What are Cultured Pearls
Cultured pearls are pearls that have been intentionally grown and farmed by oyster, mussel, and clam farmers in more than 5,000 pearl farms around the world. The farmers introduce an irritant – often a shell bead or a piece of tissue – into the mollusk. The irritant then causes the mollusk to produce a secretion which forms the layers of nacre on the shell bead. (This is the same process that happens in natural pearls, only the irritant naturally finds its way in naturally.) The process of growing a cultured pearl takes as little as six months, but the longer the irritant is left in the mollusk, the larger the resulting pearl will be. Until about 100 years ago, all pearl jewelry was made up of natural pearls (no intervention by man).
Cultured Pearl Characteristics
There are two main categories for cultured pearls depending on where they’re grown: saltwater cultured pearls (also known as Akoya pearls) and freshwater cultured pearls.
Saltwater cultured pearls are grown in oceans, seas, gulfs, and bays. The most popular of these is called the Akoya pearl, which is grown off the coast of Japan. Akoya pearls range from about 6mm to 8mm in diameter and are usually white or cream in color. Australian South Seas and Tahitian pearls are also very popular and are some of the largest in the world, ranging from 8mm to 18mm or larger.
Freshwater cultured pearls are grown in rivers, lakes, and ponds – mainly in China. They generally have a wide variety of shapes and colors available. Freshwater cultured pearls have a look very similar to saltwater cultured pearls but are generally smaller, not as symmetrical, and have varying colors. As a result, freshwater cultured pearls tend to offer great value when comparing prices with saltwater cultured pearls.
So what should you go with: cultured pearls vs freshwater pearls? Remember that both saltwater and freshwater pearls are cultured (that is, grown thanks to someone introducing an irritant to the mollusk). That means the choice between cultured pearls vs. freshwater pearls is really up to your personal taste.
How do you tell if a pearl is natural or cultured?
With a little education, you can generally determine if a pearl is naturally occurring or a cultured pearl. For one, natural pearls are extremely rare and nearing extinction. Over the past two centuries, divers have depleted most of the natural pearls in the world’s oceans. It is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 mollusks in the wild will ever produce a pearl and that very few of those pearls produced will be of jewelry-quality. Because natural pearls are so rare, nearly all pearls sold in jewelry stores like ours are cultured pearls.
In addition to their rarity, you can sometimes visually tell the difference between a natural pearl and a cultured pearl. Cultured pearls tend to be mostly spherical and come in a variety of colors. Natural pearls tend to be baroque-shaped (not round) and are generally off-white.
So are natural pearls more expensive than cultured pearls? The answer is yes – much more expensive. Their rarity has driven the price of natural pearls way up. Fortunately, there are beautiful and affordable options for cultured pearls to fit many styles and budgets.
Cultured Pearls Value
Even though natural pearls are rarer and more expensive, cultured pearls are still considered very valuable! Cultured pearls value/price is generally determined by the size, shape, and characteristics of the pearl as well as whether the pearl is freshwater or saltwater.
Are cultured pearls worth any money? Yes! Cultured pearls come in a wide variety of types and costs. For instance, a strand of small freshwater cultured pearls is just over $100. Or you could spend thousands of dollars on a strand of larger saltwater cultured pearls. It really is up to your taste and your budget.
It’s important to remember that cultured pearls are considered real pearls. They are produced by living organisms, and are identical in make-up to a natural pearl. The only difference is they had a little nudge from humans to start growing the pearls.
Prior to being set in jewelry, pearls are routinely treated to enhance their color by bleaching, buffing, coating dyeing and irradiation. Bleaching is routinely performed on most pearls to remove darker spots and it is usually undetectable. Cultured pearls are buffed or polished to enhance the luster, and this again is undetectable. Cultured pearls are sometimes coated with lacquer, temporarily improving luster, but eventually it will wear off. Dyes may also be used to change the color of a cultured pearl, but are considered less valuable than one of the same color occurring naturally. Irradiation can also be used to change color-giving cultured pearls a metallic look. Our jewelry experts are happy to talk with you and explain any treatments that have been used on particular jewelry pieces.
Because pearls are an organic gemstone, special care must be taken to maintain their beauty. The best care for pearls is to wear them – the natural oils in our skin keep pearls lustrous. Avoid exposing pearls to chemicals such as hairsprays, make-up and perfume, as well as household chemicals. Our jewelry experts always say pearls should be the last thing you put on and the first thing you take off. After wearing your pearls, make sure you wipe them down with a soft damp cloth. Should they become soiled with perfume or make-up, you may use very mild soapy water. Do not submerge your pearl strand in water as this may weaken the silken threads. Professional cleaning is recommended. Never place pearls in jewelry cleaners or ultrasonic machines.
Cultured Pearl Jewelry
Cultured pearl jewelry comes in many different styles to fit many different budgets. Borsheims has a large selection of both freshwater cultured pearls and saltwater cultured pearls, including Akoya pearls. Because pearls are the June birthstone, they are a very popular gift for June babies as well as a traditional gift for brides, graduates, and any fan of a classic look that is rooted in history.