Pearl Wisdom: Natural and Man-Made

At first glance, pearls may seem simple and uncomplicated, but there’s much more to their story than meets the eye.

There are two general classes of pearls: natural or man-made. Natural pearls are created by a living organism as a result of irritation. It occurs when a foreign object like a piece of shell or bone, or even another living thing, becomes stuck within an invertebrate with a soft shell, such as an oyster or mussel. In an act of protecting itself, the host organism begins to cover the foreign element in nacre, a crystalline material secreted by the organism. Over time, built-up layers of nacre cover the irritant. Because the process is not tied to any particular time schedule, the result is a product whose pattern, sheen, color, and dimensions are unique. Each natural pearl has its own individual identity.

Bulgari two-strand choker necklace with ruby rondelle beads and cultured pearls, 18K yellow gold clasp. Auctioned by Clars Auction Gallery for $70,000 + buyer’s premium on Feb. 19, 2012. Clars and LiveAuctioneers image

Man-made pearls, which do not rely on nature to take its course, are far more common than their natural counterparts. Also, pearl harvesting has been an ongoing pursuit for generations, so discoveries of old pearls are far less common than in the past.

Jewelry dealer and pearl appraiser Deborah Boskin, owner of db Designs, explained the effect that diminished supply has had on the pearl market. “The increase in interest and resale value for natural pearls has steadily grown over the past two decades,” she said.

This makes it an opportune time to sell natural pearls or turn one’s focus toward cultured pearls, which are available and affordable.   

Pearl Fact: Fewer than one in every 10,000 oysters produces a natural pearl of significant value.

To meet the growing demand for pearls, the practice of culturing pearls began in the late 19th century. It was the innovation of Kokichi Mikimoto that led to production of the first cultured pearls. After witnessing the depletion of oysters due to overharvesting in the waters near his homeland of Japan, Mikimoto sought to devise a process that would produce man-made, or cultured, pearls. Mikimoto achieved his goal in July of 1893 when he was able to culture a semi-spherical pearl, according to information from the Mikimoto website.

As explained on, cultured pearls transformed the opportunity of acquiring a pearl “from a chance to a certainty.” Not unlike nature’s process of creating a pearl, cultured pearls begin with a foreign object invading the tissue of an oyster. However, the object is placed inside the oyster by a technician, thus forcing the living organism to begin the process of coating the foreign element with nacre, according to information found at The process of creating cultured pearls may take place in either fresh or saltwater.

Opening oysters, extracting and cleaning pearls found inside, near the seaside town of Xiamen, China. Photo by Gauthier Delecroix, Creative Commons image.

Cultivating pearls in saltwater may take anywhere from 18 months to three years, while cultured pearls formed in freshwater settings, including lakes, rivers, and ponds, may be harvested as soon as two years after the process has commenced, says

Cultured seawater pearls generally come from one of three locations, which is also a definition of the type of pearl. Akoya cultured pearls are the most common and best known. These pearls are produced in Japan and China; while South Sea cultured pearls are produced in the waters off Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Tahitian cultured pearls are cultivated around the islands of French Polynesia, most specifically Tahiti.

Pearl Fact: Archeological records reveal Mesopotamia was where natural pearls were discovered and first viewed as collectible gems. This took place around 2300 B.C., according to information obtained at the National Geographic website.

As fashion and cultural standards have changed, so, too, has the position of importance held by pearls.

Diamond and seed pearl necklace with central saltwater pearl measuring 60 centimeters. Auctioned for £1,300 ($1,600) in November 2017. Fellows and LiveAuctioneers image.

“For quite a while, every young woman owned and wore her cultured pearl strand as one of her primary pieces of jewelry. Japanese Akoya cultured pearls, both in graduated and uniform bead necklaces, were the status quo. Think of outfits in the 1950s and you can picture it,” Boskin said. “In the ’60s, styles began to change, and in the ’80s, South Sea cultured pearls came on strong. In the past few decades, people were inheriting cultured pearls necklaces from their grandmothers, aunts and mothers, but no one was wearing them, or buying them. On the secondary market, their value went down. There were too many sellers and too few buyers.”

She went on to say, “For South Sea pearls, the market was incredibly strong in both retail and secondary markets. The larger the pearl, the better, and people could own so many varieties – white, black, golden, bronze, pistachio colors in round, baroque and mixed strands,” Boskin continued. “Then in the 2000’s, the Chinese freshwater pearls being created began to be larger, rounder and with higher luster. Because they looked similar enough to South Sea pearls but were far less expensive, the South Sea market became quite soft. Today, the secondary market for cultured pearls overall seems to be slowly building back up.”

Although seawater cultured pearls are represented by a variety of types, these types are far less common than freshwater cultured pearls. Cultured pearls produced in seawater make up less than 10 percent of the global cultured pearl production, according to information found on the National Geographic website. In addition, seawater cultured pearls often have a higher value than freshwater pearls. Pearl farmers cultivating pearls in freshwater sources use mussels rather than oysters as the host, and they are able to insert a greater number of irritants into a single mussel, resulting in some 50 pearls at a time.

Baroque pearl and silver-inlay necklace. Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers image

Pearl Facts: Pearl shapes and colors continue to evolve with technological advancements. Despite what may seem to be the case, the majority of cultured pearls are baroque, which simply means they are not round traditional pearls, but unique in shape.

If all this talk about pearls, natural and cultured, is igniting an interest in you to learn more, Boskin offers a few words of advice, starting with “buy what you love.” While jewelry does hold value, it is a relative value. It may not sell later for as much as its purchase price or insured “value.” Everything is continent on the whims of the market at any given point in time.

A final gem of wisdom about collecting pearls, natural or cultured, is to look for the best luster possible, Boskin said. Not only does luster enhance the beauty of a pearl, it tends to make the pearl more valuable.

Contact Deborah Boskin at