Freshwater pearls are known for their gorgeous colors, variety and affordable prices. These organic beauties are popular in jewelry designs because of their warm, feminine and unique shapes and colors.
Commercial freshwater pearl culturing began in a large lake in Japan around the same time as Akoya pearl culturing started at the turn of the 20th century. Over many decades, freshwater cultured pearls came largely from Japan, but due to pollution the Japanese freshwater pearl culturing industry died out.
China produces most freshwater pearls today; but China isn’t new to pearls. A pearl industry has existed for collecting and harvesting natural pearls for more than 4,000 years, and the Chinese applied processes that would later be used for commercial pearl culture to cultivate shell mabes, or half pearls, as early as 1082 A.D.
Sources and production
More than 99% of the freshwater pearls in the world come from lakes and rivers west of Shanghai.
To culture freshwater pearls, producers insert small pieces of “mantle tissue,” or reused pieces of shell, into the tissue of a large triangular mussel. In reaction to this irritant, the mussel begins to produce nacre, the lustrous coating that creates the pearl. Producers may implant 20 to 30 pieces of mantle tissue into a single mussel, and in turn retrieve as many pearls from one mussel in a harvest. This quantity allows China to produce some 1,500 tons of freshwater pearls a year.
While the Chinese pearl industry used to be known for tiny “rice” pearls, the industry has become so sophisticated that the size, shape and quality of freshwater pearls now can rival those of the Japanese Akoya cultured pearl.
Color and surface
Freshwater cultured pearls come in a breathtaking variety of colors: pink, gold, blue, green, peach, lavender, gray, white and cream. Because they are so abundant (and often inexpensive), freshwater pearls are also often dyed bolder, fashionable colors such as black, copper, red or other bright colors. This is an acceptable enhancement for freshwater pearls, but the jeweler who sells them to you should disclose it.
Freshwater pearls can be quite lustrous, but because they’re cultivated in a different kind of water, they don't have quite the same sheen as Akoya cultured pearls. However, proponents of freshwater pearls like to point out that these pearls have more nacre (and are therefore less fragile) than their Japanese cousins, which have shell-bead nuclei and a layer of nacre on top.
How many blemishes a freshwater pearl has will determine its value. Smoothness and cleanliness of the pearl are also factors in its price.
Freshwater pearls come in many different shapes. Producers have become quite skilled at creating almost perfectly round pearls, which are ideal for matched pearl strands. Freshwater pearls also commonly come in oblong or oval (potato) shapes or irregular shapes (known as baroque). You’ll also see keshi pearls, which are “free-form” shapes that often occur as accidents in the culturing process. Designers may prize these pearls for their uniqueness and beauty.
Freshwater pearls typically appear in sizes from 2mm to 8mm; average sizes are 6mm to 7mm.
Use in jewelry
Freshwater pearls are less expensive than other pearls, and also versatile in their colors and shapes, making them popular choices for jewelry designers. It’s common to see strands of freshwater pearls, but also to see freshwaters in fashion jewelry pieces such as pendants, earrings, bracelets and brooches.
Freshwater pearl care
Like all pearls, freshwater pearls are soft and delicate. They are not as susceptible to peeling as other cultured pearls because they’re about 90 percent nacre, but they may still be at risk for cracking or scratches. Keep your freshwater pearls in a box with a soft lining and away from metal jewelry that can rub against them. Also be careful not to get makeup, hairspray or harsh soaps or chemicals on your pearl jewelry.