Freshwater Pearls vs. Saltwater Pearls

Pearls have been prized for centuries. Often seen as a symbol of wealth and luxury, they are popular gemstones for all types of jewelry. If you have ever shopped for pearls, you have likely noticed that they are generally broken up into two categories—freshwater and saltwater. Both options offer exceptional beauty, but their appearances can differ, as can their prices. If you’ve ever wondered about the differences between freshwater pearls and saltwater pearls, keep reading to learn more!


How Freshwater Pearls and Saltwater Pearls Are Formed

pearl farm operation

Freshwater pearls are created—or cultured—in several types of mussels in freshwater lakes and rivers. They are created by placing an irritant, such as a piece of sand, inside of an oyster or mollusk. The organism responds by coating the irritant in layers of a lustrous substance known as nacre. Over time, the nacre builds up and forms a pearl. Freshwater pearls are primarily cultivated in China, but the United States and Japan are also leading suppliers.

Saltwater pearls form inside oysters in the ocean in places like Tahiti, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia. While many people believe that saltwater pearls form naturally, as opposed to being cultured, the vast majority are cultivated by humans. Natural pearls that develop without human intervention are incredibly rare and are the most expensive available. Nearly all of the pearls— both freshwater and saltwater—on the market are cultured.



At first glance, it can be difficult to tell freshwater and saltwater pearls apart. There are, however, certain characteristics that make them different. One of the primary differences is that saltwater pearls tend to be more spherical in shape than their freshwater counterparts. During the culturing process, a round bead is placed inside saltwater oysters. This leads to a more rounded appearance. A piece of sand or mussel tissue is typically used as the irritant in freshwater mollusks, which results in a more irregularly shaped pearl.

While perfectly spherical pearls are considered “best,” irregularly shaped pearls have become increasingly popular in recent years. Known as baroque pearls, they are popular among jewelry designers and shoppers alike due to their one-of-a-kind appearance.

You can also tell the two types of pearls apart based on their luster. Saltwater pearls have a glossy appearance. Freshwater ones, however, tend to be less lustrous. They are still quite beautiful, but they do not have the superior luster that is associated with saltwater pearls.

freshwater pearl beads

Saltwater pearls are typically white or cream in color. There are also, however, black and gold varieties that have become popular in recent years. Freshwater pearls, on the other hand, come in a huge assortment of colors. In addition to the usual white and off-white, they are also available in shades of black, blue, brown, orange, green, purple, pink, peach, and silver. There are even peacock freshwater pearls that display shades of blue, green, and purple. The huge variety of colors makes these unique gemstones a versatile choice for jewelry designers.


Price and Value

Saltwater pearls are more valuable than freshwater pearls. As such, they tend to cost considerably more—but not as much as naturally occurring pearls. They are not as commonly abundant in the marketplace as freshwater pearls for a few reasons. First, they take much longer to culture. Freshwater pearls can be cultured in just a few months while saltwater pearls take years to develop. Since oysters can be smaller than freshwater mussels at harvesting time, they can produce fewer pearls at a time. An oyster can only produce up to three at a time while a mussel can produce up to 50.

Because of their more spherical shape and better luster, saltwater pearls also have a higher value among buyers. They are highly sought-after, which results in higher prices.


Which Is Better?

pearl necklace with earrings

Both freshwater and saltwater pearls are amazing in their own ways, and neither is truly “better” than the other. If, however, you are a jewelry designer who is looking to add pearl beads to your collection of supplies, freshwater pearls are a sensible choice. They are a more budget-friendly option and, because they come in so many unique colors, shapes, and sizes, they work well for creating one-of-a-kind pieces that consumers love.

At Beads of Cambay, we have both freshwater and saltwater pearls for all of your jewelry-making needs. Browse the full selection today, and you are sure to find the perfect beads for your next project!