Different Types of Cultured Pearls – A Short Guide

by Reema Farooqui

The one thing all jewellery lovers agree on is that pearls are extremely elegant and super chic. Add a piece of cultured pearl jewellery to your look and you effortlessly elevate your style. In the past, before the development of pearl farming, and with it the production of cultured pearls, there were only natural pearls. And these pearls were rare and expensive.

All that changed when Kokichi Mikimoto discovered the secrets of pearl farming and set up the world’s first pearl farm in Japan. Since then, jewellery buyers have a genuine choice – they can either buy natural pearls or cultured pearls.

Cultured pearls have made buying pearls accessible to many people who would otherwise not be able to afford the high prices of natural pearls. Today, more than 90% of the pearls sold in the jewellery market are cultured pearls.

What are Cultured Pearls?

Cultured pearls are real pearls that are grown in pearl farms instead of being fished in the wild. They are a product of direct and deliberate human intervention.

Pearl producing oysters are grown in pearl farms and when they reach maturity, they are used to produce beautiful pearls. Pearl culturing requires inserting a foreign object inside a pearl producing oyster, in order to encourage the production of nacre. This, in time, forms the cultured pearl.

Different Types of Cultured Pearls

There are two main types of cultured pearls – Freshwater Pearls and Saltwater Pearls.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls

As the name suggests, Freshwater pearls are farmed or cultivated in rivers, lakes, ponds and other sources of inland freshwater.

Within freshwater pearls, there are two separate categories. The first are the tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls which have been farmed for decades.

In these pearls, a tiny piece of mantle tissue from a donor mussel is inserted into a pearl-producing Freshwater mussel. The Freshwater pearl then grows around this sliver of donor mantle tissue. As a result, the entire pearl comprises of layers and layers of nacre, these pearls very durable. A tissue-nucleated pearl mussel is capable of producing between 20 to 50 pearls at a time.

Tissue-nucleated Freshwater pearls commonly range in size from 2mm to 10mm and come in a variety of natural pastel colours such as white, pink, peach and lavender. Black tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls are always colour treated.

The second are bead-nucleated Freshwater pearls. They are sometimes called “Edison” pearls. These are a recent addition to the world of pearl farming. Bead-nucleated Edison pearls were first introduced to the jewellery world in 2010 by Grace Pearl, a Chinese pearl producing company.

For these pearls, a mother-of-pearl bead is inserted into a pearl-producing Freshwater mussel. The bead nucleated Freshwater pearls then grows around a mother-of-pearl bead as the mussel covers the bead with layers of glossy nacre. The pearl mussel in this case is nucleated with only one bead at a time. Bead nucleated Freshwater pearls are larger, round and shinier pearls that exhibit dazzling natural colours and alluring multicoloured overtones.

Edison pearl colours include white, pink, peach, bronze, rose-gold, purple and lavender, with a bright, sometimes almost metallic lustre. These pearls range in sizes from 10mm to 16mm although it is possible to find Edison pearls that are larger than 18mm.

As compared to other cultured pearls, Freshwater pearls have the largest annual total harvest, with more than 95% being produced in China. However, there are some prominent Freshwater pearl farms in Japan as well.1

Among all cultured pearls, Freshwater are the most affordable. However, some top quality Freshwater, especially the new Edison pearls, can sell for high prices, comparable to those of saltwater pearls.

Saltwater Cultured Pearls

Saltwater pearls are cultivated on offshore pearl farms, in a saltwater environment. There are several different types of saltwater pearls.

Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are saltwater pearls that are grown in the Pinctada Fucata Martensii oyster. This oyster is found in the Indo-Pacific region. This is the first pearl type in the world to be successfully cultivated in a pearl farm.  

Today, Akoya pearls are cultivated in pearl farms located in Japan, China (including Hong Kong), and Vietnam. More recently, Akoya pearl cultivation started in Australia as well, with great results.

Akoya pearls are valued for their beauty and exhibit the sharpest and most pristine lustre among all cultured pearls.

These pearls come in a variety of natural colours with white being the most common, and blue and gold being rarer. Akoya pearls often exhibit overtones or secondary colours in shades of pink, green, gold, silver, blue and violet (only among blue pearls). Black Akoya pearls are always colour-treated.

Akoya pearls usually come in a range of sizes, starting at 3mm and going up to 9mm. Sizes smaller than 3mm ands larger than 10mm are rare, making them more expensive.

Akoya pearls are a classic piece of jewellery and a graduated necklace of gleaming white Akoya pearls is a staple of many jewellery collections. Top quality Akoya pearls are expensive.

Tahitian Pearls

Dark and mysterious, cultured Tahitian pearls have enthralled pearl and jewellery lovers alike. They come from the Pinctada Margaritifera saltwater mollusk which is successfully farmed in French Polynesia, Micronesia, the Cook Islands, and even on some pearl farms in Indonesia.

