Are Cultured Pearls Real?

What a Great Question

This is a question that crops up from time to time that most people have a tough time to understand, after all, isn’t a pearl simply a pearl? If pearl is the birthstone for June is it really a stone? In order to answer the above question, we need to understand what a pearl really is and how it is made.

First, a pearl, unlike a stone, is not created from within the earth by heat and pressure like most gemstones but it is the result of an event that occurs within an oyster, mussel  or conch that causes a pearl to be produced inside the animal.

If you take a look at the inside of a shell, as an example oyster, you will notice that the shell is coated with a thin layer of shiny material called nacre. Some nacres will be dull and have little color and for some others, called Paua otherwise known as Abalone, the opposite may be true. Nacre is a hard, protective surface covering produced by the animal to smooth out the inner surface of the shell. If a foreign object such as a tiny particle of sand or shell is detected, the animal covers the object with layer upon layer of nacre. The end result is a pearl.

Sometimes the foreign object might cling to the shell and become embedded in the side of the shell. More often the object will be free to move about the animal’s body and may take shape as a round pearl or free-form pearl. In most instances the round pearl is the higher priced one but other shapes can attain a very high value such as pear-shaped pearls. This is the way that real pearls are created.

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are formed by nature, more or less by chance. On the other hand, cultured pearls are human creations formed by inserting a tissue graft from a donor oyster, upon which a pearl sac forms and the inner side precipitates calcium carbonate in the form of nacre or “mother-of-pearl”. The most popular and effective method for creating cultured pearls is from the shells of freshwater river mussels harvested in the midwestern states of the US, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

This is what a freshwater mussel looks like without the innards. The upper shell is the outside.

Now the question arises, “are they real?” Well, they are and they aren’t. The difference between a natural  pearl and a cultured pearl is in the process of how the two are created. The natural pearl gets its start when a foreign object or a parasite finds its way into the animal in the shell. A reaction takes place within the animal and a chemical called nacre (calcium carbonate) is secreted and covers the foreign object. Over time, the nacre is built up layer upon layer and the result is a natural pearl.

Cultured Pearls

William Saville-Kent was born in England in 1845, was educated and lived for many years in Australia and New Zealand. In 1889, he became Commissioner of Fisheries for Queensland and in 1892, Commissioner of Fisheries for Western Australia, a position he held until 1895. During this time he experimented with culturing pearls on Thursday Island; his experiments were successful, and modern-day spherical cultured pearls are primarily the result of discoveries he made. These discoveries were later patented by Dr. Tokichi Nishikawa of Japan, who had heard of Saville-Kent’s techniques. It was he who provided the answer to the question, are cultured pearls real?

Getting The Job Done

The process for making a cultured pearl is carried out by first of all creating a perfectly round portion of shell and scientifically prying open a mature oyster and inserting the round inside the reproductive gland along with a small piece of the mantle. Tissue is harvested from one oyster and cut into small pieces. After obtaining the mantle tissue from the first oyster it is time to operate on the second animal. The oyster is placed in warm water to relax the animal. Then it is gently pried open and mounted in a stand to be operated on. A small incision is made and the nucleus is inserted along with a small piece of mantle gland. The oyster is then placed back in the water and allowed over several years to coat the nucleus with nacre. The nucleus is coated in many layers of this nacre, so that when pearls are cut in half, visible layers can be seen.

Other Uses For Shells

Now that you know how pearls are cultured, the shells of these animals provide us with a variety of products. The obvious use is for the making of jewelry. Paua shell, or Abalone, as it may be called, is a beautiful shell with a wide variety of blues, greens and blacks and is used in a wide variety of necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

For many years the shell has been used in the decoration of musical instruments as well as furniture decoration inlays.

Probably the greatest use of shells has been for the making of buttons. When we consider how many pieces of clothing are fastened with buttons it can be mind-boggling.

So, the next time you take a walk along the beach, keep an eye out for shells and remember that you may be walking on pearls. I hope I have answered the question, “Are Cultured Pearls Real?”