For more than 2000 years, natural pearls have been worn by everyone from the ancient Chinese to the ancient Greeks to the British Royal Family. Pearl is an organic gem, produced from the smooth nacre secreted by mollusks. The process, primarily done to relieve the effects of an irritant that snuck inside the shell, the layers of nacre accumulate until the familiar iridescent sphere is formed. Today, gem quality natural pearls are incredibly rare and, as a result, extremely valuable.
Most pearls sold today are cultured pearls. Grown on dedicated pearl farms, they are still formed using the natural pearl formation process but in an extremely controlled environment. Whether they are cultured or natural, their value is also determined by their shape, size, color, luster, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching. Most difficult to culture are round pearls and those fetch the highest prices. Pearls can also come in oval, drop, button, and baroque shapes. And, as you’d expect, larger pearls are much rarer than smaller ones. A strand of large, round, cultured pearls that match in size, luster, color, and surface quality are the most sought after.
Types of Culture Pearls
Akoya cultured pearls are produced in the saltwater farms found mainly in Japan, China, and Vietnam. They’re formed specifically in Pinctada Fucata oysters where it can take anywhere from 6 to 24 months to grow. These pearls average 6-7mm in size and exhibit a rosé overtone with excellent luster. The most desirable, and expensive, Akoya pearls have a mirror-like surface.
The Pinctada Maxima is the oyster responsible for the formation of South Sea pearls. Procured from saltwater farms found in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, it takes anywhere between 18 to 36 months to form and are usually 10 to 15mm in size. The rarest variety have a soft, satin luster and large, round versions can command extremely high prices on the market.
Hailing from saltwater pearl farms in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, Tahitian pearls are produced by the Pinctada Margaritifera oyster. Its growth period is from 18 to 24 months and they average 9 to 11mm in size. They are among the most colorful pearls on earth with the iridescent, peacock-like green-gray or blue-gray hue are the rarest variety. Also valuable are the pearls with purple overtones. Coming in other colors like aubergine and pistachio, prices can vary differ quite a bit due to color variations.
Instead of oysters, mussels, particularly of the Hyriopsis Cumingi variety, form most of the freshwater cultured pearls found in the world. China is the largest producer of freshwater pearls, followed by Japan and the US. They take longer to form compared to saltwater pearls and usually take anywhere from 24 to 72 months. Due to the enormous yield from these farms even the highest quality freshwater cultured pearls are inexpensive and are more widely available for consumers.