The Insider Guide to Natural Saltwater Pearls

Written by: Afshin Shaddaie, Jewelry and Gemology Expert
December 20, 2023 – Posted in: Jewelry Blog

Here’s our guide to learning what you need to know about when shopping for Natural Saltwater Pearls. When we talk about pearls in regard to fine jewelry, we usually base the discussion around “natural versus cultured” pearls and not “saltwater versus freshwater” pearls. But both terminologies are extremely important to any discussion regarding pearls.

Have questions about Natural Saltwater Pearls. Feel free to send us a message. We will respond within 1 business hour.

Natural Pearls vs. Cultured Pearls

Antique Rare Natural Saltwater Earrings
Very Important Pair of Natural Saltwater Pearl Earrings from our Collection. Item Number: SM225

For anybody not fully familiar with the difference between natural and cultured, it is actually quite simple.

  • Natural pearls are those which grow entirely organically in certain types of mollusks. Not until opening those mollusks do we know if it even contains a pearl, let alone the quality.
  • Cultured pearls are farm-grown. Still in the same water as natural pearls but within a much more controlled environment.

A cultured pearl has a head start, with a foreign particle being introduced to the mollusk in order to start the pearl creation process. This gives a much higher certainty of a good quality pearl resulting.

Another big distinction in the world of pearls is freshwater and saltwater. Learn the actual difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls.

How Pearls Are Made?

Pair of Natural Pearl Earrings with onyx halo
A beautiful pair of Art Deco Style Pearl Earrings. Part of our Collection. (SOLD)

In all instances, a pearl comes from a mollusk, usually an oyster or mussel. The mollusk detects a foreign body within its shell and coats it in a layer of the mineral aragonite.

The intrusion can be anything from a grain of sand to a microscopic parasite. The mollusk adds further layers to protect the mollusk. These layers are held together by a substance called conchiolin. The combination of aragonite and conchiolin has the common name of nacre (pronounced nay-ker).

It takes at least a year for even a small pearl to develop, whether natural or cultured. Cultured pearls typically only develop for 2 to 4 years before harvesting. The longer a pearl grows before harvesting, the larger it will be.

Harvesting pearls do the mollusk no harm, as long as no harm comes to the host. In cultured pearl farming, the same mollusks are used through several harvests as captive mussels and oysters can live for 20 years with sufficient care.

The Difference Between Saltwater and Freshwater Pearls

Natural Saltwater Pearl Diamond Tiara Chaumet 1920
A very rare natural saltwater pearl diamond tiara from Chaumet, circa 1920 previously a part of our collection.

Both saltwater and freshwater pearls are almost certainly cultured and not natural. Only 1 in 10,000 oysters will produce a natural pearl suitable for use in jewelry. As a result, open-water pearl diving has virtually stopped completely. This means that almost all pearls we see coming to market are of the cultured type.

For the most part: Saltwater pearls farm use oysters, and freshwater uses mussels.

The farms can range greatly in size from a small setup in a farmer’s pond to ones covering huge areas of lakes. As a result of the use of different mollusks for each type of farming, the pearls themselves have physical differences.

Because of the different sizes of nuclei inserted into each type, the resulting pearl is also different. The nucleus inserted into a saltwater oyster will usually be larger than that put into a freshwater mussel. As a result, the nacre which makes up a freshwater pearl is much thicker than that of a saltwater pearl. Given that nacre quality is what defines a pearl, you’d think this was a good thing, but it is not necessarily the case.

The thinner nacre of the saltwater pearl has a much better luster than its freshwater equivalent. The thicker nacre on the freshwater pearl makes it duller and less appealing. Still beautiful, but not like a saltwater pearl.

Saltwater vs. Freshwater Pearls

10730 Natural Satlwater Pearl and Diamond Necklace
Very Important Natural Saltwater Pearl and Diamond Necklace. 193-carats of natural pearls and 48-carats of diamonds. Item Number 10730. EGL certificate. Contact us for more information.

Although the nacre produced in saltwater oysters looks better, it is much thinner. This means it wears and can chip much more easily. Traditionally, freshwater pearl harvests occur much more frequently than saltwater, but this is changing. In recent years, some freshwater producers have been allowing the pearls to develop for longer, in line with growth periods for saltwater, which improves the luster. This, of course, increases the cost of producing a pearl and therefore increases the cost of purchase.

In addition, saltwater oysters produce no more than one or two pearls at a time. Freshwater mussels can produce up to 50. Most producers do limit the number of nuclei injected to less than that, however. This number reduces further if the pearl has a longer growing time

Saltwater, because of the growing time, is usually larger than freshwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are usually between 6mm and 9mm in size, against the 8mm-14mm of saltwater pearls. Lately, though, we are starting to see freshwater pearls of comparable size to saltwater.

