Your Guide to Types of Pearls

Pearls are one of nature’s finest gems, perfect spheres of shimmering lustre and easy to recognise. It can however be confusing to understand why some pearls are more expensive than others, and what terms, such as freshwater, akoya and cultured actually mean.


various images of pearls

This blog is a real back to basics, 101 guide to types of pearls. I will cover the 4 main types of pearls; explain what cultured really means and give expert advice on how to care for your pearls.

How Natural Pearls Are Formed

The creation of a pearl is a natural phenomenon when molluscs such as seawater oysters or freshwater mussels make pearls as a defence to foreign objects, such as a fragment of shell or a parasite causing an irritation. The mollusc will then protect itself by coating the invader with pearly layers of nacre, a substance similar to the inside of the shell. As the layers build up overtime, what we know as a natural pearl develops.

This is how a natural or wild pearl develops. It is extremely rare that a jewellery quality pearl will develop which is why natural pearl jewellery was so highly prized and worn only by royalty throughout much of history.

Read more about the fascinating history of pearls, from ancient civilizations, Mikimoto’s cultured pearls to the future of pearl jewellery in our blog The History of Pearls.

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Natural Pearls vs Cultured Pearls

Diving for wild pearls is not sustainable and is illegal. Pearl oysters were nearly hunted to extinction because the high value of pearls. Today it is not permitted to dive for wild pearls, so a natural pearl necklace would be of antique provenance and should be sold with certificates of authenticity.

Cultivation exploits the natural process, as a bead like structure or shell particle is inserted to into the mollusc and forms the nucleus of the pearl. The layers of nacre wrap around the bead forming a beautiful round pearl, which after a period of time is carefully harvested by skilled workers.

Pearl farms and cultivation

Kokichi Mikimoto, known as the King of Pearls, developed the first semi-round cultured pearl in 1893. He perfected the technique and opened pearl culturing farms to produce his pearls on an industrial scale.

A Cultured Pearl is widely considered to be a real pearl, and an organic gemstone. They equal natural pearls in terms of beauty and are sustainable. All the pearls we use in jewellery today are Cultured Pearls making them widely available and not just for the rich and royal.

Essentially a cultured pearl is a farmed pearl, where the pearls occur due to human intervention rather than spontaneously in nature.

What is a synthetic, simulated or artificial pearl?

It is not a pearl, it is simply a plastic or glass bead made to look like a pearl and should not be confused with a cultured pearl which is an organic gemstone.  

4 Types of Pearls Explained

Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls, are what most people identify as a classic cultured pearl. The cultivating process refined by Mikimoto in the 1920’s produces a round pearl by inserting a nucleus or bead into the Akoya pearl oyster, with Japan and Australia being the largest producers.

They are well known for their perfect spherical shape, natural white toned colours and excellent reflective lustre. Their size ranges from 2mm-10mm diameter and they are the most popular choice for fine jewellery due to their reliable high quality which mimics a natural pearl. Cultivation of Akoya pearls to a high standard is a complex process which takes time, giving Akoya pearls a high price tag.

3 row Akoya pearl necklace

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls

As the name suggests Freshwater pearls are grown in lake and rivers predominately in China, Japan and the USA in mussels rather than oysters.

Freshwater pearls were once less desired due to their inconsistent shape and blemished appearance and feel, however recent advances in the cultivation process means that this is no longer an issue.

Modern round freshwater pearls with a bead nucleus can be produced with good roundness and high clarity smoothness – they are a budget friendly rival for Akoya pearls.

Freshwater pearls are naturally white or soft pastel colours, depending on the environmental conditions. They have a soft lustre and round, teardrop and baroque shapes are popular. They are sometimes dyed to create fashion colours and vary in size from 2mm – 15mm. During their production, each freshwater mussel can produce up to 50 pearls (unlike saltwater oysters which only produce one or two) making these freshwater pearls the most affordable pearl, increasingly popular for everyday pearl jewellery.

Tahitian Pearls

Grown in Tahiti and several other French Polynesian islands, Tahitian pearls come from the larger black lipped oysters and produce a larger than average dark pearl.

Sometimes known as black pearls they are naturally dark however, these pearls come in an exotic range of colours from shades of grey, blue, green to coppers to purples. Tahitian pearls are still quite rare and come in various shapes. They are highly valuable and used to make a wide selection of sumptuous pearl jewellery.

Tahitian pearls displayed in oyster

South Sea Pearls

White and Golden South Sea Pearls

The Southsea pearl is the most luxurious and sought-after pearl. Cultivated within the large White-lipped oyster and the Gold-lipped oyster, the pearls are both the largest and most lustrous in natural shades of white, silver, champagne and gold.

Found in Indonesia, the Philippines and northern Australia these pearls are the largest of all pearl types.

Southsea pearls come in a variety of shapes, all of which are extremely valuable but the most highly sought after have the deepest golden colour and are perfectly round .

What to look for in a Pearl / Pearl Grading

The highly respected GIA, known best for their diamond grading certificates has identified “7 Pearl Value Factors” to help describe and understand the variations in quality. Assessments of Size, Shape, Colour, Lustre, Surface Quality, Nacre and Matching are the criteria.


Expressed in terms of millimeters (mm), larger pearls generally take longer to cultivate, and therefore the bigger the pearl, the more valuable it will be – although the other 6 factors will play a large role in the price.


The rounder the pearl, the rarer the pearl and this makes them more valuable than their less spherical counterparts. But in terms of fashion, different shapes of pearls are often popular, with many designers creating wonderful jewellery from Baroque and Keshi pearls.

examples of baroque shaped pearls
Examples of Baroque Shaped Pearls


Pearls come in a wide variety of colours and is therefore down to personal preference when selecting. The different species of oysters or mussels will only produce specific natural colours, which can influenced by environmental conditions.

