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Freshwater Pearl Grading – Your Insider’s Guide to Grading Freshwater Pearls


The world of Freshwater pearls is the fastest evolving of all cultured pearl types. Be it a Freshwater pearl necklace, pearl bracelet or pearl earrings, the options for freshwater pearls is endless. New shapes, colors, sizes and textures are being introduced at breakneck speeds, with new varieties making debuts yearly at the international pearl shows.


This guide to A-AAAA Freshwater Pearl Grading is going to deal primarily with the classic near round to round white Freshwater pearl, which is the most popular of all Freshwater pearl varieties available today. Read the whole article, or use the links featured in the Table of Contents to skip ahead directly to parts that concern you.

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Why Choose Freshwater Pearls?

Freshwater pearls are unique in that they are the ONLY  tissue-nucleated cultured pearl in the world. Why is this an awesome, wonderful thing? Here's just a few reasons off the top of our heads:

It creates a pearl composed of solid crystalline nacre; the closest you can get to the way a natural pearl is formed in the wild. Because of this we also the see the widest types of pearl shapes in Freshwater pearls.


It creates an incredibly durable pearl that will withstand the tests of time, wear and tiny hands.


Rather than a glossy shine, a Freshwater pearl possesses an elegant glow that slowly reveals itself under the steady gaze of the wearer ... Silky, touchable and radiant, fine AAA and AAAA Quality Freshwater pearls can look just as beautiful as any saltwater pearl.


Their natural shades of Pink/Peach, Lavender and White are untreated by any chemical or dye process, and will never discolor or fade if cared for properly. New, intense colors and metallic overtones are becoming available, making cultured Freshwater pearls one of the most colorful pearl types on the market today!

Creation of a Freshwater Pearl

Cultured Freshwater pearls are grown in the freshwater pearl mussel, Hyriopsis cumingii (along with other hybridized mussels indigenous to the area) in freshwater lakes and man-made aquaculture ponds that also contain fish, shellfish and rice to support the small pearl farmer collectives in China.


The Freshwater pearl mussels are nucleated with 1.0mm squares of donor mantle tissue within the body of the mussel.

Natural freshwater pearls occur in mussels for the same reason that saltwater pearls occur in oysters. Foreign material, usually a sharp object or parasite, enters a mussel and cannot be expelled. To reduce irritation, the mollusk coats the intruder with the same secretion it uses for shell-building, nacre. To culture freshwater mussels, workers slightly open their shells, cut small slits into the mantle tissue inside both shells, and insert small pieces of live mantle tissue from another mussel into those slits.


In freshwater mussels that insertion alone is sufficient to start nacre production. Most cultured freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, just like their natural freshwater and natural saltwater counterparts.

The tissue squares are seeded throughout the soft body of the mussel, up to 25 times on each side of the shell, creating a potential harvest of up to 50 pearls per mussel.


The sheer volume of cultured Freshwater pearls dwarfs that of any other cultured pearl type many times over each year, contributing to their lower price points.

Freshwater Pearl Grading: The Pearl Shape is KEY

Solid-nacre pearls have no mother of pearl bead nucleus to give the mussel a perfectly round ‘template’ to form nacre over, so the majority of Freshwater pearl harvests contain semi-baroque and baroque pearls (see the image above for an example of the variety of shapes, sizes and colors a single mussel can produce!).


True round-shaped Freshwater pearls, while a major goal of pearl farmers everywhere, remain a tiny percentage of each yearly harvest – less than 3% - and are a MAJOR factor in determining a pearl’s overall quality grade.

A-AAAA Quality Freshwater Pearl Grading Breakdowns

♠ Represents the top .03% of yearly pearl harvests


♠ Very near true round shape; Less than 5% deviance from spherical shape.


♠ Excellent luster; very sharp with high rate of reflection.


♠ Reflected light shows mostly crisp, distinctive edges.


♠ Excellent luster; very sharp with high rate of reflection.


♠ Blemish rate between 0-5% on each pearl surface.


♠ Earrings will set clean.


♠ Strands will be clean to the eye upon inspection.


♠ Near-perfect matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

♠ Represents the top 1% of yearly pearl harvests


♠ Mostly round to the eye upon close inspection.


♠ Excellent luster; sharp with high rate of reflection.


♠ Reflected light is fairly crisp, some satining near edges.


♠ Blemish rate less than 5% on each pearl surface.


♠ Earrings are round shape, and will set clean.


♠ Strands will be clean to the eye upon inspection.


♠ Near-perfect matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

♠ Represents the top 5% of yearly pearl harvests


♠ Off-round to ovalish in shape.


♠ Very high luster; fair rate of reflection.


♠ Reflected light is bright with some blurred edges.


♠ Blemish rate less than 5-10% on each pearl surface.


♠ Earrings are button-shape, and will face up clean.


