Names of Pearls-The Dizzying World of Pearl Terms

There are as many names for pearls as there are pearl suppliers, and they can be incredibly confusing. Rule 7: look at the pearl, the price and the quality, not the name. That being said, it is useful to know whether your pearl is natural or cultured; if cultured, whether freshwater or salt water, and whether dyed or naturally colored. Many pearls have names that start out denoting where they are grown, such as Biwa or Tahitian pearls.

Biwa pearls were originally farmed in Lake Biwa in Japan, and the mollusk species produced a particular long, beautiful, crinkly pearl with rainbow luster and a range of colors from white to ecru to gray to black. Nowadays, a Biwa pearl may be grown elsewhere, but come from similar species, and produce that same style and shape of pearl.

Glass pearls are not really pearls, but glass beads coated with nacre, the natural coating on cultured and natural pearls. The main difference between a glass pearl and a regular pearl is that the heart of the glass pearl is a glass bead coated with nacre. If the grower starts with a large bead, a larger pearl, or a specific shape will result. More expensive glass pearls have more nacre and many are very lovely, but their cost should still reflect their shell-time.

Dipped pearls would be a bead (glass or plastic) that is simply dunked in a calcium carbonate solution (like electroplating.) Because the CaCO3 is chalky and would rub off, the beads then have to be sealed with some sort of resin or plastic coating, which is why truly dipped or fake pearls don’t feel scratchy against your teeth. I don’t recommend doing this at flea markets or estate auctions, by the way (just, don’t put stuff in your mouth) you can use a small mirror and feel and listen for the scrape.

Mabe pearls (say mah-bay, it’s from Japanese) are another type of pearl, which indicates the shape (and possibly method of manufacture) which is a flat-bottomed pearl with a dome shape.  Also called blister pearls, mabe pearls are good for setting into rings or brooches.

Keishi pearls are a by-product of pearl farming, tend to shapes like flakes, and are usually small, irregularly shaped, and can be truly gorgeous.

Tahitian pearls are defined variously as an all-natural sea pearl from a certain mollusk, or just a pearl with black coloring.  Since price can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands, it is wise to make sure your definition matches the seller’s.

Baroque pearls are simply pearls that have globular shapes that are never perfectly round. Not to be confused with the crinkly look often associated with a freshwater pearl, baroque pearls are more rounded and smooth.

The one rule to remember when shopping for and buying pearls is Rule 8: never be afraid to ask for definitions! If you are told that you are looking at a fine, rare, Tahitian pearl, you can still ask, “And what is that, exactly?” And you will be completely justified in asking this question. You can be sure that two dealer’s definition of “Tahitian” and “rare” and “fine” may turn out to be quite different coming from different sellers. If buying on your own, demand every bit of information you can get, and even if buying a finished piece, use this knowledge to help you make a better, more cost-effective, and more satisfying purchase when you buy your next pearls.

Next Post: Buying the Right Pearls for You or Someone Else

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