Types of Pearls (Natural, Saltwater, and Lab-Made)

A strand of pearls is a statement of class and elegance. Pearls have been worn as jewelry for millennia. The earliest evidence of decorative pearls is from 420 AD. A large amount of the pearls on the market today are sourced from Asian countries such as China and Japan. 

Each pearl is one-of-a-kind and is the only gemstone that is derived from a living organism. They are formed in the shells of mollusks. Saltwater pearls are formed in oysters. Freshwater pearls are formed in mussels.

Pearls are found in several forms: natural, cultured, and lab-made. Each type of pearl has unique characteristics including color, size, and shape. The value of a pearl is based on numerous factors but is mostly based on the type of pearl. 

Pearl Price Comparision Chart

Cultured Pearl TypeLow (price per strand)High (price per strand)
South Sea$1,000.00$100,000.00
Tahitian$500.00$25,000
Akoya$300.00$10,000
Freshwater$50,00$2,000.00
The chart above outlines the average high and low prices per strand of cultured pearl types. 

Sea of Cortez cultured pearls are not included on this price chart because of their rarity of the pearl. These are not easily found on the market. Single Cortez pearls can fetch prices up to $1,000 each.

Pearls

Types of Pearls

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are formed in the tissue of a mollusk. A small irritant or food particle gets trapped in the mollusk. This irritant becomes the nucleus of the pearl. The mollusk will begin to secrete nacre onto the irritant as a defense mechanism. Nacre is hard and iridescent.

The mollusk will secrete thousands and thousands of layers of nacre onto the irritant. Eventually, this forms a pearl. This process takes several years. 

Natural pearls are very rare. Trained divers attempt to harvest natural pearls, however, success rates are very low. It is estimated that less than 1 in every 100,000 oysters has a pearl forming within it. Each natural pearl is unique and extremely valuable. 

Cultured pearls 

90% of real pearls sold on the market are cultured pearls. Cultured pearls are grown in mollusks like natural pearls. The difference is that in cultured pearls, the pearling process is started by human intervention. Cultured pearl farmers use the tissue from a like-species mollusk and a small shell bead.

This is implanted into the mollusk that they are using to culture the pearl. That mollusk will naturally form a sac around the implanted tissue and shell bead.

From here, the process is the same as natural pearls. The mollusk secretes nacre onto the shell bead, eventually developing into a pearl. Cultured pearl farmers monitor and care for the mollusk until the pearl is ready to be harvested.

Cultured pearls are available in 5 different varieties.  Freshwater cultured pearls are the least expensive and most readily available. Conversely, Cortez cultured pearls are the rarest and most valuable.

Underwater pearl farm

What are Akoya cultured pearls?

Akoya cultured pearls are produced in China and Japan. These are the most commonly known type of pearls. Akoya pearls are traditionally bright white and are the most popular among U.S. consumers. Akoya cultured pearls are commonly referred to as the “classic” pearl.

South Sea

South Sea cultured pearls are formed in saltwater. These are commonly cultured in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. South Sea cultured pearls carry high price tags due to their enlarged size. These cultured pearls can only be grown in specific conditions. This limits the availability of South Sea cultured pearls, increasing their value. 

Tahitian

Tahitian cultured pearls are also saltwater pearls. They are most commonly produced in Tahiti and the surrounding French Polynesian islands. Tahitian cultured pearls have the widest color range of all pearl types. They are also called Tahitian black pearls.

Freshwater

Freshwater cultured pearls are the most affordable type of real pearl. These are mass-produced in China. Freshwater cultured pearls are matured in freshwater ponds and lakes. Multiple freshwater cultured pearls can be formed within one mussel. The availability and speed of maturity are why freshwater pearls are so affordable.

Sea of Cortez

Cultured pearls from the Sea of Cortez are also known as Cortez pearls. Cortez pearls are the rarest cultured pearls. These are only produced in Baja, Mexico, and certain areas of Northern Peru. Cortez pearls are easily identified by their rainbow, iridescent coloring.

They are produced in rainbow-lipped oysters. Only 4,000 Cortez pearls are harvested per year. The scarcity and brilliant color of these pearls make them the most expensive cultured pearl on the market.  

Cortez Pearls
Prized Cortez Pearls

Lab-Created

Lab-created pearls are created by coating and polishing oyster and mollusk shells into a round shape. Glass and acrylic are often used to fill and shape the pearl. Lab-created pearls are the least expensive type of pearl. They are also the most durable.

Lab-created pearls are very hard. They do not require specific care or treatment like natural and cultured pearls do. Due to their low cost and durability, lab-created pearls are often used in costume jewelry. Lab-created pearls can also be called imitation pearls or man-made pearls. 

