Natural (or wild) pearls, formed without human intervention, are very rare. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or mussels must be gathered and opened, and thus killed, to find even one wild pearl; for many centuries, this was the only way pearls were obtained, and why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past. Cultured pearls are formed in pearl farms, using human intervention as well as natural processes.
Freshwater and saltwater pearls may sometimes look quite similar, but they come from different sources.
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.
Fine quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. Their values are determined similarly to those of other precious gems, according to size, shape, color, quality of surface, orient and luster.
The introduction and advance of the cultured pearl hit the pearl industry hard. Pearl dealers publicly disputed the authenticity of these new cultured products, and left many consumers uneasy and confused about their much lower prices. Essentially, the controversy damaged the images of both natural and cultured pearls. By the 1950s, when a significant number of women in developed countries could afford their own cultured pearl necklace, natural pearls were reduced to a small, exclusive niche in the pearl industry.
Previously, natural pearls were found in many parts of the world. Present day natural pearling is confined mostly to seas off Bahrain. Australia also has one of the world's last remaining fleets of pearl diving ships. Australian pearl divers dive for south sea pearl oysters to be used in the cultured south sea pearl industry. The catch of pearl oysters is similar to the numbers of oysters taken during the natural pearl days. Hence significant numbers of natural pearls are still found in the Australian Indian Ocean waters from wild oysters. X-ray examination is required to positively verify natural pearls found today.
The original Japanese cultured pearls, known as akoya pearls, are produced by a species of small pearl oyster, Pinctada fucata martensii, which is no bigger than 6 to 8 cm (2.4 to 3.1 in) in size, hence akoya pearls larger than 10 mm in diameter are extremely rare and highly priced. Today, a hybrid mollusk is used in both Japan and China in the production of akoya pearls.
Mitsubishi commenced pearl culture with the South Sea pearl oyster in 1916, as soon as the technology patent was commercialized. By 1931 this project was showing signs of success, but was upset by the death of Tatsuhei Mise. Although the project was recommenced after Tatsuhei's death, the project was discontinued at the beginning of WWII before significant productions of pearls were achieved.
For many cultured pearl dealers and wholesalers, the preferred weight measure used for loose pearls and pearl strands is the momme. Momme is a weight measure used by the Japanese for centuries. Today, momme weight is still the standard unit of measure used by most pearl dealers to communicate with pearl producers and wholesalers. One momme corresponds to 1/1000 kan. Reluctant to give up tradition, the Japanese government formalized the kan measure in 1891 as being exactly 3.75 kilograms or 8.28 pounds. Hence, 1 momme = 3.75 grams or 3750 milligrams.
In the United States, during the 19th and 20th centuries, through trade with Japan in silk cloth the momme became a unit indicating the quality of silk cloth.
Though millimeter size range is typically the first factor in determining a cultured pearl necklace's value, the momme weight of pearl necklace will allow the buyer to quickly determine if the necklace is properly proportioned. This is especially true when comparing the larger south sea and Tahitian pearl necklaces.
The value of the pearls in jewelry is determined by a combination of the luster, color, size, lack of surface flaw and symmetry that are appropriate for the type of pearl under consideration. Among those attributes, luster is the most important differentiator of pearl quality according to jewelers.
All factors being equal, however, the larger the pearl the more valuable it is. Large, perfectly round pearls are rare and highly valued. Teardrop-shaped pearls are often used in pendants.
Pearls are generally of spherical shapes. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable shape. Semi-rounds are also used in necklaces or in pieces where the shape of the pearl can be disguised to look like it is a perfectly round pearl. Button pearls are like a slightly flattened round pearl and can also make a necklace, but are more often used in single pendants or earrings where the back half of the pearl is covered, making it look like a larger, rounder pearl.
Pear-shaped pearls sometimes look like teardrop pearls and are most often seen in earrings, pendants, or as a center pearl in a necklace. Baroque pearls have a different appeal; they are often highly irregular with unique and interesting shapes. They are also commonly seen in necklaces. Circled pearls are characterized by concentric ridges, or rings, around the body of the pearl.
In general, cultured pearls are less valuable than natural pearls, whereas imitation pearls have almost no value. One way that jewelers can determine whether a pearl is cultured or natural is to have a gemlab perform an X-ray examination of the pearl. If X-rays reveals a nucleus, the pearl is likely a bead-nucleated saltwater pearl. If no nucleus is present, but irregular and small dark inner spots indicating a cavity are visible, combined with concentric rings of organic substance, the pearl is likely a cultured freshwater. Cultured freshwater pearls can often be confused for natural pearls which present as homogeneous pictures which continuously darken toward the surface of the pearl. Natural pearls will often show larger cavities where organic matter has dried out and decomposed.
Necklaces can also be classified as uniform, or graduated. In a uniform strand of pearls, all pearls are classified as the same size, but actually fall in a range. A uniform strand of akoya pearls, for example, will measure within 0.5 mm. So a strand will never be 7 mm, but will be 6.5–7 mm. Freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls all measure to a full millimeter when considered uniform.
Earrings and necklaces can also be classified on the grade of the color of the pearl: saltwater and freshwater pearls come in many different colors. While white, and more recently black, saltwater pearls are by far the most popular, other color tints can be found on pearls from the oceans. Pink, blue, champagne, green, and even purple saltwater pearls can be encountered, but to collect enough of these rare colors to form a complete string of the same size and same shade can take years.
The vast majority of inexpensive colored pearls have been subjected to some form of dye, often a fabric dye. This dye will only tend to penetrate the first layer or two of nacre, but this is enough to impart vivid and sometimes garish color to otherwise white pearls. Truly valuable pearls are never dyed, and this process is not believed to add and in most cases would only subtract from their market value.
Pearls are also found in numerous references showing the wickedness and pride of a people, as in Revelation 18:16. "And saying, Alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, in purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!"
The Quran often mentions that dwellers of paradise will be adorned with pearls:
22:23 God will admit those who believe and work righteous deeds, to Gardens beneath which rivers flow: they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.
35:33 Gardens of Eternity will they enter: therein will they be adorned with bracelets of gold, silver and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.
52:24 Round about them will serve, [devoted] to them, youths [handsome] as pearls well-guarded.