Where to buy freshwater pearls and freshwater pearl quality

FireballFan

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Mar 28, 2023
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Hi,

I’m a relatively new pearl addict and have a few questions to ask.

I’ve ordered freshwater pearls from various sellers from China, looking for blemish free round pearls and have found quality to be generally an issue.

I’ve received pearls with growth textures, ‘fish bites’ and what look like scratches from handling. I’m not sure if what this means is I should really be getting pearls from more reputed retailers, or if it’s normal for freshwater pearls to generally have a number of flaws.

My very first pearl purchase (AAA 12mm Tahitian round pearl) was almost flawless and I expected the others to come close to it, but they generally haven’t.

Alternatively, are freshwater pearls just softer than Tahitians and prone to scratching / marks over time.

I would be grateful if anyone has thoughts on reasonable pricing too ☺️. For example, is $USD45 a reasonable price for a 13mm round freshwater pearl ( which may have a few blemishes)?

Thank you,
Fireballfan ☺️
 
It can be a real challenge ordering from China if you haven't worked with or developed a relationship with the source. Grades like AAA really mean nothing to sellers there, and terms like round and clean and relative. Everything is based on price and budget. A $45 round 13 mm is doable, but it won't be a perfectly round, high luster, clean pearl.
 
I've just come through my own learning process and experiments regarding freshwater pearls. You really need to research and learn as much as you can regarding the pearl types, the vendors you are dealing with and what you personally like. For me it's luster over everything else then color. Pearl grading is very subjective so you are better off with a vendor that is well known and recommended. Here are some pictures from one of my experiments. They are both mixed freshwater bracelets. The bracelet on the left in the photos is supposedly a top of the line AAAA bracelet. It has some minor fishbites. The pearls are pretty round. I was very disappointed with the luster, however and the color. The bracelet on the right is a mixed Freshadama bracelet from Pearl Paradise. There are no fishbites that I can see. The pearls are round. It's pretty clear from the photos that the color is more vibrant and the luster is much better. I took advantage of the Mother's Day sale from Pearl Paradise so it ended up being close to what I paid for the other bracelet. While the other bracelet is nice it doesn't hold a candle to the PP bracelet.
AAAA left and Freshadama right Comparison
PP Freshadama Mixed Bracelet (right) with AAAA (left)
AAAA left PP Freshadama Mixed Bracelet right
 
What do you want? Great pearls or cheap pearls? Because there are no great cheap pearls. Or if there are I've never found out where to get them in all my years around pearls.
Find a supplier who will be honest about their stock and whether they have pearls which meet your wants. It's impossible to stock every permutation of pearl. Even the wholesalers in Hong Kong employ runners to scoot around other companies to chase down a specific pearl. Of course, if you can wait, a good seller will be able to find exactly the right pearls for you by adding you to their shopping list when they travel to buy.
 
When we go to Asia to select pearls, this is the typical scenario.

We visit a number of different processors and dealers. If we're visiting during a non-show period, this means going to several wholesale offices. If we're at the show, we start the show by visiting the different processors we know to review their stock.

Not all dealers carry all ranges. Some specialize in lower grades, some specialize in higher grades, and others - some of the large processors - carry a range from low-commercial to by-the-piece loose grade.

When visiting a dealer who specializes in high-grade pearls, there may be 20-30 hank price points within one size. These are strands that are grouped together, tagged with a grade that only means something to the dealer. For example, Heng Mei will have FTT, FVT, FVV and so on. It's an internal description of how the strands were separated. There may be another 10 or more loose pearl grades (undrilled, unmatched) after hank grades as well.

A buyer will typically ask to see all the hanks available between X price and XX price (after the price has been negotiated and sorted out). The buyer may receive 50 hanks or more to sort through. Even though individual strands within hanks are priced identically, there is always a range of quality within each hank, and the job of the buyer is to evaluate the quality attributes of each strand to determine which are the best of the hank, and which meet the quality characteristics of their client or market. This is where the real work happens, and where there is no substitute for experience. A very careful buyer may routinely sort a thousand strands and select fewer than 50.

Typically, a retailer's grading scale matches those price points. If a dealers offers A, AA and AAA and so on, then those grades are assigned to the pearls they've selected from each price range.