3 Ways to Tell if a Pearl is Natural, Cultured, or Lab-Created

How can you tell if a pearl is real or lab-created?

Lab-created pearls can be identified from real pearls by their look and feel. Fake pearls have the following qualities:

  • Very smooth
  • Perfectly uniform to each other
  • Do not reflect light
  • Do not produce a fine powder when rubbed together

Lab-created pearls can be dyed or painted to be any color. The best method in determining whether or not pearls are real is to form physical and visual tests.

What shapes do pearls come in?

Pearls are cultivated in a variety of shapes. The shape of the pearl is determined by how the mollusk grows tissue and secretes nacre. The most sought-after shape is round. Other shapes pearls can be purchased in are:

  • Semi-round
  • Oval
  • Teardrop
  • Baroque (irregular/non-spherical)

Akoya pearls are most commonly found as round pearls. Tahitian, South Sea, and freshwater pearls can vary wildly in shape. Sea of Cortez pearls are typically semi-oval or semi-baroque. Less than 3% of Sea of Cortez pearls are round. 

Symmetry of pearls

When a jeweler rates the symmetry of a pearl, they are evaluating how even a pearl is from one side to the other. This is why round-shaped pearls are considered the most valuable. A round pearl is perfectly symmetrical from one side to the other. 

Colors of different types of pearls

The color of a pearl is determined by the lip color of the mollusk that grew the pearl. Each type of pearl is known for its specific color(s). The color of a pearl can help in identifying which type of pearl it is. 

Akoya pearls are typically white or silvery blue. Akoya pearls also have the best luster among all other white-colored pearls.

Tahitian pearls range from black to green. The most coveted Tahitian pearls are peacock green. Tahitian pearls are all darker in color than other types of pearls.

South Sea pearls are white or gold. White South Sea pearls are much larger and less lustrous than Akoya pearls. Gold South Sea pearls can range in tones from champagne to dark gold. The darkest gold shades are the most valuable.

Freshwater pearls are typically white or pink. Freshwater pearls can also be found in light lilac shades. The Sea of Cortez pearls are rainbow.

Costs of Different Types of Pearls

Type is the most differentiating factor when it comes to the cost of pearls. Natural pearls are the most valuable, cultured pearls are the second, and lab-created pearls are the least valuable. Within the spectrum of cultured pearls, saltwater pearls are more valuable than freshwater pearls. 

Once the type of pearl is determined, other value factors are considered such as color, shape, and luster. Each type of pearl is available in a variety of colors.

Price by color is ranked from most common to least common. The most ideal pearl shape is round. Perfectly round pearls are extremely rare and therefore the closer to round a pearl is, the more it is worth. Finally, the luster or shine of the pearl is assessed. The luster of a pearl comes from the secreted nacre at the beginning of the development process. 

How Much Do Natural Pearls Cost?

Natural pearls are extremely rare. In 2014, a single strand of natural, saltwater pearls sold for almost $3 million US dollars. 

Lab-Created

A strand of lab-cultured pearls can be purchased for under $50.00. The value of jewelry made from these pearls is based on style and construction. Lab-created pearls are commonly used in costume jewelry and replica pieces.

Pros and Cons of Different Types of Pearls

Pros and cons of natural pearls

Natural pearls are extremely rare. Jewelry made from natural pearls is worth millions of dollars and usually sold through auctions or private dealers. 

Natural pearls are guaranteed to increase in value over time. 

Pros and cons of cultured pearls

Cultured pearls make beautiful jewelry and are available in different colors and styles. Pearl strands are considered a classic jewelry staple. Purchasing cultured pearls is the best way to get readily available, quality pearls. A strand of cultured pearls is an excellent investment piece of jewelry.

Cultured pearls are common and therefore not as unique or exclusive as natural pearls. Depending on the type, size, and color quality, cultured pearls can be very expensive. 

Finally, cultured pearls are soft and must be cared for carefully. Chemicals will dull the luster of pearls. Hairspray, perfume, and make-up will eventually erode the natural finish of pearls. It is recommended to gently wipe your pearls with a damp cloth after use. They should be stored flat and not hung. Bring your pearls to a jeweler for annual inspection and professional cleaning.

Pros and cons of lab-created pearls

Lab-created pearls are affordable and easy to come by. They are also very hard and durable. Good imitation pearls can make beautiful jewelry.

They are also extremely easy to care for. Man-made pearls can be worn every day and can be cleaned with soap and water. However, lab-created pearls do not hold any value. These are faux pearls. 

Pearls are beautiful, iridescent gemstones. They have been used in jewelry making for thousands of years. Pearls are available in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Each pearl is one-of-a-kind. Strands of pearls are classic and elegant gifts. The pearl is also the birth gemstone for June.