Natural Pearls vs. Cultured Pearls: The Difference Explained
Pearls are truly one-of-a-kind, especially when you consider that they are the only gemstones created inside of a living organism (like oysters, clams, mussels, conchs, and gastropods). These delicate gems of the sea have enchanted jewelry collectors for centuries with their beauty, elegance, and gorgeous luster. From pearl strands to pearl bracelets, earrings, and rings, pearls are a timeless staple in any jewelry collection or wardrobe.
If you’re shopping for pearl jewelry, you might be wondering what the difference is between natural and cultured pearls. And you want to buy the real deal—no fakes allowed! Learning the difference between natural and cultured pearls will help you become a more informed buyer. Not to mention, the thing about cultured pearls? They’re fascinating! A triumph of science, really.
Now let’s take a deep dive into how natural and cultured pearls are formed, and dispel some myths along the way.
Natural vs. Cultured Pearls
When it comes to authentic pearls, there are two primary types: natural pearls and cultured pearls.
Natural pearls grow naturally in the wild inside bivalve mollusks – hard-shelled sea creatures like oysters, clams, mussels, conchs, and gastropods.
Cultured pearls grow inside mollusks, just like natural pearls, but the process takes place in a highly controlled freshwater or saltwater environment, cultivated under the supervision of pearl farmers.
Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?
Yes! Cultured pearls are real pearls even though their existence requires human intervention. The confusion stems from the term “natural pearls” which leads buyers to assume cultured pearls are imitation or fake. Think of it like this: farmers grow fruit for us to eat—it’s still real fruit that you might find growing randomly on a tree in the forest, the only difference is the conditions under which they are produced. The same is true when comparing cultured versus natural pearls.
How are Natural Pearls Formed?
Natural pearls form when an irritant—say, a piece of shell or a parasite—lodges itself inside a saltwater or freshwater mollusk’s soft muscle tissue (think of it like getting a splinter in your finger). As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes layer upon layer of a substance called nacre around the intrusive foreign object (nacre is what gives pearls their lustrous appearance). Eventually, after anywhere from six months to six years, the layers of nacre form a pearl that can be pried out and used in jewelry.
Natural pearls found in their wild habitat are extremely rare and expensive. In fact, only one in approximately 10,000 oysters in the wild will ever produce a pearl of gem-grade quality. For this reason, you’ll likely only find natural pearls at auction (one famous example here) and fine antique and estate jewelers.
Natural pearls have been found all over the world—but the highest quality pearls come from French Polynesia, Japan, Australia, Tahiti, and New Zealand.
How Are Cultured Pearls Formed?
As revealed earlier, cultured pearls are grown on pearl farms, most of which are concentrated around the temperate coasts of Southeast Asia or Australia. Picture ropes of tethered buoys floating on the surface of the water with an entire ecosystem of pearl-producing mollusks flourishing underneath. While every pearl farm operates differently, here is a basic overview of the pearl farming process:
- Spawning - The pearl cultivation process begins when farmers submerge male and female mollusks (oysters, usually) into a water tank or body of water with temperatures conducive for spawning (the releasing of eggs and sperm). It takes 24 hours for sperm to fertilize the eggs and create larvae, called spats. Spats will float in the water for a few weeks and eventually become baby oysters within a few months.
- Rearing the oysters in a hatchery or nursery - Farmers retrieve the baby oysters and place them in underwater cages where they are monitored closely. When the oysters have grown for six months, they are transferred inside protective wire baskets that hang suspended below the water. They will spend the next 2-3 years there capturing food and growing.
- Grafting – After 2-3 years, it’s time to retrieve the pearls. The racks are collected from the sea and brought into a harvesting shed. There, a skilled technician called a grafter gently inserts a small bead called the nucleus into the oyster to stimulate the production of nacre – replicating what happens in nature (don’t worry – oysters don’t have a central nervous system, so they shouldn’t feel any pain!). 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.
- Culturing – After implantation, the oysters are returned to their nurturing environment underwater in cages or baskets. It generally takes 2 years for an oyster to form a high-quality pearl.
- Harvesting – Once the pearls are ready for harvest, the oysters are removed from the water and taken to a harvesting facility. There, a harvester will carefully open the oysters and remove the pearls.
- Cleaning –Following harvesting, these cultured pearls undergo a cleaning process to remove dirt and debris. If necessary, the pearls may undergo bleaching and polishing procedures to enhance their appearance. They are then sorted and sized, and eventually graded and categorized according to quality.
Types of Cultured Pearls
Cultured pearls make up 99% of the pearls sold today. Here are some of the most common types you may encounter while shopping for pearl jewelry.
Akoya cultured pearls are saltwater pearls grown on pearl farms in Japan, China, and Vietnam. The Akoya pearl is as classic as you can get and is often used for necklaces and other pearl jewelry. They come in shades of white to grey with pink, green, and silver overtones and are coveted for their perfect round shape and creamy luster.
South Sea cultured pearls are large saltwater pearls produced in the waters of Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They are the most expensive variety of cultured pearls, due in part to how long it takes to birth a pearl (five years!). South Sea pearls range in color from silvery white to gold.
Tahitian cultured pearls are saltwater pearls primarily grown in French Polynesia and are more commonly known as “black pearls.” The “black” hue is actually a dark blue-gray or blue-green but can also display hints of brown, navy, and violet.
Freshwater cultured pearls are grown in lakes, rivers as well as ponds. Because they are mass-produced, they are often relatively affordable. Most freshwater pearls are white and resemble Akoya pearls but are considered inferior; many cultured freshwater pearls also come in a variety of pastel shades including pink, lilac, and peach.
How to Tell the Difference Between Natural and Cultured Pearls
At first glance, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between a natural and a cultured pearl. However, each has a few common characteristics to help tell them apart. Bear in mind that most pearls sold are likely to be cultured.
Common Characteristics of Natural Pearls
- tend to be a dark cream color with hints of yellow or champagne overtones
- have irregular coloring and surfaces
- have a low luster
- are misshapen and asymmetrical
Common Characteristics of Cultured Pearls
- have a perfectly round shape;
- a bright/glossy reflective luster
- are more durable because the nacre is stronger and resistant to scratching.
Here are a few quick tests to tell if a “natural” pearl is in fact cultured pearl:
Look at the surface of your pearl. Does it have a distinctive line? If it does, it’s likely cultured. This line is from where the oyster was pierced to insert the bead.
Look at how the pearl reacts under ultraviolet light UV. If it emits a fluorescent glow, it’s likely cultured.
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