Natural vs. Cultured Pearls

Confused about the difference between natural and cultured pearls?

Don’t be.  Basically, the only difference is how the pearl starts developing.  (If you missed my blog post on how pearls are formed, click here.)

Natural pearls are created when an intruder enters the mollusk.  This is commonly thought to be a grain of sand but, in reality, both freshwater mussels and saltwater oysters are constantly getting sand in their shells.  Most of the time the sand is just ‘spat’ back out into the water.  So, the ‘intruder’ could be a broken bit of shell or bone…something that would annoy or irritate the mollusk to the point where its self-defence kicks in and it starts covering it with nacre.

Cultured pearls, on the other hand, involve human intervention to insert a piece of mantle tissue from a donor mollusk.  Although most pearl farmers simply use a small bead instead, or wrap a bit of mantle tissue around a bead.  Why a bead?  This gives a larger base to start the process and helps the pearl develop the sought-after round shape.  After the initial ‘help’ from humans, the pearls are left to evolve naturally…for the most part.  A pearl farmer should also keep an eye on the temperature of the water, any signs of pollution or parasites, and on the quality & quantity of food available to the mollusks.  Apart from all that, it’s just a waiting game.  The size of the pearl will depend on climate conditions and how long it is left to grow.

This all makes it sound very easy.  But, before you decide to head off to tropical waters and set up your own pearl farm, you should watch this video on everything that goes on behind the scenes.  If you’ve got time to relax with a cuppa, The Pearl Girls have some great videos on their YouTube channel of all different types of pearls and how they are farmed/collected.

It’s ‘Quiz Time’!  Can you tell the difference between natural & cultured pearls?

Nope?  That’s ok – neither can experts!

Sometimes x-rays are used to try and determine what’s at the centre of the nacre, but this isn’t always conclusive.  Oh, and I’m a meanie…both pics are of cultured pearls; the keshi pearls on the left are the result of the implanted mantle tissue falling off the bead that it was wrapped around and forming a ‘warped’ shape, and the perfectly round ones on the right are great examples of the successful products of pearl farming.

99.9% of the most sought-after pearls are actually cultured, not natural – wow!

Questions? Comments? Just want to share your love of pearls? I’d love to hear from you!




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