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A Basic Guide to Freshwater Pearls

So what are Freshwater Pearls?

Freshwater pearls are genuine cultured pearls that have been grown inside freshwater mussels, as opposed to the ocean-living oysters that saltwater pearls are cultured in. Both saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls are real pearls--they are just grown in different mediums. They are both termed 'cultured' pearls because they have a human hand in their development. A so-called 'natural' pearl is the result of a random irritant getting caught inside a mussel or oyster shell and the irritant getting coated with the mussel or oyster's nacre (the material that pearls are made from) in order to deal with the source of the irritation. Jewelry-grade natural pearls are extremely rare and exceedingly expensive--most people are unlikely to encounter them. Fortunately, the process of culturing pearls--both saltwater and freshwater--has brought real pearls to a much wider market.

Culturing pearls, both saltwater and freshwater, involves an irritant being deliberately introduced into mollusks so that pearls will form. Because the freshwater mussel can produce many more pearls in its lifetime than its saltwater cousin, the oyster, freshwater pearls are typically less expensive than saltwater ones. However, unlike saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are composed of nacre (the 'pearl' material) all the way through, while saltwater pearls are composed of many layers of nacre covering the small round bead that was the original irritant that the saltwater pearl was formed around. For freshwater pearls, the irritant that is introduced into the mussel is a piece of mussel tissue and it gets absorbed back into the mussel during the pearl-growing process, leaving a pearl made of solid nacre in its wake.

What's the deal with pearl sizes?

Pearls are usually measured in millimeters (mm), and the measurement is of the diameter of the pearl. Because pearls are a natural product, sizes are not uniform, so a pearl necklace or bracelet is usually labeled as being within a certain range of millimeters, typically within 1 millimeter in size. The smallest freshwater pearls that you usually see for sale are 5 to 6 mm in diameter and the largest are 12 to 13 mm. At ChinaFinds, we carry a variety of sizes, from smaller pearls at 6.5 - 7.0 mm to our larger, more substantial pearls in the 11 - 12 millimeter range. A nice, mid-level size are our popular 8.5 to 9.5 mm pearls.

What are the different lengths of pearl necklaces?

At ChinaFinds, we try to offer a variety of lengths to suit various occasions and outfits. Just in case you were wondering, the classic pearl necklace lengths are:

  • Choker: 14-16 inches long
  • Princess: 16-18 inches long
  • Matinee: 20-25 inches long
  • Opera: 28-36 inches long
  • Rope: 37 inches long or longer

What factors influence pearl quality?

The four key qualities are size, shape, luster and surface appearance. Size is a key factor. With all other factors being equal, a larger pearl will always be worth more. However, a large pearl that ranks poorly in shape or luster or surface appearance might not be worth very much at all. Succinctly put, the four main qualities are:

  • Size: the larger, the better
  • Shape: the rounder, the better
  • Luster: the shinier, the better
  • Surface Appearance: the fewer flaws, the better. As a natural product, pearls are always going to have some type of surface imperfection--it is just a question of how many and how obvious they are.
Now, shape is one of the areas where there is more room for variety. Roundness is always good, but other shapes of pearls are valued as well. Pearl shapes can be divided into three categories: spherical, symmetrical, and baroque.
  • Spherical pearls can be either perfectly round or so-called 'near-round' pearls. Saltwater cultured pearls, as they are seeded with a round bead to begin with, are much more likely to be perfectly round than freshwater cultured pearls. Perfectly round freshwater pearls are very uncommon, but there are many 'near-round' freshwater cultured pearls. Near-round pearls may be slightly flattened or slightly elongated in shape.
  • Symmetrical pearls include oval pearls, drop pearls and button pearls. Oval pearls, as their name suggests, are oval in shape and can be particularly stunning when used in a long rope of pearls. Drop pearls are best described as pear shaped or teardrop shaped and are frequently used in earrings. Button pearls are flattened and coin shaped and are also often used in earrings.
  • Baroque pearls are pearls that have grown into asymmetrical, irregular shapes. They are usually the least expensive of all pearls, but some people find their unique shapes to have a charm all their own.

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