Natural pearls are extremely rare and valuable, but represent the miracle of nature.
People often get confused when they hear the words “cultured pearls,” believing they’re not “real” pearls. In fact, cultured pearls grow in oysters and mussels exactly the same way they would if they began naturally; the only difference is that humans intervene to initiate the growing process, much like planting a seed to grow a plant or crop.
However, before the culturing process was invented in the early 1900s, explorers worldwide searched for and collected natural pearls, which grew inside oysters, mussels and other mollusks in many parts of the world. Because they were so coveted, the mollusks known to produce beautiful pearls became overfished, and many either died out altogether or were in danger of extinction by the mid-20th century.
Natural pearls in vintage jewelry
Strands of matched round white or cream natural pearls are hard to come by these days, so you’ll mostly find them in antique jewelry stores or at auction. It often took years to find enough natural pearls that looked similar to put together a strand — which is why natural pearl strands fetch high prices at auction.
Contemporary natural pearls
Natural pearls are rare, but not impossible to find. About one in every 10,000 oysters produces a natural pearl. Because they haven’t been cultured, they often come in unusual or off-round shapes, and they may be smaller than cultured pearls. They are also quite expensive because they’re so rare.
Natural pearls produced by abalone shells, in spectacular blues and greens, became quite popular in the 1990s. Growing in California and New Zealand, abalone pearls feature organic shapes and brilliant colors. However, due to restrictions in abalone hunting, these pearls may not be as readily available today as they once were.
Natural pearl care
The beautiful surface of pearls can be harmed by cosmetics, perfumes and hair products, so put your pearl jewelry on last before heading out the door. After wearing, wipe them with a soft cloth and place them in a soft bag to keep them separate from other jewelry in your jewelry box. To clean them, lay them on a towel and use a mild soap and water, and maybe a soft bristle brush. Rinse well and then lay them on a clean, dry towel to air-dry. Don’t hang a string of pearls; it can stretch the string. Don’t expose your pearl jewelry to harsh cleaners or chemicals.