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What Causes Pearls to be Different Colors?

Niki Acker
Updated May 21, 2024
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Pearls come in a variety of colors and shades, from white, cream, and pink to black with blue, green, or purple overtones. Many factors are responsible for the color of a pearl, but it is for the most part up to chance. A black-lipped oyster does not usually create a white pearl, and it is very rare for other oysters to produce a black pearl. Other than that, however, there is little certainty about what color pearls you can expect to harvest from certain oysters or certain areas.

The material that makes up a pearl, known as nacre, is secreted by the oyster as a response to an irritant inside the shell. Natural pearls are extremely rare and expensive and consist of concentric layers of nacre around a possibly microscopic original irritant, such as a piece of sand. Cultured pearls are made by introducing a shell nucleus, typically perfectly round, and allowing a few layers of nacre to form around it.

The factors that contribute to the color of a pearl include the type of oyster, the thickness and number of layers of nacre, and possibly trace elements in the oyster's aquatic environment. A pearl manufacturer may also influence the color of the pearl to some degree by introducing tissue from another oyster into the host oyster along with the shell nucleus. The color of a pearl is determined by a combination of factors: the base color, overtone, and iridescence. Cultured pearls are also sometimes dyed.

The thicker the nacre, the richer the color of the pearl will be, and the more iridescence it will show. Thin nacre tends to make for a milky-looking pearl with few overtones. The iridescence of a pearl is due to the overlapping layers of translucent nacre.

The color of a pearl may or may not affect its cost, though uniformity of color makes pearls more valuable. Black pearls used to be quite rare and very valuable, but they are now cultured and consequently much more widely available. Natural white pearls are rarer and more valuable than cultured black pearls. The best color is largely a matter of personal choice, or whatever most flatters one's skin tone, though regional preferences exist and may affect price.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a BeautyAnswered editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon163769 — On Mar 29, 2011

I found a black pearl from the flesh of a black lipped oyster of the QLD coast of Australia it is 9 to 10 mm long by 6 t0 7 mm wide it has a black and goldish line on it. It's white, but when in direct sun light it is silvery or a dark grey color. Could any one give me some knowledge on this please?

By anon86021 — On May 23, 2010

i think that if they are farmed that they inject dye into the clam. How they do this i don't know. But if it is natural the colors wouldn't be pink or bright green -- they would be brown or gray and the less common black. in the wild this happening is extremely rare.

By anon80244 — On Apr 26, 2010

I noticed that my pearls changes their color from pale purple then after quite some time of not being used the other half turns white? is there anything I can do to either turn it to all white?

By anon31704 — On May 10, 2009

How can I know if my fresh water cultured pearls are dyed or natural?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a BeautyAnswered editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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