Although these pearls were being farmed on a small scale since the 1950s, cultured Tahitian pearls burst upon the jewellery stage in the mid 1970s when Salvador Assael, founder of Assael, introduced them to the US. Today, there are many successful producers of cultured Tahitian pearls including Robert Wan, a brand famous for its exceptional Tahitian pearls.  

Although Tahitian pearls are sometimes called “black pearls” they come in a host of different colours, with body colours including black, grey, silver and white. In addition, the variety of secondary colours or overtones they exhibit makes Tahitians one of the most colourful cultured pearls. These secondary colours include cherry, green, gold, light blue, gold, aubergine as well as the much coveted peacock.

Cultured Tahitian pearls are big pearls and their sizes start from 8mm, going up to 14 mm. Pearls larger than 15mm are rare, although you can find some measuring 18mm in diameter!

Cultured Tahitian pearls are loved for their dark body colours, their mystique and their enchanting overtones. They are expensive pearls and a gem quality, well matched Tahitian pearl necklace can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

South Sea Pearls

If a pearl could become the symbol of luxury, it would be the cultured South Sea pearl. South Sea pearls are loved for their large sizes, deep, satiny lustre and sumptuous overtones.

Cultured South Sea pearls are grown in the saltwater Pinctada Maxima oyster. This is the largest pearl producing oyster. It is possible to find a mature Pinctada Maxima oyster measuring 30.50 cm (12 inches) in diameter!

There are two types of South Sea pearls. The first is the white South Sea pearl that is cultivated in the silver-lipped Pinctada Maxima oyster, mainly in Australia, Indonesia and more recently in Myanmar. White South Sea pearls have white, silver or silver-blue body colours. They also have gorgeous overtones that include silver, cream and light blue-aquamarine.

The second type of South Sea pearl is the golden South Sea pearl which is produced by the gold-lipped Pinctada Maxima oyster. This pearl is successfully farmed in the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Golden South sea pearls come in different tones of gold including cream, light gold, champagne and deep gold. Deep gold South Sea pearls are rare and therefore more expensive than South Sea pearls in other shades of gold. Gold, blush-pink, green and silver are some of the overtone colours most often seen in golden South Sea pearls. However, Rio Pearls’ Rainbow Gold South Sea pearls, which the company recently debuted, exhibit multicolour overtones that are almost similar to the peacock overtones exhibited by Tahitian pearls.

South Sea pearl farming first began in the 1950s with a few commercial pearl farms in Australia and Myanmar who produced both white and golden South Sea pearls. But the South Sea industry as a whole did not thrive for quite some time.

However, things changed for the cultured golden South Sea pearl in the 1980s with the establishment of Jewelmer in Palawan. Today, Jewelmer is synonymous with exceptional and stunning cultured golden South Sea pearls.

Similarly, it wasn’t until the 1990s that cultured white Australian South Sea pearls found the spotlight on the world jewellery stage. This happened when the Australian South Sea pearl company Paspaley increased the production of its South Sea pearls and started promoting them globally. Today, the company has become one of the world’s most recognized producer of gem quality, luxury, white South Sea pearls.

South Sea pearls come in sizes that range from 9mm to 17mm although you may find some baroque white South Sea pearls measuring above 25 mm in length.

South Sea pearls are desired for their large sizes, deep and luscious lustre and attractive colours. Often referred to as the “Queen of Pearls” cultured South Sea pearls can be quite expensive. For instance, some top quality white or gold perfectly matched large size South Sea pearl necklaces can easily sell for more than half a million dollars. However, given their beauty and charm, they are a great addition to any jewellery collection.

Sea of Cortez Pearls

Cultured Sea of Cortez pearls are grown in the Pteria sterna or the “Rainbow-Lipped” saltwater oyster. this particular saltwater oyster is native to the Tropical waters of the Pacific and occurs naturally around Baja California,  Mexico and northern Peru. The Perlas Del Mar De Cortez pearl farm in Mexico is the only pearl farm in the world to culture these superb pearls.

Also considered “black” pearls, the Sea of Cortez pearls are loved for their dark body colour and multicoloured, iridescent overtones. The body colours of these cultured pearls include white, grey and black. The overtones can range from aubergine, pink, violet, blue, green and even gold. The name “rainbow-lipped” should give you an idea of the dazzling mix of colours that can be seen on the surface of these gorgeous pearls.

The Sea of Cortez pearls started being cultured at the Perlas Del Mar De Cortez pearl farm in the mid 1990s. Today the farm harvests upwards of 5000 pearls annually, making them really rare, beautiful and highly sought after by jewellery lovers.

The pearls can range in size from 8mm to 12mm but some harvests may produce pearls measuring 14mm in diameter.

Given their rarity, Sea of Cortez cultured saltwater pearls are expensive but well worth the price. Sea of Cortez pearls are loved for their unusual, totally wow colours, silky lustre and attractive overtones.

Fiji Pearls

Another new entrant in the world of cultured saltwater pearls, Fijian pearls started being  commercially farmed in the late 1990s at the J. Hunter Fiji pearl farm off the coast of Savusavu in Fiji with its first harvest taking place in 2003.

