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Pearls, Pearls, Pearls

PEARLS by Colleen Brennan from Salt, Water & Fire

Because I have been involved in most aspects of the pearl industry for many years, I have been asked to write a blog about pearls and I am thrilled to pass on some of my knowledge.  Pearls are wondrous gems, they may not sparkle like gemstones which have been faceted and polished to reveal their beauty, but instead emit a soft lustrous glow, a natural wonder that is grown within a mollusc.  I can talk about pearls all day, but in this blog, I will try to pass on some important tips to consider when purchasing pearls.



There are principally two types of pearls:

Salt/Seawater pearls, which are found in the species of pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima, and grown in fertile waters of the Indian Ocean from Cossack in the south to Darwin and the Torres Straits in the north. These are the Queen of all pearls generally known as South Sea pearls principally from Australia, but also from Indonesia, The Philippines, Japan, Tahiti.

Freshwater pearls, Vast quantities of freshwater pearls are grown in Asia in Margaritifera mussel shells, in freshwater rivers, and lakes. They are far less expensive than South Sea pearls because the annual production is estimated at around 1,000 tonnes per year.  They are grown in a mussel and unlike South Sea pearls, numerous pearls can be produced in one mussel and take less time to produce, average time being 6 months. Freshwater pearls are typically nucleated with tissue of the mussel, which results in a vast majority of these pearls being irregular in shape and made of solid nacre.

Freshwater pearls can be purchased commercially world-wide, and there is no limit to the mountains of pearls harvested.  Quality ranges from bad to brilliant and a grading system is used with top quality AAAA fetching the highest price, and anything less than AAA is not worth purchasing in my view.  It has taken me many years to appreciate freshwater pearls and I have managed to secure personal contacts with women in Hong Kong who deal in quality freshwater pearls.


With South Sea pearls, only one pearl at a time can be grown in each pearl oyster. The focus is on quality, not quantity. A spherical bead or nucleus made from mussel shells is inserted surgically in the gonad of the oyster, together with a small piece of the live mantle tissue from a donor oyster. This is done by highly trained and paid technicians with the skill of a surgeon. The inseminated pearl oysters are then placed in netting panels which are attached to rope longlines that are anchored in selected bays or inlets where there is a regular current bringing ample food or plankton on which the oysters feed: but the current also brings seaweed and other fouling organisms, so the panels of oysters must be brought to the surface regularly and cleaned of these organisms, a very laborious task. After caring for these pearl oysters for at least two years the great day comes when the pearls are harvested. If the oyster is still young and healthy another nucleus may be inserted into the sack left by the harvested pearl. The harvested pearls are then cleaned of mucous and dried and are ready for sale.

With freshwater pearls, the mantle of the mussel shell is much thicker so that at least six and sometimes ten grafts from a donor mussel can be inserted subcutaneously in each mussel and these seeded mussels are then placed in the irrigation channels, and freshwater streams and lakes. This is far less laborious than growing South Sea pearls.



The value or price of a pearl is complex and may seem confusing but here are a few simple tips that will help explain why the price varies.

Western Australia produces the finest quality South Sea pearls in the world. More than fifty percent of our pearls are exported to most countries in the world but in the frontier town of Broome there are at least ten jewellery stores which manufacture high class jewellery, using local pearls, gold and diamonds in very creative settings. My favourite is Allure South Sea Pearls in Dampier Terrace with a showroom that will make your jaw drop.

When choosing a pearl, the lustre (pronounced lus-ter) of a pearl is the most important character to consider. This is the brilliance and shine.  A pearl that glows like a mirror will fetch a far higher price than one with a dull or cloudy surface. If you can see your reflection in a pearl this means it has brilliant lustre and is the finest quality gem.

The most expensive shape of a pearl is a perfect round but only a small percentage of a crop of pearls are perfectly round. Other popular and less expensive shapes are near-round, oval, teardrop, button and baroque or organic shape. For example, a ten millimetre South Sea pearl can vary in price from $100 to a few hundred dollars each, whilst a 15 or 16 millimetre diameter round South Sea top quality pearl may be valued at several thousand dollars.

With colour, a white pearl with a hint of pink or silver is preferred and will fetch a higher price. Creamy white coloured pearls are not as high.  Rich deep gold pearls are rare and of course more valuable.  It is a good idea to try on different coloured pearls to see which one suits your skin, eye colour and hair tone. Natural grey hair women look fabulous in silver pearls.

I get questioned often ‘why is a pearl black, or gold?’  South Sea pearls are never chemically treated to change their colour and will resonate the colour of the pearl oyster it is produced in, due to microscopic tiles of nacre (pronounced nay-kir) layering the nucleus. 

But colour can be confusing with freshwater pearls.  Freshwater pearls are naturally of white origin, but the trend is to artificially colour them with interesting effects – apricot, pink, blue, purple, green, etc.  I favour colours that resemble South Sea pearl natural colours ie: white/pink, gold, silver or peacock and would not recommend unnatural colours.

The skin, or surface of a pearl is important.  Spotless pearls are naturally higher priced. It is normal for South Sea pearls to have some naturally occurring spots or marks, tiny indentations that may be visible.  A clever jeweller will set the spot to the back, and the spotless face of the pearl to the front. Circle pearls, (pronounced cir-clay) are distinct rings around a pearl.  This is a natural characteristic that happens when there is constriction within the muscle as it is growing, a bit like tying a rope around a tree and letting it grow.  Circle pearls are good value because they can have the best white colour, large size and excellent lustre but are much less expensive.  I love them because they show authenticity and add an artistic quality.

In summing up, the size, shape, colour, surface, and lustre are all factors that determine the price of a pearl.

A note on Keshi pearls, my all-time favourite. A keshi pearl is solid in nacre and does not containing a nucleus.  Technically they are produced within the cultured pearl farming industry and considered a by-product.  Keshi are bright in lustre and irregular in shape, a pearl organic in appearance.

These very individual gems are priced by weight as opposed to size and the smoother and bigger they are the higher per gram price.

The term keshi means ‘poppy seed’ in Japanese, a reference to the tiny size found in the Japanese Akoya oyster, which are seldom more than a few millimetres in diameter.

Rare South Sea keshi pearls can be large and may require x-raying to determine if it does indeed contain a nucleus, particularly if it is roundish and smooth because it will be extremely rare and valuable but near impossible to distinguish from a cultured pearl. 

Working with pearls is a labour of love. From time to time I am asked “what is the most expensive pearl? even by Ben Cousins once. My friend who has been working with South Sea pearls for nearly 60 years would say, “there is no such thing as a big, cheap, round pearl”.

We often say in the trade that pearls find people, and all of a sudden you may see a pearl that is exactly right for you, in size, colour and price.

They are timeless, tactile, and so versatile.  I think they suit everybody, and when worn are most flattering.

Colleen Brennan

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