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A pearl is the gem produced by saltwater oysters (the nonedible variety) or by freshwater mollusks. A small foreign object finds its way into the shell and then into the tissue of the mollusk. If the intruder becomes trapped, and the oyster can't rid itself of it, the foreign body becomes an irritant. To ease the discomfort, the mollusk takes defensive action and produces a blackish substance called conchiolin, over which another whitish substance called "nacre" is secreted. This is the lustrous pearly coating that makes the pearl so prized. Nacre is composed of microscopic crystals that are aligned in such a way as to produce rainbow like glow and color. The thicker the layer of nacre, the more beautiful the pearl. The larger the pearl...the more years it has taken for this process to occur. Hence, the larger the pearl, the more expensive it becomes.
It's a Cultured Pearl Market Today. Natural or Oriental pearls have become one of the rarest of all gems and they have prices to match. Cultured pearls are much more affordable. Natural pearls are oysters working on their own...and cultured pearls are oysters that have a little help from humans. Instead of nature providing an irritant in the oyster, man will sneak an irritant into it in order to hurry up the process of producing a pearl. The oysters for producing cultured pearls are kept in environmentally controlled areas in which they are fed, washed, and kept at certain temperatures (with control over pollutants), yet the oyster still does all the work in making the pearl.
The primary difference in natural pearls and cultured pearls, is that the natural pearl will have a much thicker nacre. This is do to the fact, that cultured pearls are harvested sooner than natural pearls would be. Also, natural pearls are less round than cultured pearls. In a strand of natural pearls, the pearls will be less round and the colors will not match perfectly. They are however able to do this with cultured pearls, due to the fact that so many are available and they can be matched for size and color much more easily.
Fine natural pearls are rare and valuable. Never take anyone's word that their pearls are natural - even "inherited" pearls. Most vintage pearl pieces will actually turn out to be fakes. If you are buying a strand of pearls represented to be natural, make sure they are accompanied by an identification report from a reliable lab. Natural pearls must be x-rayed to confirm authenticity. Always be sure to have proper documentation, no matter who the owner, or how wealthy, or how old the piece.
Cultured versus Imitation Pearls: Both natural and cultured pearls are produced by the oyster and imitation pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. You knew that part, didn't you! Imitation pearls are made from glass or plastic beads dipped into a bath of ground fish scales and lacquer (or one of the new plastic substances).
Swarovski pearls are a high quality glass pearl that has an extremely durable finish. Higher end artists use them because of their quality, plus their ability to resist scratches, resistant to dirt, perfumes, and hair spray (etc). Another high quality imitation pearl, is the Majorica pearl. Only a jeweler or gemologist can identify this type of fine imitation of a pearl.
Usually the difference between imitation and real pearls are obvious because of the luster. When placed side by side, a fake pearl cannot duplicate the depth of luster a real pearl has. Look in the shaded area - in the real pearl you see a clearly defined reflection; in the fake pearl you will not. Also, fake pearls are normally slippery smooth when ran gently along ones teeth; real pearls will have a mildly abrasive or gritty feel (except the Majorica!).