Beads Fit for a Queen: The Mystique of Freshwater Pearl Beads

Oct 13, 2011

My Tallulah's Pearls necklace reflects the classic look of fine freshwater pearls.
For hundreds of years, the only people who wore pearls were royalty and nobles, and later, the fabulously wealthy who could afford them. Today, the good news is that you don't have to spend a small fortune to get beautiful pearls to use in your beadweaving and jewelry-making projects. (Although if you took a good look at what I've spent on freshwater pearl beads in the last few years, it's probably pretty close to a king's ransom!)

Technically, freshwater pearls are not gemstones. They are the result of irritation in the soft tissue of a mollusk. (Doesn't that sound pleasant?) Slimy water creatures aside, pearls are as beautiful and fascinating as any gemstone that I've ever seen, and certainly hold more allure for me than other types of semi-precious beads.

Kate McKinnon's Shag Carpet of Pearls bracelet uses pearls to achieve a more modern, edgy look.
Nacre is the substance that gives pearls their lovely shine and makes them seem to glow from within. For those of you interested in the biological and chemical composition of a freshwater pearl bead, that nacre is formed mainly from calcium carbonate (think crushed up antacid tablets!) and a crystal called aragonite. Light reflecting between the layers of calcium carbonate and aragonite is what makes a pearl shine and gives it that characteristic sheen.

I was surprised to find out that true natural pearls (those that occur in the wild with no outside help from humans) are extremely rare and are almost never those perfectly round spheres that you see in fine jewelry shops. Most pearls are cultured and created to look like those very rare natural pearls that are so coveted by pearl lovers everywhere.

When choosing freshwater pearl beads, you will want to pay attention to the shape, luster, surface, color and size of your pearls. Check the surface of your freshwater pearl beads for cracks, scratches, bumps, spots and cracks before buying them. Also be aware that some "shaped" pearls are crudely cultivated, and you might find that some of the cultivated nacre wears off quickly, exposing the mother of pearl shape underneath.

If you love freshwater pearl beads and pearl beading projects as much as I do, you'll be thrilled to get your copy of Create Jewelry: Pearls by Marlene Blessing and Jamie Hogsett. This classic volume with information about the history and creation of pearls is also packed with 22 gorgeous pearl bead projects, resources and basic techniques. And now it's available as a digital download! You can purchase your copy of Create Jewelry: Pearls and be reading it in minutes on your desktop or laptop computer. Instant gratification!

What's your favorite style of freshwater pearl bead? Leave a comment on the blog and tell us! And if you've ever created a fabulous piece of beaded jewelry using freshwater pearls, why not take a quick picture and post it in the Reader Photo Gallery?

Bead Happy,


Featured Products

Tallulah's Pearls

Availability: In Stock
Price: $4.00


A vintage-inspired strung necklace with pearls encircled by wisps of seed beads


Shag Carpet of Pearls Bracelet

Availability: In Stock
Price: $4.00


An innovative square-stitched wave of pearls


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SandraG@34 wrote
on Oct 14, 2011 4:28 AM

I made a bracelet and matching earrings about 5 years ago with a fringe similar to one with freshwater pearls...except I used MOP chips as the looks very much like a huge caterpillar.  I will post the picture in the gallery for all to see.

on Oct 14, 2011 8:35 AM

I really enjoyed "Create Jewelry: Pearls: by Marlene and Jamie - it's full of beautiful pictures and great ideas.  I like to hand knot my pearls and also to wire wrap them in various designs with different materials.  The bracelets pictured above by Kate McKinnon are fabulous - anything she touches is a work of art!!  And Pearls, including freshwater and/or saltwater cultured, are classified in the gem and jewelry industry as Organic Gemstones, along with Ivory, Coral, Amber and Jet.

kbeading wrote
on Oct 14, 2011 4:41 PM

I LOVE pearls - freshwater cultured pearls, rice pearls, button pearls, coloured pearls. I must have picked the bug up from my aunt who was a professional pearl buyer in China.

I now use pearls in almost all of my beading  - in my last project - I used small blush pink rice pearls as spacers for an aquamarine necklace.  I'm now working on pearls & Chalcedony earrings.

linda@891 wrote
on Oct 14, 2011 9:36 PM

I adore freshwater pearls but use them rarely. Most of my jewelry is sold in high end boutiques and they want no part of pearls - I have even been asked (twice in the last 2 weeks) to take them out of necklaces that I have used them as accents...hopefully they'll sell on my website one of these days.

reshleman wrote
on Oct 16, 2011 5:34 AM

I'm new at jewelry-making. When is a 'pearl' a pearl and not a bead? For instance, are the palm tree ivory 'pearls' really pearls?