Cultured Fiji pearls are also referred to as “black pearls.” However, the oyster that produces them is the Pinctada Margaritifera Typica which differs slightly from it’s Tahitian cousin Pinctada Margaritifera Cumingii.

This is because the Fijian pearl oyster is smaller than the Tahitian pearl oyster and its lip displays a host of different colours, especially in different tones of orange. As a result, the pearls produced by this oyster come in a dazzling array of body and overtone colours.

From warmer colours such as green, pistachio, gold, chocolate and bronze to cooler shades of blue, silver, cranberry  and aubergine, Fiji pearls are loved and desired for their vibrant colours.

One of the most famous Fijian pearl necklaces is the “Sussex Strand” which was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their visit to Fiji soon after their wedding. The necklace comprises of 37 gem grade, mixed colour Fijian pearls in hues that include green, blue, gold and black. These colours are all natural, and these cultured Fijian pearls were harvested at the J. Hunter Fiji pearl farm.

There are very few pearl farms in  Fiji. In addition, the Fiji pearl oyster only thrives in the pristine waters around the different islands of Fiji. As a result, Fiji pearls are rare and expensive. 

Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?

Yes, cultured pearls are real pearls. However, unlike natural pearls that grow without any human intervention and are fished in the wild, cultured pearls are deliberately grown and cultivated in pearl farms.

The reason for the confusion about cultured pearls being real or not happens because some jewellery buyers think in terms of real vs fake pearls. Unlike fake or imitation pearls, cultured pearls are the real deal, being authentic organic gems that are grown in oysters at pearls farms.

Are Cultured Pearls Valuable?

Yes, cultured pearls are valuable. Gem quality cultured pearls, especially saltwater cultured pearls, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, gem quality cultured pearls that are rare and beautiful may even see an increase in their value over time.

Pearl Value Factors

There are several factors that directly affect the value of cultured pearls.

Lustre –  High lustre pearls, that have a shiny and very iridescent surface are more valuable than dull, low lustre pearls.

Shape – Perfectly round pearls are more valuable as compared to semi-round cultured pearls.

Surface Quality – Pearls with blemish-free, good surface quality are more valuable than pearls with pits and blemishes on their surface.

Size – For the most part, larger pearls are more valuable than smaller pearls. However, some smaller pearls such as Baby Akoya pearls between 2mm and 3mm or Tahitian pearls that are smaller than 8mm are rare and therefore will be expensive.

Colour – Pearl colour is an interesting value factor, because it does not only concern the body colour of the pearl but also its overtones. Even more, this value factor depends on the personal preferences of the wearers. However, for naturally coloured cultured pearls, the deeper and more vibrant the body colours and/or overtone colours, the more valuable the naturally coloured cultured pearl.

Nacre Thickness – Pearls with thicker nacre will be more lustrous and durable. But pearls with thin nacre will be fragile and look dull and lifeless.

What to Look for When Buying Cultured Pearls?

Everyone loves pearls and cultured pearls are one of the most popular items in any jewellery collection. But many people are nervous about buying them. This is because they have heard many horror stories of people being duped into buying imitation or fake pearls when they really wanted to buy real cultured pearls.

But there is no need to worry. If you keep two things in mind, you will find your perfect pearls.

First, and most important, is to purchase your pearls and pearl jewellery from well-respected, reputable jewellery brands and pearl specialists.

The other is to stay away from sellers offering an unbelievable “deal” on their “top quality, gem-grade pearls,” especially if the deal seems too good to be true. Because it probably is!

Following these two suggestions will ensure that you are getting real, authentic cultured pearls.

Other than that, do your research on the type of pearls or pearl jewellery you are interested in and what fits in your budget, so that you understand the different options available to you.  

Once at the jewellery store, look at the pearls closely and keep the pearl value factors in mind so as to roughly assess the quality of the pearls yourself.

In addition, asking the following questions will always help.

Are these pearls natural, cultured or imitation/fake pearls?

Are these pearls cultured saltwater or cultured Freshwater pearls?

Is the colour of the pearls natural or have they been colour-treated?

What is the quality grade of the pearls and how are the different grades determined (if the store assigns a quality grade to the pearls)?

Cultured pearls are one of the most alluring gems in the world. Plus they offer incredible versatility. They come in a range of colours, sizes and shapes as well as different price points.

Whether you do for gem-quality South Sea pearls or the more affordable but lovely Freshwater pearls, a piece of cultured pearl jewellery will add elegance and dash to any look!

  1. There are also a few specialty Freshwater pearl farms in the US. Bangladesh also has a growing Freshwater pearl industry. In addition, attractive incentive and support programmes are being offered by the Indian government to encourage the growth of pearl farming in India, a country with a long and rich history of pearl trade. ↩︎

Featured Image: Cultured Tahitian pearl necklace and carved Tahitian pearl shell, Kamoka Pearls.

You may also like