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Natural Pearls vs. Cultured Pearls

by Lynda Belcher
Published November 11, 2009 | Updated June 12, 2015

Pearls evoke a sense of sophistication, style, and opulence. When you're shopping for pearl jewelry, you will encounter a variety of different pearls, and you may be wondering which ones are right for you. There are distinct differences between naturally occurring pearls and cultured pearls, as well as differences between freshwater and saltwater varieties. Understanding those differences will help you make an informed decision when purchasing pearl jewelry.

Cultured and Natural Pearls:

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  • How Natural Pearls Are Created

    Natural pearls occur in the wild, without any human assistance. They are hunted and are quite rare. When found, the pearls are harvested, cleaned, and made into jewelry.

  • How Cultured Pearls Are Created

    Cultured pearls are grown under tightly controlled conditions by pearl farmers. Farmers plant a core made up of mussel shell into an oyster or mussel; then the oyster or mussel forms a pearl around this irritant, just as they do when forming natural pearls. Pearl farmers design cultured pearls from start to finish, ensuring they are perfectly shaped and luminous. Once harvested, the pearls are cleaned, and some are treated and bleached before being made into jewelry.

  • Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

    Both natural and cultured pearls can be freshwater or saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are created or occur in mussels, while saltwater pearls are created or occur in oysters.

  • Differences in Appearance

    Natural pearls vary in size and luminosity, though most have a stunning iridescent quality. They are also found in a variety of shapes and sizes simply because they are wild. Cultured pearls have some of the same qualities, but they will most often be uniformly shaped and sized, and they can also be dyed or bleached to achieve different colors and luster.

  • Cultured Is Not Imitation

    Cultured pearls are often thought of as imitation pearls, but the two should not be confused. Cultured pearls are made of the same material as natural pearls and take time to create, up to seven years depending on the type of pearl. Imitation pearls are often made of plastic or glass and can be manufactured quite easily and quickly. Keep this in mind when you are shopping for pearl jewelry.

  • Different Price Ranges

    Because natural pearls are rare and difficult to find, they are typically quite expensive. Perfect strands of natural pearls are even more uncommon and can be among the most expensive pieces of jewelry. Cultured pearls can also be expensive, depending on their luster, shape, and size, but are available in a range of prices. Both natural and cultured pearls of all varieties can be a valuable jewelry investment, so shop for and purchase your pearl jewelry carefully.