A Quick Guide to Natural & Cultured Pearls (Including Types & Value)
If you’re in the market for one of these beauties, you’ll want to know the difference between natural vs cultured pearls – it could save you thousands of dollars!
Until pearl farming became a widespread practice, natural pearls were the only option available to consumers. Now, both varieties of pearls can be found in jewelry stores around the world.
The Story Behind Pearls
Once upon a time, in a small village in Japan, there was a noodle vendor. Most things about him including his name, accomplishments, and favorite type of noodle have been lost to the winds of history.
What is remembered, however, is that he had a son – a young boy who left school at the age of thirteen to sell vegetables.
This boy’s name was Kokichi Mikimoto.
Kokichi Mikimoto changed everything for the pearl industry. After watching pearl divers unload their precious treasures on the beach, he developed a lifelong fascination with the sea gems that would lead to something previously thought impossible: farming pearl oysters in controlled conditions. This made pearl jewelry accessible to women and men across the world.
Today, Kokichi’s passion and dedication can be seen in jewelry shops all over the globe, in films and television, on people of all walks of life. While there is still a place for wild pearls in the jewelry world, particularly among collectors in “the know”, most real pearls we see today are a result of these pearl farming techniques.
Let’s look at some of the differences, the similarities, and how these two types of pearls are viewed in the industry.
Natural vs Cultured Pearls
“Natural” is a word that gets misattributed to pearl jewelry quite often. Sometimes it’s used out of dishonesty, but more often it’s simply that the jewelry vendor doesn’t understand its role in the pearl industry.
You can think about natural and cultured pearls a little like natural and lab grown diamonds. “Natural” refers to pearls that formed in the wild, at the mercy of tempests and raging ecosystems without any intervention from human hands whatsoever.
“Cultured” refers to very real pearls that, like lab grown diamonds, were formed intentionally in controlled, regulated environments.
How Is a Natural Pearl Created?
Natural pearls are formed in oysters and mollusks when an external irritant, such as a bit of shell or organic matter, becomes caught in the oyster’s soft membrane. The oyster begins building up layers of nacre — that’s the shell-like substance that pearls are made of — around the irritant to isolate it.
Up until about the 1950s, the Arabian Gulf was the primary region where divers would go searching for pearls. Natural pearls were once some of the most sought-after gems and reserved only for the very elite until the turn of the twentieth century when Mikimoto began exploring the possibility of controlled pearl farming.
Now, most of the natural pearls we see in the jewelry market are vintage and estate pieces with major price tags. While collecting natural pearls is no longer viable on a commercial level, there is a rise in pearl diving as a tourist attraction in places like Bahrain.
How Is a Cultured Pearl Created?
Cultured pearls follow much the same formula as wild ones. An external irritant is introduced into the oyster or mollusk and the oyster is encouraged to begin growing nacre around the foreign matter — this is called the nucleus.
In freshwater cultured pearls, the nucleus is usually a piece of mollusk skin tissue. In saltwater pearls, a plastic or mother-of-pearl bead is more commonly used as the nucleus. Technicians monitor the temperature of the water and the environment to make sure the oyster has the ideal conditions to create the perfect pearl.
The process is long and painstaking and, as with all farming, a bit of a gamble. It takes two to five years before pearls are ready to be harvested, and some oysters will die before that time is up.
- Bead Selection – The oysters are raised in hatcheries at the beginning of their life cycle. They’re then placed inside baskets with thousands of tiny holes which allow them to capture food and grow.
- Inserting the bead – Once the oyster is ready to be “cultured,” it’s opened up and a small hole is inserted into one side where a plastic bead or shell bead is placed inside to serve as a nucleus.
- Closing the shell – After insertion, workers cover the opening with a special paste made from ground shells so that the oyster doesn’t reject the bead, and cover the hole with a piece of shell, which it will also use to make its pearl.
- Maturation – Once the pearl is ready for harvest (it takes about 5 years), workers pull out or crack open each bead to remove them from inside the oysters. Workers can find both small pearls that are less than 10 millimeters in size, or much larger ones measuring close to 3 inches in diameter!
Originally introduced to the fine jewelry market in 1921, cultured pearls have become the benchmark for pearl jewelry around the world. Even today, pearl farmers are constantly looking for new ways to improve the quality of their pearls and we’re seeing more and more exciting discoveries being made.
Natural Pearls Compared to Cultured Pearls
Natural pearls are very rare and incredibly valuable, carrying within them a tempestuous legacy of the sea. Cultured pearls, grown in idealistic controlled conditions and tracked under constant surveillance, do not feature this storied past.
However, it’s these very circumstances that make the best cultured pearls much more beautiful than any natural pearl. Along with the ability to mass market, pearl farmers have discovered the way to get the very best quality pearls possible.
It’s also worth noting that while natural pearls are entirely pure nacre — that is, solid pearl all the way through — most saltwater pearls such as akoyas and South Seas are grown around a bead nucleus made of shell or plastic. This means that the pearl only extends part way towards the center until it reaches a man-made core.
