Natural vs. Cultured Pearls: Know Their Difference [2021]

In 2013, at an auction in New York, a set of pearls that belonged to an Italian actress and photojournalist Gina Lollobrigida broke the previous world record for a pair of pearl pendants when it got sold to an anonymous bidder for £1,567,771 ($2,391,321).

Not that pearls have not been famous before the auction, but it has brought the world more in love with them. Treasured for their distinct beauty and elegance, they are among the most popular gemstones around the world.

The world needed so much of this hard and glistening object that people had to find other ways to produce it. Thus, the natural and cultured pearls.


What Are Pearls?

what are pearls graphic

Pearls are the only gemstones in the world that come from a living creature. It results from a defense mechanism of a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam.

Pearls leave people adoring them since ancient times. The wide variety of sizes, the shiny white appearance, and the almost perfectly round shape make up the pearl’s exquisite beauty. Add to that its distinctive glow that is often referred to as a jewel’s luster. You’d almost want to make a space for it in your jewelry collection.


The Differences Between Natural and Cultured Pearls

Pearls have two classifications –natural pearls and cultured pearls. Both are often compared to one another when, in fact, they are both real gemstones. The only thing that separates them from each other is the way they are formed.

Differences in Formation Process

As earlier hinted, pearls are formed as mollusks’ defense mechanism. Natural pearls form under a series of accidental conditions. When a foreign body comes in and settles insides the mollusk’s shell, it creates a sac of external mantle tissue cells. It secretes calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant.

The secretion process is repeated many times until the foreign body is contained. The result of multiple and repeated discharges is the pearl. Thus, natural pearls are almost 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin.

Natural

This immune response of mollusks is analogous to human’s capture of antigen by a phagocyte. The creation of natural pearls has no human intervention. They look more organic than cultured pearls. “More organic” means they may not always be perfectly round as their cultured pearl counterparts.

Cultured pearls aren’t technically human-made. Mollusks or oysters do the creation but with human intervention. In cultured pearl creation, a tiny bead is inserted into the oyster shell by a pearl farmer. This bead will irritate the oyster and run the same defense mechanism where it forms layers of nacre around the irritant.

After layer and layer of secretion covers the irritant, then comes the cultured pearls. They have almost the same process except for the humans involved in the cultured pearl process. Because of human intervention, cultural pearls are different from natural ones.

Human intervention in cultured pearl creation doesn’t mean that they are any less valuable. Cultured pearls are as beautiful as natural pearls. They can be a variety of shapes and sizes too.

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Differences in Harvesting Process

Before cultured pearl farms existed, divers risk their lives to plunge deep into the oceans to collect mollusks. These mollusks are brought back to land for divers to crack open. The chances of actually finding a pearl were rare.

This method went on for centuries that the mollusk population became severely exhausted. Not only did it make the finding of pearls more arduous, it even put mollusks at risk for becoming endangered. As a result, several countries began to ban pearl diving.

Harvesting cultured pearls are a lot more sustainable. On average, pearls take about three to 4 years to develop. Once pearls are ready for harvesting, pearl farmers no longer need to dive deep into the waters. They simply need to pull the raised beds out of the water.

Once out, the farmers use special tools to open these mussels without harming them carefully. As with natural pearls, not all mollusks or mussels may have pearls. The good thing about cultured pearl harvesting is, when there is no pearl discovered on the mussel, they can insert a new irritant and try to grow another pearl by putting them back into the water.

Differences in Types Colors and Shapes

pearls

When people think of pearls, the image they have in their heads is that of perfectly round and white gemstones. This idea is far from reality. Only about 10% of cultured pearls are harvested in a perfectly round shape.

It is even more unlikely to find a spherical natural pearl. Most natural pearls appear irregular and non-spherical in shape.

Although the most popular color for pearl is white, both natural and cultured pearls come in different colors. These colors depend on the type of pearl. For instance, Tahitian pearls are in exotic shades of black, blue, or purple.

But, since pearl cultivators hold more control in the cultured pearl development, the pearls can feature a broader range of colors.


Why Are Natural Pearls More Expensive Than Cultured Pearls

Natural pearls are significantly more costly than cultured pearls. However, it is not the reason why pearls are cultured. Pearl farming began in response to the growing desire for elegant pearls at a cheaper price point.

At the time Mikimoto Kokichi started a cultured pearl farm in 1888, there were natural pearl dealers worldwide. These dealers were charging a premium for natural pearls.

And, why not? Natural pearls are rare, uncommon, and irreplaceable. They are formed spontaneously by nature. However, not all bivalve mollusks or oysters use the protective mechanism that produces pearls because not all of them have to.

Bivalve mollusk either burrows itself into the sand at the bottom of the river or attaches itself to a rock in order to live. It survives by filtering water through its gills, absorbing the nutrients like planktons and other microscopic organisms for food, then expelling the water back out.

During this process, they may suck in a foreign substance like mud, bacteria, or more. Sometimes, parasites even burrow into their hard-shelled bodies and settle in their soft tissue.

Will this cause them to produce pearls? Not in an instant.

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Their initial reaction to any intruder is to keep them out, so they will try everything they can to expel the foreign object.

