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Freshwater Pearls: Everything You Need to Know | Linjer Jewelry

What are freshwater pearls?

Freshwater pearls are formed in mollusks that live in rivers, lakes, and ponds rather than ocean-dwelling oysters. The vast majority of pearls on the market today—freshwater and saltwater alike—are cultured.

Not to get too technical, but the mollusk secretes a lustrous substance made of calcium carbonate, known as nacre, or more commonly, as mother of pearl. The nacre is slowly deposited over a particle, bead, tissue, (or any type of irritant that makes its way into the mollusk) until it forms the shiny, milky-colored pearls we all love to wear. One hallmark of freshwater pearls is that they are typically smaller and more uniquely shaped than saltwater pearls; nevertheless, these varied gems come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

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Pearl Drop Earrings - Mathilde
Freshwater Pearls - Pearl Huggie Earrings - Kirsten

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Freshwater Pearls - Pearl Drop Earrings - Mathilde

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Freshwater Pearls - Baroque Pearl Necklace

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Freshwater Pearls - Pearl Ring - Lea

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Where do freshwater pearls come from?

The pearls themselves are primarily cultivated within the fleshy mantel (that’s the internal edge) of a freshwater-dwelling mussel, especially the Hyriopsis cumingi and Hyropsis schlegeli species. These mussels can be raised (or found) in many freshwater environments. That said, the market for freshwater pearls is currently led by China, while Japan, the U.S., and a handful of other countries around the world also have small or budding freshwater pearl industries.

What colors, shapes, and sizes do freshwater pearls come in?

Freshwater pearls are admired for their myriad colors, shapes, and sizes. With freshwater pearls, there is a whole rainbow of gorgeous pastels that a pearl lover can choose from. And, even though perfectly-round pearls are still prized, many people enjoy the unique, stylish shapes of freshwater pearls.

  • Colors: some common colors include shades of creamy whites, pinks and peaches, lavender, purple, grey, and even black. Furthermore, multi-colored pearls make for some stunning and innovative jewelry designs.
  • Shapes: Freshwater pearls are known for their unique shapes, including near-round, oval, button, and baroque (irregular or asymmetrical). Pearl producers have, however, come closer to perfecting techniques that will reliably result in classically round pearls.
  • Sizes: While pearls can be weighed, they are usually described in terms of their diameter in millimeters. Small pearls are less than 5mm in diameter; medium between 5-8mm; large from 8-10mm; and extra-large measure from 10mm or more.

China, the leader of the freshwater pearl market, has developed a sophisticated national categorization system. As many as ten years ago, the Chinese grading system included six shape types, fifteen natural colors, fourteen surface grades, and four types of luster. These natural variations and quirks are part of the beauty of these organic gems.

Are freshwater pearls real?

Yes, freshwater pearls are real pearls. All pearls—including the dazzling and colorful myriad of freshwater pearls—are made of nacre, also called mother-of-pearl, which is 95% organic aragonite and calcite, two types of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), and 5% proteins, mostly conchiolin, and polysaccharides.

Some differences between saltwater and freshwater—besides, obviously, where they’re grown—are the way they are formed. Saltwater pearls are usually formed around a spherical bead; freshwater pearls are formed around organic tissue, giving them their distinctive asymmetrical shape. Also, marine oysters typically grow only one to two pearls at a time, whilst freshwater mussels can grow up to 30 pearls in a growth cycle.

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Freshwater Pearls - Hoop Earrings with Pearl - Rebecca

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Freshwater Pearls - 14k Gold Huggie Earrings with Pearl - Alicia

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Freshwater Pearls - Keshi Pearl Necklace - Marit

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Are freshwater pearls valuable?

Freshwater pearls are valuable and highly sought after by both jewelry designers and jewelry lovers partly because they can vary in color and shape even within the same batch—(yes, mussels can produce an entire cluster of pearls all at once, up to 30). While classic perfectly-rounded creamy-white pearls will always be cherished, the stunning colors and shapes that characterize freshwater pearls have given scope for imagination and helped pave the way for freshwater pearl jewelry in the fashion world. As with pearls, so in life—it’s the so-called imperfections that reveal the beauty.

One of the reasons why freshwater pearls are often less expensive than saltwater pearls is because freshwater cultivation yields more pearls per mollusk. It’s a simple matter of scarcity or supply-and-demand. A freshwater pearl can range anywhere from $50 to $3000, depending on its origin, size, and other characteristics.

Freshwater Pearls - Pearl Drop Earrings - Mathilde

What are cultured freshwater pearls?

