Freshwater Vs Saltwater Pearls – How Do They Differ?

Freshwater Vs Saltwater Pearls – How Do They Differ?

You are at the right place if you want to know the difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls. The world of pearls is quite complex, more than you can imagine.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about pearls along with their origins. We’ll also answer some of the frequently asked questions including:

  • How do pearls form?
  • Are saltwater pearls expensive?
  • Is there a difference between natural and cultured pearls?

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Freshwater Vs Saltwater Pearls – How Do They Differ?

How do Pearls Form?

You’ve probably heard about pearls forming when an irritant enters the clam. For instance, a grain of sand goes into the clam and covers it with a unique shiny substance that’s known as nacre. The irritant is coated over and over to form layers that ultimately creates a pearl. Traditionally, that is how a pearl forms. However, this story is not entirely true.

Contrary to popular belief, pearls don’t usually come from the clams as shown in most cartoons. Besides, the irritant is nothing close to sand as it comes from a parasite. Instead, pearls come from mollusks such as oysters and mussels. Plus, there are different types of mollusks.

The Gemological Institute of America has a record of coral pieces that are the original irritant according to the study. Most people don’t know about nacre although it coats its irritant. Nacre is typically made of thinner layers of aragonite mineral.

Aragonite is a calcium carbonate mineral that almost resembles calcite. The mother of pearls, on the other hand, is at the center of the pearl. To give the mother of pearl bead beauty and luster, the aragonite plates are usually layered over it.

The nacre layers create an ending pearl. And that is how natural pearls form. Natural pearls are quite rare. You’ll barely find them on sale on the markets let alone a strand of the round ones. Strands of natural pearls are relatively expensive.

Lab created pearls are known as cultured pearls. When it comes to diamonds created in the lab, scientists usually emulate different conditions that a diamond takes to form on the ground then grow it in the lab.

In the same breath, cultured pearls forms when the farmer introduces an irritant to mollusk as opposed to letting it happen by chance on its own. Imitation and cultured pearls can easily be found on the jewelry market.

The Origin of Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

There’s no difference in the forming process of freshwater and saltwater pearls.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater mussels are commonly found in rivers although you can also find them in reservoirs, ponds and lakes.

Freshwater pearls come from different kinds of mollusks although its natural occurrence is quite rare. There are many different types of pearls on the market but cultured ones are the most common around the world.

One freshwater mussel produces a maximum of up to 50 pearls simultaneously. However, the farm tends to limit to low 30s there about. Most cultured freshwater pearls are usually cultivated in China because they have been in the business since time immemorial. However, after Mikimoto discovered saltwater pearls, it resulted in attempts to try culturing freshwater pearls.

Biwa pearly mussel was started by Dr. Fujita Masao. Taking Keshi pearls without nucleus is known as non-nucleated, from akoya mollusk then introduced the mantle to Biwa mussel. This resulted in smaller 3.5mm non-round baroque pearls.

Xiong Daren, a Chinese professor, took Dr. Fujita’s research and tested it with triangular sail mussels and was quite successful. Chinese changed the pearl mussels into cockscomb mussels later on. It takes 6 months to 7 years for the pearls to be ready depending on the size of your freshwater pearl.

Saltwater Pearls

A saltwater pearl is found in different areas from Asia to Australia and most of them are derived from oysters. Saltwater pearls come in three different types including South Sea, Akoya and Tahitian pearls.

Natural saltwater pearls, on the other hand, are quite rare and equally expensive. Just as the name suggests, cultured Tahitian pearls are usually cultured in Tahiti and grown in French Polynesia. Cultured Tahitian pearls come from Pinctada margaritifera cumingi oyster.


Cultured sea pearls come from Pinctada maxima saltwater oyster. You can grow cultured south sea pearls in Australia, Myanmar and Philippines.


Cultured Akoya pearls, on the other hand, mainly come from Japan but you can also find them in China, Australia, Thailand and Vietnam.


Appearance of Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater and saltwater pearls have similar chemical and optical properties. However, you might come across baroque shaped pearls and other irregular shapes. Thanks to advanced technology, pearl farming techniques have significantly improved.

In the beginning, before pearl farming gained traction, freshwater pearls were less lustrous as compared to the marine ones since nacre is relatively thick. Fortunately, advanced pearl farming techniques have improved tremendously to a point where an average person can’t tell the difference easily.

