Pearls are a luxurious gem and a popular choice for necklaces, earrings, and other jewelry. They come in a vast range of sizes, shapes, and colors.

You can also find different types of pearls, including natural, cultured, and simulated pearls. Each option comes with different characteristics and advantages.

Here is a closer look at the differences between natural, cultured, and simulated pearls.

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Natural vs. Cultured vs. Simulated Pearls Overview

Pearl oysters create pearls in the wild when an irritant of some type penetrates its shell. These pearls are called “natural pearls”. Due to the rarity of natural pearls, a process for manually cultivating pearls was developed.

Introducing an irritant allows pearl farmers, or pearlers, to initiate the pearl-making process in specific species of oysters. These pearls are called “cultured pearls”.

Both natural and cultured pearls are considered “real” pearls while simulation pearls are imitation pearls. They are typically made using glass or plastic beads colored to simulate the appearance of real pearls.

What Are Natural Pearls?

Natural pearls are pearls created without any human intervention. They occur naturally in the sea.

A pearl is formed inside a pearl oyster with a hard outer shell and a soft inner body. The pearl oyster activates its natural defense mechanisms when a foreign object, such as a grain of sand, lodges inside the soft inner body.

The defense mechanisms include the secretion of aragonite, which is a naturally occurring crystal found in a variety of sea life. The oyster also releases conchiolin, which is a type of organic binder that helps hold the aragonite. The two components form a material called nacre, which is also known as the mother of pearl.

Mother of pearl lines the outer and inner layers of the mollusk. The new layers formed inside the mollusk gradually harden and condense into a pearl.

Natural pearls are very rare. Only about 1 in 10,000 wild oysters produce a natural pearl. Unfortunately, only a very small fraction of the natural pearls produced in the wild meet the standards for use in jewelry.

What Are Cultured Pearls?

Cultured pearls are pearls produced with help from humans. Instead of waiting for a wild oyster to naturally produce a pearl, pearl farmers introduce an irritant to jumpstart the process.

Culturing refers to the propagation of living tissue cells, such as the tissue inside an oyster. A cultured pearl is propagated in a controlled environment.

Pearl farmers grow oysters, produce pearls from the oysters, and recycle the oysters for other uses. The pearls may be harvested in freshwater or saltwater.

Both freshwater and seawater pearl cultivation involve adding a foreign object to the inside of the mollusk. With seawater pearls, a small bead is added. Freshwater pearls are more likely to produce pearls with irregular shapes, as a small piece of shell is added instead of a small bead.

Types of Cultured Pearls

Pearls are cultivated in different parts of the world using different species of mollusk. The different species and different environments produce pearls of varying colors, shapes, and sizes.

The most common types of cultured pearls include:

Akoya pearls are perfectly round, white spheres. They may also include faint overtones of silver, gold, or cream. Akoya pearls are also known for their mirror-like appearance. No other type of pearl can achieve the same high-quality luster.

Australian pearls are harvested from the Pinctada Maxima oyster, which is the largest pearl-growing oyster. The large oyster produces large, clear pearls. Australian pearls are often the most expensive pearls on the market.

Tahitian pearls are the second-most expensive type of cultured pearl. These pearls come from French Polynesia and are made by black-lip oysters. The black-lip oyster produces dark pearls with charcoal or black colors.

Sea of Cortez pearls are also often dark. These rare pearls are harvested off the coast of California.

Freshwater pearls are harvested all over the world using various species of oysters. Freshwater pearls are easier to harvest and more readily available, resulting in significantly lower prices compared to seawater pearls.

What Are Simulated Pearls?

Simulated pearls are man-made pearls. They are beads made to resemble pearls. Companies that sell simulated pearls cannot use the words “genuine” or “real” to describe their products. These words are reserved for natural and cultured pearls.

Imitation pearls are among the most affordable choices when it comes to pearls, costing even less than most freshwater pearl jewelry. Companies can make simulated pearls on demand instead of relying on living organisms, which keeps the prices low.

Types of Simulated Pearls

The main types of simulated pearls include:

  • Glass pearls
  • Copper pearls
  • Cotton pearls
  • Fish scale pearls
  • Plastic pearls

Glass pearls are made using small hollow glass beads. Wax is inserted into the bead to give it more weight. It is then dipped in a special pearl coating.

Copper pearls are metal beads made with copper alloy dipped in a pearl coating. As with glass pearls, the inside may be hollow and filled with wax.

Cotton pearls are made by compressing cotton in a pearl coating. The coating is made with ground pearls and other ingredients, helping to replicate the look of real pearls. These pearls are also much lighter than other imitation pearls.

Certain types of fish scales resemble pearls in the right light, which led a jeweler to start making imitation pearls with a special coating containing fish scales. The fish scale mixture is added in layers to a small bead, such as a glass bead.

Plastic pearls are used for costume jewelry and toy jewelry. Plastic is rarely found in imitation pearls sold by major retailers and prominent jewelers.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Real Pearls and Imitation Pearls?

A strand of real pearls looks and feels slightly different compared to a quality strand of imitation pearls. Imitation pearls often appear perfectly symmetrical and round. You will not notice a single imperfection on the surface of an imitation pearl.

Real pearls are unique. If you look very closely, you can detect small swirls from the layers of nacre used to form the pearl, along with other unique characteristics.

Real pearls also tend to weigh more. Simulated pearls are often made from metal or glass that weigh less compared to natural and cultured pearls.

The drill holes are also different on real pearls and simulated pearls. Real pearls require very tiny, carefully made drill holes to avoid cracking the nacre.

Simulated pearls often include slightly larger drill holes. You may also notice slight cracking or chipping around the drill hole.

If you are buying pearls from a reputable dealer, the price is also an indication of whether the pearls are real. Real pearls cost significantly more compared to simulated pearls.

Natural vs. Cultured vs. Simulated Pearls – Luster and Color

The most common colors for real and imitation pearls include:

  • White
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Charcoal
  • Black

Natural and cultured pearls tend to have multiple colors, including the base color, overtones, and undertones. Overtones are slightly translucent colors or hints of color that you detect on the outer surface. Undertones appear deeper within the pearl.

The overtones and undertones appear due to the way that oysters produce pearls. The multiple layers of nacre that form the pearl include variations of color. The pearl should have depth when you look into it.

Simulated pearls tend to lack depth. They often have a flat, uniform appearance. However, some companies produce simulated pearls with subtle overtones by combining colors in the color treatment process. You may find white imitation pearls with hints of rose, gold, or silver when the light hits just right.

Fish scale pearls tend to have a little more luster and reflectiveness compared to other types of simulated pearls. The fish scale coating more closely matches the appearance of real pearls.

Natural vs. Cultured vs. Simulated Pearls – Shapes and Sizes

Simulated pearls can be made into any shape, as they are manmade. Natural and cultured pearls may grow into one of several shapes, including:

  • Round
  • Semi-Round/Oval
  • Drop
  • Button
  • Baroque

A perfectly round sphere is the most sought-after shape and most difficult to find in nature. Semi-round pearls are slightly less costly but may still appear completely round without careful inspection.

Drop pearls are shaped like teardrops or pears. They have an elongated, symmetrical shape that works well in pendants and earrings.

Button pearls are flatter than the other options and are typically used in rings, earrings, and other pieces where the gem needs to rest flat.

Baroque pearls include any pearls with an irregular shape. The majority of natural and cultured pearls end up as baroque pearls, as symmetrical shapes are less common.

Natural vs. Cultured vs. Simulated Pearls – Which Costs More?

The typical natural pearl is much more expensive when compared to the typical cultured or simulated pearl. Natural pearls are incredibly rare, which makes them more valuable.

About 99% of all real pearls sold are cultured pearls. Only a small number of natural pearls enter the market each year, which drives up the price.

Simulated pearls are practically worthless themselves. They are man-made beads, often made from clay. As simulated pearls are easily mass-produced, they do not hold the same value as real pearls.

The following factors influence the price of a pearl:

  • Luster
  • Color
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Blemishes
  • Type

Luster is the biggest factor in determining the price of a pearl. The luster measures the reflective properties of a pearl. When you look at a pearl with excellent luster, you can see crisp details in the reflection.

Cultured Akoya pearls tend to have the best luster. They are sharper and more reflective compared to other types of cultured pearls. You are also less likely to see good luster in simulated pearls, as recreating the same depth is difficult.

The color can impact the price, as golden Australian pearls and deep black Tahitian pearls are less common compared to other colors from the same types of pearls. Unique overtones and undertones can also increase the price of natural and cultured pearls.

The shape is important in determining the value of a pearl. A perfectly round pearl can command a higher price compared to a semi-round or baroque pearl.

Larger pearls also cost more. The pearls used in the typical strand of cultured pearls may measure 7 mm to 8 mm. Australian pearls can measure up to 25 mm, which is part of the reason why they are the most expensive pearls.

Blemishes influence the price of a pearl, as people typically want near-flawless surfaces. Marks such as wrinkles and spots can lower the value of a pearl.

The type of pearl is another of the main details that determine the price of a pearl. Australian pearls cost the most due to the difficulty of harvesting the pearls. Tahitian pearls are a close second, as the cultivation process is also complex. Akoya pearls are the most affordable cultured pearls.

Conclusion

Natural and cultured pearls are considered authentic, real pearls by pearl experts and jewelers. However, natural pearls are incredibly rare and expensive. You are much more likely to find cultured and simulated pearls online or at a local jeweler.

The main two categories of cultured pearls include freshwater and seawater pearls. Freshwater pearls sell for as little as $20, making them an affordable option for those that want authentic pearls at the lowest price.

Cultured seawater pearls are more costly, but not as expensive as natural pearls. Common choices include Akoya, Tahitian, and Australian pearls.

Akoya pearls are the traditional choice and tend to have the most shine. Australian pearls are the most expensive and often the largest. Tahitian pearls land between Akoya and Australian pearls in size and cost but stand out for their deep charcoal and black colors.

Simulated pearls are a good choice for those that want the appearance of real pearls at a fraction of the price. High-quality imitation pearls look real unless you closely examine the jewelry.

About the Author

Anisa

I am a pearl and oyster enthusiast who loves to share her knowledge and experiences about fashion with the world. I am neither a certified gemologist nor a reseller of pearls.

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