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What are the different types of pearls?

What are the different types of pearls?

We explain the different types of pearls used in jewelry.

Many of our customers absolutely love pearls. They’re the perfect jewelry type for every occasion. From formal to casual, pearls can be dressed up or dressed down to match any type of outfit for any event. And, because they’re so popular, many of our customers want to know more about them.

Customers want to know where pearls come from, the differences among different types of pearls, and other things related to the various types of pearl jewelry available. Fortunately, we at Braunschweiger are big fans of pearls, and we frequently discuss them with our customers. So, let’s cover some of the more common questions that we discuss with our customers about pearl jewelry.

A brief history on the different types of pearls.

There are so many different types of pearls and so many terms that it is hard for the average person to understand what it all means. Humans have been wearing pearls within various types of jewelry for thousands of years, from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to nobility in the Middle Ages. However, it wasn’t until recently that pearls became more widely affordable.

You see, pearls in nature are grown inside various types of oysters when some kind of irritant, such as a grain of sand or a pebble, gets inside the oyster. Since the oyster itself is a delicate creature, it grows a coating around the irritant to smooth it out so it’s less damaging and annoying to the oyster.

More than 100 years ago, pearls were simply an accident of nature, and getting a strand of matched pearls could take many years and cost thousands – even millions – of dollars. When those pearls are found, they are called “natural” pearls, and they are often tiny and uneven.

What’s the difference when it comes to pearls?

The first question most people want to know is whether their pearls are real. This is not surprising since, as mentioned, there are so many terms thrown around pertaining to pearls. Knowing the terms used to describe them thus becomes critical. Questions come up such as, “Are ‘cultured’ pearls real?” and “What’s the difference between cultured, freshwater, and South Sea pearls?”

Let’s start with what makes a pearl real. The term “cultured” means pearls that are real, but man has helped them along by implanting the oyster with a bead to start the pearl-making process, rather than the accidental grain of sand described above. This is how almost all real pearls are grown and harvested today. Virtually all pearls, whether they are the classic round ones or odd-shaped baroque and freshwater pearls, are in a sense “cultured,” but usually the term is used as shorthand for “cultured saltwater pearls.”

So, if you see the term “cultured pearl,” you are usually looking at the classic round pearls in size that measure up to 8-9 mm in diameter. These are the classic strands of smooth round pearls that have been around for generations and still are popular today.

What are freshwater pearls?

Freshwater pearls are exactly what they sound like. They are cultured in oysters that live in fresh water like a river bed, instead of salted sea water. It is much easier to grow pearls in freshwater oysters, so the prices of freshwater pearls are considerably less compared with their saltwater cousins. Decades ago, most freshwater pearls had a bumpy, uneven surface, but advances in culturing have led to freshwater pearls that are rounder and look closer to the more expensive variety.

What are South Sea pearls?

South Sea and Tahitian pearls are also grown, as the names suggest, in the warm South Seas around Tahiti, Australia, etc. These are grown in much larger oysters, which can grow much larger pearls, so these pearls usually are 10 mm or larger. The term “Tahitian” is most commonly used for gray to black South Sea pearls, and “South Sea” is used for other colors, including white. As all pearls grow in the water, they are subject to changes in climate, pollution, etc., so the larger the pearl, the more rare and expensive it is. This puts South Sea pearls at the top of the price pyramid.

Are there fake pearls?

Of course. Pearls that are not real are supposed to be labelled “imitation” or sometimes “faux.” For example, Majorica is a name brand of high-quality imitation pearls.

Occasionally, we have seen catalogs that call imitation pearls “cultured”, as in “cultured shell pearl”, etc. This is not correct use of the term “cultured,” but because of the word “shell” in the middle these companies can get away with it. Any imitation pearl has been man-made completely, in a factory as opposed to an oyster. The coating is just a copy of the substance that an oyster uses to coat a bead to make a real pearl.

How can I tell if my pearls are real?

One way we can tell real from imitation pearls is by “testing” the surface. It sounds like an odd test, but if you rub real pearls on the edge of your teeth, they will feel slightly gritty, while imitation pearls feel slippery and smooth. You can also usually see tiny imperfections on the surface of real pearls, but imitations are usually perfect unless they have been worn from age.

The best way to tell if your pearls are real is to have a jeweler take a look. A jeweler can let you know if your pearls are real, fake, and what kind of shape they’re in. If you’re interested in pearls, our Guide to Cleaning & Restringing Pearls is a great read, as well our video How to Restring Pearls.

To learn more about pearl jewelry, feel free to visit either of our New Jersey jewelry store locations in Morristown or New Providence to see for yourself and talk to any of our expert jewelers.

If you’d like to talk to someone sooner about advice on your pearl jewelry, you can contact us online anytime by emailing us directly at or simply filling out our contact form and we’ll answer your questions quickly.

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