Saltwater Akoya Pearls Overview

Akoya Pearls are one of three common types of saltwater pearls. The other two types are Tahitian and South Sea pearls. Classic pearl necklaces are often made of Akoya pearls.

The Look of Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are the traditional white pearls that we associate with movie stars and royalty. They have a very highly reflective luster even when the nacre is relatively thin. They are fairly small in size and usually round in shape. The most common color is white, with overtones of ivory, rose' and silver being available. Blue and gold Akoya pearls are not as common.

Pearl Formation

Like other saltwater cultured pearls, they are produced by inserting a small spherical piece of shell, often from American freshwater molluscs, into the oyster. This nucleus is to help ensure a reasonably round pearl. It is usually inserted surgically into the gonad of the animal, along with a tiny piece of mantle tissue. The mantle cells will form a "pearl sac" around the piece of shell and then proceed to coat the shell bead with layer upon layer of shiny nacre. The longer the pearl is left in the oyster the thicker the nacre becomes, and the larger and more valuable the pearl becomes. The nucleus is not inserted into the oyster until it is two to three years old. The pearl will stay in the oyster for between 8 months and two years.

Comparison with Other Pearls

Saltwater pearls are on average more lustrous than Freshwater pearls, with the exception of some of the very highest quality Freshwater pearls, which can display a similar luster. Akoya pearls are known for the classic look, and have a mirror like reflective luster whereas Freshwater pearls have a softer luster that is more like a glow from inside the pearl. Akoya pearls don't grow as big as the largest Freshwater pearls because they are grown in a smaller mollusc. They may be only a fraction of the size of South Sea pearls or Tahitian pearls.

Pearl Quality

Akoya pearls are classified as being A, AA, AA+ or AAA quality, with AAA quality being the highest. Quality is judged on the thickness of the nacre; how smooth, clean and unblemished the surface is; and the brilliance and reflective properties of the nacre. Pearls exceeding the AAA standards may be certified as Hanadama pearls.


Akoya pearls have traditionally been produced in the waters around Japan, but in the last few years, China has successfully begun culturing these saltwater pearls as well. Japanese Akoya pearls were the very first pearls to be cultured in a larger scale production. This was developed by the founder of cultivation Kokichi Mikimoto in the early 1900’s. The waters along the coast of Japan are favorable for it. The oyster that is used to produce Akoya pearls is called the Pinctada Fucata. The oysters must be carefully cared for to protect them from harm. Pollution and disease have hampered the growth of the Japanese Akoya pearls, and bad storms have affected the production of Akoya pearls both in China and Japan. But Akoya pearls are still available from both these areas.