Most people know that pearls are found in oysters, but where in the world are the oysters found? Here is what you should know if you are interested in learning where your pearls come from.

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Pearl Hunting Started in the Indian Ocean

The first pearls used in jewelry were natural pearls. These pearls came from oysters found in the shallow waters near islands throughout the Indian Ocean.

Records of pearl hunting in Sri Lanka are at least 2000 years old. Pearl divers continued to obtain pearls in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Mannar, and the Persian Gulf for many centuries. Harvesting of natural pearls mostly ceased after the emergence of cultured pearls in the early 20th century.

Some natural pearls are still obtained in the waters near Bahrain. Bahrain is an island country in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, almost all pearls sold today are cultured pearls.

Japan Is the Birthplace of Modern Pearl Production

As natural pearls are incredibly rare, people came up with a way to harvest pearls. Modern pearl production mostly comes from beaded cultured pearls and freshwater pearls. Both types of pearls are considered real pearls, as they are produced inside a living organism.

The first cultured pearls harvested for commercial purposes were the Akoya pearls made in Japan. Mikimoto Kokichi started a commercial cultured pearl business after obtaining a patent for the process in 1916.

A British biologist named William Saville-Kent developed the process for culturing pearl-producing oysters. He shared the process with two Japanese individuals, including the future father-in-law of Mikimoto’s daughter.

Along with Akoya pearls, some of the first cultured freshwater pearls came from Japan. Mikimoto Kokichi started the first commercial cultivation of freshwater pearls in Lake Biwa, Japan. Pearl farming started in the region in 1914 and peaked in the 1970s.

By the 1970s, almost all freshwater pearls in the world came from Lake Biwa. However, the pearl farming industry is virtually extinct in the region. Most freshwater pearls now come from China.

Biggest Pearl Farming Regions in the World

Pearls are mostly found in freshwater and seawater bodies in Asia. The following countries have pearl farmers that produce pearls for the jewelry trade:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Australia
  • Myanmar
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • The Philippines
  • Indonesia
Locations of Pearl Farming

China and Japan are two of the largest producers of pearls. Both countries have operations that harvest freshwater and seawater pearls.

China Produces the Most Akoya Pearls and Freshwater Pearls

China is the current leader when it comes to producing cultured pearls. Akoya pearls originally came from Japan. However, China gradually took over as the leading exporter of pearls.

Akoya pearls are made using the Pinctada Fucata oyster, which is the smallest of the pearl-producing oysters. The oysters are found throughout the bays around the coast of Japan.

While most Akoya pearls are now farmed in China, they still go through Japan. The pearls are sent to Japan for processing and sorting before being shipped around the world.

Freshwater pearls were also originally made in Japan before Chinese businesses became the leading producers. Japanese businesses have mostly stopped commercial pearl harvesting operations, especially when it comes to smaller Akoya pearls and most freshwater pearls.

Instead of Biwa pearls, most freshwater pearls are now Chinese pearls. These pearls are grown in the mantle of a mollusk. Each mantle can hold over two dozen grafts that each produce a new pearl. Pearl farmers can produce freshwater pearls much more efficiently, resulting in lower costs.

Along with China and Japan, Akoya pearls are also produced in Australia, Vietnam, and South Korea.

French Polynesia Produces the Most Tahitian Pearls

French Polynesia is where most Tahitian pearls come from. Tahitian pearls are known for their dark colors. Most of these pearls are dark charcoal or black.

Tahitian pearls are made using the black-lip oyster, which is native to areas around the islands of Tahiti. The islands of Tahiti are part of French Polynesia. Tahitian pearls account for millions of dollars in exports for the country each year.

Tahiti is the main location where Tahitian pearls come from. It acts as the hub for neighboring islands that farm Tahitian pearls. However, Tahitian pearls are also cultivated in the Cook Islands and Micronesia. Some pearl farmers in Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand also farm pearls that are marketed as Tahitian black pearls.

A small group of pearl farmers off the coast of California also produce dark pearls that closely resemble the Tahitian pearl. The Sea of Cortez pearl is rare, as only 4,000 pearls are produced each year.

Australia Is the Biggest Producer of South Sea Pearls

Australia is the main exporter of South Sea pearls, which are also known as Australian pearls. These pearls are often larger compared to the previous pearls and also cost much more.

Australian pearls are mostly cultured in the waters off the northwest coast of Australia. These pearls come from the Pinctada Maxima oyster, which is the largest of the pearl-producing oysters. It is native to the waters off the coast of Kimberley, and is the northernmost region of Western Australia.

The Philippines and Indonesia also produce South Sea pearls. Both countries cultivate the gold variety of the South Sea pearl while the silver variety is still mostly found in Australia.

Along with cultured pearls, many pearls are made using imitation pearls. Entrepreneurs have made simulation pearls that resemble the real thing as early as the 13th century. However, a German businessman helped launch the imitation pearl business in Spain in the late 1800s.

Eduard Heusch founded a company on the Spanish island of Mallorca to start making glass pearls. The island was already famous for its glassblowing. Heusch used the glass-blowing tradition of the island to start his glass pearl factories.


Most pearls come from China, but Japan is the birthplace of pearl farming. The first cultured Akoya pearls and freshwater pearls were cultivated in Japan before China surpassed the country in pearl farming.

Australian pearls still mostly come from Australia while Tahitian pearls come from French Polynesia and the surrounding region.

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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