Freshwater pearls have reinvented themselves yet again. No longer confined to the low-end status of ‘Rice Krispie’ pearls, these pearls appeal to a wide audience that gets bigger by the day.
Whether they are looking for a traditional white pearl necklace, or a designer piece featuring splashes of color, jewelry stores catering to customers of all stripes will benefit from reserving a spot on their shelves for these beautiful pearls.
* Freshwater pearls are farmed in China, usually in man-made freshwater lakes and ponds. Growth times average two to seven years.
* Other freshwater pearl mussels, such as the Japanese Hyriopsis schlegeli has been used co farm pearls in China since the 1990s. The cumingi and schlegeli mussels have been crossbred to create hybrid pearl-bearing mussels that are responsible for many of the highest quality pearls grown today.
* A freshwater mussel can be nucleated to 12 to 16 times on each side of its valve, potentially growing up to 32 pears per shell. Modern farmers limit the number of grafts to enhance the quality and size of the pearls.
* Freshwater pearls are usually ‘tissue-nucleated’. This means that only a small square piece of donor mantle tissue is used as the nucleus, which produces a solid-nacre pearl (no bead).
* More recently, pearl farmers have been using beads to grow freshwater pearls in similar fashion to their saltwater cousins. Beaded freshwater pearls are typically much larger than tissue-nucleated, and are known as fireballs, Ming and Edison pearls.
Freshwater once had a reputation of being small, wrinkled and blemished. These early pearls were known as ‘Rice Krispie’ pearls, and they dominated freshwater pearl production from the 1970s throughout the 1980s. Modern culturing technology and the introduction of the H. cumingipearl shell to replace the native Cristaria plicata has improved these pearls’ shapes by leaps and bounds. Today gem quality freshwater pearls can mimic fine saltwater pearls in shape and luster.
1. ROUND PEARLS
* Perfectly round, tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls are rare because unlike saltwater, the pearls have no bead nucleus.
* Perfectly round pearls represent less than 0.0025% of each yearly pearl harvest.
* Pearls that feature slight variations from a true round shape account for about 3% of each years’ harvest.
2. OFF-ROUND PEARLS
* These pearls are noticeably off-round when viewed from a distance of 12-inches or less, but will appear round to the eye for the casual observer.
* This category also includes ‘potato’ pearls which have uneven, rounded shapes as well as multiple circles lining the body of the pearl.
3. RICE/OVAL AND DROP-SHAPED PEARLS
* Smooth ovals and drop-shaped pearls represent less than 10-20% of each yearly harvest.
* Symmetrical drop-shapes have a romantic appeal for many pearl lovers. The graceful shape makes for incredible pendant and earring sets that are sure to move quickly.
4. BAROQUE AND FANCY-SHAPED PEARLS
* Baroque pearls include coin-shapes, buttons, bars and other fancy shapes along with free-form asymmetrical pearls.
* Baroque freshwater pearls can be tissue or bead-nucleated. Shapes such as coin pearls are nucleated with disc-shaped nuclei.
Freshwater pearls are available in a variety of natural colors such as pink/peach, lavender and white. Many other colors such as navy blue, emerald green and magenta are available, but these hues are the result of color-treatments.
1. WHITE PEARLS
* White is the most popular color, as it most closely resembles the saltwater akoya pearl.
* White pearls feature traditional overtones of rosé, cream and silver.
* Display white pearls on neutral-colored backgrounds like white, tan or light grey for best results.
2. PINK PEARLS
* Common pink pearl overtones are gold, green and rose.
* The pink and peach hues are natural colors that will never fade or discolor over the years as long as the pearls are cared for correctly.
3. LAVENDER PEARLS
* Common lavender pearl overtones are aquamarine, green, gold and rose.
* Like pink pearls, the purple hues of lavender freshwater pearls are completely natural, and will never fade or discolor over time if cared for properly.
* Both pink and lavender Freshwater pearls can be a mauve or dusty rose hue that can be sorted into either color category.
4. BLACK PEARLS
* Black Freshwater pearls can range in color from a dark blue to violet to charcoal grey and often feature intensely iridescent ‘peacock’ overtones.
Freshwater pearls are available in a versatile range of sizes from 1.0 mm to 12.0 mm and larger.
* Freshwater pearls are measured in one and half millimeter increments.
* The most popular sizes are the 6.0-7.0 mm, the 7.0-8.0 mm and 8.0-9.0 mm ranges.
* Smaller sizes such as 5.0-6.0 mm are perfect for petite ladies or young girls as a ‘first pearls’ present.
Luster is the most important factor in determining the value of a pearl. Freshwater pearls are known for their ‘satiny’ luster, which is softer and less intense than the saltwater akoya pearl. This is due to their solid nacre composition, as light must travel through solid crystalline material before being reflected and refracted back at the viewer.
* Gem-quality freshwater pearls will exhibit luster that is almost as sharp as that of the saltwater akoya pearl.
* Pearls with ‘Very Good’ luster will display a high degree of reflectivity. You may not be able to distinguish specific facial features reflected in the surface of the pearls and reflected light sources will appear softly blurred around the edges.
* Pearls with ‘Good’ or ‘Fair’ luster will reflect a reasonable amount of light, but reflected light sources will exhibit heavy blurring around the edges. Objects will be unrecognizable when viewing their reflections in the surface of the pearls.
* Many off-round and baroque pearls will display better luster and orient than perfectly round pearls. This is because of the irregular placement of crystalline aragonite platelets, which cause light to reflect and refract at a higher intensity in some areas.
Freshwater pearls present distinctive inclusions that you can use to determine whether a pearl is genuine.
Blemishes are a natural occurrence - even if a pearl looks clean to the naked eye, the pearl will display some type of inclusion under magnification. Most small inclusions will not affect the pearl’s durability.
* Chalky spots are dull white areas on the pearl’s surfaces.
* This type of blemish is usually visible when rotating the pearls closely in front of your eyes. Chalky areas can be difficult to spot because the white inclusion blends well with the pearl’s body color.
GRADING FRESHWATER PEARLS
I rely on the A- AAA grading scale to explain freshwater pearl grades to customers. This is the easiest grading system to understand, as each tier has specific benchmarks that must be met in order for a pearl to qualify for its grade.
There is no universally agreed-upon grading system that all pearl vendors can use to determine a pearl’s grade. This can make it difficult to make good buying decisions because grading tiers haven’t been clearly defined. For an easy to understand visual guide on freshwater pearl grading, visit the PurePearls.com Grading Guide.
SELLING SECRETS – ROMANCE YOUR PEARLS
The classic look and lower price points of freshwater pearls encourage customers to feel more at ease when purchasing pearls for the first time. It gives them room to experiment with new pearl types and jewelry designs. White freshwater pearls can be a budget-friendly alternative to the classic akoya pearl, and are an excellent opportunity to introduce your customers to the rainbow of colors that freshwater pearls offer.
Freshwater pearls also represent the most cutting edge advances in modern pearliculture. New culturing techniques are evolving year to year, bringing brand new pearl shapes, colors and sizes to the market. This category includes ‘Fireball’ pearls, ‘Ripple’ pearls and ‘Metallic’ freshwater pearls among many other notable and beautiful innovations. The ever-expanding variety of freshwater pearls will provide you with new and exciting ideas to present to your customers year after year. Good luck!
Ashley McNamara, CEO of Purepearls.com. Ashley has been working in the jewellery industry for over 14 years and is a GIA graduate who has extensive experience grading and appraising cultured pearls.
You can contact her at Ashley@purepearls.com or through her blog.