The Complete Guide to Freshwater vs. Natural Pearls

Model wearing pearl earrings and pearl necklace from Ming Yu Wang

Ming Yu Wang

Behind the diamond, the pearl is probably the second most lusted-after stone and has been throughout history. Pearls are timeless, but to fully understand the wonder of the gemstone, you should understand how it’s formed. You may not even know that there is not just one type of way a pearl can be formed, but actually two. In fact, you may not even know how a pearl is formed at all. No judgment, because I was the same way. Luckily, I had the opportunity to speak with jewelry designer Ming Yu Wang to learn more about this elusive stone, specifically the difference between freshwater (or cultured) and natural pearls.

Yes, pearls are stunning to look at and wear, but to Wang, the gemstone means so much more. “From a heritage point of view, my aunties, my mom, my grandmas always liked holding onto pearls and then passing them on and sharing stories,” says Wang. Pearls have always been popular, but as of late, the stone has become even more popular, especially in unique and imperfect shapes. In fact, her newest collection focuses primarily on freshwater pearls, which is a testament to the surge in popularity of the stone. Ahead, Wang explains how freshwater and natural pearls are formed, plus why one is more eco-friendly than the other.

Model wearing pearl earrings

Ming Yu Wang

What’s the Difference Between Freshwater and Natural Pearls?

Though they are nearly identical in appearance, the process of how the pearls are created is what separates freshwater pearls from natural ones. Wang explains that freshwater pearls are farmed, or in other words cultivated, as opposed to natural or “sea pearls,” which are found in the open ocean. Natural pearls are formed in oysters when an irritant enters their shell. The pearl begins to form a sheen around the foreign substance as an act of defense against it.

In a similar way, freshwater pearls are created when an irritant enters the oyster, but this irritant is put into the shell by a human. Yes, it may sound harsh, but this method is actually preferred. When oysters are taken from the ocean naturally, there is no way to know if it contains a pearl or not. If it doesn’t, most of the time it will be thrown back into the ocean and die. Farming pearls allows for less waste since adding in the irritant manually verifies the oyster has a pearl before opening and killing it.

What About the Price?

Pearls are undoubtedly expensive, but freshwater pearls are a bit more reasonably priced compared to natural pearls. This is because there is such an abundance of freshwater pearls compared to natural pearls. In fact, Wang shares that when you farm pearls, you can have multiple pearls inside one oyster. “If the oyster is really great and has high potential, it can host multiple, like 10 to 20 pearls,” she says. The perfection and exclusivity that comes with natural pearls are the reason they are so expensive, while freshwater pearls can often be found for under $100.

If you're hoping to save money on your next pearl purchase, look for freshwater (also known as cultured) pearls, which can be found for under $100.

What Impact Do Pearls Have on the Environment?

Natural pearls were once a treasured piece because of their rarity and beauty. While this is still true, using natural pearls in jewelry isn’t as common as it once was and may come at a cost greater than just its price tag. “It’s not as eco-friendly to be extracting [oysters] from the ocean, because we need the oysters to be out there and part of the ecosystem,” says Wang. While Wang acknowledges farming pearls takes away some of the romance, it’s more beneficial to the environment compared to natural pearls. She explains that oysters act as somewhat of a water purifier by naturally filtering the water that surrounds them.

Related Stories