Pearls of Wisdom

Sep 18, 2013

There's nothing like a great strand of pearls! Of all my favorite beads and jewelry-making supplies, I think pearls top the list. There's a reason why these little beauties are so precious: each one is the result of a lengthy natural process, and, just like snowflakes, no two natural pearls are exactly alike. If you have yet to discover the wonderful world of pearls in your beading projects, here's a little information to get you started:

Natural Pearls

There are two types of natural pearls: cultured pearls and freshwater pearls.

Cultured pearls are created in oysters, when an irritant like a grain of sand enters the oyster, but can't be expelled. The layers of nacre secreted by the oyster build up around the tiny irritant until a pearl is created. A cultured pearl means that the process was initiated by a human being and not some other natural event -- the oyster is harvested, an irritant is implanted in a lab, and then the mollusk is returned to the sea where the pearl grows over many weeks, months, or even years. The very best cultured pearls come from Japan, and can cost upwards of thousands of dollars for a single pearl.

Freshwater pearls are grown in freshwater mussels in circumstances similar to the cultured pearls. Most of these freshwater pearls come from China, and in the last few years, there has been an explosion of freshwater pearls in pretty much every color, shape, and size that you can imagine. While these pearls used to be relatively low cost compared to their cultured counterparts, you can now find freshwater pearls that retail for several hundred dollars per 16" strand. Freshwater pearls generally have a much more organic look to them than cultured pearls, and can be found readily in every local bead shop, bead show, or craft store where jewelry-making and beading supplies are sold.

Glass or Crystal Pearls

If you love the look of natural pearls but want something with a more uniform shape, color, and size, then crystal or glass pearls are just the thing for you. These beads are made with either a glass or crystal base, and are coated with many layers of a pearly substance which can be a type of glass, a coat paint, and may contain bits of crushed up pearls to give it that characteristic pearl luster.

Glass or crystal pearls are generally much heavier than natural pearls, and while they may have larger bead holes, care should be taken to avoid fraying or even broken threads when using them for bead-weaving.

How Do You Use Your Pearls?

Now that you have a little bit of background on pearls and how they're created, how do you want to use your pearls? Here are three suggestions using some of my favorite projects from the Beading Daily Shop!

Pearls front and center! Let your pearls be the main attraction of your beading projects when you create Saturn of the Sea by Sue Jackson and Wendy Hubick. Substitute the beautiful, dark crystal pearls for a lighter color to personalize this stunning necklace that you'll want to wear again and again.
Pearls in a supporting role. Barbara Falkowitz used these lovely crystal pearls to add glamor to her Runway of Pearls bracelet without making them the focal point of the bracelet. Pearls can be used as a way to soften a silver-lined seed bead or bright metallic beads without overpowering the whole design.
Pearls as extras. Even if you only have a few of these luscious lustered beads in your stash, you can still use them to great effect by playing off their color and shine, like Csilla Csmiraz's Dragon Dance bracelet. Combining crystal pearls with textured bead-weaving creates a visually stunning piece of beaded art for your wrist. Try experimenting with some of the new neon colored crystal pearls and see what kinds of pearly goodness you can design!

Ready to find more great pearl beading projects? Check out all the fabulous projects available for instant download right now in the Beading Daily Shop!

Do you have a favorite type, shape, or color of pearl? What do you think about the new neon crystal pearls? Leave a comment here on the Beading Daily blog and tell us why you love to use pearls in your beading projects!

Bead Happy,


Featured Products

Saturn of the Sea

Availability: In Stock
Price: $4.00


Have your pearls, and bezel them too for a completely stylish necklace design.


Runway of Pearls

Availability: In Stock
Price: $4.00


Stitch a reversible cuff that has two varying looks that will stun onlookers.


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on Sep 18, 2013 7:14 AM

While I do appreciate pearls and information about them, your definition of  natural pearls, cultured pearls, and freshwater pearls is not correct and adds to the confusion many people have concerning pearls.  (I studied pearls at GIA and have my graduate pearls certificate from them.  Wonderful program,by the way.)

Natural pearls are those that are produced naturally in a mollusk by some sort of irritant entering the body of the mollusk, usually some kind of worm-like thing that bores a tiny hole in the shell and imbeds itself inside.  The mollusk forms a sac around that invader to protect itself and then secretes nacre which forms layer upon layer around the sac.  Natural pearls are quite rare now.

Cultured pearls are of two varieties: salt water or freshwater.  

