What is the difference between Natural and Cultured and or Freshwater Pearls ?

Well if you find yourself asking this identical question rest assured you are not alone. In fact this is still the number one question that nearly every pearl dealer around the world is asked day in day out.

First lets go over some of the common misconceptions and myths surrounding them shall we...

  • Cultured pearls are imitation or fake pearls.
  • Natural pearls are saltwater pearls.
  • Freshwater and cultured pearls are the same thing therefore freshwater pearls are fake.
  • Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea pearls are natural pearls, not cultured.
  • Real pearl jewelry is made from natural pearls exclusively.
  • Mikimoto only uses natural pearls for their jewelry collection.

Does any of this seem a little confusing and overwhelming for you ?

The sad fact is many dealers and merchants within the industry have such an unclear knowledge of the topic themselves they have left customers around the world scratching their heads in utter confusion.

The simple fact is when many dealers are faced with a direct question from a customer that they are unsure of the answer too they often belt out a bevy of information that is not only incorrect but incredibly confusing all in an effort to look more knowledgeable than they really are for the purpose of obtaining that ever elusive sale.

While we feel that practices such as this are completely unethical they do nothing but cause a wave of confusion for buyers everywhere. Wouldn't it be nice if you were simple told something like " I'm not entirely sure what the answer to that question is, but if you would be willing to wait for a minute I would be pleased to pull up some information that we could review together and come to a clear understanding".

Well hold on everyone, in the next 30 seconds you'll be well versed enough to answer with complete confidence at the next swanky cocktail party you attend...

Cultured Pearls

To form a cultured pearl, human intervention is required to assist in starting the pearl producing process in the mollusk. A piece of mantle tissue or a round bead is inserted into the mollusk and then the process of depositing layers of nacre around the irritant just as a natural pearl begins.

Natural Pearls

A natural pearl is formed when a parasite or other foreign matter enters the body of the pearl producing mollusk. As a protective mechanism the mollusk deposits layers of nacre over the irritant. Over time the mollusk will continue to deposit layers of nacre and this is how the pearl is formed.


It is very difficult to tell the difference between a natural pearl and a cultured pearl.

It is quite common even for experts in the field to mistake the two. The only definitive way to tell the difference between a natural pearl and cultured pearl is to take an x-ray of the pearl, which allows experts to see beneath the surface of the pearl.

If one were to look at the exterior of the pearl, they may look identical, so an x-ray is necessary. There are two different kinds of pearls, freshwater and saltwater, whether a pearl is natural or cultured the origins are still the same for both.

Now lets put an end to some of the myths and misconceptions from above

Myth #1: Cultured pearls are imitation or fake pearls.

Truth: Absolutely not cultured pearls are very real as they are still created by the mollusks natural defense mechanism, the only difference is that humans introduced the irritant into the mollusk allowing the process required to create a pearl to begin.

Myth #2: Natural pearls are saltwater pearls.

Truth: Okay well this one is a slight bit more technical but not by much, the fact is saltwater pearls can be both natural and cultured pearls. The vast majority of saltwater pearls found in the world today are in fact cultured, the chance of actually finding a near perfect natural pearl is something like one in a million which is the reason why natural pearls command prices that are out of reach for nearly everyone on the planet.

Myth #3: Freshwater and cultured pearls are the same thing therefore freshwater pearls must be fake.

Truth: Not even close, unfortunately this kind of disinformation started being praised as the truth long ago. Back when many pearl dealers were so concerned with the mass market adoption and acceptance of the cultured and freshwater pearl that such false and misleading information was promoted in an effort to protect the massively inflated saltwater pearl market of the day. In many ways the confusion around the topic is the residual effect of that disinformation.

Myth #4: Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea Pearls are natural pearls not cultured.

Truth: There are two facts that all three of the above pearl types in Myth #4 share, they are all saltwater pearls and the vast majority and I mean 99.9% available today are all cultured. If you are able to find a natural pearls of the above types, you will most likely find them in an estate auction commanding very high prices upwards of six figures.

Myth #5: Real pearl jewelry is made from natural pearls.

Truth: I am somehow willing to bet all of you that have read the above information already know the answer to this but for everyone else I am sorry to burst your bubble but this myth is completely false. The fact is real pearl jewelry whether it be a necklace, bracelet or pair of earrings can be made from either cultured or natural pearls.

Myth #6: Mikimoto only uses natural pearls for their jewelry collection.

Truth: All of Mikimoto jewelry uses cultured Akoya saltwater pearls, it is actually sort of amazing to many of us within the industry that this one still lives on, the last time I checked Mikimoto had even updated their own website to promote the fact that they use cultured pearls solely.

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