Natural vs Cultured Pearls: Discover The (Key) Differences

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Wondering what the difference between natural pearls and cultured pearls is?

Perfect, you're in the right place!

In this Learning Guide, I'll answer the top questions asked about these mysterious sea gems like: 

  • Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?
  • Are Freshwater Pearls Natural Pearls?
  • Which Type of Pearl is Better Quality?

How Are Pearls Formed?

Pearls are one of the most interesting birthstones around. It's not only the birthstone of those born in June, but it's unique in its origin.

Technically, pearls aren't stones, but they're considered gems.

Pearls and amber are a couple of the most popular organic gems in jewelry. Organic gems come from either a plant or animal. 

Cartoons may have impressed upon you that clams produce pearls. Not completely true. They come from all different kinds of mollusks.

Most often, it's a species of an oyster or mussel. Freshwater mussels produce freshwater pearls. Most often, saltwater pearls are produced by saltwater oysters.

Not all mollusks make pearls, and different species produce different kinds of pearls. 

Irritants must be introduced inside the shells of pearl oysters. Most people tell you it's sand, but there have been different irritants found inside oysters. Most often, the irritant is a parasite. The GIA has a record of a bit of coral being the nucleus of a pearl. 

In other cases, some pearls don't have a nucleus at all. These are called keshi pearls. They have high luster because they're made entirely up of nacre.

The mollusk gets annoyed by the irritant and begins coating it in something called nacre. Nacre is composed of the mineral aragonite and mother-of-pearl. Aragonite forms in hexagon shaped plates and mother-of-pearl is usually the nucleus. 

aragonite

The hexagonal plates coat the mother-of-pearl bead in thin layers. The nacre gives the pearl its high luster and beauty. The layers of nacre are one of the biggest factors of pearl quality. 

Cultured vs Natural Pearls: Origin

Pearl jewelry is divided into natural and cultured pearls. Both of them come from mollusks and are produced the same way mentioned above. There's a couple key differences in the way they are acquired. 

Natural Pearls

Natural or wild pearls, are rare. Today, almost all pearls are cultured. Only 1 out of 10,000 mollusks living outside of farms will produce a pearl. Once it produces that pearl, it still has to score high in pearl quality factors. You can imagine how often that happens. 

More on this in a bit...

Natural pearls aren't harvested much either because of lack of production. The American Gem Society has reported that most of the natural pearls in the world have been depleted by pearl divers. 

Nearly all natural pearls in the jewelry market are vintage pearls. They go on to be sold for very high prices at jewelry auctions. 

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls were introduced to the world in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto. He's often deemed the "Father of Pearls" because he was the first one to manually introduce the irritant to a mollusk and produce the first cultured pearl.

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Essentially, cultured pearls are pearls that a human helped cultivate. A cultured pearl is a real pearl. Imitation pearls are fake pearls. 

Cultured pearls are cultivated in farms by pearl farmers. They can be freshwater or saltwater.

Most freshwater cultured pearls come from China. Cultured saltwater pearls are grown throughout Australia and Asia, depending on which type of saltwater oyster is producing the pearl.

Cultured vs Natural Pearls: Appearance

The overall appearance and color of a pearl is determined by the species of the mollusk. There are a couple of visual consistencies between natural pearls and cultured pearls. 

Natural Pearls

I mentioned that natural pearls have to meet pearl quality factors in order to be sold as natural pearl jewelry to the public. Pearl producing mollusks outside of farms rarely produce pearls because they rarely survive. 

It's difficult to tell natural and cultured pearls apart. The only way to be 100% certain is through an X-ray. The simplest method is to check the thickness of the nacre. Natural pearls have thicker nacre. You can usually tell by putting it under strong light and determining transparency. 

Natural pearls don't look as perfect as cultured pearls. They are often baroque shapes, or with flaws. If they do look close to perfect, you can bet they're being sold for substantial prices at auctions. 

Cultured Pearls

On average, cultured pearls are more round than their natural counterparts. The reason for this is because they have an isolated environment keeping them from threats. 

The same goes for lab-created gemstones. If a gemstone is being created in a lab, it can have better color and clarity because nothing is being introduced to it as its forming.

