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Akoya Pearls Grade & Quality Pointers

Photo of an Akoya pearl necklace
Akoya pearls: classic for necklaces

Akoya pearls come from the saltwater Akoya oysters, which are seen in many parts of the world, but are found primarily in Japan. These are the most popular pearls in the world, the third most valuable (only South Sea pearls and Tahitian pearls are more valuable) and the type most people have in mind when they think of pearls. Akoya pearls were also the first to be cultured, the process in which a bead is inserted inside an oyster and the pearl is grown on this surface. Today, virtually all Akoya pearls are cultured.

Wearing Akoya Pearls

Akoya pearls are perfect for the classic pearl necklaces or pearl stud earrings. There's no reason, though, to limit yourself to those. You can add color to a strand of Akoya pearls by using a necklace enhancer, or you can have them strung with colored gem stones. Faceted stones make a lively contrast with pearls' softer colors. You can pick up the color in the pearls' overtones.


Akoya pearls are usually white, but some are closer to cream. Pearls often feature various color overtones and Akoya pearls' are most commonly rose, green, blue, or yellow. Try on several to see what color best suits your skin tone and the colors you wear most often.

Quality and Grades

Pearls are graded according to luster, nacre thickness, roundness, and the presence or absence of surface flaws.

  • Luster describes the shininess of the pearl's surface. A pearl with good luster reflects things in its surface while one with poor luster has a dull or even chalky surface.
  • Nacre thickness. Nacre is coating that the oyster creates on the surface of the pearl. The thicker the nacre, the longer the pearl has been in the oyster and the longer it will remain lustrous.
  • Roundness. The rounder the pearl, the more valuable. The only exception is for baroque (irregular) pearls that form in unusually striking or attractive shapes.
  • Surface. The pearl's surface should be regular, without blisters, bumps, or pits.
  • Size. The larger the pearl, the more valuable.

There is no single international standard for pearl grading the way there is for diamonds, so unfortunately a strand that one dealer grades as AAA may be graded by another as just A. (Of course, there's latitude even within diamond grading but the discrepancies are considerably smaller.)

Akoya pearls are graded on the AAA to A scale.

  • An AAA pearl is the highest grade, with a regular surface and high luster. The surface should be virtually flawless.
  • An AA pearl is the next grade. The surface should be between 75 and 95 percent free of blemishes and the luster should be clear.
  • The lowest grade is an A. This pearl's surface is more than one-fourth flawed and the luster is lower than the other two grades.

Hanadama pearls are the finest of Akoya pearls. The term literally means "round flower," a poetic term that conveys their beauty. Only Japanese labs can award the hanadama designation, so not all pearls are graded for this, but the ones that have been certified hanadama have virtually flawless surfaces, thick nacre, and exceptional luster.

Taking Care of Pearls

Pearls are delicate, compared to other gems, due to their softness and the fact that the nacre is deposited in layers. Don't let them get dry and never store them in a bank safety deposit box or near heat. This can dull the surface of the finest pearls and can even make the nacre flake off.

Don't let Akoya pearls come in contact with cosmetics, perfume, or hair sprays. Put them on last when you're dressing and if possible, 30 minutes after using any beauty products. To keep them clean, wipe them with a damp cloth. Don't rinse them unless absolutely necessary, as the water can weaken the silk on which they are strung.

Have your Akoya pearls restrung about every 18 months, or a year if you wear them frequently. To keep pearls from rubbing against one another, or to keep them all from falling off if the strand breaks, there should be knots between every pearl on a necklace.

Akoya Pearls Grade & Quality Pointers