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A Fresh Look at Freshwater Pearl Jewelry

A Fresh Look at Freshwater Pearl Jewelry
If, when you picture freshwater pearls, lumpy linen-colored rice shapes come to mind, it’s time to update your thinking. Today’s freshwater pearls have come a long way from their humble beginnings, and the best specimens now rival the beauty of their saltwater cousins—the akoya pearl, the Tahitian pearl and the South Sea pearl. When shopping for pearl jewelry, don’t neglect to consider freshwater cultured pearl jewelry. You will be pleasantly surprised by the quality, and even happier with the price.

What are Freshwater Cultured Pearls?
Freshwater cultured pearls are pearls that are grown in mollusks that live in freshwater ponds, lakes and rivers rather than in the ocean. Freshwater pearls are produced in mussels; saltwater pearls are produced in oysters. ‘Natural’ pearls are those that grow without any human intervention. The term ‘cultured’ does not mean that pearls are imitation, rather it means that the pearl growth process was deliberately started by man. Both natural and cultured pearls are identical in makeup—they’re comprised of nacre, the same substance that mother-of-pearl is made of. Due to overfishing, natural pearls are very rare. Most pearls sold today are cultured.

History of Freshwater Pearl Jewelry
Freshwater pearls are produced in Japan, the United States and China, but Chinese freshwater pearls are by far the most abundant. When the Chinese made freshwater pearls widely available in the 1970s, the crop consisted mainly the rice-shaped gems many people still associate with freshwater cultured pearl jewelry. But surprisingly, the 1970s weren’t the start of pearl culturing in China. In fact, the Chinese were culturing pearls back in the thirteenth century!

According to the Gemological Institute of America, ancient Chinese pearl farmers used several types of nuclei, or starter beads, to begin the pearl growing process. These included spheres of mother-of-pearl, molten lead or small pieces of metal. Buddha figures were also a popular shape. These early pearl farmers would carefully pry open the mussel, insert the foreign object, return the animal to the water and wait for the mussel to do its work. Then the blister pearl, a pearl that is grown against the animal’s shell and therefore flat on one side, was retrieved and cut and shaped into jewelry.

For much of modern times, China was relatively quiet in the pearl culturing industry. Then, in the 1970s, the country stunned the industry by flooding the pearl market with massive amounts of low quality, inexpensive freshwater cultured pearls. About two percent of the crop was of a finer quality and better shape. Gradually, Chinese pearl farmers learned how to produce more and more of this better quality freshwater cultured pearl by increasing the size, improving the shape and improving the luster, or surface sheen, of the gems. Because Chinese freshwater cultured pearls have a fairly long growth period—up to six years—results of improved techniques can take a while before they’re apparent. Yet according to GIA, the quality of Chinese freshwater cultured pearls has been steadily and slowly improving. Meanwhile, pollution and overcrowding have waged war on the Japanese akoya pearl market, giving pearl experts and pearl jewelry lovers another reason to take a closer look at finer quality Chinese freshwater cultured pearls.

Interestingly, nearly all saltwater cultured pearls are implanted with mother-of-pearl beads made from ground American mussel shells. Therefore, even saltwater pearls are partly freshwater!

Freshwater Pearl Characteristics
Freshwater cultured pearls are produced in mussels belonging to the family Unionidae. A great deal of freshwater pearls are nucleated, or implanted, with mantle tissue only, which is taken from a donor mussel. Because they do not contain a starter “bead," tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls are almost 100% nacre. This gives them a beautiful luster and a durable surface that won’t easily flake or peel to reveal the inner bead. By contrast, pearls that are bead-nucleated and prematurely harvested often have only a thin coating of nacre that is prone to flaking and chipping. Unfortunately, unlike other gemstones, pearls cannot be polished back to perfection once they’re destroyed.

Freshwater pearl-producing mussels can accept up to 50 implants at a time. They typically require 2-6 years to grow, and the finished pearl typically ranges in size from 4mm to 11mm. Larger freshwater pearls do exist, although their bigger size will likely be reflected in a bigger price tag. Approximately 60% of a typical freshwater pearl crop is made up of button pearls (flat on one side) or oval pearls. Only about 2% of the harvest is round, according to the latest information from the Gemological Institute of America. Baroque (no symmetry) and semi-baroque pearls typically make up the remainder of the crop. As with Tahitians and other pearl types, in a skilled designer’s hands, these unique pearls can be turned into extremely beautiful jewelry.

Colors of Freshwater Pearls
Other than their affordable price tag, perhaps the most notable characteristic of freshwater pearls is their striking array of beautiful, natural pastel colors. When it comes to color, the freshwater cultured pearl offers a wonderful variety not found in its saltwater counterparts. Pastels like cream, white, yellow, orange, and pink are common. Universally flattering lavender pearls are enjoying a surge in popularity today. Romantic pink pearl jewelry is a popular Valentine’s Day gift.

Freshwater Pearl Jewelry Care
Freshwater cultured pearl jewelry should be cleaned as you would other pearl jewelry: Gently wipe each gem with a damp cloth that has been dipped in a mild soap and water solution. Allow pearls to air dry fully before wearing them again to ensure that the nylon or silk thread has returned to its natural length (strands can stretch when wet). To keep freshwater pearl jewelry in mint condition, always put them on last when getting dressed. Hairspray, perfumes makeup and other chemicals can dull pearls’ luster over time. Pearl jewelry should be worn often, however, as the skin’s natural oils supply much-needed moisture. Store pearl jewelry in their own box; pearls can be scratched by other gems.

Freshwater Pearl Jewelry in Today’s Fashions
Due to their abundance and wide array of gorgeous pastel colors, freshwater pearls are finding favor with today’s top jewelry designers. Famous names like David Yurman and Paolma Picasso for Tiffany & Co. are incorporating freshwater pearls into their jewelry creations, sometimes combining the freshwater gems with saltwater pearls and other gemstones for a striking look, or mixing colors and shapes for artistic effect. You can see freshwater pearl jewelry everywhere today, from the red carpet to the boardroom and beyond. Luckily, unlike their Tahitian and South Sea counterparts, freshwater pearl jewelry prices are within the reach of most consumers.

Freshwater Pearl Facts
From the Gemological Institute of America,

• Freshwater blister pearl (pearls grown against the inside of the shell) culturing was widespread in thirteenth century China
• Some mussels can yield up to 40 cultured pearls at a time
• Freshwater pearl growth typically takes from two to six years
• Most freshwater pearl farmers nucleate with mantle tissue only (no starter bead)
• Tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls are almost 100% nacre
• China produces over 10 times the cultured pearl volume of all other countries combined
• Chinese pearl farmers have changed their emphasis from quantity to quality
• Most Chinese freshwater pearl farming takes place within 300 miles of Shanghai
• Unlike Chinese cultured pearls, American freshwater cultured pearls are not bleached

About the Author: A graduate of the Gemological Institute of America’s Graduate Pearls program, Amy Drescher is a fashion writer and accessories buyer for She welcomes your comments and questions. Reach her at

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