Saltwater Vs. Freshwater Pearls

Michelle Powell-SmithMarch 1, 2010


While all pearls are created by mollusks, not all pearls are created equal. The texture, shape, and price of freshwater and saltwater pearls may vary significantly, but both offer a warm and flattering luster. Cultured saltwater and freshwater pearls are both widely available as strands of pearls or set into other jewelry. Modern cultivation techniques are bringing freshwater pearls up to the quality of saltwater pearls and reducing the differences between the two.


Freshwater and saltwater pearls were equally valued through history. Saltwater pearls were commonly found along the coastal regions of India, Ceylon, and the Persian Gulf. Freshwater pearls developed in the lakes and rivers of China, Japan, and North America. Prior to the cultivation of pearls in the early 1900s, pearls were extraordinarily valuable.


Most pearls available today are cultivated or cultured pearls. Foreign matter is inserted into an oyster or another mollusk to create the pearl. The mollusk produces layers of nacre or mother of pearl to coat the foreign matter and a pearl is formed. Saltwater pearls are typically cultured with a round mollusk shell bead and a bit of mollusk tissue to form a round pearl. Freshwater pearls may be cultured with just a bit of tissue, but modern freshwater culturing techniques are creating round freshwater pearls using adaptations of the Mikimoto technique developed for saltwater cultivation. Round freshwater pearls are used in Red Envelope's sparkling pearl and diamond earrings.


All pearls are formed with nacre, but the depth of the nacre is a key difference between a freshwater and saltwater pearl. Freshwater pearls are typically composed entirely of pearl nacre, while a cultured saltwater pearl consists of layers of nacre surrounding a shell core. Freshwater pearls also show more color variation than the saltwater variety, like the rich blue of Red Envelope's Blue Moon Pearl Bracelet.


Both saltwater and freshwater pearls require special care to avoid discoloration and excessive wear. Put your pearls on after your makeup and hair products and take the time to wipe gently with a soft cloth after wearing. Clean any type of pearls in a specialty pearl cleaner and gently buff dry. Deeper nacre may make freshwater pearls more durable than saltwater, but careful care will still extend their beauty.

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