Fortunoff Fine Jewelry

Pearl Guide

Saltwater Cultured Pearls: Akoya

When most people think of pearls, they imagine the fairly round, creamy to white pearls typically cultivated in the saltwater lagoons and bays of Japan. These pearls, sometimes called Akoya pearls, were the first to be commercially cultured. In Akoya pearl cultivation, the irritant introduced into the oyster is a round shell bead, accompanied by a piece of oyster tissue which stimulates nacre production (this is called "nucleation"). Akoya pearls are most commonly available in sizes ranging from 4 to 9 millimeters in diameter, generally spherical or roundish in shape, and are well suited to all kinds of jewelry as well as strung necklaces and bracelets. In the last few years, cultivation of saltwater "Akoya"- type pearls has been accomplished in China as well.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls

Freshwater pearls are cultured through an implantation process similar to that of the saltwater, except that no shell bead is needed. A tiny piece of tissue stimulates the freshwater mussel to produce nacre, coating the tiny implant and creating the freshwater cultured pearl. Freshwater culturing originated in the waters of Lake Biwa in Japan, and the first freshwater cultured pearls were sometimes called "Biwa" pearls. Today, due to heavy pollution, Lake Biwa is no longer a producer of commercial quantities of pearls. Fortunately, China has taken over this role, and recent harvests have yielded breathtaking sizes and qualities of cultured freshwater pearls. They come in natural pinks, mauves and peaches, as well as color-enhanced blacks, bronzes and greys. Smaller quantities of freshwater cultured pearls are also grown in the southeastern United States, as well as other locales around the world.

Saltwater Cultured Pearls: South Sea and Tahitian

In the last twenty to thirty years, the culturing process has been adapted to the waters of the South Seas. Here, larger and more exotic species of saltwater oysters are now being cultivated to produce fabulous pearls of up to 20 millimeters in diameter. Naturally colored silver, white, golden, cream and grey cultured pearls are harvested from the waters off Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The cultivated oysters from the lagoons of Tahiti and French Polynesia produce vivid natural shades of black, grey, copper, silver, pistachio and aubergine. These beauties have become highly prized, but are still far rarer than other types of pearls, and because of their rarity and the expense of harvesting in far-off places, they command higher prices

Saltwater Cultured Pearls: Mabé

A mabé (or mobé) cultured pearl offers the look of a larger pearl at an affordable price. A half-round implant, with flattened back, is affixed to the inner shell of the oyster. Over time, the oyster coats the exposed surface with nacre. When the oyster is opened, the implant is removed, leaving a thin shell of nacre which is filled with liquid resin and usually backed with a thin slice of mother-of-pearl. The large surface of a mabé cultured pearl makes it well-suited for use in a ring, earring or pendant.

Saltwater Cultured Pearls: Keshi

Occasionally, when a mollusk is opened at harvesting, an additional, non-nucleated pearl is found. This accidental "bonus," which is virtually pure nacre, is called a keshi pearl. Often irregular in shape but generally very lustrous and beautiful, the keshi pearl is very rare, and highly valued. The term "keshi" is often misused to describe cultivated pearls of irregular shape, but true keshi is very rare and valuable.

Quality and Value in Cultured Pearls

Some gems, such as diamonds, are graded using a set of master comparison stones and a strict list of quality factors. Currently there is no universally recognized standard for grading cultured pearls, both because it is impossible to create a master comparison set, and because pearls come in an infinite variety of qualities. The criteria described below are most often used to judge pearls. At Fortunoff, our pearl experts select with these criteria in mind, so that the pearls you take home are the best value.


The most obvious measure of a pearl is its size. A pearl is measured in millimeters, typically perpendicular to its drill hole. Because no pearl is perfectly round, the measurement often reflects a range. For example, a pearl measuring 6.6 millimeters in one part and 6.8 millimeters in another would be referred to as 7 x 6.5 millimeters in size. Because it is more difficult for a mollusk to successfully accept larger irritants (imagine swallowing a pill - the larger the pill, the more likely you are to choke), larger pearls are rarer and more costly.

Necklaces composed of very tiny Akoya pearls can also be highly valued because the saltwater Akoya oyster generally produces only one pearl and each tiny pearl must be hand-drilled and matched meticulously to the next.

Coating and Surface

The quality and thickness of the nacre coating is probably the single most important factor in determining the value and longevity of a pearl. Pearls with thick, healthy coatings of nacre will wear best, resist chipping or peeling, and retain their beauty over time. As with all organic materials, pearls become creamier in color as they age and interact with the air around them; however, a thickly-coated pearl will best maintain the purity of its color.

