Natural versus cultured pearls


Pearls, image by Tanakawho

Pearl jewelry is the quintessential vintage accessory. They are highly coveted and usually passed down through the generations. There’s something extraordinary about those cream-colored orbs; women continue reaching for their pearls when there are special occasions. Due to the consistent demand for these beauties, we’d like to review some important tricks of the trade when it comes to natural versus cultured pearls.

What are natural pearls?

These pearls are formed by an accident of nature when an outside object enters the shell of an oyster or clam. The item aggravates the normally docile clam/oyster, causing it to consistently coat the intruder with calcium carbonate. This material is known as nacre (sounds like nay kerr). As the years go by, the nacre will form into a beautiful pearl. Historically, most natural pearls were found in the Persian Gulf, but those areas have now been over-harvested. Thus, natural pearls are mostly found in jewelry prior to the 1920s.

What are cultured pearls?

With a constant demand and an innovative atmosphere, people began forcing these “accidents of nature.” Pearl farmers experimented with different outside objects to see which would produce the most stunning pieces. The method was delicate and precise; all aspects could be manipulated from the object itself to the color of the water. Another advantage of this approach is time-related. Natural pearls take almost a decade to fully form, while cultured pearls cut that by nearly eighty percent.


Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy in a stunning pearl necklace

How to identify pearls

There are a variety of different ways to determine a pearl’s lineage, but the best way is to peer inside via x-ray. Natural pearls will have rings on the inside, like a tree. Their cultured counterparts will lack this concentric signature. You should also feel the surface of the pearl. Both cultured and natural pearls will have a slightly rough texture.

Keep in mind that pearls aren’t just round in shape. They can also be oval or pear-shaped. Some pieces are very unique and misshapen. Collectors refer to these examples as baroque pearls.

Other types of pearls

Freshwater pearls

As the name suggests, these pearls are grown in freshwater environments. Most are white in color, but they can be formed into all sorts of shapes and a variety of hues.

Image by andreeguittcis

Tahitian Pearl

Saltwater pearls

These pearls are typically white/cream in color and round in shape. The popular Akoya pearls are formed this way and are known for their stunning shine and quality. They can be colored, but are often requested in white tones. Location determines a lot of the pearl’s qualities like color and size. While Tahitian pearls are also known as black pearls, their colors can actually range from gray to blue and even include green and purple hues. Tahitian pearls have an almost metallic sheen to them and are larger than other saltwater creations.

How to take care of pearls

If you remember one tip, it should be this: never clean your pearls with an abrasive cleanser. (You do not want to scratch the surface.) Due to their delicate nature, you want to store pearls in an acid-free box or cloth bag. When you do wear them, it’s common to have makeup or sweat interact with the pearls. You will want to remove this right away and a nice bath in warm, soapy water is the best way to give your pearls back their splendor. Dry them with a soft towel before returning them to storage. Because pearls don’t do well when they’re rustling against other things you will want to re-string them every few years. Take them to a professional who will knot each pearl individually.

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: “Tips, Tools, and Techniques to care for antiques, collectibles, and other treasures” by Georgia Kemp Caraway, the Antiques Roadshow, and Helzberg Diamonds.

For our readers: Do you love wearing pearls for special outings? How often do you have them restrung?

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