types of cultured pearls

quick facts

natural pearls vs. cultured pearls

Natural pearls are pearls formed by chance. Cultured pearls have been given a helping hand by humans.

Today, nearly all pearls are cultured. By inserting a foreign object into a mollusc, pearl farmers can induce the creation of a pearl. From there, the same process of natural pearl creation takes place. The difference is that in this case, the inducement is intentional.

Cultured pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls through the use of x-rays, which reveal the inner part of the pearl.

pearl education

what are cultured pearls?

Natural pearls are so rare to find in nature that most pearls sold today are cultured.

The growth of cultured pearls requires human intervention and care. Today, most of the molluscs used in the culturing process are raised specifically for that purpose, although some wild molluscs are still collected.

To begin the process, a skilled technician takes mantle tissue from an old shell of the same species and inserts a shell bead along with a small piece of mantle into a host mollusc’s gonad, or several pieces of mantle without beads into a host mollusc’s mantle. If a bead is used, the mantle tissue grows and forms a sac around it and secretes nacre inward and onto the bead to eventually form a cultured pearl. If no bead is used, nacre forms around the individual implanted mantle pieces. Workers tend the molluscs until the cultured pearls are harvested.

Cultured Pearl Formation

A pearl is formed when a small irritant lodges in the mantle of a mollusc. In response, a substance called nacre is secreted, and the creation of a pearl begins. Nacre is a combination of crystalline and organic substances. The nacre builds up in layers, as it surrounds the irritant to protect the mollusc, and after a few years, this build-up of nacre forms a pearl.

Today’s Cultured Pearl Industry

The development of pearl culturing took much of the chance, risk, and guesswork out of the pearl industry. It has allowed it to become stable and predictable, fostering rapid growth over the past 100 years. Today, the cultured pearl industry has essentially replaced the natural pearl industry with production of cultured freshwater, South Sea, Tahitian, and Akoya pearls.

Major Types of Cultured Pearls

There are four major types of cultured pearls:

Akoya: This type is most familiar to many jewellery customers. Japan and China both produce saltwater Akoya cultured pearls.

South Sea: Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are leading sources of these saltwater cultured pearls.

Tahitian: Cultivated primarily around the islands of French Polynesia (the most familiar of these is Tahiti), these saltwater cultured pearls usually range from white to black.

Freshwater: These are usually cultured in freshwater lakes and ponds. They’re produced in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colours. China and the US are the leading sources.