How to Distinguish Freshwater from Saltwater Pearls

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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, learning about the different types is a good way to start.

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. Misshapen pearls are known as baroque pearls.

Freshwater vs. Saltwater Pearls

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.

Freshwater pearls are grown in ponds, rivers, and lakes. 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.

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.

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.

Natural, Cultured, and Imitation Pearls

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.

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.

Buying Pearl Jewelry

Pearls differ greatly in size, color, and shape, depending on the variety of mollusk used, the growing conditions, and other factors such as harvesting techniques. Pearls may be white, cream, gray, or black. There is even a rare Tahitian pearl that is black with green overtones. Buying pearl jewelry today offers much more variety than the basic pearl necklace - although the beautiful, classic pearl necklace remains the most popular choice for pearl jewelry by far. An understanding of the way pearls are valued can help a consumer choose just the right piece of pearl jewelry, whether that is a pair of pearl earrings, a pearl bracelet, or something else.

  • Pearl luster - refers to the intensity of the reflections on the pearl's surface. Look for clear images reflected in the pearl for better luster.
  • Pearl size - this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Larger pearls are typically used in necklaces, while smaller pearls may be more suitable for earrings. The larger the pearl, the higher its price tag, so buyers should balance what type of jewelry they want to purchase with what their budgets allow for.
  • Pearl similarity - refers to how well the pearls in a single piece of jewelry are matched. Even slight differences can create an unbalanced look or be a distraction.
  • Jewelry style - a buyer should consider her taste in clothing, or that of the recipient if the pearl if a gift. For example, a pair of chocolate pearl earrings might be more versatile and possibly better suited for a younger person who dresses more casually; a classic pearl choker might go better with more formal business attire.

Understanding Pearl Necklace Lengths


Fits against the throat.


Rests at the base of the neck.

Princess length

Falls to near the collarbone.

Matinee length

20 to 24 inches.

Opera length

30 to 36 inches.

Rope necklaces

Longer than 36 inches.

Buying Freshwater or Saltwater Pearls on eBay

There are so many gorgeous pieces of pearl jewelry available on eBay that it can be daunting to pick just one. If you are looking for a specific type of pearl or a specific type of jewelry, use the name of the item as your search terms to pull up all of the available results. For example, search for "freshwater pearl necklace" or something like " black pearl earrings." When you have narrowed it down to a few items, read the description of each one, taking note of things like the item's condition, the seller's feedback, the return policy, and the shipping cost.

Look for photos that show the item clearly; if you'd like to see additional photos or photos taken from a different angle, you can ask the seller to provide this. It can be difficult to tell the shape of a pearl in pictures, unless the picture is very clear or the buyer looks very closely. An off-round or irregularly shaped pearl may be exactly what you want, or you may be looking for perfectly round, tear-shaped, or pearls of some other shape.

Pay attention to the pearl type information, and reconcile that with the price. For example, Akoya pearls and freshwater pearls differ significantly in value. Also, check to see what type of clasp the piece has. The clasp can affect the price of the item; in addition, you may prefer one type of clasp over another. When you have decided on a necklace or other piece of jewelry that you want to purchase, placing your order is fast, simple, and secure.


eBay offers a huge array of pearl jewelry all in one convenient place. Whether you are looking for a stylish and unique piece of jewelry that contains colored pearls or you are ready to add a timeless pearl necklace to your collection, shopping online offers unmatched selection and accessibility. You can also find loose pearls on eBay. This is a great place to find rare pearls, as well. Do some research ahead of time, then look for the item you want on eBay - you are sure to find a special piece that you will love for years to come.

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