What to Know About the Most Popular Types of Pearls

Expert advice on choosing wisely and protecting your investment.
Our Guide to the Most Popular Types of Pearls
Photo: Getty | Design: Tiana Crispino
Naomi Rougeau
Naomi Rougeau
Naomi Rougeau
Naomi Rougeau
Senior Fashion and Beauty Editor
  • Naomi writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in fashion, jewelry, and beauty.
  • She brings over a decade of experience as a writer, editor, and creative consultant.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Naomi was the senior fashion features editor at ELLE Magazine, where she also oversaw the publication's living and travel sections.
Updated Jan 31, 2024

You may have heard that pearl embellishments emerged as one of the biggest trends at Bridal Fashion Week in New York. And if you're on the hunt for the perfect dress, you've likely given some thought to other jewelry (perhaps some type of pearls) now that the stress of the engagement ring hunt is behind you. Given the predominant shades of white and cream, pearl jewelry provides the perfect accent to bridal attire while their luminous qualities will enhance your wedding day glow, but that's not all they have to offer.

From warm gold to nearly jet black and perfectly spherical to baroque, there is a pearl color and shape to suit any taste, wedding aesthetic, and budget. Just as you would when purchasing a diamond, you want to do your research to ensure you're getting the best quality pearl jewelry you can and that it stays in tip-top shape. Oh, and if you haven't yet purchased the aforementioned ring, perhaps you should consider a pearl engagement ring.

Meet the Expert:

  • As president of one of the largest pearl importers and distributors in the United States with over three decades of experience, The Pearl Source's Leon Rbibo is well-versed in these timeless gemstones. Rbibo has traveled to far-flung locales in search of the most brilliant pearls and keeps an eye on trends, ensuring that the company's offerings continue to meet the needs of a variety of consumers, at unrivaled prices.

In this article:

What is a Pearl?

It's a pretty miraculous thing when you think about it. A foreign object makes its way into (or is placed in) a slimy oyster (I mean, they're being used by New York City to filter the polluted waters of the East River) or another living, shelled mollusk such as a clam, said mollusk produces a secretion to protect itself from the object and upon hardening, a pearl is formed. Compositionally, a pearl is made of concentric layers of calcium carbonate and protein, which makes them surprisingly strong given their delicate appearance.

Where Do Pearls Come From?

In short, any body of water that contains living, shelled mollusks is capable of producing pearls. Case in point: Mississippi River pearls. Where yours come from is simply a matter of taste though in terms of market dominance, China alone manufactures hundreds of millions of freshwater pearls per year followed by Japan, the South Sea, Tahiti, and the Philippines in the saltwater categories.

What is the Difference Between Natural Pearls and Cultured Pearls?

Contrary to widespread misconception, cultured pearls are 100% natural pearls. Mother nature has simply been given a helping hand by pearl farmers who insert a foreign element into the oyster (or nucleus, in industry speak). As a way of protecting itself, the oyster produces an excretion, a salivation that surrounds the element and creates a pearl upon hardening. "It's like an orange that you buy at the market is considered natural but not wild because it was grown in an orange grove with a million other oranges and was not found in a random tree in somebody's backyard," explains Rbibo. The cultured pearl method was invented by Mr. Kokichi Mikomoto in Japan in 1893 and Mikimoto's eponymous brand remains a standard bearer in the pearl industry.

Types of Pearls

The shape, quality, and color of a pearl is determined by environmental factors. A pearl harvested in deep, still water will boast fewer imperfections while few high-quality specimens will emerge from a crop of pearls produced en masse in freshwater ponds. For this article, we'll focus on the four most common types. It should be noted that there is no standardized grading system for pearls as there is for diamonds but jewelers will typically use a AAA scale with a AAAA scale for South Sea pearls. The determining factors of a pearl's quality are shape, luster, and surface imperfections.

Freshwater Pearls

Typically the lowest-priced pearls on the market, the majority of freshwater pearls are produced in China on large-scale farms. Because they are formed in freshwater mussels as opposed to saltwater oysters, they form more quickly and have a lower luster. That said, you shouldn't be deterred and they can look absolutely beautiful in any jewelry format.

Akoya Pearls

A saltwater, cultured pearl from Japan. The traditional, white graduated strand your grandmother has worn for 80 years? There's a good chance it's made up of Akoya pearls. "There are some rare variations that come in creamier tones and more silvery tones, but they are known for being white," says Rbibo. 90% of Akoya pearls are also treated with a bleaching agent to bring out the color. "It's pretty mainstream and is not considered a particular treatment type of the pearl," assures Rbibo.

Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian pearls come from, well, Tahiti. Also known as black pearls, they come in a variety of colors, including greens, greys, and dark blacks. They are rarer and therefore generally more expensive, depending on individual grade. Among the rarest is the peacock variety, a multi-hued pearl that resembles an oil slick with its striking gradations.

South Sea Pearls

The Tahitian pearls are part of a greater category of pearls known as South Sea pearls. Larger in size, they are the most expensive pearls and are seen on everyone from royalty to Oprah Winfrey. Nancy Pelosi is also very well known for her love of South Sea pearls and a classic strand necklace can range from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pearl Colors

As with other colored gemstones, history and tradition have assigned various meanings to particular shades of pearls. A pearl's color is determined by the chemical composition of the water, the region where it's growing, and the type of oyster within which it's growing. "You can find thousands of different variations of greens, from pistachio greens to bluish greens to olive greens," says Rbibo of the variety of colors found in Tahitian baroque pearls. A subset is the peacock green, which is a multi-hue pearl with a purplish center that is extremely desirable. "They're very exotic. I've had customers that have been in rooms with women wearing millions of dollars of diamonds and they were the star of the show with the peacock Tahitians because they're just so unique and rare."

It would be impossible to produce an exhaustive list of all of the naturally occurring colors of pearls but even if you take such symbolism with a grain of salt, we hope you'll learn something.

White Pearls

From cool white to creamy ivory, this classic hue symbolizes innocence, purity, peace, beauty, new beginnings, and sincerity.

Black Pearls

With a metallic sheen that can boast an almost oil-slick quality, these complex beauties symbolize protection, independence, strength, allure, mystery, and resilience

Pink Pearls

One of the rarest naturally occurring pearl colors, pink pearls can range from peach to deep plum. It's little surprise they're associated with femininity but also good health and happiness, love and kindness.

Golden Pearls

Extremely rare, golden pearls are primarily found in the Philippines, and much like gold itself, they symbolize wealth, prosperity, and success.

Grey Pearls

Truly the eminence gris, grey pearls offer a clean, modern look and are associated with dignity, security, wisdom, and self-control.

Chocolate Pearls

The earthy tones of chocolate and copper-hued pearls offer a bold look that signals warmth and harmony.

Multicolored Pearls

More complex pearls such as peacock pearls offer a striking depth of color and are destined to become conversation starters for anyone who wears them. Naturally, they're associated with individuality, flair, and creativity.

Pearl Shapes

While perfectly spherical pearls will continue to be prized from classic strands (18" is the most popular length with pearl diameter increasing with age and spending power), Rbibo admits that "perfectly imperfect" baroque pearls (their unique silhouettes caused by water currents) have become quite fashionable, particularly when it comes to earrings. The freshwater category abounds with unique shapes from coins, and buttons, to tiny bead-like seed and rice pearls (popular for embroidery). Broadly, any non-spherical pearl is classified as baroque, and variations within that category are limited only by Mother Nature.

Proper Pearl Care Tips You Should Know

Surprisingly, pearls are relatively fuss-free. Though no gemstone can match the hardness of diamonds, pearls are far more substantial than their prim image conveys. "Pearls are quite durable," says Rbibo. "They're considered a stone, and the likelihood of them cracking or breaking is very, very small." And while many brands market pearl cleaning kits, Rbibo assures me that the only thing you need to take care of your pearls is a soft cotton cloth.

Last On and First Off

Chemicals (perfumes, soaps, hairspray) can ruin the surface luster and the intensity of a pearl's color. To avert damage, Rbibo has a simple rule of "last on, first off." "If you're going to be putting on creams, perfumes, colognes, whatever it is, put those on first, and then the last thing to go on is your pearl necklace, says Rbibo. "Then at the end of the evening, it's the first thing to come off." This will ensure that your pearls are taken care of and will last for generations to come.

String Theory

Strands of pearls are strung (and knotted) with either nylon or silk thread. The latter is by far the most desirable choice and if you're only wearing your pearls occasionally, say once or twice per month, you should only need to have them restrung every 10-15 years according to Rbibo. For more frequent wear, you're likely looking at every three years and exposure to water can speed up the process, though it will only cause harm to the thread, not the pearls.

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