When you get deep into the qualities of jewelry and precious gems, you see a pattern in the terms. Ideas of shape, color, size, and that sparkly word that screams refinement sand quality: luster.
These words work equally well in professional and common usage. Unlike scientific terms, which tend to lose something in translation.
Speaking of chemistry, unlike other precious gems the various types of pearls come from guided processes. Artificial gems take precise chemistry to craft, but pearls are either found or cultured, never crafted.
How many types of pearls are there? As many as there are regions in which bivalves can live. This list will stick to the worldwide crowd pleasers.
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Types of Pearls
Most pearls derive their names after the part of the world they originate from. Jewelers further differentiate the names by color or specific characteristics.
The distinctions and terms for pearls can and do fill a book. The World Jeweler Confederation’s, to be precise.
This establishes the CIBJO standards for grading and classifying pearls. A hefty read, for sure.
Suffice it, you only need to understand there are two major distinctions in pearls, cultured and natural. These are further divided by if the pearl forms in saltwater or freshwater.
The first tier category marker of pearls creates the need for the question “How do I tell if a pearl is real?”
It is a false dichotomy. Mostly, there are costume jewelry pieces that you wouldn’t really call a pearl, more a bead.
The distinction between cultured and natural is not about how the pearl forms but the chance with which it is found.
Pearls form when an irritant gets into one of several species of bivalve (clams, oysters, the like) and grows. Layers of a substance called nacre (proteins and minerals produced by the bivalve) cover the irritant and form a pearl.
Cultured pearls look the same and form the same way, only the tiny bit in the center, and the ready availability, is different.
Renowned for their dark colors and one of two ‘true’ black pearl. Tahitian pearls come from the area around French Polynesia
Typically you find them in Baroque pearl shapes, rather than round.
These pearls shine with blue and green overtones. Sizes range between 9 to 13mm on average.
Sea of Cortez
Even though Sea of Cortez pearls come from cultured origins, they retain rarity by being exclusive to a single farmer.
All Sea of Cortez pearls come from Guaymas, Mexico in batches of roughly 4,000 annually.
Sea of Cortez pearls represents the only other ‘true’ black pearl. These pearls typically range from dark blue-green to a copper-lime with rainbow overtones.
Freshwater pearls grow in lakes, rivers, and the like, rather than the sea. The differing diet and low salinity produce different results.
Outside of a rare few, the vast majority of Freshwater pearls come from cultured farms in China.
Colors range from soft white to peach and lavender. Peacock pearls receive iridescent dye treatments to achieve a variety of colors.
An interesting note on Freshwater pearls, they use degradable source material to start the pearl. This leaves the pearl more durable than other cultured types and even naturals.
As the name suggests, these pearls originated in Japan and Vietnam and expanded into production on the coast of Chian.
Smaller than most other, with ranges between 2 and 9mm. Colors include silvery-blue and occasional gold hues. Their creamy white color is their claim to fame, however.
Known for their perfect sphere shapes with only occasional Baroques.
South Sea Shell
Most often culture, the South Sea shell pearl grouping is less about the origin style and more about the place.
All South Sea pearls come from the areas of the Pacific Ocean east of Indonesia and north of Australia. They change in color depending on bivalve and some external conditions.
Most of the white South Sea pearls come from the northern Australian coast. Farmers culture them in silver-lipped P. Maxima oysters.
Sizes range tightly with a few outliers. Normally you find them in 8-9mm. Outliers have reached 20mm in size.
Shapes range in Baroque and smooth Baroque with more valuable spheres occurring rarely.
Thicker nacre around the core provides a different shine than non-South Sea types.
The Philippines produce the gold variety of South Sea pearls. These come from gold-lipped P. Maxima oysters.
The size and shape are obviously similar to the white variety. The color difference owes mostly to the bivalve species and the different environment in which they thrive.
Natural pearls may not be the best pearls, but they are the most expensive. The element of chance in their creation and discovery makes them rare and thereby valuable.
Natural pearls retain value through careful control of the areas in which you find them. any restrictions to the practice of pearl culturing give a higher chance that a normally natural pearl region is what it appears to be.
As a natural pearl, the Basra type comes at a premium over cultured varieties. The Basra pearl, once traded and coveted, finds new rarity with the shrinking of its traditional habitat.
These pearls, found in the Persian Gulf, take a backseat to oil interests, so have fallen out of vogue in harvesting. Of course, that gives them a special rarity.
They come in irregular Baroque shapes and rare spheres. Color ranges from a soft white to yellow to gold.
Found in beds of Queen conch shells, these pearls come from snails, not bivalves. Some would argue that is not a true pearl, but it is grown in the same way, just by a different creature.
These pearls are a long Baroque in shape and are found in many different sizes since they are found irregularly.
They have a flame or burning appearance in pinks with darker and lighter inner hues.
The most important factor when choosing between types of pearls is your own resonance. Price and status may be important over look and feel. You may simply want to stand out among peers.
There is no wrong choice in pearls. Choose a pearl that makes you feel like you are what the pearl represents: a rarity in a sea of possibility.