Cultured Pearls: Everything You Need to Know - Brilliant Earth
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Cultured Pearls: Everything You Need to Know

Cultured pearls are a popular alternative to natural pearls for their symmetry and their value. Natural pearls, formed within oysters in bodies of water, occur when a foreign substance slips into the oyster between the gaps on the rims of the shell. This irritation forces the oyster to protect itself, producing a layer of substance called ‘nacre.’ Eventually, after anywhere between six months to three years, those layers form a shining pearl.

Cultured pearls on the other hand, require human intervention. They are also formed in water but aren’t naturally occurring – they are cultivated in pearl sacs within laboratories and are carefully monitored for uniform size and shape.

The size and shape are, therefore, the other main difference between natural pearls and cultured pearls. While naturally occurring pearls will have unique, organic shapes and are often rough to the touch, their alternatives will be uniform and seemingly ‘too good to be true.’

What is a Cultured Pearl?

A cultured pearl is a pearl is a pearl formed with any type of human intervention. They are made both in fresh water or salt water by inserting a piece of mantle tissue into a mollusk and then leaving it to grow. As the mussel grows, the foreign material will become covered in layers of nacre that give it a lustrous appearance. The process can take 2-3 years before the pearl is harvested and the tissue removed, revealing a perfectly formed cultured pearl.

History of Cultured Pearls

The first recorded history of ‘man-made’ pearls comes from ancient China during the Sung Dynasty. The cultivation method used was similar to the modern practice of inserting a foreign object (in their case a Buddhist figure made of lead) into the freshwater mussel shell.

In 1637 they made their way to Europe via the Silk Road and exploded in popularity among the wealthy. Fascinated European scientists, eager to understand the magic of pearl creation, spent the next two centuries diagnosing their formation and advancing technology for their production.

Mikimoto K?kichi, a Japanese entrepreneur, was the first to successfully patent a variation on cultured pearl production in 1916. The practice was immediately applied commercially and Japan’s famous akoya cultured pearls arose to prominence. Original akoya pearls were produced by a type of small oyster, Pinctada fucata. These days, hybrid mollusks are used to form akoyas in in both Japan and China. Wildly popular, akoya pearls are used in jewelry worldwide.

Types of Cultured Pearls

Akoya Cultured Pearls – as mentioned above, akoya pearls are the most popular type of saltwater manufactured pearls in western markets. They are characterized by white and cream colors and are the pearls most used in strand necklaces due to their symmetry.

South Sea Cultured Pearls – these saltwater creations are most often produced in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Their color ranges from white to golden to silver depending on the type of oyster used. As they can often take quite a while to fully form and ideal growth conditions are limited, this type of pearl can often come with a hefty price tag.

Tahitian Cultured Pearls – primarily found in French Polynesia, these saltwater pearls have a wide color range, from gray, black or brown, to blue, green, purple or pink.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls – the most mass-produced man-made pearls, this type of pearl is another used very commonly in jewelry production. They are grown in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and are often relatively affordable. Most often they are cultured in freshwater lakes and ponds.

Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?

No, cultured pearls are not natural pearls. They can be manufactured from the same materials as other artificial plastics but aren’t natural. Natural pearls form when a mollusk is irritated by a grain of sand or other objects that enters its shell.

They are created by inserting an irritant into a pearl oyster’s body on purpose so that it will produce a beautiful gem inside the oyster’s shell. The process takes about two years, and one in every three attempts produces a pearl. Cultured pearls are also less expensive than natural pearls, making them more affordable for the average customer.

What Is the Difference Between Natural Pearls and Cultured Pearls?

The difference between natural pearls and their alternatives is how they are made. Natural pearls are made in a natural environment when mollusks are irritated by objects that enter their shell. Cultured pearls are made when humans introduce an irritant into the mollusk’s soft body tissue.

Natural pearls and man-made pearls have different characteristics that include:

Shape Differences

Natural pearls are irregular in shape and vary from sphere to teardrop to cone. Cultured pearls are almost always perfectly round or half-spheres.

Color Differences

Both natural and cultured pearls are graded on a scale from A to D. But as they are artificial, which means they can be produced in any color that you desire. Natural pearls have some restrictions concerning color and shape. It’s possible to get cultured pearls in whatever hue you want, and they are often larger than their natural counterparts.

Every natural pearl shimmers with a different combination of colors, depending on the seashell it’s made from. Even though cultured pearls can’t rival their natural counterparts in color variation, they come in colors that run the gamut from near white, to pinks and beiges as you move up into yellow and green hues.

Luster Differences

A natural pearl has a lot of luster and shine. On the other hand, cultured pearls have somewhat dimmer luster and not nearly as much shine.

Price Differences

When comparing these two types of pearls, one advantage that man-made pearls have over natural ones is that they are cheaper to produce. Hence you should be able to find them for less money than what you would pay for a naturally grown one.

How Do You Tell if a Pearl Is Cultured or Natural?

  1. The most common way to tell if a pearl is cultured is by looking at the surface of the pearl. If the character has a distinctive line, it’s a cultured pearl. The bar is from where the oyster was pierced to insert the nucleus. This line doesn’t exist with natural pearls because there isn’t anything man-made inserted into the mollusk.
  2. Another good way to tell if a pearl is cultured or not is by looking at how it reacts under ultraviolet light UV. Cultured pearls will emit a fluorescent glow, while natural pearls do not react under UV light.
  3. One way you can tell if it’s cultured is through purity testing, which analyzes impurities in the pearl for more accurate results.

How Are Cultured Pearls Produced?

Producing cultured pearls is similar to what happens when producing natural pearls. However, the difference is that man-made pearls are created by inserting a nucleus into the mollusk under controlled laboratory conditions.

It gives sophisticated pearl farmers the ability to make many more pearls than they could otherwise produce using natural processes. Some people feel that artificial pearls offer more value because they can be mass-produced and sold at lower prices than their natural counterparts.

Pros of Cultured Pearls

Cons of Cultured Pearls

Cultured Pearl FAQs

Are cultured pearls considered fake pearls?

Yes, cultured pearls are considered real pearls even though they are made with human intervention. Most pearl jewelry available today is crafted with man-made because natural pearls are much more rare, unique, and therefore, more expensive.

Are cultured pearls worth anything?

Though they are both considered real pearls, cultured pearls are much more affordable than natural pearls. They can be worth between $50 to over $165,000 USD and are grown in oysters in careful laboratory conditions in either freshwater or saltwater.

How do you tell if a pearl is natural or cultured?

Artificial pearls will look perfectly symmetric. Natural pearls, on the other hand, will be completely unique and organically shaped. When in doubt, use the tooth test: rub the pearl softly against your tooth. If it’s cultured, it’ll feel smooth. If it’s natural, it’ll be gritty and rough.

What is the difference between a culture pearl and a regular pearl?

Natural pearls are formed in bodies of water without human intervention. They are very rare and most often found in antique jewelry. Cultured pearls are much more common and can be produced in pearl farms as the direct result of human intervention.

Final Thoughts

Cultured pearls are perfect if you want the beauty of a pearl without the high price tag. They are also an excellent option if you’re looking for an eco-friendlier alternative to natural pearls or an option for those with sensitivities to natural pearls.

The only drawback to cultured pearls is that they’re not as durable and may need replacement earlier than natural pearls. Even so, they are an attractive, affordable option. Contact us for complete guidance and choosing the right pearl for you and explore our selection of cultured pearl jewelry.

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