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It's time to become PEARL SAVVY

Pearls have long been prized for their color and luster. Bone up on the properties and characteristics of these gems of the sea. 
Pearl savvy hero

Early on, the value of pearls was driven by their scarcity — and the fact that their existence couldn’t be detected without opening the shell of the mollusk they were hidden within. 

By the early 1900s, several Japanese entrepreneurs had secured patents on the tools and methods used to introduce foreign bodies into oysters for the purpose of creating pearls. By the 1920s, Japan had become a leading supplier of cultured pearls. Today, there are farms worldwide, with the majority of freshwater pearls grown in China. A mussel can produce several dozen pearls in one harvest season, while a saltwater oyster may only produce one or two pearls in the same amount of time.

Cultured pearls are the standard today, with natural pearls showing up mainly in vintage jewelry. Naturally-colored pinks are the most expensive, followed by white, light cream, cream, dark cream and yellow. As organic material, both saltwater and freshwater pearls are susceptible to water temperature ranges and cosmetics, hair products, and other chemicals.

How to identify different types of pearls

Natural pearls are formed inside oysters around an irritant or nucleus, such as a grain of sand. Natural pearls are the most rare, and are consequently considered the most valuable pearls. Cultured pearls are formed the same way as natural pearls, but people introduce the irritant and raise the oysters in a controlled environment on mussel farms. The majority of pearls sold are cultured pearls.

Here are the most common types used in jewelry today. 


1. BUTTON Button pearls are circular, but rounded on one side and flat on the other. They can be drilled lengthwise or through the center or double drilled.

2. COIN The coin pearls shown are flat and shaped like disks, but they also come in shapes like tear-drops, triangles, or squares. They can be drilled through their edges, or from front to back.

3. FACETED Faceted pearls are cut to create facets after they have been harvested.

4. FAUX Imitation pearls are manmade and therefore consistent in size, shape, and color. These pearls are manufactured from glass, plastic, clay, or other materials.

5. KEISHI Keishi pearls form when debris enters a mollusk. The mollusk covers the debris with nacre, creating small freeform pearls that resemble corn flakes. 

6 POTATO Potato pearls are oval or egg shaped. They can be drilled lengthwise or diagonally, like the ones shown.

7. RICE Rice pearls are small and shaped like grains of rice. They are usually drilled lengthwise.

8. STICK Stick pearls are also called biwa pearls. They are long, flat, and free-form in shape. They can be side, center, diagonally, or top drilled, like the ones shown.


The American Gem Trade Association has created the following designations. Learn these terms to help you identify any treatment your pearls may have undergone.

Natural — not enhanced
Bleached — color removed or lightened with heat, light, or other agents
Dyed — introduction of coloring matter to add a new color, intensify color, or improve color uniformity
Irradiated — color altered by the use of neutrons, gamma rays, or beta particles

This chart is a great quick reference to the characteristics of different types of pearls. Refer to it to find the perfect pearl for your next project!

Pearls chart 1
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