Cultured pearls vs Natural pearls

APearls have held a unique allure throughout history, transcending different cultures throughout the world. They are made in two unique ways similar but different. Natural Pearls Vs Cultural Pearls

Natural Pearls form when
An irritant, sand or a parasite gets into an oyster, mussel, or clam naturally
They use a fluid called ‘nacre’ as a defense
Deposited many times it forms a Pearl.

Cultural Pearls
Are created the same but
By a mussel or oyster farmer under controlled conditions
In fresh & salt H2O

Over the last hundred years the Cultured Pearl Industry has taken over the natural process to where now, Natural Pearls only make up about 1/1000 % of the entire business. This is because of the process of nucleation, that is a surgical procedure that farmers use to create a Pearl that’s farmed in Saltwater Oysters or a Freshwater Mussels.


Are Cultured Pearls Real Pearls?


Cultured Pearls from either Saltwater or Freshwater are Real Pearls grown inside living Mollusk at Pearl Farms in Japan, Australia, Indonesia, China, and other locations around the world. In fact, China leads the world in the production of Freshwater Pearls.

Pearls cultured in Saltwater are typically much more valuable than those cultured in freshwater and they also typically have a higher shine, luster, and are consistently spherical or nearly so. Fresh Water pearls are easily cultivated from freshwater mussels rather than saltwater oysters. They are produced in great abundance and are therefore generally the most moderately priced of all cultured pearls varieties. Their unique shapes and gentle pastel colors make them perfect gems for those on a budget.

Saltwater pearls using Oysters are still at the top of the market with over 100 years of experience culturing behind them. According to Cultured Pearl Farmers, you may have to open more than 10,000 oysters to find a decently shaped pearl that can be easily farmed. It’s more the rarity than the beauty that makes Natural Pearls so expensive.  It may take over 100,000 oysters to get enough pearls to make a pearl necklace.

Matching natural pearls to make a pearl strand is very difficult since they are never round or uniform in size and color. A well-matched natural pearl strand can be extremely pricey. Both Farmed Cultured Pearls and Natural Pearls are gemstones it’s only the way that they are formed that makes them different. It’s the Creation that makes the difference in the two.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many studies were conducted in Europe on the Pearl industry. These studies had no success until 1893 In Japan when Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in culturing blister pearls under the guidance of Kakichi Mitsukuri, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University which now is the University of Tokyo. 


This success and subsequent developments laid the foundation for the modern pearl farming industry, developed new demand for cultured pearls in the European jewelry market, and initiated the full-scale industrialization of pearl culturing.

The cultured Pearl industry derived from Japan is now worldwide, which utilizes a variety of Pearl producing oysters. Recently, the introduction of genome analysis has allowed cultured pearl research to make rapid progress worldwide in such areas as the dynamics of mother-of-pearl layer formation and biomineralization. This signals another new era in the study of Pearls.


How Are Pearls Harvested


Breeding at the Mollusk Hatchery 

The first step in the pearl production process is to obtain oysters to be nucleated. In the early days of the cultured pearl industry, oysters were simply collected from the sea.  Some farmers still use this method today, many use the more modern practice of breeding their own oysters.

To do this, groups of oysters are laid in a separate tank and the temperature of the water is warmed. This makes the males lose their sperm and the females to release their eggs in the tank. The paired Mollusks all have to be taken from the tank fast or they will naturally, by their sucking action, eat the sperm and eggs that they just released.

Within 24 hours the eggs are fertilized by the sperm with a 95-98 % rate of success. At the Hatchery, about 1% will survive all the way through and hatch. A female can lay up to 72 million eggs, so, 1% will survive is a huge amount of oysters.  There are 3 spawning seasons a year and about 1 million per year or 300,000 per season. Almost all baby mollusks are born as male mollusks and as they grow, some will change their sex to female.

Another cool fact about growing baby oysters it takes about six months until they form a hard shell. The babies are fed a special cocktail of plankton to maximize their growth. And a year and a half after breeding, Then they are ready for the Nucleated Process. 

Nucleated Process

A Natural Pearl is formed organically when an irritant finds itself inside the oyster’s soft tissue muscle accidentally. This irritant, such as seawater sand or dust, activates the oyster’s defense mechanism, causing it to produce layers of secretions. The secretion (also called nacre) slowly develops into a natural pearl. This could take up to 7 years for a Pearl to form.

A Cultured Pearl is formed in the same exact way as a Natural Pearl but the irritant is surgically inserted (a process called Nucleated) into the oyster by the farmer. Mollusks from Fresh and Saltwater are Nucleated using a slightly different procedure but having the same result.

The outer layers of a cultured pearl are composed of concentrated layers of organic substances and calcium carbonate. Human intervention starts the secretion of a cultured pearl, whereas natural pearl secretion starts without any human intervention.


The difference is how the secretion process all begins. Aside from the fact that it takes so many Natural Pearls to make a piece of fine jewelry, the environment that the oysters live in, can have also lowered the chances for the oyster’s survival.

So the process of inserting the nacre into the oyster that lives in a controlled environment, safe from the weather and predators and raised by humans absolutely changed the business around the world forever.

Before being Nucleated the oysters are suspended in nets under docks that act as homes for these mollusks. How long they are waiting to be nucleated depends on the species.  Freshwater mussels in China are typically between 6 months to one-year-old before they are nucleated.

They then spend anywhere between two and seven years producing pearls. In the Philippines, the gold-lipped oyster is two years old before it is nucleated. So, you can see the difference based on the species.

The nets contain around 40 oysters per net that make it their home. They are tended to, for up to 2 years before being harvested. The more attention and care the oysters get through their lifetimes the more perfect the pearls that they produce.

The pampered oysters are harvested after 2 years. This will happen in the winter when the water the coldest. The cold water slows the metabolism down and has an effect on the nacre causing the pearl inside to create a maximum luster on the pearl that increases its value.



Harvest Day


  • When the oysters are removed from the nets the process starts where the farmers remove and collect the pearls.
  • When removing the pearl every part of the oyster is used.
  • Shell is used to creating Mother-Of-Pearl products
  • The Muscle tissue of the oysters is put aside. It’s considered a delicacy. It’s eaten raw and considered delicious and sold to restaurants.
  • The leftover remains of the oyster are sold as fertilizer.
  • The pearl still inside the soft tissue of the oyster is removed by a machine that spins the soft tissue and separates the pearl from the remainder the oyster’s soft tissue.
  • The Pearls are harvested and all the seawater that is used in the process is returned back to the Bay.

Sorting Matching Pearls

  • Talented sorters first separate high and low quality this is done at the farm.
  • Jewelry grade Pearls go to the factory and lower grade are grounded up for medicinal uses and creams.
  • Once into a factory type setting the matching drilling, grading and polishing happen here.
  • These Technicians are sometimes world renowned for their skill.
  • Sizes are all distinguished into groups
  • Colors, luster, and overtones are distinguished in groups, the better the technician the better the end product will be.
  • The pearls are separated by blemishes and the type of jewelry they will be used for like necklace and bracelet.
  • The pearls that make up a Strand for a necklace have to be matched perfectly. The better they are matched the more expensive the necklace will cost.
  • The Pearls are drilled for jewelry. Pearls are simultaneously drilled from both sides at once. A good technician can drill 500 pearls per hour
  • The Pearl dust created in Drilling is washed from the Pearl
  • Next, the Pearls are put in a centrifuge to spin excess water from the Pearls
  • The Pearls are polished using natural organic substances like bamboo pieces, walnut shells, and beeswax

There are 4 Main Types of Cultured Pearls.

  • Akoya Pearls are the classic white Pearls grown in Saltwater off the coast of Japan.
  • Freshwater Pearls are Pearls that come in multiple colors and at one time used to be the majority of Cultured Pearls that were sold.
  • Black Tahitian Pearls are the only natural Black Pearls. Black Pearls describe dark Pearls that could be purple, grey silver and blue. They are grown in saltwater off French Polynesia and Fiji. These type Pearls would have sold for $100,000 dollars 20 years ago but because of the availability today the same strand would sell for $3,000.00.
  • White and Gold South Sea Pearls are the rarest of all Cultured Pearls and are called “Queen of Gems” and are found off the coast of Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines. They are big white golden pearls with a deep silky luster. The big pearls that Ophra or Barbara Bush or Nancy Pelosi wear that are the statement that says that “I’ve made it” because if you are wearing these you definitely have had.

Quality Factors For Cultured Pearls

  • Nacre is the smooth surface that gives pearls their beauty.
  • Luster is the intense glow that comes within the pearl.
  • Surface-The cleaner the surface of the surface the more valuable the pearl will be.
  • Shape-The perfectly round the pearl, the more sought after and expensive it will be.
  • Color effect the taste more than value.
  • Size-Pearls can range in size from 1mm seed pearls to huge 20mm South Sea pearls. Cultured pearls of 6 – 7.5mm are the most common, and above this size the price jumps upward rapidly with each half-millimeter from 7.5mm up. To date the largest pearl recorded is a 26.95mm baroque south sea pearl. 

What makes a pearl valuable?

Natural Pearls are considered highly prized and are worth more than Cultured Pearls. The reason for the Cultured Pearl Farming Business is because of  Natural Pearls were so rare and expensive but desired by the general public. When Mikimoto first began farming cultured pearls in Japan in the late 1800s, he did so in response to the growing desire for gorgeous pearls at less expense so that the average person might afford them.

This way of thinking hasn’t changed. Natural Pearls are still very rare and are still expensive. The fact that nature is the creator and they are untouched by man will always make it more valuable.  A natural pearl is formed spontaneously by nature. A mussel or oyster that is in the Bivalve Mollusk family creates a pearl in response to an irritant or organism inside its soft body. It’s a defense mechanism.

Why does this happen?

Bivalve Mollusk, according to the NOAA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Bivalve Mollusks (e.g., clams, oysters, mussels, scallops) have an external covering that is a two-part hinged shell that contains a soft-bodied invertebrate.

Mollusk digs down into sediment like sand in the ocean or silt and mud in a river and filters water to eat. It absorbs the nutrients (plankton and other microscopic organisms) for food and it expels the water back out. During this time when the Mollusk is sucking water, they make pick up a foreign substance. This could be mud, bacteria, or anything even a predator trying to get in the shell to eat the mollusk’s soft tissue.

The mollusk will try and expel the invader. If their too much trauma involved the mollusk will die. If the mollusk doesn’t die then they will make a natural secretion of Calcium Carbonate as a defense mechanism.

This will coat the invasive substance over and over again. This secretion is made from the same material used in making the mollusk shell is the beginning of a Pearl. The odds are high that this event happens.


So these natural occurrences are highly unlike to happen. First not all Bivalve Mollusk are able to do this. Secondly the odds of an organism crawling into the mollusk and not killing it is also highly unlikely. Besides the fact that Mollusk are susceptible to numerous things in their environment like disease and even water pollution makes the incredible natural happening one-in-a-million.

Then you would have to open 10,000 oysters or mussels to find one. This is the reason that a Natural Pearl is more expensive even though the Cultured Pearl is considered a real Pearl.

Another unknown event that makes finding a Natural Pearl more even more difficult is that some oysters are able to dislodge the Pearls out of their shell. So even though it does produce a Pearl it’s lost on the bottom of the ocean.

Natural pearls vary in size and luminosity, though most have a stunning iridescent quality. They can grow in a variety of shapes and sizes simply because they are wild. Cultured pearls have some of the same qualities, but they will most often have a uniform shape and size. They can also be dyed or bleached to achieve a different color and luster.


Natural Pearls                                                                          Cultured Pearls

Pearl prices can vary. Because natural pearls are rare and difficult to find, they are always quite expensive. Perfect strands of natural pearls are even more uncommon and can be among the most expensive pieces of jewelry.

Cultured pearls can also be quite expensive, depending on their luster, shape, and size, but are available in a range of prices. Like these from the South Seas JYX Pearl Necklace AAAAA Top Grade 11mm Round Natural White South Sea Pearl Necklace for Women 17″

Cultured Pearls are not imitation Pearls and made of the same materials that the Natural Pearls are very expensive and quite old and rare like these from around the world ® 20.07-Carat Natural Pearl – 100% Unheated & Untreated, Mined in Iraq, Certified by PTL, Premium Loose Gemstone

.Imitation Pearls are made of glass and plastics and can be manufactured easily to fool the consumer who lacks expertise in gemstones. Pearls are rare and beautiful and just another reminder that man can try and copy the beauty of what God created but will never quite duplicate it.

By the way;

The Pearl necklace for the cover of this article. It was a gift to my wife on our 20th Anniversary. While I was researching the information I was able to identify what kind of Pearls they were. The Pearls are Japanese Saltwater Akoya White Pearls. Known for their luster, size, and Nacre which means smoothness. I wanted to share the information with her to surprise her but she already knew. “I thought diamonds were a girl’s best friend”



Related Questions:

 Are cultured pearls valuable?  Cultured South Sea Pearls are the largest on the market. These are considered to be the most valuable type of cultured pearl on the market. One strand of South Sea pearls can range between $1,000 to $100,000

 Do oysters die when pearls are harvested?  An oyster makes pearls on its own by secreting nacre, or mother of pearl, around an irritant that gets into its shell.  After that pearl is harvested, the oyster is usually “sacrificed” because it is unlikely to produce another pearl so shiny

 Why do you rub pearls on your teeth?   Scrape the pearl across your front teeth. Real pearls typically feel gritty or slightly rough, while fakes will likely feel smooth.  Rub one pearl against another lightly. If you feel sandy friction, then they are probably real.


 reference: The Science Of Pearls



Author/Editor, MyWaterEarth&Sky

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