Skip to content


Your cart is empty

Article: Natural, cultured and synthetic pearls, what is the difference?

Collares de perlas naturales de gran tamaño

Natural, cultured and synthetic pearls, what is the difference?

The world of pearls may seem simple from the outside, but it is more complex than one might imagine.

There is a lot of contradictory and unprofessional information that has caused a certain lack of knowledge, but don't worry, in this article we are going to clarify all these doubts.

As you can see, we have three distinct groups of pearls, natural pearls , cultured pearls and synthetic, fake or imitation pearls .

Lets start by the beginning.

What is a natural pearl?

Natural pearls are gems that form completely spontaneously and without human intervention, within marine mollusks, such as oysters and mussels.

Pearls, like the shells of oysters and mussels, are made of nacre or mother of pearl , which in turn is composed of calcite , aragonite and a protein substance known as conchiolin.

There are many myths and hoaxes about how a pearl is formed in nature. Probably the most famous is the grain of sand . The theory is that a grain of sand or other object enters the oyster, irritating it and causing a defensive reaction that causes the secretion of nacre to encapsulate said invader.

Well, this theory is completely false .

Natural pearl necklaces

Natural Pearl Strands Exhibited at Hong Kong International Jewelry Fair in 2024

The others and mussels do not have the capacity to become irritated, in fact, they are not even capable of feeling , since they do not have a brain per se. They have a very simple nervous system, which allows them to perform basic functions, such as eating, growing and reproducing. In this sense, they are more similar to a plant than an animal.

The reality is that a pearl is formed when the epithelial cells found in the oyster's mantle are displaced to another place within the oyster.

For example, it is possible that a parasite crosses the oyster shell, passes through the mantle and reaches the gonad , dragging epithelial cells in its wake. The only function of these cells is to generate nacre for the oyster to grow, so they will continue to fulfill their function despite having been displaced. When found inside the gonad, what is known as the “pearl sac” is formed, which little by little is filled with layers of nacre, until forming a pearl that is usually more or less spherical in shape, but not necessarily. round, in fact, round pearls are the rarest and most difficult to obtain.

As you can see, this is a completely accidental and complex event, which is why finding a natural pearl is so complicated. It is estimated that only one in every ten thousand oysters can find a natural pearl of moderately acceptable quality.

What is a Cultured pearl?

Cultured pearls are pearls created by oysters and mussels, but with the help and care of humans .

It is important to clarify that what you see in jewelry stores today are all cultured pearls . As we have already explained, natural pearls are extremely scarce and are reserved for collectors or people with very high purchasing power since a simple necklace of natural pearls can cost millions of euros. Furthermore, since the invention of plastic, oysters were no longer sought to create mother-of-pearl objects, such as buttons and ornaments, pearls continued to be an extra product of the mother-of-pearl industry and with the invention of pearl farming at the beginning of the century XX, the natural pearl industry practically disappeared.

The cultivation of saltwater pearls was discovered by a Japanese entrepreneur named Kokichi Mikimoto who, after a decade of attempts, managed to grow the first crop of complete Akoya Pearls in 1916 , years before he had managed to grow half pearls.

Visit our Akoya pearl jewelry collection here.

The method that Mikimoto discovered is the one that is still used today .

After about three years of caring for the oysters, until they reach a size suitable for producing a pearl, the oysters are removed from the water to carry out the nucleation process .

The process consists of two steps. First, the shells are separated a few millimeters from each other and a nucleus , a small ball created from the shell of another oyster or mussel, is introduced. The second step is the introduction of a small piece of the mantle of a donor oyster . This little piece of mantle contains the epithelial cells that we mentioned before. If the operation is successful, the oyster is returned to the water for a period of between one and two years , sometimes a little longer, depending on the type of oyster. During these two years, the oysters are cared for by the producers and if everything goes well and natural disasters , red tides, water temperatures and other threats allow it, in the end a beautiful cultured pearl can be extracted.

Operator inserting a nucleus into an Akoya oyster

Thanks to this process, the chances of obtaining quality pearls increase significantly, however, only a small percentage of the harvested pearls will have adequate quality . On the other hand, by including a round core inside, the chances of getting a round pearl also increase, but even so only 20 or 30% of the pearls that are harvested are round.

There is one exception to the culture method, in freshwater pearls , which are created by mussels and in this case, no nucleus is included, just a piece of tissue from a donor mussel, making it more difficult to get round pearls. . However, in recent years, scientific and technological advances have allowed the cultivation methods of freshwater pearls to be improved and some freshwater pearls with cores are already being cultivated.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that there are different types of cultured pearls. On the one hand, we have saltwater pearls : Akoya Pearls, South Sea Pearls and Tahitian Pearls. And on the other hand we have freshwater pearls : Classic freshwater pearls and cored freshwater pearls .

Visit our collection of jewelry with Freshwater Pearls Here

You can learn all about the different types of pearls in our guide.

What is a synthetic pearl?

Simple, synthetic pearls are not pearls , they are objects created in a factory that try to imitate a pearl. The most typical materials are glass , shells and plastic .

One of the most famous imitation pearls out there is the Mallorcan pearl or Majorica pearl, created with a glass core and varnished with an organic compound. You can read more information about these pearls here.

How do you know if a pearl is fake?

There are several methods to know if a pearl is real or fake, but today we will focus on the two simplest.

The first is to lightly rub two pearls together , if you notice a rough feel and even see how they generate a light dust , it is most likely that they are cultured pearls. If they slip a lot, they are fake pearls.

Comparison image between synthetic and cultured pearls In this case you can see that the synthetic pearls have a very large size, typical of a South Sea pearl, but their shine is too "mirror-like" while South Sea pearls usually have a silkier shine. Which allows us to identify that they are an imitation, with a simple glance.

The second method is the tooth method. Simply slide the pearl gently over one of your upper teeth (no need to bite it). If you notice a sandy feel, like sandpaper , it is most likely a cultured pearl. If you notice a very smooth and slippery feel, it is probably an imitation.

You can also look at the temperature , cultured pearls tend to be cooler to the touch.

Furthermore, cultured pearls are not perfect , even if they are of very good quality, they are never completely spherical and with a surface completely free of imperfections and in the case of designs with several pearls, they are never completely equal to each other. However, imitation pearl manufacturers already create pearls with imperfections, to give them a more realistic appearance, so the methods mentioned at the beginning are more accurate.

Now that you know the different types of pearls. Enter our online store, where you can find the perfect cultured pearls for you. And don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Buy Cultured Pearl Earrings

Buy Cultured Pearl Necklaces

Buy Cultured Pearl Bracelets

Buy Cultured Pearl Pendants

You may be interested

Diamantes Lab-Grown: Todo lo que necesitas saber

Lab-Grown Diamonds: Everything You Need to Know

LAB-GROWN DIAMONDS Diamonds grown or created in the laboratory. Lab-grown diamonds are diamonds grown by scientists in laboratories. They share the same chemical and atomic composition as natural ...

Read more