What Are Cultured Pearls?When people hear the phrase cultured pearls, classic, round Japanese Akoya ocean pearls generally come to mind. Developed in Japan during the 1920s, Akoya pearls dominated the market during much of the 20th century, and so molded the perception of pearls among two generations. Surprisingly, cultured pearls come closer to perfection than natural pearls. This is due in large part to the use of spherical shell nuclei to determine shape. Dependent on the natural growth characteristics of pearl "oysters" (smaller members of the genus Pinctada), cultured pearls could not match the degree of perfection easily attained by imitation pearls made with modern industrial equipment. For a time, this led to an obsession with flawlessness and unnatural color that is, in fact, quite unreasonable for a product cultured by living animals.
The Culturing ProcessPearl cultivation is a labor of love. Exact details vary from farm-to-farm and from species- to-species. For example, oysters can be collected or bred, and the period of caring for them before they are implanted varies. Generally speaking, the implantation process is as follows:
- The animals are cleaned and a skilled grafter performs a quick and precise "surgery" of implanting a bead nucleus made of organic material (often mother of pearl).
- The bead nucleus is followed by a bit of mantle tissue from another mollusk. The mantle tissue contains cells that ensure the production of conchiolin and nacre. By giving the host animal a bit of familiar tissue, risk of nuclei rejection is reduced. The grafter's choice of mantle tissue contributes to the pearl's natural color.
- After the animal is implanted with nuclei it must be carefully maintained in clean, healthy waters to avoid unnecessary disturbances.