Cultured freshwater pearls are pearls that are cultivated or formed by mollusks in freshwater environments, such as lakes and rivers, through the deliberate insertion of a nucleus or irritant by pearl farmers. While wild or naturally occurring freshwater pearls do exist, they are quite rare and definitely fetch a higher price.

With evermore sophisticated cultivation methods, freshwater pearls are quickly becoming a popular and sustainable alternative to traditional saltwater pearls.

The environment for the mussels must be delicately orchestrated to create the ideal conditions for pearl growth. The aim of sustainable pearl farming is both to eliminate contamination of the local ecosystem and to give the mussels their best shot at growing a jewelry-quality pearl. Truly sustainable farming ensures that these factors are controlled fairly and safely.

Also, keep in mind that because pearls in freshwater mussels are grown around the interior edges of the shell (not deep inside as is the case with saltwater oysters), in some cases, farmers can harvest the pearls by gently opening the shell, which spares the mussel’s life and even allows it to continue growing pearls.

What is the difference between mother of pearl and freshwater pearls?

Made up of the same stuff—nacre—mother-of-pearl and freshwater pearls mainly differ in how the nacre is formed and structured and from which part of the mollusk it’s extracted. Nacre is the creamy, luminous stuff that gives pearls their famous pearlescent glow; it’s composed of hexagonal platelets of aragonite, a form of the calcium carbonate mineral and can be found lining the interior shell of certain mollusks. When harvested from the shell lining, nacre is known as mother-of-pearl, which is fairly common and easy to find.

This lovely organic material of milky-iridescent fame can vary in luster and color, corresponding to the structure and thickness of its layers and the influence of other organic materials. When an irritant finds its way into the shell of a mollusk, the animal will begin to wrap or coat that foreign object in that same nacre to protect itself—resulting in what we know as a pearl. Only about 10% of cultured mollusks produce jewelry-grade freshwater pearls. And, it’s far more rare to find a freshwater pearl in the wild.

Freshwater Pearls - Baroque Pearl Necklace

Can you wear freshwater pearls every day?

Yes, you can absolutely wear your freshwater pearls every day! Not just for dressing up, freshwater pearls are also a great way to add a touch of elegance and glow to your everyday looks. These durable and dependable gemstones will last a lifetime if you take good care of them.

Like all precious jewelry, it’s best to protect your freshwater pearls from water, sweat, harsh chemicals, and rough materials. You can clean them with a damp or dry microfiber cloth. No need for detergent or polish… and don’t use vinegar! Cleopatra (yes, of ancient Egypt) famously (or infamously) dissolved one the world’s largest pearls in a cup of vinegar… just to impress Marc Anthony.

Can freshwater pearls get wet?

While freshwater pearls can withstand exposure to water, it's generally recommended that you avoid getting them wet whenever possible. Pearls are formed in a moist environment and are sometimes polished with salt and water right after harvest to bring out their full sheen. So, it might be tempting to think that it’s no big deal if your pearls get wet. But, that doesn’t mean that you should.

Avoid storing them in a moist place, and avoid laying them on a wet surface. Any type of surface contact (with water or any other substance) will result in micro wear-and-tear that reduces the shimmer of your pearls over time. Plus, water often contains chlorine and heavy metals that can cause the pearls to become dull and lose their luster.

If your freshwater pearls do occasionally get wet, dry them gently with a soft cloth, and store them in a cool, dry space.

How long do freshwater pearls last?

Well-cared-for pearls will last you a lifetime. And, in fact, pearls are a great heirloom piece, lovingly passed from one generation to the next. To keep them lucent and lustrous for years to come, you just need to incorporate some basic practices into your jewelry routine.

Put your pearls on after you’ve dressed and prepped to keep them safe from make-up, perfume, and from getting snagged on your clothes. Go ahead and take them off before activities like gardening, cooking, exercise, and showering. Avoid wearing them layered or in a way that they’ll brush up against rough surfaces, and clean them with a soft cloth. Finally, store your freshwater pearls in a soft fabric in a cool, dry place. Also, you might want to consider having your pearls professionally cleaned and restored at least once.

Freshwater Pearls - Hoop Earrings with Pearl - Rebecca

Discover Linjer’s freshwater pearls

At Linjer, we’re big fans of freshwater pearls: we love the versatility, artistry, and sustainability of these unique gemstones. And, even if we didn’t say so ourselves, you’d see it in our designs. Linjer’s luxury jewelry designs harmonize with the natural allure of the pearls they feature to reveal their organic beauty.

So, whether you prefer dainty necklaces, classic studs, flirty bracelets, or edgy rings, you’ll discover your ideal pearl jewelry aesthetic amongst Linjer’s Freshwater Pearl Collection.

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