For this reason, many people view natural pearls as the more authentic option. Cultured freshwater pearls, on the other hand, more closely imitate natural pearl formation by using a piece of mollusk skin tissue as the nucleus, which eventually deteriorates and is replaced by pure nacre. This makes freshwater pearls a wonderful compromise between the two, representing the best of both worlds.
It is difficult to tell the difference between natural and cultured pearls with the naked eye, and even special gemological equipment can have a difficult time distinguishing between natural and freshwater pearls because of their very similar formation.
If you are considering buying a piece of natural pearl jewelry, make sure you get reputable documentation verifying the origin of the pearls.
Types of Pearls and Their Value
Pearls have been valued as jewelry for centuries because they’re beautiful and rare in nature.
There are three types of pearls:
- Natural pearls can range in value. The only natural pearls worth much money come from saltwater oysters like those found off the coast of France, and may fetch up to $5,000 per pearl on occasion. However, cultured pearls have a lower price because they are not as rare or difficult to make.
- Cultured pearls can be more affordable than natural ones because their prices don’t depend on rarity and supply and demand. These types of pearls are made by humans using plastic beads or shells drilled with holes. This is how most inexpensive pearls on the market today are created. A cultured pearl’s value is based on factors such as the quality of crafting and lustre (“luster”).
- Simulated pearls – are created by coating plastic beads with layers of nacre then heat setting them.
What Are the Types of Cultured Pearls?
Broadly speaking, cultured pearls fall into the following categories:
1. Akoya pearl – Come from a variety of saltwater oysters, such as the Pinctada fucata or the Pinctada maxima.
2. South Sea Cultured Pearls – These cultured pearls come from the Pinctada Margaritifera oyster, which is found in Tahiti, Samoa, and Australia
3. Freshwater Pearls – Freshwater pearls come from mussels and are usually small. They’re not as big as deep sea oysters so they may only be a few millimeters or less, but their luster can make them more valuable than some larger natural pearls.
4. Tahitian Cultured Pearls – These pearls come from a type of oyster found in the French Polynesian islands near Australia. They can be quite large and range in color from white to yellow-white, black, pinkish-white or silver.
5. Seed pearls – Seed pearls are created using natural seed beads which can be cut and dyed to create an assortment of colors, including black, blue, green, and yellow. They can also be made from plastics such as Bakelite and coral
6. Mabe pearl – Common in Mexico’s Gulf coast region, these flat discs of mother-of-pearl take on a rich iridescent color when polished.
Where to Find the Best Quality Pearls in the World
Natural pearls have been found all over the world, but some of the best pearls come from:
- French Polynesia
- New Zealand
Natural pearls from the French Polynesian islands are considered the best. These pearls have a bright iridescent luster and range in color from white, silver, pinkish-white or black.
Pearls from Japan are valued for an especially cool and creamy white luster. They are the world’s biggest cultured pearl producers and pearl oysters are harvested year-round in Japan.
Australia and Tahiti produce natural pearls with equal value. These pearls are usually large, with a stellar white luster and clear coloring.
Pearl oysters used to be harvested in the South Pacific until the 1930s when pearl production in Australia took off.
Today, Tahiti still produces the greatest variety of pearls because it’s home to multiple types of oysters and has waters that produce exceptional quality pearls. The Pinctada maxima is native to French Polynesia and Australia and other species include black or silver-lipped pearl oysters (Pinctada margaritifera), which produce silver or black pearls; gray/white-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada albina) which produce pearls with silver lines running through them.
New Zealand is also known for its pearls, and pearl farms have spread to a few other countries including Panama.
How Are Cultured Pearls Priced?
With a wide range of sizes, quality, and cultivation techniques, cultured pearls can range from a few hundred dollars for a freshwater pearl necklace to hundreds of thousands for a high quality strand of South Sea pearls.
Prices depend on a variety of grading factors including size, shape, color, luster, surface texture, and nacre thickness as well as the quality of the fabrication of the jewelry.
Is Oyster Farming Cruel?
Although there is some debate on the ethics involved in pearl harvesting, one thing you will be happy to hear is that oysters do not have a central nervous system. This essentially means that while they can perceive negative stimuli from their environment in order to protect themselves, oysters don’t recognize the sensation of pain in the way people and other animals do.
It is in the farmer’s best interest to keep the oysters as healthy as they can for as long as they can, but ultimately the pearl jewelry is based on a mix of profit and artistic creation more than the long-term well-being of its animals. It is up to each individual consumer to decide what feels comfortable within their own ethics and ideals.
Mr. Mikimoto and Mother Nature
The pearl jewelry industry has gone through some very exciting changes in the past hundred and fifty years, and we’re still evolving and discovering new things all the time.
It was not so long ago that real pearls were restricted to the most honored and respected classes (and even then, there had to be some luck involved too). Lower-class women were resigned to wearing glass and plastic imitations.
Now, thanks to the son of a Japanese noodle vendor, fine pearl jewelry is available to women and men of all walks of life, of all budgets and personal styles, for special celebrations, or for everyday wear.
Whether you’re considering a precious natural pearl or a perfectly matched cultured pearl strand, each has its own unique beauty and legacy to offer. Which will you choose?
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