Cultured Pearls – Everything You Need to Know

There is a long list of reasons why pearls are one of the most unique gemstones in the world. They’re the only gemstones to come from a living creature. They possess a unique beauty that comes from their magical glow, or “luster” as it’s referred to as. Finally, they’ve been loved and treasured by people from as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Whether you’re a pearl collector or someone looking to purchase your first piece of pearl jewelry, it’s useful to get some more information about the one-of-a-kind gemstone. Here, we dive deeper to learn more about one of the two types of pearls: cultured pearls. Let’s first explore the historical context that brought about the invention of cultured pearls.

history of cultured pearls

The Birth of Cultured Pearls

Before the discovery of cultured pearls, natural pearls were the only option. Divers would risk their safety to plunge deep into ocean floors and river beds to collect pearl-producing mollusks. The odds of finding a pearl? 1 in 10,000. Despite the slim chances, divers were focused on the astronomically high payout they would receive in the case they did find one. A number fueled by the low supply and the extreme demand of the gem. Over time, natural mollusk beds grew more and more scarce. That made the already limited amount even more restricted. At the same time, yet, the popularity of pearls continued to rise, in turn creating higher demand. From this vantage point, it’s easy to understand why natural pearls were an unsustainable option. Thus, the stage was set for the discovery of cultured pearls, which we will learn about next.

What Are Cultured Pearls?

Kokichi Mikimoto grew up in a tiny town on the coast of Japan. He saw first-hand the impact pearl gathering had on the population of oysters. As a result, he made it his life’s goal to find a way to produce pearls using farmed oysters. In 1893, he accomplished his dream when one of his oysters created the world’s first cultured pearl. Cultured pearls come from mollusks that have been tended to by humans. Cultured pearls are farmed in both freshwater and saltwater. Today, almost all the new pearls available on the market are cultured. There are four main types of pearls these pearls: Freshwater, Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea. While they are all high-quality, they vary in color, size, luster, and price.

How Are Cultured Pearls Made?

The process of creating a pearl begins when a nucleus gets inserted into the mollusk by a human. A small shell piece from another mollusk is cut into a cube then milled to become perfectly round. Next, mantle tissue from another mollusk is cut into tiny pieces. When these are both ready, the host mollusk is opened. At this point, the nucleus and mantle tissue get inserted through an incision. The mollusk begins to protect itself from the irritation caused by the nucleus by coating it with nacre. Nacre is a composite made primarily from aragonite. It gives pearls the luster we described in the introduction. As the mollusk coats the nucleus with thousands of layers of nacre, a pearl slowly begins to form. Throughout the process, the mollusks are kept in protected beds. Here, they get a shield from any potential harm.

what is a pearl

Differences Between Cultured Pearls and Natural Pearls

Although cultured pearls have been around for a long time, there is still some confusion about the difference between cultured and natural pearls. The most significant difference between the two is the way the pearls are grown. This is the aspect that separates the two cultured pearls from natural pearls. That said, there are also other important factors such as price and appearance. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at these fundamental differences to set the record straight.

Growth

As mentioned above, the most significant difference between natural pearls and cultured pearls is the way that they are grown. More specifically, how the irritant that starts the formation process gets introduced. A nucleus is planted inside the mollusk through an incision. In the case of a natural pearl, this whole process happens randomly. The irritant gets inside the mollusk entirely on its own, without any human interference.

Price

Cultured pearls and natural pearls are both considered a luxury. But between the two, natural pearls carry a much higher price tag. With the creation of cultured pearls, natural pearls increasingly became a history. That's to the point that nearly all the pearls that come to the market today are cultured. Nowadays, natural pearls are vintage pieces sold as collector’s items exclusively by luxury auction houses. Just for reference, the price of a strand of natural pearls can reach seven figures.

Appearance

Given the higher price tag, many people are led to believe that natural pearls look better than cultured pearls. This is just not the case! In fact, natural pearls are often asymmetrical in shape. That's a characteristic that isn’t ideal for pearls. Cultured pearls, on the other hand, feature nearly perfect spherical shapes.

Cultured Pearls Are Not Fake

The idea that cultured pearls are somehow fake is another misconception that has persisted for too long. They are in no way, shape, or form the same as imitation pearls. In fact, cultured pearls are much more similar to natural pearls than they are to imitation pearls. Unlike cultured pearls that mollusks create, fake pearls are made of plastic or glass. 

How to Tell if a Pearl is Synthetic or Cultured

There are many different ways to tell if a pearl is cultured or “synthetic”. A close visual comparison between the two reveals distinctions in shape, weight, and luster.

Shape

Considering cultured pearls come from a living creature, the shape of any two pearls will never be exactly the same. The same is true for natural pearls. These variations are minor. Thus, the naked eye won’t typically catch them, at least until they are compared to synthetic pearls. Because artificial pearls are created in laboratories, they possess unnatural spherical shapes with zero variation.

Weight

The second way to tell if a pearl is synthetic or cultured is from its weight. Cultured and natural pearls are much heavier than fake ones. When you pick up a synthetic pearl, it’s almost weightless. However, some fake pearls made of glass can weigh the same as a cultured pearl, so be aware! In these cases, it’s critical to be more cognizant of the other factors like shape and luster.

Luster

Luster is the last factor that differs in cultured pearls and synthetic pearls. Cultured pearls have a deep, radiating glow that makes the gemstone illuminate from the inside. Synthetic pearls, on the other hand, do not have any luster at all. Instead, they're mostly dull.

cultured pearls

(Japenese Akoya White Pearl Necklace from The Pearl Source)

How to Choose High-Quality Cultured Pearls

Ensure you choose high-quality cultured pearls by purchasing them from a trustworthy retailer.  You should be able to ask any questions you might have and receive detailed answers. The retailer should provide you with information regarding making any purchase on their website.

The Pearl Source has specialized in bringing clients premium quality cultured pearls at wholesale prices since 1991. The industry leader offers an expansive variety of captivating pearl jewelry which feature some of the finest gems available on the market. The company prides itself on providing the highest level of customer satisfaction, something that's evident in customer reviews.

While this may seem like a ton of information, by simply reading this, you’re in a much better position to make a purchase that you will love for a lifetime! So, what’s it going to be? A timeless pearl necklace? Perhaps a stunning pearl ring? The choice is yours!