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A Dive into the World of Pearls: Freshwater vs. Saltwater - The Bead Traders

A Dive into the World of Pearls: Freshwater vs. Saltwater

When it comes to making an ideal gemstone choice you’ll cherish for years to come, it’s hard to go wrong with pearls. A pearl is a classic choice with the ability to flatter absolutely anyone. Pearls are durable and timeless with the potential to last a lifetime. They’re also strongly associated with concepts like affluence, beauty, elegance, and classic good taste.

However, you shouldn’t assume that all pearls are the same. They come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. They can also be either freshwater or saltwater. In fact, that’s the first decision you want to make if you’re in the market for pearls – freshwater pearls vs saltwater pearls. Here’s a closer look at what you need to know to make a decision you’ll be happy with.

Freshwater Pearls vs Saltwater Pearls: What Are the Key Differences?

Contrary to what many people believe, oysters aren’t the only mollusks capable of producing pearls. Alternatives like conch, clams, mussels, and abalone can produce them, as well. In fact, you’ll notice that the inside of a mollusk shell often has a similar sheen and luster to an actual pearl.

This is because a mollusk deals with irritants (like sand, parasites, or pearl farmers’ beads) that invade its shell by coating them with layer after layer of calcium carbonate – the same substance that lines the shell itself. Over time, this process results in a substance known as nacre – mother-of-pearl.

Although many different mollusks can and do produce pearls, the most common two options are saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. Here’s a closer look at some other differences to know.

Geographic origin

Collectively speaking, pearls can originate from many different areas of the world, including but not limited to Australia, the Philippines, Fiji, Mexico, China, Japan, and Thailand. However, most freshwater pearls on the market today come from either China or Japan’s iconic Biwa Lake.

Saltwater pearls, on the other hand, typically come from carefully protected lagoons, bays, and similarly warm bodies of water located throughout Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Australia, and French Polynesia.


Although pearls are most commonly associated with the color white, they actually come in many different beautiful shades and hues. However, those colors can vary as far as freshwater pearls vs saltwater pearls.

Freshwater pearls tend to closely mirror the natural look and feel of the nacre lining the inside of a mollusk’s shell. Shell nacre can vary quite a bit, so the pearls do, as well. Light, traditional colors like white or cream are common, but so are alternatives like peach, lavender, or pink. In some cases, dye may be added to the pearl to punch up its natural color a bit.

Although saltwater pearls can be bleached to achieve the coveted white color so many people still prefer, they are often actually darker in color. Grey, blue, and similar tones are common, especially among Akoya pearls. However, saltwater pearls can also be black, green, or even deep purple, as with Tahitian pearls. Some options – like the signature pearls of the South Sea – can even be a rich silver or gold.


Saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls form via similar processes, but they also differ quite a bit due to certain variables.

For example, saltwater pearls usually form quite slowly around solid foundations like farmers’ beads or grains of sand. Meanwhile, freshwater options usually form around a biodegradable irritant that will eventually break down. In these cases, the nacre layers form quickly, making the pearl denser.

These formation differences result in differing lusters. Freshwater pearls have a soft, misty luster to them, while saltwater pearls are hyper-brilliant, sometimes even exhibiting a mirror-esque surface.


When pearls form around organic material, as with many freshwater pearls, it’s more common for the shape to be irregular and organic, as well. Alternatively, saltwater pearls usually form around round beads or similar objects, resulting in the smooth, symmetrical appearance many people associate with classic pearls.

Contrary to what some believe, the organic, unusual shape associated with many freshwater pearls is not proof that they’re naturally occurring (as opposed to cultured). Natural pearls do exist. However, they’re very rare, so most commercial pearls are the result of human intervention.

Overall value

As with other types of gemstones, scarcity has a lot to do with the value of each pearl type, and there are some pretty profound differences between freshwater and saltwater varieties.

Saltwater pearls usually originate from oysters that only produce a single pearl at a time. Many will also produce only one pearl over an entire lifetime. Naturally, these pearls are much harder to cultivate, significantly rarer, and more valuable, as a result. (Prices also reflect this.)

Meanwhile, the mussels and other mollusks responsible for freshwater pearls are usually capable of producing up to 120 pearls at one time. They’re also easier to farm, even in large quantities, so they tend to be more affordable.

There are fewer restrictions and regulations limiting the number of freshwater pearls a cultivator can produce, as well.

Freshwater Pearls vs Saltwater Pearls: Which Is a Better Choice for You?

Both saltwater and freshwater pearls are beautiful, elegant, and representative of a wonderful investment. Both make incredible gemstone choices that would flatter anyone. However, certain factors might definitely make one a better choice for a particular buyer than the other.

Here are some examples to consider when weighing your personal options:

  • Size: If you prefer bigger pearls, saltwater options might be more your speed. However, those who love the look and feel of smaller alternatives should take a closer look at freshwater.
  • Color: If you’re like most jewelry lovers, color matters when it comes to your choices. Both saltwater and freshwater options come in a variety of different tones. However, freshwater pearls tend to be lighter, while darker, more dramatic pearls are usually saltwater.
  • Shine: If you’re after a mirror-like gleam when it comes to your pearls, go for round, symmetrical saltwater pearls. However, if you love a softer, dewier glow, freshwater pearls are your choice.
  • Shape: Pearls with unusual, irregular shapes are trendier than ever right now, and you’re more likely to see those when shopping for freshwater pearls. However, if you prefer perfectly round, classic pearls, go for saltwater.
  • Budget: Price tag will naturally be a primary concern for anyone in the market for jewelry. Freshwater pearls are a much more wallet-friendly option in this regard, while saltwater pearls sometimes carry a prestige factor because of their cost.

How you plan on wearing your pearls may influence your decision, as well. Freshwater pearls make a solid option for dressing up work outfits or otherwise wearing for everyday purposes. But if you’re the type who prefers to break out the pearls only for special occasions, the flawless perfection of a saltwater pearl option may be a better choice.

Whichever option you choose as far as freshwater pearls vs saltwater pearls, one thing’s for sure. You’re making an excellent, tasteful choice you’re sure to treasure for the rest of your life. Explore your options today, and treat your style to the ultimate upgrade.

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