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TYPES OF PEARLS
Although in Japan “akoya” is a general term for pearls –and for most of the 20th century akoyas represented the majority of cultured pearls available— akoyas actually refer to a specific type of saltwater pearl produced by the Pinctada fucata or akoya oyster. Akoyas were the first oyster to be successfully cultured in the quest for a round white farm raised pearl. By the 1920s Japanese cultured akoyas dominated the pearl market and until the 1960s the vast majority of akoyas originated in Japan. Pearl culturing techniques developed by the Japanese remained a closely held secret for many decades, seek but by the 1980s akoyas began to be raised along the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts. A high quality cultured akoya pearl –regardless of its origin— is generally round or near round, thumb cream, white or faintly pink and characterized by a bright lustre. (Some akoyas are very faintly yellow reminiscent of old ivory.)
Tahitian Cultured Pearls are famous for their attractive natural dark colors and intense contrasting overtones. The colors are a natural product of the Pinctada margaritefera mollusks (more commonly known as the “black oysters”) which have been farm raised since the 1960s. As production increased in quantity and quality these exotically dark pearls became a major fashion item. Since the 1980s they have become one of the best known products of French Polynesia.
South Seas Pearls
South Sea cultured pearls are primarily produced in Australia, the Philippines and some Indonesian islands. A product of the Pinctada maxima mollusk they can be loosely divided between “gold lipped” and “silver lipped” oysters. Darker South Sea pearls generally lack the intense “black” colors of Tahitian cultured pearls. However, they have an attractive soft silvery lustre and the golden cultured South Sea pearls are particularly sought after by people who prefer a warm toned cultured pearl.
Freshwater pearls are grown by molluscs –usually mussels– in freshwater. While some legendary freshwater pearls were historically produced in Japanese lakes or Scottish rivers, the majority of cultured freshwater pearls today are produced in converted fish farms in mainland China. Cultured freshwater pearls typically grow in a much more sheltered environment than any of the varieties of saltwater pearls. Generally tissue nucleated rather than shell nucleated freshwater pearls are rarely perfectly round but are often available in a wide variety of natural pastels.
“Keshi” is a Japanese word meaning “poppy seed” and refers to an extremely asymmetrical shape of pearl. Originally a byproduct of pearl farming keshi traditionally lack a shell nucleus. Shapes are random, reminiscent of plant seeds, crumpled tissue paper, or melting chunks of snow. As the shape of each keshi is extremely individual they have become increasingly popular among jewelry designers. Almost pure nacre keshi are typically highly lustrous and as they have gained a following some pearl farms have made an effort to “encourage” keshi and now quite large keshi are available.