To accommodate different market requirements, some pearls are dyed rather than keeping a natural colour. Most dyes maintain the natural lustre and can produce stunning colours to meet fashions.

Whether natural or dyed, the colour is enhanced by the ability of the pearl to reflect light. This ability is what makes pearls look as though they are glowing from the inside out. This glow shows off the many different colours within the layers of nacre which give pearls their unique complexity of colours. Some pearls even feature what is known as an orient which reflects light to create a rainbow of colours across the pearls surface.

Examples of natural pearl colours


A pearl’s lustre is the glow and shine of the pearl. Bigger and rounder pearls with thicker levels of nacre will generally have a greater lustre. This is because they reflect more light and simultaneously show the depths of colour on the pearl’s surface. This effect is completely unique to pearls and unlike any other gemstone. All pearls will have some lustre but the extent to which will vary across each type of pearl and each pearl itself.

Nacre Quality

Nacre is the natural makeup of a pearl, formed in layers built up over the years until the oyster is harvested. Like an oak tree, pearls create layered rings of nacre. The more layers there, the thicker the nacre will be, the larger the pearl will grow and the more the lustre will shine and glow from it.

Thick nacre will give the pearl beauty and durability, but if the nacre is too thin it may show dark patches within the pearl. This is a problem in terms of the quality of the pearl’s lustre, and it will make it less durable and more likely to chip, blemish or peel.


The finish of a pearl’s surface is also a key factor when considering its value. The smoother the surface the more desirable the pearl is. It is rare to find an entirely smooth pearl with no surface blemishes or irregularities, it is the extent to which these blemishes can be seen/affect the look of the pearl that will dictate its possible drop in value. For pearl jewellery, these blemishes can often be hidden by setting the pearl in a particular way or style.

Examples of lower surface quality with banding and pitted marks
Examples of lower surface quality with banding and pitted marks


Selecting and matching pearls is a job for a person with a good eye and an understanding of the previous 6 values. Careful selection of matching pearls, whether for a necklace or pair of stud earrings can ultimately affect the value of pearl jewellery.

This image, courtesy of the GIA shows various types of pearl, that have been beautifully matched to create necklaces that are each uniquely beautiful. Tahitian (top two rows), Chinese freshwater (third row), South Sea (fourth row), and akoya (bottom two rows).

Rows of tahitian, freshwater and akoya pearl
Photo: GIA and Harold & Erica Van Pelt. South Sea strand courtesy: The Collector Fine Jewelry, Fallbrook, Calif.

How to Care for Your Pearls

Pearls are a natural substance sourced from living creatures which means that they require careful treatment and long-term care.

Whilst it is important to make sure that your pearls are kept clean it is also vital not to use harsh cleaning materials. The nacre can be easily damaged by chemicals found in cleaning products, perfumes and beauty products.

Their surface is relatively soft, so its best to store them carefully in a soft pouch, away from other jewellery and when worn avoid scratching against zips or buttons.

Top Tips

  1. Apply hair spray, perfumes, moisturisers etc before putting on pearls.
  2. Don’t clean your pearls too often as this can remove the natural lustre, just gently wipe them with a lint free cloth
  3. If required clean use warm mild soapy water or specialist pearl cleaner.
  4. Do not wear in the swimming pool or shower as chlorine affects the pearl and submersion in water may affect the silk or adhesives used in setting.
images of pearl jewellery

From Restringing to Redesign - Pearl Services at Gold Arts

Pearls are supremely versatile, and pearl jewellery can easily be repaired, restored or completely revamped to your tastes at Gold Arts.

Our stores in Brighton, Chichester and Eastbourne offer a bespoke service to make your pearls ready to wear again. From restringing to redesign - Pearl Services at Gold Arts


Our pearl specialists are able to restring your pearls on silk for a fresher new look or to make existing pearl jewellery more robust. Single or multiple rows, knotted or plain - all work is done by hand, by skilled local craftspeople.


Your gifted or heirloom pearls may not quite fit your personal style, so why not use these pearls to create something unique that keeps the sentimental meaning. We can alter or completely re-design your pearl jewellery in our onsite workshops.

Sourcing Pearls

Replace a missing pearl or add pearls to your jewellery, we are experts in sourcing and matching pearls to fit with your necklace, bracelet or any other type of pearl jewellery. We ensure that the pearls we source match in shape, size and lustre so as not to disrupt the original design and style of your pearl item.

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The formation of pearls is fascinating, and pearls remain one of our most beloved gems. Understanding the different types gives you a better insight into what is the right types for the right occasion. Feminine and elegant to wear, they are a popular choice for brides and bridesmaids. A string of white cultured pearls has been a classic accessory for professional and formal occasions, with colourful freshwater pearls suited to summery days and less formal attire. Pearls come in all shapes and colours, an unusually shaped baroque pearl can look abstract and contemporary, while the deep dark colours of Tahitian pearls look fabulous with an evening dress.

At Gold Arts, we stock nature’s most beautiful pearls and set them in the finest white and yellow gold. The recent trends in Cultured, Fresh-water and South Sea pearls are reflected in our fabulous range of pearl jewellery, with many designs exclusive to Gold Arts Brighton, Chichester and Eastbourne. From classic single row necklaces and bracelets to contemporary Freshwater coloured pearls or South Sea pearls set with diamonds, we have a wide range to choose from. We also offer a pearl re-stringing and redesigning service in store at Brighton, Chichester, and Eastbourne.

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