Saltwater pearls have a bead nucleus. This makes the pearl much more likely to be round than freshwater. Freshwater pearls have a nucleus made of a tiny flake of mother of pearl. This means that the pearls can be any shape, from perfectly round to baroque (misshapen), depending on how the mussel host reacts.

Buying Pearls

10978 Tiffany Natural Saltwater Pearl Necklace
Very Rare Art Deco Natural Saltwater Pearl Necklace by Tiffany and Co from our collection. Item Number: 10978. Contact us for more information.

It used usually a straight case of budget limitations when buying pearls. Saltwater pearls, because of the limited availability and longer harvest times, can be much more expensive. Even now, with the quality of freshwater pearls approaching that of saltwater, freshwater is still less expensive. This is, in part, due to the much larger numbers being available.

As mentioned above, freshwater pearls have a much thicker nacre and are much more resilient to knocks or contact wearing. Saltwater pearls damage easily and do not suit everyday jewelry. When strung, saltwater pearls require wiping with a damp cloth after each use, as even natural oils from your body will damage the thin nacre. Freshwater pearls do need the same care but will last much longer if cared for properly.

You can expect to pay very different prices for pearls besides where they came from. The size, roundness, and luster are all factors in dictating the price. Perfectly round pearls, for example, are very rare and very expensive.

The rareness of Pearls Chart

In order of rareness, here is a list of the four types of pearls:

  • Cultured Freshwater Pearls. These are commonplace and extremely affordable
  • Cultured Saltwater Pearls. These are commonplace and affordable as well, but may sometimes be a little more expensive because they are rarer.
  • Natural Freshwater Pearls. These are the most common expensive pearls on the market. They will cost many times more than cultured pearls and are considered rare.
  • Natural Saltwater Pearls. These pearls are almost impossible to find. They are extremely rare and are considered investment collector’s items. Almost all the natural saltwater pearls that are in circulation are over 100 years old and a part of antique jewelry.

How Much Do Natural Saltwater Pearls Cost?

Pearl Earrings in Estate Diamond Jewelry Showroom

Natural Saltwater Pearls are very rare and are, therefore, very expensive. A pair of genuine and certified Natural Saltwater Pearls with good shape and luster can fetch hundreds of dollars and sometimes even millions of dollars.

This easily places Natural Saltwater Pearls in our list of top jewelry investment ideas.

For example, the Natural Pearl and Diamond Tiara, Chaumet, 1920 went for $3.6m.

Our Collection of Natural Saltwater Pearls

Natural Saltwater Pearl and Diamond Necklace on Stand
Item Number: 10730. Rare Natural Saltwater Pearl and Diamond Necklace

We’ve been collecting the rarest type of pearls since 1980, and we’ve built up a collection.

If you are a collector, please feel free to contact us and request a list of our natural saltwater pearl jewelry.

Here are a few of the rare pearl jewelry pieces in our collection.

Antique Pearl and Diamond Earrings

Antique Natural Drop Pearl Earrings SSEF

Item Number: SM225

These antique earrings feature fine natural saltwater pearls in the center and are adorned by a double halo of diamonds. The pearls are accompanied by SSEF Documentation certifying their credentials.

Van Cleef and Arpels Pearl Earrings

VCA Natural Pearl and Diamond Earrings

Item Number: SM234

These rare Van Cleef and Arpels Earrings feature natural saltwater pearls in the center and showcase a floral motif yellow-gold setting. Accompanied by SSEF documentation. Handcrafted by Van Cleef and Arpels circa 1970.

Chaumet Natural Saltwater Pearl Earrings

Antique SM275 Chaumet Natural Saltwater Pearl Earring

Item Number: SM275

A very rare pair of Chaumet Earrings displaying natural saltwater drop pearls beneath a scroll-motif setting of platinum and diamonds. Accompanied by SSEF numbers and documentation. Circa 1950.

“Salt and Pepper” Natural Saltwater Earrings

salt and pepper natural pearl earrings with floral halo

Item Number: 11031

A very fine pair of “salt and pepper” natural saltwater pearl earrings framed by a floral motif arrangement of diamonds. The natural pearls are certified by the SSEF.

Contact Us

SM234 VCA Natural Pearl Earrings Artistic Box
Vintage Van Cleef and Arpels Natural Saltwater Pearl Earrings. Item Number: SM234

If you have any questions about saltwater natural pearls, please feel free to send us a message.

You can also contact us if you want to purchase or source saltwater natural pearls.