If they can’t expel the intruder, will they secrete their formula to contain it? Not entirely. Sometimes, the invasive organism causes too much trauma than what a mollusk can handle. If this happens, the mollusk dies.

But, if the mollusk survives, it will use calcium carbonate – the same material it uses to make its shell, to contain the foreign substance. That’s the only time a pearl is produced. It doesn’t sound so rare, does it?

The crazy truth is, when a mollusk does make a pearl, it feels like it has successfully contained the intruder, so it releases the pearl out of its body even before anyone finds it. Thus, even if it indeed produced a pearl, it can get lost in the vast ocean.


Origins of Natural and Cultured Pearls

Thousands of years ago, natural pearls have been exclusive to few selected places. Saltwater pearls were found along the Persian Gulf waters, India’s coast, near the Red Sea, and Japanese waters. Freshwater pearls came mainly from ponds and rivers in China.

Colonizers saw how Native Americans wear large pearls. Not soon after, these pearls appeared in the basins of Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Natural pearls’ harvesting persisted into the 19th century until overexploitation of the sea became a severe problem.

This problem caused the diminishing mollusk population paired with a surge in global pearl demand. That was when the pearl industry needed a new solution.

After almost two decades of trying, Kokichi Mokimoto finally succeeded in his lifelong dream of cultivating pearls. His process involved delicately inserting a nucleus into an oyster that stimulated the creature into producing the calcium carbonate that makes a pearl.

His process became adapted in different regions across the globe that there became different varieties of pearls according to color, size, and luster.


Quality of Cultured Pearl

The controlled environments of cultured pearls help in increasing the survival rates of the oysters. This survival rate gives more possibility for pearl farmers to produce high-quality and authentic pearls than oyster divers.

This possibility agrees with the statement from the American Gem Society that said most of the ocean’s natural pearls have already been harvested.

Thus, even when both natural and cultured pearls are at par at quality, the latter is significantly less costly than the previous because of its rarity.


Three Times Cultured Pearls Are Better Than Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are undoubtedly priceless. They are hard to find and exquisite. But, just because cultured pearls can be easily obtained doesn’t mean their less valuable. In fact, there are times when picking cultured pearl is better than going for their ocean-life counterpart.

Same Quality

The process for producing calcium carbonite in pearl forming is the same for both natural and cultured pearls. And, with the added care and nurture of pearl farmers for cultured pearls, the oysters can create the highest quality – same as that of a natural pearl.

Technological advances also played a significant role in the pearl cultivation process that cultured pearls possess more quality than natural pearls throughout the past decade. Cultured pearls now feature a deeper luster and high surface quality, which makes a pearl more stunning.

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Lower Cost

The rarity of natural pearls causes them to be extremely expensive. There may not be a lot under the sea to harvest anymore. Thus buying natural pearls may mean finding a piece of old pearl jewelry that most of the time comes with sky-high costs.

Freshwater Pearl Threader Earrings by Molah are finished in high luxury and are spotless and beautiful. They aren’t as expensive as natural pearls but they can enhance your outfit just as much.

Safer Harvesting

Diving for pearls in open waters is hazardous. Add it to the fact that this profession is also obsolete these days. Still, some divers take the risk in hopes of coming up with an excellent supply of oysters. The risks they are ignoring are:

  • Hypothermia
  • Decompression sickness
  • Environmental risks
  • Dangerous sea creatures
  • Water blackout
  • Drowning

Pearl diving history shares its number of death in divers throughout its thriving years. This unsafe practice also contributes to the rarity and soaring price of natural pearls.


Spotting Fake Pearls

Sometimes, the luster, shape, and shine of a pearl may not be enough for you to believe that it is an authentic pearl. If in doubt, the first thing you need to do is put the pearl on a plain white sheet of paper and observe it inch by inch.

You may ask yourself as you study the pearl with questions like:

  • Does it have shape variations?
  • Are there lighter or darker spots?
  • Are they dense and heavy for their size? Light and hollow?
  • Does the luster show any visual complexity?

Remember that pearls, whether natural or cultured are a product of nature. The animals that produced them will always leave a fingerprint on them during their creation. Thus, there will always be some visible imperfections.

You may also take the tooth test on your pearl. It entails gently rubbing the surface of the pearl against your teeth. Do it very gently as the pearl is soft. What you should feel is a gritty texture – somewhat like fine-grain sandpaper.

This texture is from thousands of microscopic layers of crystalline platelets layered on top of each other, creating a painstakingly rough top layer. Faux pearls will feel smooth since human-made gems won’t have these crystalline plates.


Conclusion

Not that buying natural pearls have no benefit. Wild pearls are simply hard to find. Natural pearls’ current situation is where people would often say, “the means don’t justify the cost.” Sure, they are pretty and valuable but, would you go the hard way to get the pearls when you can have a more sustainable way of getting them?


FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: What animals produce pearls?

A: As previously mentioned, pearls are the only gemstones that come from living creatures. These creatures that are the soft-bodied saltwater or freshwater animals are called mollusks. They can either be univalve or bivalve. Mollusks also have two types –freshwater or mussels and saltwater or oysters.


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