Pearls have been a much-loved symbol of beauty and purity for centuries. Today, they remain both contemporary and classic, and they are available in many fashionable styles. If you would like to add some pearls to your jewelry collection, choosing between freshwater and saltwater is a great place to start.
Although both saltwater and freshwater pearls have been highly coveted and valuable gems throughout human history, saltwater pearls were the first to be successfully cultured by man. This cooperation between man and mollusk increasingly dominated the world pearl market from the early 1930s until about 20 years ago, when the market was challenged and then superseded by freshwater cultured pearls. So, how do you tell them apart? Let’s look at the main differences between saltwater and freshwater pearls.
All pearls, whether they are natural or cultured, form when a mollusk produces layers of nacre inside its shell. This is caused by some type of irritant inside the shell. In natural pearls, this irritant could be some other type of organism from the water. In cultured pearls, a piece of tissue or a mother-of-pearl bead is placed inside the mollusk to begin the process. For both types, the quality of the shine, or luster, of the pearl is dictated by the quality of the nacre. A pearl should have a surface that is free of marks and very smooth; it could have a round shape, an oval shape, or even an irregular shape.
For starters, freshwater and saltwater pearls have different luster types. Freshwater pearls have a softer luster that comes from within the pearl, while saltwater pearls have a more superficial, brilliant luster. This difference is caused by different types of mollusks being used to produce the pearls, as well as the thickness of the nacre.
Over the past 10 years, Chinese pearl farms have changed their way of cultivating pearls and let their mussels stay in the water for much a longer time. Freshwater pearls take from at least 3 years to as long as 5 to 6 years before they are ready for harvest. Longer cultivation periods lead to freshwater pearls that are much bigger in size and higher in quality
Saltwater Akoya pearls take from six to 18 months to grow. In the past, saltwater pearls have been prized as the pearl of choice for necklaces, but, in recent years, the outstanding quality of freshwater pearls has challenged this status. Now, these two types of pearls are virtually equal in quality and beauty.
Saltwater pearls are often known as Akoya pearls, and are produced largely in Japan and China. They are called Akoya pearls because they are cultivated using the Akoya mollusk. The implants used to start the pearls are made of oyster shells and are typically a little smaller than the final resulting pearl.
Akoya pearls take from six to 18 months to grow. In the past, saltwater pearls have been prized as the pearl of choice for necklaces, but, in recent years, the outstanding quality of freshwater pearls has challenged this status. Now, these two types of pearls are virtually equal in quality and beauty.
Freshwater pearls are grown in ponds, rivers, and lakes. Most farming takes place during the spring and autumn months, when the water temperatures and the external environment is calm, temperate, and free of extremes. Freshwater pearls thrive in peaceful, calm, and stable conditions. The stability of the environment serves to ensure a vast wealth of nutrients within the water. A mollusk can produce up to 50 freshwater pearls at one time. Once a pearl starter is inserted into the mollusk, it takes four to six years to fully develop the pearl. The risk of disease or pollution is great during this time, so a successful freshwater pearl harvest is a celebrated event.
Natural vs. Cultured vs. Imitation
Natural pearls are very rare. These used to be found in greater numbers in the Persian Gulf; however, most of these have been harvested, leaving very few. Sometimes, small natural pearls can be found, but they are usually very expensive.
Cultured pearls are made in pearl farms. There, workers raise the mollusks until they are mature enough to accept the pearl starter. Implanting the bead is a delicate surgical procedure. The mollusks are then returned to the water and looked after while the pearl grows. Not all of them produce pearls, and not every pearl produced is of high quality. In fact, pearl cultivators may have to sort through thousands of pearls to find enough quality pearls for a single 16-inch necklace.
Generally, the longer the growing period for a given pearl, the better the formed nacre is in terms of quality. However, pearls that are cultivated for a longer time are also more expensive. In general, freshwater pearls are more durable, as they have much thicker nacre than saltwater pearls. This can be an important factor for someone who hopes to hand a pearl necklace down to future generations of family members.
Because of the expense of pearls, some people choose imitation pearls. These are usually coated glass beads. While it can be a challenge, even for an experienced jeweler, to tell the difference between a cultivated and a natural pearl, most can easily spot an imitation pearl. They do have a high luster, but it is not of the same depth seen in genuine pearls; however, imitation pearls can be very beautiful and a great option for someone who wants the look of pearls at a more economical price.