In the same way, culturing pearls on pearl farms allows better protection of the pearl oysters. 

Cultured pearls are more likely to be round, but occur in many shapes. There's a buying market for baroque pearls and they're less expensive. 

There are a few visual differences between cultured saltwater and freshwater pearls. A saltwater pearl can occur in three types: Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian. Each type of saltwater cultured pearl has overtones, color varieties, and size ranges unique to that species. 

Read also: Freshwater vs Saltwater Pearls

An Akoya cultured pearl oyster is known to produce larger pearls than the others. They produce more round pearls. Akoya pearls can produce white pearls or white pearls with pink overtones

A South Sea cultured pearl oyster can also produce large pearls. These freshwater cultured pearls are usually gold or white colored. 

A pinctada maxima oyster produces a Tahitian cultured pearl. A Tahitian pearl is a black pearl that can have blue, green, purple, or gray overtones

14K Yellow Gold Cultured Akoya Pearl And Bezel Set Diamond Drop Earrings
18K Yellow Gold Diamond And Cultured Golden South Sea Pearl Art Deco Drop Earrings (11-12 Mm)
18K White Gold Diamond And Cultured Tahitian Pearl Art Deco Drop Earrings (11-12 Mm)

They used to have less luster because of their thicker nacre, but that's been improved during cultivation. Still, the most common freshwater pearls are baroque shapes like teardrop or ovals. 

They can be ivory white, pink, and gold. Black freshwater pearls have been irradiated to give a Tahitian look without the cost. 

Oftentimes, it's very difficult to tell natural and cultured pearls apart without an expert. 

Natural vs Cultured Pearls: Value and Price

I've already stated that natural pearls are more expensive and valuable than cultured pearls because of their rarity. Here's some expansion on that.

Natural Pearls

Pearl Paradise is one of the few places that sells natural pearls online, but they're mainly in baroque shapes. This was the only natural round pearl in stock. 

Natural Clam Pearl 8.84 Ct.

You can imagine how much a whole strand of these pearls might cost if one of them is $1,500. 

A natural freshwater pearl is going to cost and be less valuable than natural saltwater pearl.

A Tahitian pearl, Akoya pearl, or a South Sea pearl will always be more valuable than a freshwater pearl of the same quality. It won't matter if it's natural or cultured. 

However, natural freshwater pearls will still cost more and be more valuable than a cultured freshwater pearl.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls are considerably more affordable than natural pearls. They're also more common and easier to produce in high quality, so they're not as valuable. 

Freshwater cultured pearls are less valuable than saltwater cultured pearls. A freshwater mollusk can produce up to 30 pearls at one time. This helps speed up the process and production of freshwater pearls. 

Here's the costs of a couple real freshwater cultured pearl jewelry pieces online: 

9mm 18k Freshwater Pearl Ring

9mm 18K Freshwater Pearl Ring: $405

14K Rose Gold Pink Freshwater Cultured Windsor Pearl And Diamond Trio Leaf Pendant (13.0-14.0mm)

14K Freshwater Pink Pearl Necklace $337

Saltwater cultured pearls can only produce one pearl at a time. Because it's more time-consuming, that increases their value. 

Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian pearls are highly desired at cultured levels and will still go for a few thousand.

Here are some pearl jewelry pieces of each from real world online retailers today: 

Classic Akoya Cultured Pearl Stud Earrings

18K Akoya Cultured Pearl Studs $375

Tahitian Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant

18K Cultured Tahitian Pearl Necklace $1575

Gold Pearl and Diamond Drop Stud Earrings

18K South Sea Cultured Pearl Earrings $1500

A baroque shaped pearl, a seed pearl, or a mabe pearl, or shell pearls go for lower prices than a round pearl. 

18K White Gold Baroque Freshwater Cultured Pearl Spring Bracelet

Freshwater 18K Baroque Pearl Bracelet: $1410

Conclusion

Here's the bottom line:

It would be amazing to own a strand of natural pearls or any kind of natural pearl, given its rarity. Not everyone can afford them. Cultured pearls give more people that option. 

Here's why:

  • They're less expensive
  • There's many options to choose from
  • High quality cultured pearls will look like natural pearls
  • They have the same overall durability as natural pearls

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