While they are certainly valuable, pearls do not receive the same kind of attention or mystique that more valuable precious stones do. This results in some confusion surrounding pearls and their varieties, which are plentiful.
One way to categorise types of pearls is to separate them into cultured pearls and natural pearls, although not many laymen are aware of the difference.
What are Cultured Pearls?
Cultured pearls, simply put, are pearls that are grown in pearl farms. There are several successful pearl farms in various locations around the world, most of which are concentrated around the temperate coasts of Southeast Asia. Myanmar, Japan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and Fiji all play host to prolific cultured pearl farms whose products get sold and exported globally.
There are one or two pearl farms in Mexico and the United States, but the ecological conditions on the coasts of the Indian ocean are ideal for producing cultured pearls.
Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?
The short answer is yes, cultured pearls are real pearls. The confusion stems from the term ‘natural pearl’, which leads buyers to believe that cultured pearls are synthetic or manmade. This is not the case.
Cultured pearls are the same as natural pearls, the only difference is that they are farmed instead of developing without human intervention.
Think of it like this: farmers grow fruit for us to eat, which is still real fruit with the same nutritional content as wild fruit.
The only difference is the conditions under which they are produced. It’s the same with cultured pearls vs natural pearls.
Are Cultured Pearls Valuable?
Yes, in fact, the most valuable pearls in the world are cultured pearls. Currently, cultured South Sea Pearls fetch the highest prices on the market.
The demand for pearls has led to most of the world’s natural pearls being harvested, therefore, it is incredibly unlikely to come across a natural pearl at a jeweller. While natural pearls are often priced up for their rarity, any specimen you find will likely be small and singular.
Are Cultured Pearls Cruel?
There is some controversy surrounding the ethics of pearl farming. Animal rights and environmental activists have historically called the ethics of the industry into question, arguing that much of the pearl farming process causes undue stress to the oysters and disrupts the surrounding ecosystems.
Experts have defended pearl farming from an animal rights standpoint, asserting that oysters do not possess nervous systems like ours. Therefore, they do not experience pain or stress the same way we do.
To produce cultured pearls, the oysters must be surgically opened and implanted with an irritant, which causes the oysters to produce protective layers of nacre the engulf the irritant and eventually form pearls. Experts say that this process is more like an auto-immune response, protecting the oyster without causing it stress or pain.
Environmentally speaking, there are good and bad ways to go about pearl farming. The oysters need to be cleaned regularly and are therefore kept in cages or nets underwater for easy access.
Keeping them in shallower water minimises the physical disruption when cleaning time comes around and allows small aquatic creatures to naturally clean the shells of the oysters.
Furthermore, oysters are filter feeders that purify coastal waters by absorbing nitrogen and heavy metal pollutants. If you are in the market for cultured pearls and are concerned about the ethical implications of the industry, do a bit of research on companies that use sustainable and eco-friendly methods in their farming.
What is the Difference Between Cultured Pearls and Natural Pearls?
The differences in cultured pearls vs natural pearls come down to how the irritant makes its way into the oyster’s shell. In the case of natural pearls, a small piece of sand or other organic debris enters the shell by chance. The oyster is untouched by human hands until the pearl is harvested.
With cultured pearls, a similar organic irritant is implanted in the oyster’s shell by trained experts. The oysters are then closed up and placed in a net or cage wherein they remain except for cleaning time.
This distinction makes natural pearls rarer, but technically no different from cultured pearls. It is highly unlikely to find pearl jewellery made of natural pearls, except in the case of antique heirlooms or collector’s pieces from many decades ago.
Benefits of Cultured Pearls vs Natural Pearls
If you are a purist who values natural methods over artificial, you are likely to be disappointed in your search for a natural pearl. There are almost none left on the market, and those that are still in circulation are mostly small and very expensive. Natural pearls are very occasionally discovered by accident, but nobody really looks for them anymore.
In addition to being superior in quality and availability, cultured pearls stimulate the economies of several communities on the coasts of the Indian ocean that otherwise have severely limited means of supporting themselves. Remote coastal villages and other rural communities base their entire economic model on pearl farming due to their high market value.
How to Tell if a Pearl is Cultured or Natural
At a glance, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between a natural and a cultured pearl. The obvious solution is to check the certificate of authenticity for the source of the pearl. Natural pearls are more likely to be small and irregularly shaped, but this can be true for cultured pearls as well. Bear in mind that any pearl you see online or in jewellery shops nowadays is almost definitely cultured.
What is the Difference Between Cultured Pearls and Freshwater Pearls?
In most cases, saltwater pearls are of higher quality and more expensive than freshwater pearls. Until recently, freshwater farming practices produced ‘inferior’ pearls that were smaller and less lustrous than their saltwater counterparts. Their durability, less reflective surfaces, smaller size, and shorter development period historically made freshwater pearls less valuable. Nowadays, however, modern advances in farming techniques have seen freshwater pearls of near or similar quality to that of saltwater pearls.
Do your research on a company’s farming practices before buying a freshwater pearl to determine if what you’re paying is indeed a fair price.
Jump To a Section Below
- What are Cultured Pearls?
- Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?
- Are Cultured Pearls Valuable?
- Are Cultured Pearls Cruel?
- What is the Difference Between Cultured Pearls and Natural Pearls?
- Benefits of Cultured Pearls vs Natural Pearls
- How to Tell if a Pearl is Cultured or Natural
- What is the Difference Between Cultured Pearls and Freshwater Pearls?