Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls

by Ultimate Jewelry Guide
Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls

Pearls have been around for centuries and many people are curious about freshwater vs saltwater pearls. The truth is that freshwater pearls are created by freshwater mussels, while saltwater pearls come from the sea.

The good thing about pearls is that they are classic and stunning. They can effortlessly fit in as bridal jewelry or a center stone for an engagement. Therefore, this makes them adored globally and it’s been a thing for centuries. 

But with a wide variety of pearls out there, it can sometimes be difficult trying to buy one. Luckily, this post will explore the differences between freshwater and saltwater pearls so you can decide which type of pearl might be right for you!

Types of Pearls

Most pearls, regardless of whether they come from freshwater or saltwater are called “Cultured pearls.” This means that someone must insert a small piece of tissue from the freshwater mollusk, which triggers the process of forming a nacre and produces a pearl.

Pearl farmers have a higher degree of control when they “cause” the pearl to form, as opposed to relying on natural conditions and factors. Pearl formation starts when an oyster produces layers of nacre inside the creature’s shell. However, freshwater vs. saltwater pearl does not matter in terms of quality. Instead, the quality of the pearls’ nacre is the one that dictates this.

Though not as scarce as diamonds, saltwater and freshwater pearls are still rare stones. Saltwater pearls come from the oyster varieties of Pinctada fucata, Pinctada maxima, and Pinctada margaritifera while freshwater cousins hail from General’s Button (Pavona) mussel.

For the most part, it doesn’t matter whether pearls are cultivated or occur naturally. The longer a pearl is grown for, the better its formation of nacre will be. The better quality of the pearl, the more expensive it will be. Therefore, pearls from older oysters are generally higher in value.

Now that we know about how pearls form, you might be wondering “can an oyster make a diamond” learn more in our post.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls derive their name from the fact that they grow in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds, etc. These types of pearls are the most common and are found in nearly all colors. These types of pearls are less expensive than saltwater pearls because they tend to grow so easily.

One downside to freshwater pearls is that they have a lot of imperfections or blemishes on their surface due to being grown closer together. The luster may be off-white rather than white as well. 

However, freshwater pearl farming has advanced over time and this quality makes them more comparable to high-end saltwater pearls now. China is the country that manufactures most of the freshwater pearls. To make a freshwater pearl occur naturally, there must first be an irritant introduced into the mollusk to act as a stimulus for pearl production. 

However, this can delay and make it take longer, thereby extending production time from 4 to 6 years. Freshwater pearls are known for their elegant shapes, white and pastel colors, and soft luster. If you are looking for a round pearl or free-form baroque, freshwater pearls offer different styles for you to choose from.

Typically, freshwater pearls are more durable compared to saltwater pearls. Furthermore, the nacre used to create freshwater pearls is significantly thicker than saltwater pearls. If you’re looking to wear your pearls frequently, consider freshwater ones.

The quality of freshwater pearls now competes with that of the high-quality saltwater pearls. This is why you need to focus on finding a reputable supplier when planning on buying these types of pearls. 

Saltwater Pearls

The name “saltwater” derives from the fact that these types of oysters (where the pearl resides) live near seawater sources such as oceans and seas which contain naturally higher salt content. These types of pearls are Akoya pearls, South Sea pearls, and Tahitian pearls.

The Japanese Akoya pearl varieties have been growing off the coast of the country. Normally, the Japanese Akoya pearl was previously known as the classical pearl of choice. Saltwater pearls were considered the best pearls for necklaces. This is both in terms of their luster and wonderful rounded shapes. 

Unlike freshwater pearls, saltwater pearls are easier to grow organically. That’s because they only take 6 to 18 months to grow. Saltwater pearls are also more likely to have a perfectly rounded shape that ranges from 4 to 10 mm. Pearls with a perfectly spherical shape are most popular and highly in demand. Hence, the high cost of saltwater pearls. Additionally, saltwater pearls are more costly because they are rare to find, unlike freshwater pearls which are most common and abundant.

What to Look for When Buying a Pearl

Comparing freshwater vs saltwater pearls is nothing without knowing exactly what you need to look for when buying a pearl. Below are some of the most crucial factors to consider before making a purchase.


One of the most important factors in freshwater vs saltwater pearls is luster. This refers to how well light reflects off the surface of a pearl. The higher the quality, it will have more life-like qualities when viewed from all angles and will be able to reflect colors beautifully.

In freshwater pearls, one can find a variety of shapes such as perfect spheres or teardrop-shaped ones with no blemishes on their surfaces. In contrast, saltwater pearls are lower in value because they typically only come in round shapes with blemishes like growth lines and knots which cause them not to be lustrously reflective as freshwater pearls would be (Brennecke).


The size of a pearl is determined by the amount of time it takes to form. The older the pearl, the larger it is, and vice versa. Therefore, size is also an important aspect to look at when buying a pearl.

You can wear either freshwater or saltwater pearls as a necklace. However, tiny beads are mostly ideal for embellishing a unique and beautiful set of earrings. That means you should expect to pay more for bigger gems. So, if you’re shopping for a pearl on a tight budget, this is something you need to keep in mind.


If there are two or more pearls in a piece of jewelry such as a necklace, or bracelet, then you need to carefully analyze whether the stones match each other. The more the pearls match the better. However, this rule might not apply if you don’t care about precision. For example, if you prefer Boho or a shabby chic aesthetic, then you need to consider a mixture of different pearl formations to enhance your look.


The more your research about pearls, the more you’ll start finding out about their grading. Grading is the most complex aspect when it comes to the selection of pearls. What makes it more complicated is that there isn’t a standard system for grading pearls. That means each jeweler and supplier uses their own classification method to rank the luster, shape, surface, and color of the pearl. 

These are some of the factors you need to weigh when planning on buying pearls. Fortunately, the Tahitian pearl is known to be exceptional to this rule. It’s also important to note that the French Polynesian government controls their grading exportation. This makes the lines less blurred in terms of classification.

Differences Between Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

 Freshwater pearls generally have a softer luster, meaning they are not as glossy-looking. But, saltwater pearls have a more reflective shine. It’s also worth noting that recent farming and harvesting techniques have yielded improvements for freshwater pearls. Based on this, the luster of freshwater pearls has become comparable to those of saltwater ones.

The difference in luster comes from the different pearl types of mollusks that produce both freshwater and saltwater pearls. This means that there is a variation in the thickness of their nacre and the overall quality of their luster. 

Should You Buy Freshwater or Saltwater Pearls?

The decision to purchase either freshwater or saltwater pearls solely depends on you. That’s because these two types of pearls differ in terms of quality, shape, and price. Saltwater pearls are more expensive than freshwater pearls. Saltwater pearls also feature a better shape than freshwater pearls. However, some freshwater pearls also come in an excellent rounded shape that most people prefer in the market.

Therefore, this mostly depends on your preferences, budget, and what you’re willing to settle for. If the shape doesn’t concern you that much, then freshwater pearls are ideal to consider. But, if you’re fascinated with the shape and the rarity of the pearl, then consider buying saltwater pearls.


It’s not easy for freshwater vs saltwater pearls to compare! Ultimately, the decision comes down to your preference and price point. Freshwater pearls are cheaper but more likely to break than their saltwater counterparts. They also have lower luster quality while being thicker.

Saltwater pearls offer higher-quality attributes that make them much pricier than freshwater types of these gems as well as making them less prone to discoloration or breakage when worn frequently.

Depending on what type of pearl meets your individual preferences in terms of appearance and durability, it should be easier now to know which pearl will suit all your needs best!

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