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A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing Your Perfect Pearls

Pearls are captivating gems, symbolizing purity, elegance, and sophistication. However, choosing the right ones can be a daunting task. This comprehensive guide will help you navigate the world of pearls and find the perfect ones that meet your standards for beauty and value.

Understanding Pearl Quality Factors

Pearl Colours

Courtesy of Diamond Buzz

When choosing pearls, understanding the factors that determine their quality is essential. These factors influence not only the beauty and appeal of the pearls but also their value and durability. Here are the key quality factors to consider:


Influenced by the thickness and quality of the nacre, the substance secreted by the mollusk to form the pearl, lustre refers to the quality and intensity of light reflected from the surface of the pearl. It is one of the most important factors in assessing pearl quality.

Pearls with high lustre have sharp, bright reflections and a deep, mirror-like shine. They are highly valued and considered top-quality. Pearls with low lustre appear dull and chalky, reflecting light poorly.

Surface Quality

Surface quality refers to the presence of blemishes or imperfections on the pearl's surface. Pearls with minimal or no blemishes are considered high quality, while pearls with noticeable spots, bumps, or wrinkles are less desirable.


Shape refers to the form of the pearl. Pearls come in various shapes, with perfectly round gems being the most sought-after.

The most common pearl shapes include round, near-round, oval, button, drop, baroque (irregular shapes), and circle (with concentric ridges around the body).


Colour encompasses three components: the body colour of the pearl, overtone and orient.

The body colour is the primary colour of the pearl, which can range from white, cream, and pink to gold, black, and more. The overtone refers to the subtle secondary colour that can enhance the beauty of the pearl, with common overtones including rose, silver, and green. The orient is a rainbow-like iridescence seen in high-quality pearls.


Size refers to the diameter of the pearl, typically measured in millimetres.

Smaller pearls usually range from 2mm to 7mm and are often used in multi-strand necklaces and intricate designs. Larger pearls range from 8mm to over 20mm and are rarer and more valuable, especially when combined with high lustre and a clean surface.

Nacre Quality

Nacre quality refers to its thickness and consistency. A thick nacre indicates that the pearl has spent more time developing in the oyster or mussel, leading to better lustre and durability. In contrast, pearls with thin nacre may appear chalky and are prone to chipping and damage.


Matching is crucial for pearl jewelry involving multiple pearls, such as necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Pearls in a piece of jewelry should match in terms of lustre, colour, size, shape, and surface quality.

The more uniform the pearls, the higher the value of the jewelry piece. Matching is a meticulous and time-consuming process, especially for high-quality pearls.

Natural vs. Cultured Pearls

Diamond Pavé Reversible Step Motif Silver Pearl Necklace

Pearls can be broadly categorized into two main types: natural and cultured. Each type has its own unique characteristics, formation processes, and value considerations.

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are formed without human intervention. They occur when a microscopic irritant, such as a parasite, enters an oyster, mussel, or clam. In response, the mollusk secretes layers of nacre (a combination of aragonite and conchiolin) around the irritant, gradually forming a pearl.

Natural pearls are extremely rare, especially high-quality ones, making them highly valuable.

Natural pearls often have irregular shapes and a unique charm due to their organic formation process. They can come in various colours, depending on the type of mollusk and the water conditions.

Historically, some of the most famous pearls, such as the La Peregrina pearl, are natural. They were once found in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mannar, and the waters around Bahrain.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls are created through human intervention. A small bead or piece of tissue is deliberately inserted into the mollusk to initiate the pearl-formation process. The mollusk then secretes layers of nacre around the irritant, similar to natural pearls.

Unlike natural pearls, which are rare because they form randomly, cultured pearls are created through a controlled process, making them more widely available.

While cultured pearls are generally more common, high-quality specimens are still rare. The process of culturing pearls can produce a wide range of quality, from mediocre to exceptional.

It's worth mentioning that the health of the marine environment significantly impacts cultured pearl quality and farming. Factors such as water quality, temperature, and pollution can affect the pearl quality and yield of cultured pearls. High-quality pearl farms maintain stringent environmental standards to produce superior pearls.

Freshwater vs. Saltwater Pearls

Pearls, whether natural or cultured, can be classified into two main categories based on their environment of cultivation: freshwater and saltwater. Each type has distinct characteristics, influencing its appearance and value.

Freshwater Pearls

Double-Sided Rose Cut White Topaz Step Motif Pearl Bracelet in Rose Gold

Freshwater pearls are cultivated in freshwater environments such as lakes, rivers, and ponds. They are produced by freshwater mussels, primarily in China, the leading producer of these types of pearls. Freshwater pearls can be both natural, occurring without human intervention, or cultured, where the process is managed and controlled by pearl farmers to ensure higher yields and better quality.

Freshwater pearls come in a wide variety of shapes, including round, near-round, oval, button, drop, and baroque. While perfectly round freshwater pearls are rare, the irregular shapes are often appreciated for their unique beauty.

These pearls are available in an array of natural colours, such as white, peach, pink, and lavender. Additionally, they can be dyed to achieve vibrant colours not typically found in nature.

Freshwater pearls generally have a softer, more subtle lustre compared to saltwater pearls. This lustre is often described as a warm, satin-like glow. They typically range in size from 2mm to 13mm, with larger sizes being rarer and more valuable.

Saltwater Pearls

Saltwater Pearl Colours

Courtesy of Diamond Buzz

Saltwater pearls are cultivated in saltwater environments, such as oceans and seas. They are produced by saltwater oysters and are typically found in regions such as Japan, China, French Polynesia, and Australia. Similar to freshwater pearls, saltwater pearls can be either natural or cultured, however, natural saltwater pearls are exceedingly rare.

Saltwater pearls tend to be more uniformly round compared to freshwater pearls. However, baroque shapes are also common and valued for their uniqueness.

Saltwater pearls offer a diverse range of natural colours, depending on the type and location of cultivation. Akoya pearls are usually white or cream, Tahitian pearls have dark exotic hues, and South Sea pearls are gold or white.

Sizes vary by type, with Akoya pearls typically being smaller than the larger South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

Due to the intensive cultivation process and limited yield (usually one pearl per oyster), saltwater pearls are generally more expensive than freshwater pearls.