♠ Strands will be mostly clean to the eye upon inspection.


♠ Very good matching; little to no variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.


♠ Not Offered at Pure Pearls.

♠ Represents the top 10% of yearly pearl harvests.

♠ Visibly off-round.

♠ Good to fair luster; medium rate of reflection.

♠ Reflected light sources display blurred edges.

♠ Blemish rate less than 20% on each pearl surface.

♠ Earrings are button-shape, may feature an inclusion.

♠ Strands will display spotting and blemishing.

♠ Good to fair matching; may find variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

♠ Not Offered at Pure Pearls.

♠ Commercial grade pearls.

♠Visibly off-round.

♠Fair to poor luster; low rate of reflection.

♠Reflected light sources are blurry.

♠Blemish rate less than 50% on each pearl surface.

♠Strands will display spotting and blemishing.

♠Fair matching; will find variation in color, tone, luster, shape or size.

♠Not Offered at Pure Pearls.

AAA vs AAAA Quality Pearls - Which Should You Choose?

The primary difference between the AAA Quality and AAAA Quality Freshwater pearl necklace is one of SHAPE.


It’s the most visible and easily quantified value attribute between the two qualities; the next two differences will be that of Luster and Surface Quality.


To learn more about all the pearl value factors, visit: The Ultimate Guide to Pearl Grading


Our AAAA Quality Freshwater pearlsare going to have sharper, brighter luster and less blemishing, between 1-5% of the pearls' surfaces on the strand overall will feature some type of inclusion (usually chalky spots or thin ridges where organic material has accumulated).


Most importantly, the shape will be round to the eye from a distance of 6-inches approximately, and up close inspection (less than 6-inches) will reveal nearly perfectly round pearl shapes.

Typically our AAAA / Elite Collection Freshwater pearls are used for earrings, rings and pendants because their quality is top-tier.


We bid a little more to have them set aside, fully-drilled and matched into 18-inch hanks for us, so we can create Freshwater pearl jewelry that is above and beyond what you’ll normally see in brick and mortar jewelry stores.


Their blemish rate is less than 1-3% overall, luster will be very bright, with crisp, defined edges of reflected light in the pearls’ surfaces, and you should be able to make out some detailed facial features reflected in the surfaces as well. They are the best of the best that Freshwater pearls have to offer, at half the price of an equivalent Akoya pearl.


Our AAA Quality Freshwater pearls  will have luster that is nearly comparable just not quite as crisp and the blemish rate will be between 5-10%; the shape will be mostly eye-round from a distance of 1-3 feet.


Upon close inspection (less than 6 inches), you’ll begin to notice a slight off-round shape to some of the pearls, however this is not the case for all the pearls in the strand.

Common Freshwater Pearl Blemishes

Chalky spots  are easily the most common of Freshwater pearl inclusions. They’re exactly what they sound like: dull, chalky-looking areas on the pearl surface.

Pits or pitting blemishes  are similar to pin-prick inclusions found on saltwater cultured pearls. They are circular indentations on the pearl’s surface.


The majority of them are small-sized and won’t be too noticeable, but are generally larger than a single pin-prick. Thankfully, these inclusions are colorless and only noticeable upon up-close inspection of 6-inches or less.

Ridges  are an inclusion that is unique to Freshwater pearls, quite likely due to their solid-nacre composition.


Ridges are totally covered in nacre, so they’ll be whatever color the pearl is, i.e. white for white, pink for pink and so on.

Score marks or scoring  begins with a small pin prick or pit, and then appears to be drawn off lightly over the surface of the pearl … they can look like small comets or shooting stars for those of us with a romantic viewpoint.

For dyed pearls  such as our Black Freshwater pearls, up close inspection of the surfaces will often reveal a slight graininess or tiny dark speckles where the dye has concentrated. This is a natural part of the color-treatment process, and does not affect the durability or overall loveliness of the pearls.

BAOYUE Pearl Official Stance on Freshwater Pearl Blemishing

You can think of pearl inclusions as a built-in certificate of authenticity – they’re a natural left over of the creation process. You’ll never see inclusions like this, or the subtle variations that make a pearl a true one of a kind with man-made synthetic beads.


The majority of Freshwater pearls’ inclusions will match the pearl’s natural color and/or are colorless, blending with the pearl surface making them nearly invisible to the casual observer.


Keep in mind that A-AAAA Freshwater pearl grading benchmarks count for the individual pearl, as well as the entire strand overall, so the 10% allowable blemish rate on even our lowest quality Freshwater pearl strand will still keep you squarely in a nice, high quality strand of pearls.


When choosing fine Freshwater pearls, the biggest, most important considerations to keep in mind are consistency of shape, and a fine, bright luster.

Ready to Learn More about Pearl Grading?

View the rest of our Pearl Grading Guides: