it will take away from the beauty of your pearls. Having your necklace or bracelet knotted again will revive the charm of your pearl jewellery piece.

Never wear your pearls while showering or swimming. Soap and chlorine will damage the beautiful lustre on your pearls. Don’t submerge your necklaces and bracelets in water because it will damage the silk thread and knots.

Never clean your pearls in an ultrasonic or steam cleaner. If you think that your pearls are looking dirty, gently wipe them with a clean, soft, damp cloth. Dry them immediately afterwards with another clean, soft cloth so that the dampness does not seep into the silk knots.

For a more thorough and deeper cleaning, take your pearl jewellery pieces to your jeweller.

Are Akoya Pearls for You?

Akoya pearls are coveted by jewellery collectors for their radiant lustre, enchanting colours and their much-loved round shapes. Therefore, for all jewellery collectors, these pearls are a classy and stylish must-have. 

Featured Image: The “Lagniappe” Necklace with Akoya Pearls, Old european-Cut Diamonds and a Detachachable, Elongated Aquamarine, by Assael.

  1. One thing to note here is that different pearl sellers will have their own grading systems. What is AAA with one seller or brand may be AA with another. So, its best to do your own research and than make a purchase decision. ↩︎
  2. We are happy to help you with this and share suggestions for reputable fine jewellery brands and pearl specialists and sellers from all over the world. ↩︎

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