There are two primary categories of pearls: Natural and Cultured

natural pearl is formed when a grain of foreign matter floating in the ocean works its way into the mantle tissue of a bi-valve mollusk. The mollusk secretes layers of nacre around the foreign body, in order to protect the delicate tissue. This forms a natural pearl.

cultured pearl is the result when a pearl farmer inserts a tiny piece of mother-of-pearl (nacre from a Mississippi River mollusk) into one of several species of mollusks, and the mollusk secretes nacre to protect itself. Imitation pearls are manufactured in laboratories/factories generally out of glass or plastic and coated with a chemical that enhances the luster of the beads and creates a gritty surface like that on cultured and natural pearls.

The most famous brand of imitation pearl is the Majorca, manufactured in Spain. To state the obvious, all pearls used in jewelry before culturing was invented are natural, unless replaced in jewelry with cultured pearls over the generations. Natural pearls form in oceans, rivers and lakes all over the globe. The most important source continues to be the Persian Gulf, in the nations of Bahrain and Oman. Natural pearls from this area are called “oriental pearls” by jewelers and gemologists.

Gemologists and jewelers who are experienced buyers of both natural and cultured pearls can often identify each by eye, usually based on a combination of shape, color and luster. However, the only proof positive way to do this is by x-ray and other laboratory tools. Quality for quality and size for size, necklaces of natural pearls are more expensive than those composed of cultured pearls. Therefore, jewelers selling such necklaces provide laboratory documents for accurate identification of origin.

Necklaces of natural pearls are uncommon in the retail marketplace, and are generally sold by stores that specialize in estate and antique jewelry or come to market through the auction process. Small natural pearls are still available for use in the add-a-pearl necklaces so popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and as replacement pearls in antique jewelry.



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