There are many rogue and scurrilous characters in the world, looking for a way to swindle fellow humanity. And while we love nothing more than the environmentally beneficial, socially conscious, all-around good-guy-and-gal pearl industry, we feel compelled to shed light on a relatively recent practice that, though marginalized and endeavored by only a few, could impact pearl consumers as they shop for the most lustrous jewelry. It is the practice of culturing a pearl using a natural pearl as the nucleus.
Shedding light on a shady practice
This doesn’t sound so bad, does it? To understand the gravity, it first behooves us to refresh our minds on how over 97 percent of the pearl jewelry market is supplied. The process of pearl culturing, or surgically implanting an oyster or mussel to stimulate pearl production, enables pearlers to meet the global demand of this gem of queens and queen of gems. Sustainably grown and harvested, pearl farms benefit the environment around them, while protecting stocks of wild mollusks. The alternative is to scour the ocean depths and tear through thousands of mollusks to find the perfect pearl.
Natural pearls, or those sourced directly from the wild, are thus exceedingly rare and, for the most part, sourced from heirloom and estate pieces. Most governments protect the marine ecosystems along their coasts and the species within, which prevents many recently-sourced natural pearls from coming to market. The price of genuine natural pearls is therefore rather extravagant.
How a cultured pearl can camouflage as natural
Most pearls are cultured using a small portion of recycled shell from other mollusks (the shells of freshwater mussels from Mississippi and Tennessee being much preferred for their even coloring and durability). This piece of shell is polished into a sphere and surgically inserted into the mollusk. The cultured mollusk then wraps layer after layer of lustrous nacre around this shell bead and forms, in time, the fabulous pearl.
A simple x-ray can quickly determine a cultured pearl from a natural pearl, which would have no nucleus or implanted bead. This brings us back to those few scoundrels who seek to parade one as the other. By using a natural pearl of inferior quality to culture a mollusk (a natural pearl with such a heavily-blemished surface, unsavory discoloration, or poor luster that it is unfit for use in jewelry), additional layers build up and cover the unfavorable characteristics. One is then left with a cultured pearl that has nacre all the way through – and which wouldn’t necessarily be distinguished on x-ray. Labeled as natural, the pearl could be valued at many times greater than its actual worth.
The King Solomon way to know for sure
We see no other realistic reason to produce such a product than to defraud the buyer at some point, and Spey categorically denounces the practice. Of course, sophisticated techniques to test and identify pearls and their origins are largely pushing these scurrilous pearls to the fringes, but it is important that your pearl jeweler know how their pearls were cultured and where. At Spey, we have trusted relationships with pearl farmers across the globe to ensure that each pearl may be affixed with pedigree and provenance.
If there is ever any real doubt about the origin or structure of a pearl, one might always cut the pearl in half. It will destroy the pearl for sure, but at least its integrity will be known (like the genuine cultured Tahitian pearls with shell beads that are pictured). Better a lost pearl than a sullied reputation. So, the next time you are looking for exceptional cultured pearls or natural pearl jewelry, turn to the specialists at Spey. We’d love to have you try something on.