What is a Pearl

In the market for pearl jewelry? Before making a purchase, it’s essential to learn about what these gems are. Pearls are the only gemstones in the world that come from a living creature. Mollusks such as oysters and mussels produce these precious jewels that people have adored since ancient times. Despite appearing in a rich variety of sizes and shapes, those that are white and almost perfectly round continue to be the most popular. Pearls are famous for the exquisite beauty they possess which comes from their distinctive glow. That is often referred to as a pearl’s luster. While there is indeed a lot to learn, to help you answer the question “what is a pearl” we discuss all the aspects you need to know.

How Does a Pearl Form?

As mentioned earlier, these gemstones form inside mollusks. In saltwater, pearls are found in oysters, while in freshwater they are produced by mussels. When a foreign substance such as a food particle slips into the mollusk, the creature protects itself by covering the irritant with layers of nacre. It is also a substance that gives pearls their luster. This food particle essentially functions as the nucleus of a pearl and gets larger and larger over time as layers of nacre are applied.

How Long Does It Take for a Pearl to Form?

The time it takes for a pearl to develop depends on a variety of factors. Generally speaking, freshwater pearls form a lot faster than saltwater pearls. Small saltwater pearls can take as little as six months to develop, while large saltwater pearls might need up to four years.

what is a pearl

(Image Courtesy of Alterra)

Type of Pearls

We’ve already introduced two different types of pearls: saltwater and freshwater. There is also another way to classify pearls. They can be either natural or cultured.

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are harvested from the wild. They pearls are extremely rare due to a couple of reasons. To begin, only one out of 10,000 mollusks produce a pearl in the wild. In addition, so many wild mollusks have been collected throughout history that the population has dwindled significantly in a handful of areas where they once were common. Today, natural pearls are very uncommon in the pearl market and can fetch extremely high prices.

Origin of Natural Pearls

In their long history which dates back thousands of years, natural pearls have been exclusive to only a few selected places. Saltwater pearls were found along the waters of the Persian Gulf, the coast of India, near the Red Sea, and in the Japanese waters. Freshwater gems, on the other hand, came mainly from rivers and ponds in China. That is until colonizers saw Native Americans wearing large pearls and soon after found them in the basins of Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The harvesting of natural pearls continued into the 19th century until overfishing became a severe problem. With a diminishing mollusk population coupled with an increase in global demand, the industry needed a new solution.

natural pearls

Cultured Pearls

In 1893, after nearly twenty years of trying, Kokichi Mokimoto achieved his lifelong dream of cultivating pearls. He did it by delicately inserting a nucleus into an oyster. This stimulated the creature into covering the nucleus with layers of nacre to eventually produce a pearl. Today, nearly all pearls available on the market are cultured pearls. There are a few varieties of these gems that vary in color, size, and luster based on the region they come from.

Origin of Cultured Pearls

There are four main types of cultured pearls: freshwater pearls, Japanese Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls. Freshwater pearls are cultivated in lakes and rivers across China. Akoya pearls are found off the coast of Japan and China. Tahitian pearls – not only in Tahiti, but also across all the islands of French Polynesia. Lastly, South Sea pearls are harvested in the waters of Australia and the Philippines.  

Pearl Varieties

All of the pearls mentioned above look different from one another due to their unique features. They all possess a diverse range of colors, sizes, and level of luster. Each of these factors can have an impact on the value of the pearl.

what are pearls(Image Courtesy of National Geographic)


While people are most familiar with white and cream-colored pearls, the gemstones come in an array of other dazzling colors. Freshwater pearls are found in delightful white and pink hues that ooze of charm. Tahitian pearls colors are undoubtedly the most exotic. They include shades of blue, green, grey, and black. South Sea pearls are revered for their golden color that is considered extremely rare. Lastly, Akoya pearls feature white and black colorways. 


Size is another significant factor to consider. Freshwater pearl sizes range from 5mm to as large as 13mm. Akoya pearls can be as small as 2mm. However, the diameter of 6mm to 8mm is the most common. Though in some cases Tahitian pearls can be as large as 20mm, the average size is somewhere between 9mm and 11mm. The most popular diameter for South Sea pearls is 7mm and 8mm, with anything larger classified as extremely rare.


One of the most special aspects of pearls is the way they reflect light. That is a feature highly affected by the luster. The rule of thumb is the more luster a pearl has, the more valuable it becomes. When compared to other gemstones, all pearls feature a more vivid glow. However, it is Akoya pearls that are especially known for this attribute. Akoya pearl luster is the primary reason why they are worth so much. While these gems are sharp and highly-reflective, South Sea pearls feature a softer, satin-like look which some people prefer.

pearls luster(Image Courtesy of Quiet Curator)

Why Should You Choose Pearl Jewelry?

In terms of jewelry, you might want a classic pearl necklace or a more offbeat pair of unique earrings. The pearl market offers something for every style. Wearing a colorful pearl bracelet will make you stand out from the crowd and give a sense of elegance. However, pearls are not only for that, you can easily incorporate them into a casual outfit and give your style an ‘’edge’’ that no one else will have.They fit for any occasion, all you need to do is use your imagination. When shopping for jewelry, keep in mind both your budget and your personal style in order to find something that is exactly right for you. You can learn more about all the different aspects of pearls by exploring ThePearlSource.com.

Learn More About Pearls

Pearls are truly one of the most classic and exquisite gemstones. They look equally good at the office, during a night at the opera, or just running errands around the town. If you are considering investing in pearls, keep in mind that they hold their value incredibly well. Pearls will likely be an heirloom piece you can pass down to generations to come.

Learning about pearls can seem overwhelming since there are so many factors to consider. However, let’s hope that the question - “what is a pearl” no longer needs to be answered!