Sunday, February 6, 2011

Where Freshwater Pearls Come From

By on Sunday, February 06, 2011 13 Comments

Did you know that the vast majority of freshwater pearls come from China? If you are like me, you'd probably curious what Chinese freshwater pearl farms look like and want to learn more about cultured pearls.

Pearls of Joy's Presidential Lavender Freshwater Pearl Necklace
Kevin Canning is the founder and president of Pearls of Joy. Kevin is very knowledgeable and keen on pearl education - the Learning Center on his website is a useful guide. He has kindly shared his fascinating pictures from a freshwater pearl buying trip so we can all enjoy another arm chair travel post. These pictures show the process from farm to market.

He's also a great photographer as you can see from this night shot of Hong Kong, his first landfall before making his way to the pearl farming region.

The pearl farms are mainly located in prosperous Zhejiang province which is traditionally known as the "Land of Fish and Rice" although its industries are greatly diversified today.

The pearl farms are actually rice farms. When the rice fields are not being used for crops, the farmers cultivate freshwater mussels. What they choose to grow depends on what makes more money for them at the time. Fish also grow in these waterways which is also another source of income. During the 2008 economic downturn, the farmers went back to growing rice and fish.  Many of these small farms are family-owned. The farmers sell the pearls to big pearl factory companies.
Farmers' houses
The recycled soda bottles act as buoys to float the net cages which hold the mussels.  Mussels are filter feeders so the farmers encourage the growth of the plankton they eat by adding agricultural byproducts as fertilizers. It typically takes 6 months to 2 years to produce pearls.

Most of today's freshwater pearls are grown in the Hyriopsis cumingi species which are commonly known as "triangle shells" for obvious reasons.

Freshwater pearls are not bead nucleated i.e. no starter beads are used. Something like 30-40  little bits of mantle tissue from a donor mussel's inner lining are added to each mussel and can yield as many pearls - far more than saltwater oysters.  That's why freshwater pearls are more affordable - there are more of them.

As the starter material is not round, freshwater pearls are thus seldom round - only 2% are round or near round. On the plus side, freshwater pearls are virtually all pearl nacre - the mussel's secretion to coat what it considers an irritant. This coating is the beautiful and elegant luster we all like about this gemstone.

Nothing is wasted. The mussel meat is either eaten by the farmers' families or sold to canning factories. The shells are made into mother of pearl shell beads and decorations. The leftover shells are crushed and used in construction.

Freshwater pearls exhibit a range of natural soft pastel colors. The factors which influence color are not known. But what is certain is consumer preference. North Americans prefer white pearls while Asians like a silvery color. Shown below is the drop dead gorgeous gem quality multi-color Presidential freshwater pearl necklace from Pearls of Joy.

The apparatus shown above are typical simple centrifugal type of  machines used to first separate the pearls from mussel material, clean and then polish. Bleaching is sometimes carried out. Some pearls are also intentionally dyed.

This large group of people are sorting pearls out. There is probably a simple size sorting machine available but nothing matches the human eye for color and luster subtleties.

Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted pearl grading system. The two most commonly used are the AAA-A system and the A-D or Tahitian system.  Pearls of Joy uses the former. AAA, the top grade,  is known as gem quality - "the highest-quality pearl, virtually flawless. The surface will have a very high luster, and at least 95% of the surface will be free from any type of defect. The pearl will be perfectly round, and have a mirror-like luster."

The little machine in the front is a pearl reamer

The various pearl companies bring their wares to sell in a purpose built center. The Pearl Market in Zhuji  is  relatively new with modern conveniences. Kevin said, " The big benefit is that we can get better quality pearls more readily. Our presidential line of pearls would never have been possible before, there just wasn't enough gem quality pearls around to make a complete product line like this." 

This great video is a short review about China's pearl industry.

Thanks Kevin for enlightening us on freshwater pearls!

More Pearl Posts
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
Jewelry Making Tips - Jewelry Business Tips 



  1. Wonderful to hear that China's freshwater pearl industry has elevated the lifestyles of their pearl farmers. Was also amazed at he huge size of these mussels, the ones in the video were the size of a bread plate. After seeing this I easily understood how they were able to implant 30 or 40 bits of tissue into one mussel.

  2. WOW, "Pearl" you have done it again! fascinating! and timely. I am working with a bunch of random fresh water pearls in some of my refashioned jewelry designs right now!

  3. Very interesting post today. I love freshwater pearls. Sounds like nothing is wasted by the farmers and this is a sustainable resource (unlike coral which you blogged about last year). I feel good using freshwater pearls in my jewelry.

  4. Well I'm sure all can figure out that I was not amazed at "he" huge size (unless the mussel was a he, lol) guess I didn't hit the "t" hard enough.

    But while I'm here I may as well add that being a buyer at a large Pearl purchasing house would be like being a kid in a huge candy shop...especially for we beaders. :)
    I truly love that multi colored Presidential pearl necklace, it makes my heart beat faster just to look at it.

  5. I loved the article Pearl!! I really love pearls so it was a fun read!! Thanks again for all you bring to the jewelry making arena.

  6. Thanks, your post is very interesting- I learned alot about the industry. And wow, that Presidential necklace is incredible.

  7. this is so amazing to learn! i have a great respect for these people, pearls are such a big part of western culture and they contribute to it more than we realise when we buy them over a jewellery counter

  8. Nancy'sWildWirejewelryFebruary 7, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    Very interesting, I enjoyed the blog and learned a lot.Thanks!

  9. I actually had an opportunity to go to a Chinese pearl place first hand. The amount of pearls there was staggering. And they were all beautiful.

    I was lucky enough to receive the pearl from the demonstration they had about how we get pearls. It's tiny and not worth anything, but I still love it. ^_^

  10. Very interesting article on pearls, Pearl! (Couldn't resist!) Learned things I did not know about the industry and the gemstone. I sure love freshwater pearls. Now, knowing how they are grown, makes me love them even more!

  11. I was under the impression, like most people, that Chinese pearls were fake. Thanks for the information on pearl farming and the entire industry, its fascinating to read

  12. Chinese freshwater pearls are not fake. Having said that, there are all kinds of fake pearls out there. So do the test if you're not sure - rub two of the pearls together - they should feel grainy not smooth. I like to run my fingernail lightly over them - again fake pearls are very smooth.

  13. The Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm - the only freshwater pearl culturing farm in America.