Freshwater pearls originate from freshwater mussels, which live in ponds, lakes and rivers. Traditionally, they are produced in Japan and the United States on small scales but currently China dominates the freshwater pearl market. Production has greatly improved from the 1990s through to 2000s in China. According to the Times Online, China produces approximately 90% of pearl necklaces globally and with 1,600 tonnes of pearls produced annually, accounting for more than 95 per cent of world pearl production.
Prior to the 90s, China was accused for undermining the pearl market with poor quality pearls. Over the last two decades, China starts to commercial its pearl production processes and investing in R&D to eliminate mussel related diseases. China is now making much higher quality pearls at low costs, stirring its counterpart pearl markets. The high-end pearls from China are freshwater farmed, a process that has become increasingly automated, allowing producers to sell their pearls at lower prices.
While the Chinese freshwater pearls are not the same as the saltwater forms, they do make the gems more affordable to the average consumers. The price gap reveals remaining differences in hue and lustre between saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls. It is very easy for a jeweller to spot these differences when comparing freshwater pearls against saltwater pearls.
A white south sea pearl necklace strandis gleaming with silvery white pearls whereas an equivalent size freshwater pearl necklace with similar blemish free pearls will have a slightly chalky hue. This is largely due to the species of mussels used. Freshwater mussels are usually pinky or orangey on the insides, resulting in less than whiter pearls. However, freshwater pearl necklace with great shape and surface costs much less than south sea pearl necklace or Tahitian pearl necklace, sometimes at about 10 times less or more.
Affordability aside, freshwater pearls have solid nacre, making them quite durable, resisting chipping, wear, and degeneration under normal wearing conditions.