When choosing pearls, the relative thickness and quality of the coating can be seen by comparing a few strands. A well-coated pearl has even color, no striping or banding, and reflects light evenly in all directions. The surface of the pearl should be free of heavy pits and chips, though small "beauty marks" are subtle reminders of nature's hand.

  • Luster: Luster is the visual reflection of light from the pearl surface back to the observer's eye. Although a thick healthy nacre tends to produce a more lustrous pearl, this is not always the case. For example, pearls cultivated in the warmer waters of the South Seas have the thickest coatings of all pearls, and yet often have a silky rather than a crisp luster.
  • Shape: Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and hardest to find, and therefore the most valuable. Off-round and baroque pearls, with their unique, freeform shapes, can be very lustrous and beautiful, yet are much less costly due to their more common occurrence. Here, value need not dictate personal preference. Any shape pearl can be very beautiful.
  • Color: Cultured pearls come in a variety of colors, from shimmering silvery-white to deep midnight-black. There is no single "best" color, although some are rarer than others. To decide which color is best for you, try on a number of different strands and let your own taste guide you.
  • Matching: The artistry and value of a truly fine cultured pearl piece lies in the painstaking hand-matching of the pearls to each other. Except in the case of a graduated pearl necklace, the pearls used traditionally should be of similar size, color and shape. In some newer designs, the artist intentionally mixes these to create a one-of-a-kind look.

Which Length Should You Choose?

Because each cultured pearl necklace is hand-strung pearl by pearl, the fashioning of your necklace is limited only by your imagination and personal taste. An elegant, tall woman may desire a longer necklace of larger size pearls, while a petite woman might want a short choker of smaller millimeter pearls. Pearl strands come in an infinite range of sizes and lengths, to suit any neckline. These are perfectly suited to layering and wearing with other jewelry.

  • Choker: A single-strand choker is the most classic of all pearl necklaces, easily traveling from casual day into elegant evening. Open-neck blouses as well as "boat" and scoop necklines look wonderful with a pearl choker, usually 14 to 16 inches long.
  • Princess: A princess length necklace, traditionally 17 to 20 inches in length, looks great with a high collar or deeply draped neckline, and can be beautifully accented with a clip-over enhancer pendant.
  • Matinee: Pearls can lend an elegant touch to casual dressing. Turtlenecks and high collars in particular look terrific with a matinee length necklace, 22 to 24 inches in length.
  • Opera: Opera-length necklaces, 27 to 36 inches long, dramatically accessorize a dress or evening gown. These give added versatility: wear doubled around the neck; or string into two short necklaces with mystery clasps or matching clasps, so that your pearls can be worn singly, nested, or as one long strand.
  • Sautoir or Rope: For the ultimate in versatility, choose a sautoir, a favorite of Coco Chanel. Measuring 46 to 72 inches or even longer, this can be wrapped doubly or triply about the neck, creating a fabulous look.

Caring For Your Cultured Pearls From Fortunoff: First On, First Off

With a little care and attention, your cultured pearls will retain their luster and beauty for generations to come. Perfumes and cosmetics contain chemicals that can dull the luster of a pearl over time. To avoid this, put your pearl jewelry on after applying any makeup, perfume and hair spray. Wipe your pearls with a soft damp cloth after removing them to ensure they remain clean and free of damage.

Many pearl strands are hand-strung on silk. These should be professionally cleaned and re-strung to preserve their beauty and prevent breakage.

Pearl nacre is relatively soft compared to other gemstones and precious metals. Your pearls should always be stored separately, perhaps in a soft cloth pouch or in a lined section of your jewelry box. Never store in a plastic bag or airless vault.

Enhancement in Cultured Pearls: What You Should Know

Since ancient times, pearls have been washed and artificially colored to create more beautiful adornments. Today, freshwater and saltwater (Akoya) cultured pearls are often bleached to achieve a uniform, more desirable hue. They also may be gently polished to improve their roundness and luster. Naturally fancy-colored cultured pearls are rare. Many pearls, particularly from freshwaters, are dyed or otherwise treated to create more vivid and interesting hues. These treatments are all permanent and require no special care by the wearer..

Why Fortunoff is Your Source for Fine Cultured Pearls

Fortunoff is an internationally recognized leader in the jewelry industry. Our team of trained buyers travel the world to buy cultured pearls directly from the most important producers. Each item is selected for the best combination of quality, beauty and value, and must pass our rigorous standards before we will offer it to you. Much of our jewelry is custom-designed exclusively for us, and many of our necklaces and bracelets are custom-made by our own jewelers and stringers.

Our exacting standards, meticulous attention to detail, and friendly service ensure that you will always be completely satisfied with your fine cultured pearl selection from Fortunoff.

If you have questions about how to care for your jewelry, email us at:

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