Natural vs Cultured Pearls: All you need to know
Pearls are exceptionally unique gemstones, as the only gems that are entirely formed within a living organism. You’ve probably heard of pearls being referred to as either natural or cultured, and they are often compared to one another. It’s important to note that both natural and cultured pearls are real pearls! The difference between the two is how they are produced.
Still confused? We’ve got you covered – read on and become a pearl expert.
What are Natural pearls?
A natural pearl is found in the ‘wild’ and formed organically, without human intervention, when an irritant accidentally finds itself inside an oyster or mollusk shell. This irritant could be a be a piece of coral or the tip of a crab claw, and when it enters the shell, it activates the defense mechanism of the shell. The defense mechanism of the shell and the way in which it protects itself from this irritant is to secrete layers of a substance called nacre. This layering of nacre coats the irritant that has found its way into the shell and this process slowly creates a pearl over the span of several years.
In the late 19th century, specialised pearl divers collected shells from the seabed’s in an attempt to find precious pearls. Finding a natural pearl is an incredibly rare feat, as explained above, pearls are created by a shell as a defense mechanism – to contain and neutralise irritants that have found their way into the shell. When this occurs, the irritant is coated in nacre and then the shell aims to ‘spit’ the irritant out. Therefore, most shell’s aim to expel the irritant once it is covered in nacre and this can make finding a natural pearl more rare.
So in conclusion, natural pearls are universally considered extremely rare, with most natural pearls only found on the antique market today.
What are Cultured pearls?
Cultured pearls are real, genuine pearls that are produced by an oyster or mollusc shell, but with human assistance. Pearl cultivation involves the process of a pearl farmer carefully inserting an irritant in the form of a tiny bead called a nucleus. This in then followed by a piece of mantle tissue, and both are inserted in the reproductive organ of the shell. In here layers of nacre are formed.
This process of culturing pearls was introduced in the 19th century, and this process occurs at our pearl farms with the process being carried out by skilled pearl farmers and technicians. One of the founders of our very own Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, Lyndon Brown, was one of the first Australian pearl technicians to master the technique of culturing pearls, and then went on to do this in a commercial manner. You can visit the pearl farm today and learn all about the history of pearl farming in Broome.
Types of Cultured pearls
There are two types of cultured pearls, and they include saltwater pearls and freshwater pearls.
Saltwater pearls are grown across Australia and Asia, and there are three main types of saltwater pearls, which include South Sea pearls, Tahitian pearls and Akoya pearls and these are considered to be more valuable than freshwater pearls. This is because Saltwater pearls take longer to cultivate, only produce a single pearl at a time, and have a thicker nacre. They also have a beautiful lustre and colour.
Freshwater pearls are grown in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and ponds – most of them coming from China. Freshwater pearls are usually less lustrous, have a thinner nacre, produce multiple pearls at a time and are cultured for a shorter time than their premium Saltwater pearl counterparts. It’s important to further note that freshwater pearls spend more time in a chemical bath to enhance their colour and lustre than they do actually growing inside a shell.
Natural pearls vs Cultured pearls
All pearls, both natural and cultured, are created biologically and are created through the very same process of the layering of nacre- the substance secreted by the shell. The main difference between the two is that natural pearls are formed through an accidental irritant, whereas cultured pearls are formed through human insertion of an irritant referred to as a bead or a nucleus. Therefore, the point of difference between natural and cultured pearls is the way the secretion process of nacre starts.
It is extremely difficult to tell the difference between cultured and natural pearls. The only method of certainty is by an official gemmological X-Ray examination.
The overall appearance and colour a pearl is determined by the species of the shell regardless of if the pearl is natural or cultured. In terms of difference in appearance, natural pearls have a more “organic” or baroque appearance and may not be as well-shaped or as round as their cultured pearl counterparts. This is because the nucleus inserted into the oyster is round. However, because the oyster is a living creature, it does not always guarantee a perfectly round pearl, these are very rare!
Another point of difference is the rarity between natural and cultured pearls. Today, almost any pearl that is encountered is a cultured pearl. Natural pearls are extremely rare, and most natural beds of pearl-producing shells have been depleted due to over-harvesting in the past – with almost all natural pearls worldwide already harvested!
Although natural pearls are extremely rare, saltwater pearls are also rare. This is especially true for South Sea pearls, which each take an average of four years to grow a single pearl, making South Sea pearls approximately 1000 times rarer than diamonds.
On this note, cultured pearls are therefore considered a more environmentally conscious approach to the pearling industry as farming can be done without the depletion of wild oyster populations. Studies provided by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) show that for every hectare of oyster reef each year each pearl farm allows for the filtration of 2.7 billion litres of water, the removal of 225kg of nitrogen and phosphate, 375kg of new fish to catch and eat, the provision of a new home for 100+ marine species and the removal of 10,000kg of carbon.
What is the difference in pearl quality?
As discussed above, once the irritant is placed inside the shell, the rest of the process is the same between natural and cultured pearls. This means that quality and durability between natural and cultured pearls are the same.
Our locally and sustainably grown South Sea and Akoya pearls are amongst the finest quality pearls grown anywhere in the world. Carefully cultured by our dedicated team of highly skilled pearl farmers over many years, not only are our pearls rare, pure, and completely stunning to look at, they also happen to be one of the few precious gems on the planet that contain regenerative and restorative qualities for our oceanic environment.
This means when you purchase a pearl from Broken Bay Pearl Farm or Pearls of Australia, you’re not only purchasing one of the rarest and most beautiful gifts of mother nature, but you’re also helping to facilitate the restoration of our pristine Australian waterways in either of Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm or Broken Bay Pearl Farm.
Shop our Pearl Range
Even though cultured pearls are created with the help of humans, they are still highly valued for their beauty and lustre – making them perfect for pieces of jewellery such as pearl earrings, pearl necklaces, pearl strands, pearl bracelets, and pearl rings.
Few collections in the world can boast the purity, rarity, lustre and provenance of our Australian grown pearls. Pairing these visible and invisible qualities together with our elegantly crafted jewellery designs, we create pieces that are treasured for generations