Freshwater pearls come in different shapes including round, oval, and teardrop. Freshwater pearl jewelry are also available in a range of colors like gold, white and pink. You can irradiate some of these pearls to metallic colors or black.

Freshwater oyster produces many pearls simultaneously that’s why they are relatively small as compared to saltwater pearls.

Saltwater Pearls

There are three varieties of saltwater pearls but Akoya takes the lead when it comes to popularity. For the most part, Akoya pearls come in ivory and white colors with a pinkish overtone. Plus, they have great iridescence and luster.


Most Akoya pearls are round in shape which makes them ideal for classic pearl necklaces. These pearls come in different sizes ranging from 2mm to 9mm. Anything above these sizes is as rare as it is uncommon.

Tahitian pearls, on the other hand, are the typical black to grey pearl variety. These exquisite pearls might have pink, blue and green overtones. You can also find purple overtones especially in baroque and round shapes albeit rarely.

Tahitian pearls are available in medium and larger sizes ranging from 8mm to 10mm. You can also find these pearls in bigger sizes although 16mm is quite rare.

South Sea saltwater pearls are available in gold, white and yellow varieties with lighter overtones. However, the overtones are not quite noticeable as compared to other different varieties. You’ll love the golden south sea saltwater pearls.

South Sea pearls are bigger than other varieties with the most common sizes ranging from 10mm to 14mm in baroque and round shapes. As earlier mentioned, anything above 16mm is rare.

Tahitian pearls come in medium to larger sizes ranging between 8mm to 10mm. You can also find these pearls in relatively bigger sizes although 16mm and beyond is rare.

Prices of Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

The prices of jewelry usually depend on different factors including luster, origin, type and size. If the pearl jewelry features more than a pearl, then how they match would be a price factor.

A pair of matching white freshwater pearls with higher luster in sizes 6mm to 7mm goes for about $60 to $140. You’re probably staring at $100 to $140 for top luster. One of the biggest pair of white freshwater pearl earrings cost between $250 to $380 while high luster goes for $300 to $500 a pair.

South sea pearls are the largest pearl variety which means they are equally expensive. A pair of matching white freshwater pearl earrings cost between $5,300 to $18,000. Golden south saltwater earrings, on the other hand, cost between $4,000 to $12,000 for the same size.

A pair of Akoya saltwater pearl earrings cost between $1200 to $10,000 at their biggest size ranging from 9mm to 9.5mm with top luster. For higher luster the price range is between $800 to $5,000.

The Value of Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

By now, you already know that freshwater pearls are usually produced in high quantities simultaneously. However, they are relatively smaller and have a lower value than their saltwater counterparts since they aren’t quite rare.

In addition, freshwater pearl jewelry shows wear faster than its saltwater counterparts which means they are not as durable, decreasing their value even further. Decrease in value typically equates to overall prices.

You don’t want to invest in freshwater pearl jewelry if you want value for money.

Treatment also plays a significant role when it comes to the value of the pearls. Pearls are usually treated regularly to help enhance color. However, some types of treatment tend to reduce the value of the jewelry. In this case, a jeweler will come in handy to help you understand the treatment process that the jewelry are subjected to before you choose to invest in one.

There are two types of treatments – permanent and temporary. Pearls are subjected to different kinds of treatment. Dyeing the pearls also affect their value. They tend to retain dyes remarkably well that’s why they’re always uniquely colored in orange and red along with the dye.

However, dyes reduce the value of the pearls dramatically. For instance, silver nitrate dyes pearls to black. Dyes fade over time, decreasing their value since finding matching dyed pearls is a lot easier.

Irradiation treatment makes the pearls a bit darker to gray and blue color. It’s equally permanent. The seed and the nacre darken when it comes to saltwater and freshwater pearls respectively. This makes them more metallic and iridescent looking even though it decreases both the price and value.

Finally, natural pearls are of the highest value. For instance, a larger South Sea pearl costs 10 to 20 times the price of a typical cultured sea pearl. Besides, a natural pearl is quite rare since they have already been harvested. It’s also safe to assume that majority of in-store pearls are cultured.

Final Thoughts – Freshwater Vs Saltwater Pearls

Saltwater pearls have an edge over their freshwater counterparts especially when it comes to value for money. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Most colored freshwater pearl jewelry are dyed
  • Saltwater pearls are premium grade
  • Saltwater pearls are worth the investment
  • Freshwater pearls are relatively small
  • Saltwater pearls are more durable
  • Saltwater pearls are more lustrous

However, it all narrows down to personal preference and taste.

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