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Cultured Pearls Vs Natural Pearls – Understanding the Differences

Pearls of Joy x The Culture of Pearls 

Very often when buying cultured pearl jewelry, buyers want to know whether the pearls are real or not? What’s happening is that they are thinking in terms of real vs fake pearls. So, when they are told that the pearls are real, cultured pearls, they are left confused. “What does that even mean?” they ask, almost suspicious that somehow, they are being giving something that’s not “real.”

The truth is both cultured and natural pearls are real pearls. Both are organic gems that grow in an oyster. They have a lot of similarities but they are also different in some ways.

Let’s take a dive into this very interesting topic and get to the bottom of the Cultured Pearls vs Natural Pearls puzzle!

What are Natural Pearls?

Natural pearls are formed in the wild, without any human intervention inside pearl forming oysters. These pearls are very rare. Only 5 – 10 oysters out of a 100 will produce a natural pearl  and only 30% of these will be of good quality. As a result, gem quality natural pearls sell for very high prices in the jewelry market. Many jewelry designers repurpose antique natural pearls in their jewelry pieces.

Natural Pearls from Bahrain

Natural Pearls from Bahrain (Image Courtesy of CNN)

Natural pearls can be both saltwater and freshwater pearls. The sea waters around Bahrain produce some beautiful saltwater natural pearls. But there are very lovely Freshwater natural pearls too, such as the Mississippi river Freshwater pearls (although fishing for these pearls is no longer allowed in the US).

What are Cultured Pearls?

Cultured pearls are grown in pearl farms, through direct human intervention. Cultured pearls can be bead-nucleated (when a mother-of-pearl bead is inserted into an oyster) or tissue nucleated (when a sliver of mantle tissue from a donor oyster is inserted into an oyster).

The quality of cultured pearls today is second to none! Some gem quality pearl necklaces can sell in hundreds of thousand of dollars because they are so beautiful and unique. Cultured pearls account for the majority of pearls and pearl jewelry available in the market today.

Golden South Sea Cultured Pearls

Golden South Sea Cultured Pearls, Pearls of Joy

There are several different types of cultured pearls. These include saltwater cultured pearls such as Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls, that are produced at offshore pearl farms. Then there are Freshwater pearls, such as Chinese freshwater pearls that are grown inland, in lakes, rivers and ponds.

The Interesting Case of Keshi Pearls

Keshi pearls are loved for their organic shapes and brighter than bright luster. But what exactly are they? The word keshi comes from the Japanese word keshinomi which means poppy seed. These pearls are formed in cultured pearl oysters but don’t have a nucleus. They grow in another part of the oyster, away from the bead or tissue used to nucleate the pearl. In a way, they are a happy by-product of the pearl culturing process.

Keshi pearls are similar to natural pearls because they grow accidentally or unintentionally in cultivated pearl oysters. Like natural pearls, keshi pearls are also very rare and command higher prices in the pearl market as compared to other cultured pearls.

Selection of pearl jewelry by Pearls of Joy

From left to right: Tahitian Pearl Multicolor Gem Quality Necklace, Golden South Sea Pearl Celeste Earrings, Akoya Pearl and Diamond Lydia Ring, Peach Freshwater Pearl Gem Quality Bracelet, White South Sea Pearl and Diamond Eva Earrings, Pearls of Joy

Differences Between Natural Pearls and Cultured Pearls

On first looking at a pearl, you may not be able to tell if it’s natural or cultured. But there are several differences between these two types of pearls.

First, natural pearls tend to be smaller than cultured pearls. An 8mm natural pearl is considered large while cultured pearls of 12mm size of more are regarded as large.

Second, over the years pearl farming techniques have improved to the extent that the shape and color of cultured pearls can be controlled. So, cultured pearls have more symmetrical shapes and wider range of colors as comped to natural pearls.

Third, natural pearls are made entirely of nacre, which makes them very lustrous. With cultured pearls, especially bead nucleated ones, nacre thickness becomes an important criteria for judging quality. All saltwater cultured pearls are bead-nucleated and if they have thicker nacre layers, the pearls exhibit a sharp and glowing luster. Some types of Freshwater cultured pearls are tissue-nucleated, which results in the entire pearl body being formed from nacre. Therefore, for most people, it’s difficult to tell natural pearls from cultured ones just by looking at them.

Fourth, while natural pearls are generally more expensive as compared to cultured pearls, that may not always be the case. There are many superb, cultured pearls that sell for high prices in the jewelry market.

The best way to tell a natural pearl from a cultured one is to have the pearl tested at a gem lab. Many expensive natural pearl jewelry pieces are accompanied with gem lab certificates which describe the natural origin of the pearls, as a result of extensive pearl testing. 

PSL certified Hanadama Akoya Necklace

PSL Certified Hanadama Akoya Cultured Pearl Necklace, Pearls of Joy

Making an Informed Choice

Whenever you are purchasing pearls or pearl jewelry, finding reliable jewelry sellers becomes very important. A trustworthy brand or pearl seller will tell you if the pearls you are purchasing are cultured or natural. Such brands will also be very honest about the quality of the pearls, if they are selling cultured pearls

 But the important thing to remember is that both cultured and natural pearls are real pearls.

Cultured Pearls or Natural Pearls – Which Should You Go For?

Before the introduction of cultured pearls through the hard work and foresight of Kokichi Mikimoto, there were only natural pearls. These pearls were often more expensive than diamonds and were treasured over many generations. But when cultured pearls started being sold, the pearl market changed forever.

Today, it’s easier to purchase cultured pearls since they make up more than 90% of the jewelry market. Top quality cultured pearls are exquisite. Their symmetrical shapes, alluring natural colors, strong luster and large sizes make them an eye-catching addition to any jewelry collection. At reputable pearl sellers such as Pearls of Joy, you are sure to find top quality cultured pearls at very budget friendly price points. 

Plus, if they are properly cared for, these pearls, just like their natural siblings, can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Featured Image: Tahitian Pearl Necklace and White South Sea Pearl Necklace, Pearls of Joy

Reema Farooqui is a content writer who loves pearls and pearl jewelry. You can find her on her website The Culture of Pearls or on Instagram at @thecultureofpearls


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