In the world of jewelry, South Sea pearls are some of the most treasured pearls—and gems in general. Tales of their superior quality and size date back to antiquity and have only grown in recent years.

Newcomers to the world of pearls often don’t know what sets South Sea pearls apart from other types of pearls and why they are so special.

Within each South Sea pearl, a long tradition of excellence is grown. Here is everything you need to know about these gems, which will help you appreciate their value even more.

Table of Contents

What Are South Sea Pearls?

South Sea pearls are pearls that come from the South Pacific, an important site of pearl production going back to antiquity.

South Sea pearls have an important historical and cultural legacy in the area. Indigenous people in Australia and other Pacific islands used the pearls for decoration, trading, and religion, as some people believed the pearls had special powers.

Today, most South Sea pearls are cultivated because the oysters that produce South Sea pearls were harvested to near extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries by Europeans who coveted these special lustrous gems.

Where Are South Sea Pearls From?

South Sea pearls can only come from the South Pacific. Many are found around Australia, and Broome, Australia, is the planet’s largest center of production for South Sea pearls. These pearls also grow around other islands in the South Pacific, such as Tahiti.

Some South Sea pearls are found as far north as Southeast Asia and in southern regions of the Indian Ocean. Golden South Sea pearls are most often found in Indonesian and Thai waters, but other Southeast Asian countries, such as Myanmar, cultivate these as well.

South Sea pearls cannot grow in any other waters because South Sea pearl oysters are very sensitive.

Any changes in their living conditions mean they cannot form pearls properly, and they can only survive in their natural habitats.

How Are South Sea Pearls Formed?

South Sea pearls are usually cultured pearls, meaning that they form on an oyster farm thanks to human intervention, not in the wild.

Although there are a few wild South Sea oysters left and some countries, such as Australia, harvest wild pearls, they are sadly rare in nature due to historic overharvesting.

Culturing a pearl refers to the process of manually inserting an irritant into an oyster shell that will start pearl production.

Pinctada margaritifera
Pinctada margaritifera

Most South Sea pearls are cultured from South Sea pearl oysters, large, white-lipped oysters only found in this part of the world.

Once the cultivator inserts the irritant, usually a shell bead, the oyster starts producing nacre, the soft, shiny substance that forms the pearl.

South Sea pearls usually take two to four years to form naturally, much longer than most other pearls.

What Do South Sea Pearls Look Like?

South Sea pearls have a very distinctive appearance that makes them prized in the gem industry.

One of their distinctive features is their size. South Sea pearls are much larger than other types of pearls, such as Akoya pearls, which is why they take much longer to develop. The difference in size is due to the difference in the size of the pearl oyster.

South Sea pearls tend to be oblong or irregular in shape, with only about 20-30% of each harvest being perfectly round. Usually, only the round pearls are used in necklaces and jewelry.

Their color and sheen are also very distinctive. South Sea pearls come in many shades, including pink and cream, but the most common and most coveted are white and gold. They have a soft luster that is more matte than shiny due to the warm waters where they grow.

Why Are South Sea Pearls So Coveted?

South Sea pearls are so valuable due to the rare conditions in which they grow. They can only be found in the South Pacific (or Indian Ocean).

Harvesting them is a painstaking, multi-year process that requires manual cultivation and selection. Plus, the rarity of perfectly spherical South Sea pearls makes jewelry with them even more expensive and coveted.

Pearl harvesters need to manually separate the pearls that are appropriate for jewelry from others that are irregular in shape or covered in blemishes.

Then, they need to carefully match pearls of the same shade and size that will form necklaces and bracelets. This process cannot be automated and requires painstaking work, which is why these pearls are so expensive.

People also value these pearls due to their incredible size, ranging from 8 to 20 mm, and unique appearance, with a luster that no other pearl can match due to the unique growing conditions demanded by South Sea pearls.

South Sea pearls are out of reach for many, but all of us can admire their beauty.

About the Author


I am a pearl and oyster enthusiast who loves to share her knowledge and experiences about fashion with the world. I am neither a certified gemologist nor a reseller of pearls.

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