Salt water pearls come from mollusks, oysters whose natural environment is salty oceans (sometimes salty rivers, but usually oceans).  There are 3 varieties: 1) akoya, or Japanese akoya, which are small and round from a very small variety of oysters. 2) Tahitian, from a huge oyster in French Polynesia, so large that a large implant is put in yielding a large pearl. 3) South Sea from another large oyster off the northwest coast of Australia.  Again a large oyster so a large implant and large pearl.

The second type of cultured pearls is freshwater, as you mentioned in your blog.  These come from mollusks (mussels generally and not oysters) whose natural environment is freshwater rivers and lakes.  The major difference between the two, freshwater and saltwater is that until recently, freshwater culturing implanted only a tiny bit of tissue from a donor mollusk where saltwater implants are both a shell bead and the tissue.  That's why freshwater pearls were so irregular in shape.  Those freshwater pearls are solid nacre, not just a thin layer (1mm - 2mm) as on saltwater pearls.  Culturing has improved greatly and implants of beads are now being used in some freshwater pearls as well, which is why you can find quite round freshwater pearls.

I would appreciate it if you would correct your blog so that there isn't more confusion and misunderstanding about cultured pearls.  Thank you!

mjbosd wrote
on Sep 18, 2013 8:07 AM

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your love for pearls with us. But to the best of my knowledge Karen Tweedie information about the classification of pearls is more correct and I think she could tell us even more interesting things about pearls if you interviewed her.

Valbeads wrote
on Sep 18, 2013 11:09 AM

Pearls are just so...classy!  They never, EVER go out of style, they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.  The design possibilities are infinite.  I always feel so elegant when I'm wearing pearls.  As a matter of fact, I just finished a cuff bracelet in milk chocolate pearls and poppy colored rondelle crystals last night.  I have an entire box dedicated to my pearls, and I must have about a dozen different colors, if not more.

Have I gushed enough of my love of pearls? LOL!

on Sep 18, 2013 3:43 PM

Being a GIA Alumni with a Graduate Pearls diploma as well, I second the fact that Karen's Information is correct and I've sent you (Jennifer) a personal email with a very brief, but thorough explanation of the difference between Natural and Cultured pearls (both of which are real pearls) if you'd  like to post it on your blog.

And, interestingly enough, I just hosted a Pearls! Pearls!! Pearls!!! Blog hop this past Sunday over on my blog and it seems pearls are a favorite among many people who read Beading Daily and all the Interweave Publications!

Thanks for reading all of our comments. I know you'll take the time to correct the miss-information you have provided today!



MiShel Designs

on Sep 22, 2013 12:10 PM

Thank you Karen for giving us the correct information concerning pearls, both salt water and freshwater. I had the same reaction when I read this post about pearls, I don't have your background, but since I use pearls in many of my designs, I have educated myself about pearls.

Actually, my love of pearls goes back to the 80's when I was working as an engineer and went to Japan for business. Seeing the pearls marketed in Tokyo was an eye-opening experience and talking to many of the sellers gave me quite an education on the cultivation of pearls and how to find quality pearls out of the hundreds of strands every seller had to sell.

Now that freshwater pearls have expanded the market, quality pearls are now within the reach of many. And it's up to us to make sure we give correct information to our pearl buyers. Thank you again for fully explaining the differences between the different types of pearls.

mjbosd wrote
on Sep 26, 2013 10:51 PM

It's a great shame that Jennifer, the editor of one of my favorite magazines, has not found a few minutes to correct her mistake on Pearls classification and to thank Karen for the interesting and correct information about Pearls.

I think it is highly unprofessional to ignore your readers.

We can only imagine how confusing Jennifer's article is for  those who are making first steps in jewelry making.

Since I can't trust Jennifer's knowledge  and competence, I will never  buy Beading Daily magazine again. Maybe this little step makes Jennifer to reconsider her attitude to her readers.

msrhino wrote
on Nov 2, 2013 7:04 AM

I read your article about the pearls, and though I have not been educated by GIA or any other certified method, I read extensively and of course when reading about gems, one encounters pearls as well.  I was concerned about the information in your article, because there was no mention of the natural pearl as Ms. Tweedie wrote about, and she clarified a lot of the gray areas that I was a little confused about also.  I think that Ms. Shel and Ms Tweedie would both be excellent to interview for a more in depth story of pearls, including the history, some photos of famous pearls ( and some not so famous ones), and the general usage of the pearl from history to present.  Including when the first one may have been discovered and when the first freshwater pearl was discovered also.

I am a reader and subscriber of nearly 20 years, and always read your columns!  I want to give you kudos for the time you take to read our comments, and also for the guts to correct yourself when you err in some small way.


L. Abellera

Fletcher Mountain Creations

deesnewyear wrote
on Nov 23, 2013 4:19 PM

What is the proper way to tie a knot in between real pearls?