Getting Fresh with Freshwater Pearls

Are you a June baby who doesn’t like her birthstone? Do you still think your only choices are your grandmother’s pearls–the Queen’s pearls–round, white, and boring?

ABOVE: In her light and playful “Nouveau Botticelli” bracelet, Illinois designer Eve Alfillé pairs freshwater pearls of all colors and shapes with an array of gemstones: aquamarine, citrine, prasiolite, carnelian, garnet, fluorite, moonstone, spinel, amethyst, tourmaline, tanzanite, and peridot. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

Nope. Not true anymore. In fact, if you like wild colors and shapes, take another look at the pearl.

Pearls have always been found in non-round shapes and colors other than white or cream. In fact, when there were only natural pearls in the world (those made without the encouragement of a human hand), round pearls were the rarities. Most were out of round or baroque.

A natural pearl forms when something gets inside a mollusk, say a small parasite bores through the shell, and irritates the animals’ tender flesh. They begin to cover the invader with nacre, the same material that lines the inside of the mollusk’s shell. It’s also what we know as “mother of pearl.”

The coating process isn’t an exact science, of course, so the pearls that form could come out any color, any shape, highly nacreous, or utterly meh.

Then There Were Cultured Pearls

Then came Mr. Mikimoto. He inserted spherical mother-of-pearl beads into pearl-producing oysters and, presto! Cultured pearls.

It wasn’t quite that easy, but the way cultured pearls hit the market, it felt like a knockout punch. Because cultured strands were far less expensive, suddenly everyone could have–and did have–a strand of pearls. (Look at any yearbook from the 1940s and 1950s.)

Cultured pearls also changed public expectations. Because Mikimoto’s pearls were so perfect, they set the bar. The understanding of, and appreciation for, a pearl that was colored, out-of-round, and baroque remained only among pearl aficionados.

“Oysters, schmoysters,” said the freshwater mollusks. “They’re not the only ones who can make a pearl. Watch and learn.”

This lovely freshwater pearl accented by diamonds and set in a 14k gold pin titled "In A Cloud" allows artist Eve Alfillé to indulge her imagination. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

This lovely freshwater pearl accented by diamonds and set in a 14k gold pin titled “In A Cloud” allows artist Eve Alfillé to indulge her imagination. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

And Then Freshwater Pearls Took the Stage

When the 1960s and ‘70s brought a revolution against tradition, those little perfect strands went into a drawer. But then pearl lovers (naming no names, but me!) became aware of freshwater pearls being cultured in Japan, in Lake Biwa. They were not cultured with beads, but with tiny pieces of mussel muscle. As a result, they weren’t round at all, but flat or bulbous, and the surface was often ribbed or bubbled. But the nacre was extraordinary.

Today, Lake Biwa no longer produces pearls, a victim of pollution due to toxic run off from the surrounding farms. But that hasn’t slowed the production of freshwater cultured pearls, because the Chinese have taken up the cause and changed the game. Today, they produce tons (that’s right, literal tons) of cultured pearls in a variety of shapes, from perfectly round to slender “stick” pearls, and endless colors (quite often the result of dyeing or irradiation). You can find cultured freshwater pearls everywhere. (And as Mikimoto killed the market for natural pearls, the variety offered by Chinese cultured pearl manufacturers has not helped the traditional Japanese Akoya pearl market.)

Not all freshwater pearls are in strands. Jewelry artist and pearl expert Eve J. Alfillé, in Evanston, Illinois, uses pearls everywhere she can, as you can see from the definitely un-boring pieces of pearl jewelry here.

Pearls are happening, June baby! Dive in!


Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.



Learn how to make more pearl jewelry with these resources!

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