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Pearl Identification: The difference between natural, cultured, and imitation

It’s hard not to notice the sudden and large-scale reappearance of the popularity of pearls. They seem to be everywhere we look. However, there are so many different kinds of pearls that it’s hard to determine what we’re shopping for when we do decide to head out and buy one of these beautiful gems. Though there are many sub-categories, the place to begin when identifying pearls is among natural, cultured, and imitation pearls.

Most “real” pearl jewelry that we see in stores, jeweler shops, and other locations are cultured pearls. This means that they come from pearl farms, where mollusks have been encouraged by way of the right procedures and circumstances, to produce a pearl, or sometimes several pearls. In fact, cultured pearls are so universal, that the term “pearl” almost always refers to cultured pearls. Natural pearls and imitation pearls will be identified as such.

Natural pearls are those which have been created as an accident within oysters and mussels in the “wild”. Humans will not have had any part of their formation. However, these pearls are so rarely fished today, that the only real place to find a natural pearl is on a vintage or antique string.

Imitation pearls are simply stones that have been manufactured in order to make them look like pearls. They’ve never been inside a mollusk in their entire existence. Imitation pearls can be made of many different substances such as glass, plastic, and even shell, which are formed into spheres, and polished with items such as lacquer, fish scales, or plastic, for that pearly finish. It takes only a 10x lens to identify if they are imitation pearls. When in doubt, ask a jeweler you trust.

Of course, pearls aren’t only identified by the terms natural, cultured, and imitation. The following are the different primary terms used by jewelers and other pearl distributors, to help you know what you’re looking at:

Natural Pearls

    Oriental pearls – fished from sea water
    River pearls – fished from inland rivers and lakes

Cultured Pearls

    Beaded Cultured Pearls – Akoya (from Japan), South Sea (large pearls from mainly Australia and the Philippines), Tahitian (large black pearls from Pacific Islands)
    Non-Nucleated Cultured pearls – Freshwater (from rivers and lakes in Japan and China), Biwa (from a lake in Japan), Keshi (small freshwater pearls).

Imitation Pearls

Terms such as Majoica should always be read in the same way as “imitation”

This is not a complete table, but it gives you an idea of the primary terms that you will see in the pearl marketplace.

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