My recent articles about pearls raised further questions. Readers posed inquiries offline. When I got the same question from two different people, it was time to shed light on the questions people ask over and over about pearls.
Many questions arise from misconceptions about pearls. Other misunderstandings prevail about the meaning of terms used to describe the various pearl varieties. Here are the most common inquiries that have come my way about our pearly friends from the seas.
Q: What is a cultured pearl?
A: It’s a pearl that has been nucleated with a seed bead to stimulate the mollusk to produce a pearl. The nucleation occurs via human intervention.
Q: Are all pearls “cultured?”
A: It would be incorrect to say that all pearls are cultured, but most pearls you’ll come across today are. Pearls that are not cultured are rare indeed, because they are an accident of nature, produced naturally by the mollusk itself with no human intervention.
Q: What’s the difference between a natural and a cultured pearl?
A: A mollusk makes a pearl naturally when a grain of sand, a particle of undigested food, or other foreign sea-borne debris gets into the shell. This is a fairly infrequent occurrence. A cultured pearl forms when a human being inserts such foreign material into the shell.
Q: How can you tell a natural pearl from a cultured pearl?
A: You can’t. Unless you saw the pearl in half or do a spectrographic analysis in the lab, there’s no way to tell from the outside what the nucleating agent inside is.
You CAN tell one from the other by the price. Natural pearls are very, very expensive owing to their rarity, which arises from the long time it takes for a mollusk to produce a pearl naturally, if it makes one at all. If the pearl is at all affordable, it’s a cultured pearl.
Q: Are cultured pearls man made?
A: No. Cultured pearls are produced by mollusks. Only the nucleation of the mollusk occurs by a human intervention.
Q: How can you tell a man made pearl?
A: Pearls made by people look perfectly round and have few or no imperfections. They have a luster that looks a bit metallic rather than pearly. They are usually lighter in weight than real pearls because they’re made of plastics. The finish of a man made pearl usually chips or wears off in time. They have a machine-made look because they’re imitating a perfection that real pearls just don’t have.
Q: What’s the difference between freshwater pearls and regular pearls?
A: Freshwater pearls are produced by mollusks that live in freshwater. “Regular” pearls are all the others, typically the pearls that used to come exclusively from oysters that live in saltwaters.
Q: How can you tell a freshwater pearl from a saltwater pearl?
A: Freshwater pearls are produced by mollusks living in lakes, rivers, streams and other bodies of freshwater. Once nucleated, a freshwater mollusk can produce several pearls at the same time, which can be harvested in as little as six months.
Saltwater pearls grow in oysters living in oceans and saltwater seas. Once nucleated, an oyster grows one pearl at a time, taking around two years to do it.
These differences between a freshwater and a saltwater pearl are best noticed by price, the lower-priced freshwater pearls reflecting their greater abundance.
Q: Are colored pearls dyed?
A: No. Mollusks produce pearls that are naturally colored as white or the palest ivory, beige, yellow, pink, or gray. Pearls that are more intensely or unusually colored than that have been produced in a mollusk that lived in waters treated with inorganic salts. The inorganic minerals in the water are what impart color to the nacre as the mollusk is producing the pearl. The color is NOT painted on, coated, or otherwise applied to the pearl after removal from the mollusk.
Q: Is a “baroque” pearl a defective pearl?
A: No. Because a mollusk is a living thing, it will nacre over a nucleating bead any old way it wants to! To expect a mollusk to produce a perfectly even nacre coating over a round nucleating bead is simply asking too much. Mollusks produce pearls with incomplete nacre cover and imperfections most of the time. A baroque pearl has such imperfections, which, in the eyes of savvy beholders, makes for interest and beauty.
Q: What are the best pearls?
A: There is no “best.” The parameters that experts put onto the value of pearls goes generally by round shape, whiteness, luster, size, and rarity. (The exception is Tahitian black pearls, the most valuable ones being the darkest.) Marketers have put some standards on pearls so that customers come to believe that only the whitest, largest, most lustrous, perfectly round pearls with no imperfections are the best. Sellers of such pearls will charge you accordingly.
But if you’re like me, you’ll find beauty in the less expensive but no less attractive colored baroques with interesting shapes in a variety of sizes.
The best pearls are those that you like!
Click on the link for more information about the following pearls: Tahitian black pearls, freshwater pearls, keshi pearls, mabe pearls, needle pearls.
Sources: Those cited in previous articles, as linked above, and my own personal knowledge.