The science of growing freshwater pearls has improved considerably in recent years, resulting in pearls that rival their saltwater cousins in size, roundness and color. The market now features freshwater pearl jewelry of a quality that would have once been considered exceptional, and the treasure of kings is within reach of everyone.
Freshwater pearls come from mollusks living in streams and lakes. When a bit of foreign matter enters the mollusk's shell, it causes irritation. In an effort to cushion this irritation, the mollusk secretes nacre, the shell-building material, onto the object in layers. In time, this forms the smooth, rounded object we call a pearl. For many years, people relied on nature to perform this process and pearls remained rare.
The Chinese first came up with the idea of introducing an artificial irritant to make oysters grow fresh water pearls on demand, but the idea was perfected in Japan in the early 1900s. An incision was made in the inner tissue of a mollusk and a small bead was inserted. This would start nacre secretion and a pearl would result.
Japan's cultured pearl production centered on saltwater pearls such as the Akoyas and Biwas. While saltwater pearls are still a popular choice, large numbers of freshwater ones are now being produced in the country that first invented pearl culturing, China. Here pearls are grown by inserting a bit of living tissue rather than a bead, resulting in pearls that are almost entirely nacre.
Shoppers who remember the Chinese cultured pearls of a decade ago probably still think of them as "Rice Crispies," but they have come a long way since those days. Today's Chinese fresh water pearls have none of the irregular shape or color of their predecessors and exhibit a uniformity and beauty that is changing minds and gaining a new respect.
These pearls sometimes have vivid, unusual colors and stunning overtones. There is often a milky translucence or metallic overtones. Fresh water pearl jewelry uses many types of pearls including the traditional white, lavender, pink, peach, gray, cream or yellow. Black pearls, once obtainable only from Tahitian saltwater pearls, are now available in freshwater varieties. The size has improved and can now be up to 13 millimeters.
Because of this new abundance, pearl jewelry is hugely popular right now. Jewelry stores and online sources are offering many outstanding pieces featuring cultured pearls, and shoppers can get some fabulous deals.
Freshwater pearl jewelry is used in necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets. The necklace is considered the classic piece of pearl jewelry and can take several forms. Shoppers seeking something to hang below the neck can pick a princess, matinee, opera or rope style. For something hanging higher on the neck, there are bibs, chokers and collars.
Rings and earrings are also popular pieces of fresh water pearl jewelry. These can be groups or single pearls. Groups can work well together, but large, dark pearls also have a striking look when placed alone on a ring.