Freshwater pearls have entered the lexicon of jewelry designers and buyers of pearly jewelry creations the world over. Those two groups probably include every woman on earth. For all that reference to them, there’s still much mystery about freshwater pearls, what they are, and how they’re different from pearls in general. Let me remove some of the mystery around the pearly pieces you probably have in your jeweled collection.
The name comes from the kind of water in which freshwater pearls are produced. Fresh water, like the stuff that flows from your faucet, and saltwater, the salty stuff of the oceans, both are habitat for pearl-producing mollusks. The fresh waters for pearl production include rivers, lakes, ponds, and Asian pearl farms, particularly those in China, which is the country of highest freshwater pearl production in the world.
The producing entity of pearls in freshwater is the mussel. It is the mollusk of freshwater as the oyster is of saltwater. There are many varieties of mussel and not all of them produce pearls. The varieties that do can produce at different rates and produce by different cultivating techniques. More about that below. Cultivators of freshwater pearls can cultivate their own mussel varieties. Like the cross breeding of canines to yield a dog of chosen characteristics, pearl production often involves breeding a better-producing mollusk. Exactly how they do that, however, will remain a mystery for everybody outside the pearl farm.
The specific techniques for cultivating freshwater pearls will, too, remain a mystery among the many trade secrets of the pearl farm producers. But generally speaking, two cultivation methods are known: bead nucleated and non-bead nucleated. Even more generally speaking, all pearls are formed from the secretions a mollusk exudes when an irritant enters its interior domain. Whether that irritant-like a grain of sand-got in there naturally or whether a person put something-like a bead–in there on purpose, the mollusk is irritated and protects itself by coating the offender with a smoothing saliva called nacre. Layers upon layers of nacre build up and one day, wah laa, you’ve got a pearl.
Most freshwater pearl production is not bead-nucleated. Instead, a piece of fleshy mantle from a donor mollusk is inserted into the producing mussel. The secretions seek to surround the still irritating substance and continues anywhere from 18 months to 6 years. The result is a pearl that’s solid pearl on the inside and is of a size proportional to the cultivating period. The longer the period the larger the pearl. Or, I should say, pearls plural. Because a mussel can be nucleated to produce 20 or more pearls per cultivation period. To this, I say WOW. And that’s why freshwater pearls are more abundant, hence less expensive, than their saltwater cousins, which produce but one pearl at a time.
Bead-nucleated freshwater pearls are produced by the technique implied in the term. A bead is inserted into the mollusk serving as the nucleus around which layers of nacre build up. The bead is made of mother-of-pearl or similar shell-like substance, and it’s usually spherical of one size or another. It was found that the nucleating bead could be any shape and still irritate the mollusk enough to nacre it over. This gave rise to the production of freshwater pearls in the myriad shapes we see today, including Xs, crosses, needles, stars, triangles, squares, popcorn, bi-lobes, petals, coins, and near-rounds such as ovals, potatoes, baroque, oblongs, cones, and teardrops, among others. Current day freshwater pearls are bound only by the imaginative shape of the nucleating bead and the imaginative people who carved them and prompted a clam to cover it over with its organic luster.
Freshwater pearls come in colors produced naturally, such as white, ivory, and the palest of pastels of pink, beige, and gray. For these, the mussel needs no help. But freshwater pearls take on color when metal salts are added to the production waters at the pearl farm. Exactly how this is done will also remain trade secrets. Suffice it to say that the color, while technically man-made, is produced in the pearl by the mollusk with help from the chemistry of additives to the water. It’s technically incorrect to think that the pearls are harvested from the mollusks then painted or coated for color.
The status of the perfectly round-and perhaps perfectly boring–saltwater pearl is giving way to a new interest and heightened regard for freshwater pearls. Everything about them is appealing and conducive to more daring designs. They’re more colorful, have more interesting shapes, come in all sizes, have as much luster, and are much more abundant than saltwater pearls, hence cost less and therefore are more accessible to more people than ever before. If you equate cost with quality, then the perfect white rounds strung in a row are for you. If your eye seeks the interest of color, shape, texture, and quantity, you’ll seek jeweled adornments in designs of freshwater pearls.