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Grayson Myers
Grayson Myers

Buy Freshwater Pearls

There is a mystique to pearls. Until recently, pearls were beyond the reach of anyone except royalty and the most fabulously wealthy (which, also until recently, were pretty much the same thing.) Now, you can have pearls.

buy freshwater pearls

Most affordable pearls, like most affordable gemstones, are colour-enhanced, either through dyeing, heat or irradiation treatment (no, it doesn't make them radioactive.) Those that have not been enhanced are noted as being "Natural" colour, i.e. Natural White, Natural Ivory.

Remember - pearls are made by molluscs, (oysters, clams, etc.) and processed in batches (by humans.) It can be very difficult to restock with the same item, and even if we order a shipment of 5 mm peach oval pearls - there is no saying that the second batch will look the same. They may vary in terms of size, texture and especially colour. So please, buy as much as you need to finish your project! After all, if these looked like they were made by machines, they wouldn't be half as much fun! If you do want machine-like consistency - check out our Fashion pearls and Swarovski Pearls.

A great irony of pearl history is that the least expensive cultured pearl product in the market today rivals the quality of the most expensive natural pearls ever found. The price-value anomaly is obvious to consumers as they hasten to buy Chinese freshwater bargains. Indeed, pearls from freshwater mussels lie at the center of the liveliest activity in pearling today.

Natural freshwater pearls occur in mussels for the same reason that saltwater pearls occur in oysters. Foreign material, usually a sharp object or parasite, enters a mussel and cannot be expelled. To reduce irritation, the mollusk coats the intruder with the same secretion it uses for shell-building, nacre. To culture freshwater mussels, workers slightly open their shells, cut small slits into the mantle tissue inside both shells, and insert small pieces of live mantle tissue from another mussel into those slits. In freshwater mussels that insertion alone is sufficient to start nacre production. Most cultured freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, just like their natural freshwater and natural saltwater counterparts.

The Chinese were the first to culture a product from freshwater mussels, though their centuries-old Buddhas are not true pearls but shell mabes. The first cultured freshwater pearls originated in Japan. Quite soon after their initial success with cultured saltwater pearls, Japanese pearl farmers experimented with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930s. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colors unseen in saltwater pearls. Almost instantly appealing, their lustre and luminescent depth rivaled naturals because they, too, were pearls throughout.

Even though World War II interrupted the flow of Lake Biwa pearls, by the 1950s strands sold in Japan as less expensive, colorful alternatives to the mainstay material, cultured saltwater pearls. Biwas' success and publicity were so effective that until a few years ago, all freshwater pearls were routinely referred to as "Biwas," no matter their origin or that such references are illegal in the U.S. unless the pearls are actually from Biwa. When I first visited Lake Biwa in 1973, freshwater pearl production still thrived. But, although the lake supplied most of the world's freshwater pearls, there were warning signs as development pressed toward its shores. On a return trip in 1984, I observed that Biwa's pearl farms were barely surviving, because of pollutants washing in from farms, resorts, and industries around the lake.

As Biwa production diminished, China filled the vacuum. China has all the resources that Japan lacks: a huge land mass; countless available lakes, rivers, and irrigation ditches; a limitless and pliable work force that earns less than a dollar a day; and an almost desperate need for hard currency. In 1968, with no recent history in pearling, China startled the gem world with prodigious amounts of ridiculously inexpensive pearls.

Now China is in what I call its Third Pearl Wave. Starting in the 1990s, China surprised the market with products that are revolutionizing pearling. The shapes, luster, and colors of the new Chinese production often match original Biwa quality and sometime even surpass it; certainly the new orange and peach-colored pearls are unique. As testimony to China's achievement, their freshwater pearls are round enough and good enough to pass as Japanese akoya. China already sells round white pearls up to 7mm for perhaps a tenth the price of Japanese cultured saltwater pearls.