For example, this is how pearl sourcing/grading works every day with every retailer of pearls, and is why comparison shopping by grade is meaningless:

Buyer A purchases 6.5-7 mm White Freshwater strands from the following price points:
Lot Price: $10-$20 - Buyer assigns grade A
Lot Price: $20-$40 - Buyer assigns AA
Lot Price: $40-$60 - Buyer assigns AAA

Buyer B purchases 6.5-7 mm white Freshwater Strands from the following price points:
Lot Price: $40-$60 - Buyer assigns A
Lot Price: $60-$80 - Buyer assigns AA
Lot Price: $80-$100 - Buyer assigns AAA

As you can imagine, there is a significant difference between buyer A's AAA and buyer B's AAA. But because there are no internationally recognized grading standards and everything is subjective, buyer A can describe their pearls in the exact same way buyer B describes them. To buyer A, their AAA is their highest grade. It has the highest luster, the best color, the best shape and the best surface of their pearl inventory. So it is a AAA to them. It doesn't mean they are being dishonest. It just means they deal in a lower grade of pearl than buyer B.

Last week I chatted on YouTube with Jewels of the Trade about this subject in their video about how not to shop for pearls.
 
Plus some buyers will simply bulk buy while others - to the dismay of the wholesalers I'm sure, will wade through bags to select one or two strands. While I was doing the latter last september in Heng Mei another buyer came in and within ten minutes had bought three huge bags of fireballs.
Luckily I had already selected the best Four strands from those bags....:)
 
Thank you Jeremy and pearlescence for the detailed answers. I really appreciate it.

Would you happen to know if freshwater pearls are softer than tahitian pearls?
 
Hardness varies from pearl to pearl. Even within one pearl there can be different resistance as one drills. There was a time, when bead nucleated pearls were getting started, that some growers seemed to be using rock hard nuclei. Drill bits would blunt in seconds and be red hot. Even now some fireball nukes can be difficult
Science says between 2.5 and 4.5 Moh's
Or do you mean in a different context?
 
Some of my freshwater pearls appear to have scratches. I’m just curious how they form.

When I tried to scratch pearls myself, they didn’t seem easy to scratch.

I also had one seller who custom drilled 3 baroques for me and cracked or fractured all of them in the process.

I was just curious if Tahitians for example, are generally hardier
 
Good question...some of my FW pearls are more "scratched" looking than others. It is the lower luster FW pearls that have what appears to be scratches...perhaps it is just how the nacre formed? Looking forward to the expert's answers...
 
Can you share photos of the "scratches" that you're seeing? Pearls can scratch if stored in a way with other jewelry that causes the pieces to rub and scratch against each other. Blemishes can also look like scratches.

If the baroques cracked, they may have tridacna nuclei. These are very hard and difficult to drill through. They tend to heat up and crack the surrounding nacre if not drilled very slowly and incrementally.
 
Can you share photos of the "scratches" that you're seeing? Pearls can scratch if stored in a way with other jewelry that causes the pieces to rub and scratch against each other. Blemishes can also look like scratches.

If the baroques cracked, they may have tridacna nuclei. These are very hard and difficult to drill through. They tend to heat up and crack the surrounding nacre if not drilled very slowly and incrementally.
I'm thinking mine are more blemishes than scratches. I will send some close up photos soon.
 
Thank you Jeremy and pearlescence for the detailed answers. I really appreciate it.

Would you happen to know if freshwater pearls are softer than tahitian pearls?
The overall hardness of pearl is the same...but the overall "roughness" of the people handling pearls will indeed be different!
 
Can you share photos of the "scratches" that you're seeing? Pearls can scratch if stored in a way with other jewelry that causes the pieces to rub and scratch against each other. Blemishes can also look like scratches.

If the baroques cracked, they may have tridacna nuclei. These are very hard and difficult to drill through. They tend to heat up and crack the surrounding nacre if not drilled very slowly and incrementally.
Jeremy, thank you for the information.

It is hard to take pictures of the scratches as they need to be held against lighting and do not appear very visible in pictures. I am aware that some pearls have growth marks on the surface or a ‘texture’, which protrude. The said scratches, having observed them with a jeweller’s loop, appear indented.

It might be as Cortez says, from the handling. I follow a number of sellers who sell pearls as part of clam opening, and it is not uncommon for them to drop the pearls.
 
That does look like a surface scratch, but not really like one that penetrates the nacre. The pearl may be coated.
 
How can you tell if it’s coated or not?

What does it look like if the nacre is penetrated?
 
Scratches create pearl dust but in a straight line. This looks like it could have been scraped and a coating peeled. It could be a natural blemish too, though.

Coatings can be difficult to detect without magnification. If it scrapes off or comes off in any type of solvent, that's a for-sure giveaway, but it also damages the pearl.
 
Do you have a picture or maybe more detail about what you mean dust in a straight line?

Oh ok, I trust this seller then as I’ve soaked one of their pearls in acetone and the pearl didn’t warp nor did the color change apart from slight dulling.
 
That does look like a surface scratch, but not really like one that penetrates the nacre. The pearl may be coated.
I agree. Looks like the coating has been damaged
 
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