A Guide to Cultured Pearls

Pearl Guide

Pearls have been around for thousands of years. It is believed that human beings discovered them while searching the seashore for food. Throughout history, pearls have been one of the most highly prized gems. In fact, pearls were the earliest known gems to be coveted, long before diamonds and gold. Unlike gemstones and other precious metals that are mined from the earth, living organisms far below the surface of the sea grow pearls. These are born complete from oysters and they do not need to be cut or polished; they are beautiful as is.

How are pearls formed?

A natural pearl begins its life as a parasite or another foreign object. These foreign objects are often called irritants and they attach to the oyster’s inner body in a way that they are unable to be expelled. In response to these irritants, the oyster secretes a substance called nacre (composed of calcium carbonate). The nacre is a smooth, hard crystalline substance that after being repeatedly secreted onto the irritant, it becomes the lustrous gem we call a pearl.

What is a cultured pearl and are they real?

Cultured pearls are very much real pearls. They are created in almost the same way. The only difference is that they were made with a little human factor. Instead of leaving it to chance, an irritant is implanted in the oyster. Early on, pearl cultivation depended entirely on wild oysters. However, through selective breeding and a process known as nucleation, it is now possible to “create” a very valuable cultured pearl.

What factors determine a pearl’s value?

Luster, size, shape, color, nacre thickness, and surface quality determine the pearl’s value. Luster is the most important characteristic followed by size. The other factors are equal. Important! Size and value are relative to each particular mollusk species. A 10mm (millimeter) Akoya is rare and very expensive, while a 10mm South Sea is considered small. Generally the rounder the pearl, the more expensive it is since a perfect round shape is hard to achieve.


  Pearl Quality

Luster: the reflection that makes a pearl beautiful.

Size: expressed in millimeters.

Surface: clean to heavily blemished.

Shape: classified as either symmetrical or baroque.

  • For saltwater, symmetrical: Round, Semi Round or Off Round, Oval, Drop or Pear or Teardrop, and Button.
  • For saltwater, baroque: Semi Baroque and Circled.
  • For freshwater, symmetrical: Round, Semi Round or Off Round or Near Round, Oval, Drop or Pear or Teardrop, Button, Coin, and Bar or Rectangle.
  • For freshwater, baroque: Barrel, Chunky, Petal, Rice, Pillow, and Comet.

The term baroque, for freshwater, generally describes all non-symmetrical shapes or those unusual shapes without specific descriptions.

How can I tell if a pearl is natural or cultured?

Assume it is cultured unless you find it yourself or it comes with a lab report with certification.

5 Tips for Caring for Cultured Pearls

  1. Avoid contact with perfume and hairspray
  2. Put pearls on last, after applying makeup
  3. Wipe your pearls with a soft clean cloth
  4. Do not store pearls with other jewelry
  5. Have your pearls restrung when they seem loose to the touch and the silk cord discolors

Basically: Follow LOFO (Last On – First Off). Put your pearls on LAST and remove them FIRST before washing your face and pulling your clothing over your head. Written by Malak Jewelers Information provided by the Cultured Pearl Association of America, Inc.