Bleaching, dying, and polishing do occur. Except for the old Arabic practice of sun-bleaching in the Persian Gulf, naturals were practically never processed. Chinese pearls that are nearly white or mottled are usually bleached to make them whiter and more uniform. With the same methods perfected by the Japanese, the Chinese use a mild bleach, bright fluorescent lights, and heat. They polish surfaces by tumbling pearls in pumice or similar substances. The idea, as always, is to facilitate matching pearls for strands. Many Chinese pearls used to be dyed in the 1980s to bright red, blue, lavender, yellow or even black. In response to contemporary preferences, they now offer a selection of subtle natural colors.

The Chinese have also begun to nucleate some of their freshwater mussels with shell nuclei implants in both the creatures' bodies as well as in their mantles. Such practices, once perceived as "saltwater culturing techniques," are a new cultural revolution. How will buyers react who had been told that cultured freshwater pearls were all-nacre products? Will they buy Chinese pearls if the roundest examples are nacre-coated shell beads instead? How will such new products be positioned in the market? Will anyone, including gem testing labs, be able to tell the difference between tissue-nucleated and bead-nucleated freshwater pearls?

Those are serious new considerations. Even more disquieting is the second innovation. The Chinese are nucleating mussels with their own tissue-cultured freshwater pearls, which result in all-nacre round or almost round pearls. Aiming for an even higher percentage of rounds, the Chinese are even reshaping reject freshwater pearls into spheres, then nucleating mussels with them.

When combined, those two nucleation innovations are astounding developments. Once again the Chinese have radically altered freshwater culturing, making saltwater and freshwater techniques indistinguishable. They have also introduced a new type of culturing, nucleating with small tissue-nucleated pearls. Some of China's new pearls are all-nacre, some have nacre-coated nuclei, all are unmarked. After one experimenter used small off-round naturals as nuclei, he sent the resulting freshwater pearls to a gem lab and received a report identifying them as "naturals." If pearl farmers can grow cultured pearls that test as naturals, the market may be in for a wild ride.

You might be wondering how this pearl variety differs from other types of pearls and whether it is the right kind for you. Keep reading as we cover everything you need to know before you buy a freshwater pearl.

Freshwater pearls are created by using freshwater mussels in lakes, rivers and ponds. Most freshwater pearls on the market today come from rivers and lakes in China, although USA and Japan have a small fraction of the market. A freshwater mussel can have up to 50 pearls at a time (compared to the two to five pearls that saltwater oysters can contain).

All freshwater pearls have been cultured, meaning that they were grown in pearl farms using science and technology rather than in nature by accident. This is where a trained technician implants an irritant in the mussel to stimulate the formation of a pearl. While a bead nucleus is commonly used in Akoya and other saltwater pearl farming, with freshwater pearls the method is somewhat different. Here, the tissue of a donor mussel is placed in the host mussel to stimulate nacre secretion.

Freshwater pearls come in a wide range of colors, unlike other pearl varieties. The main body colors for these pearls include white, cream, gray, as well as pastel shades such as yellow, lavender, pink and orange. High quality freshwater pearls have overtones of pink, green and blue although lower quality gems do not display any desirable overtones.

The most popular colors for freshwater pearls are white, cream, lavender and black. However, black freshwater pearls are not natural in that they have been dyed to obtain their color. Only Tahitian pearls are naturally charcoal to black in color; all other black pearls on the market have been dyed.

Although pearls are quintessentially perfectly spherical in shape, only about 5% of all pearls are perfectly round. The rest come in a variety of shapes, including near round, button, semi-baroque and baroque. In the past, only round pearls were considered worthy of being set in jewelry but today an increasing number of people are seeing the beauty of irregular shaped pearls.

Most freshwater pearls are oval or near round in shape, while about 30% are baroque or semi-baroque. Round freshwater pearls can be quite rare due to the nucleation process employed by freshwater pearl farmers. As I mentioned above, these pearls are not bead nucleated, which means that they are more likely to form in irregular shapes.

Freshwater pearls have the widest size range of all pearl varieties, and typically range from 2.0 mm to about 15.0 mm. However, sizes over 10.0 mm are much rarer. The growth period for freshwater pearls varies from farm to farm, which is why you can find freshwater pearls in a wide range of sizes.

Generally, saltwater pearls such as Akoya and South Sea pearls have better luster compared to freshwater pearls. This is a general rule of thumb, but there are always exceptions and it depends on the individual pearls. 041b061a72


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