Cultured, Natural, or Fake: A Jeweller’s Guide to Specialty Pearls and Pearl Imitations

In the intricate world of jewellery design and artistry, pearls stand out as symbols of elegance and sophistication. Understanding the various types of pearls, including keshi, conk, and Melo Melo, and their distinct characteristics is important for designers aiming to infuse authenticity and innovation into their creations. This article delves deep into the realm of pearls, offering insights into their culturing process, historical significance, and methods for distinguishing between natural, cultured, and imitation pearls. For jewellery designers and artists seeking to elevate their craft and knowledge, mastering the art of pearl identification is not just beneficial—it’s essential. 

Popular Pearl Varieties 

Picture of a mesh of small white keshi pearls

Today, besides the main categories of freshwater and seawater pearls, there are several other types. I will mention some that are becoming more popular. Keshi pearls are typically a byproduct of pearl culturing. Keshi is a Japanese word meaning “poppy seed.” They form when the oyster rejects and expels the artificially implanted nucleus. The oyster then secretes nacre around the remaining piece of mantle tissue, creating a small, nucleus-free pearl. 

The term “keshi” was also used for larger sizes because in saltwater and South Sea varieties, the nucleus may sometimes be rejected after insertion along with the mantle tissue. If the oyster rejects the nucleus, it could die. But if it survives and retains the mantle tissue, it can still produce a pearl using that tissue. Those pearls tend to be somewhat larger, but they are still known as keshi because they result from the culturing process

Imitation Pearls 

Picture of an ancient
16th century Ceramic Imitation Pearl

I would also like to discuss imitation pearls briefly. Imitation pearls date back to ancient times, as even the Egyptians were producing glass pearls around 300 BC. However, mass production of imitation pearls only started in the 16th and 17th centuries using glass, ceramics, and later, plastic. Some imitations were very convincing. Today people often inherit imitation pearls from their grandmothers or great-grandmothers that can be difficult to identify as such. 

Rare and Unique Pearl Types 

Picture of a reddish conch pearl

Lastly, I want to talk about two very rare pearl types prized by collectors: conch and melo melo pearls. Conch pearls come from the queen conch mollusc in the Caribbean Sea, which has a beautiful shell but is now an endangered species. Usually, only one in about 10,000 queen conchs produces a pearl. Truly exceptional conch pearls that are large, beautiful, and round are extremely rare and valuable. Queen conchs are fished and used as a food delicacy, so they are not specifically hunted just for their pearls. 

Picture of an orange color melo pearl

Melo melo pearls originate in Asia and are typically a beautiful orange, yellow, or white hue. Like conch pearls, melo melo pearls are also very rare and natural. Both conch and melo melo pearls form closer to the mollusc’s digestive system rather than deep in the reproductive organs, which is more typical for cultured pearls. 

Identifying and Testing Pearls 

Diagram showing the large size difference of the nucleous of natural vs cultured pearl

There are a few methods for identifying and testing the authenticity of pearls. Since high-quality imitations can be convincing, it can be difficult to distinguish real from fake. Comparing natural and cultured real pearls is even harder because their outer nacre coatings are identical. One definitive technique is x-ray imaging at a gemmological laboratory, which reveals differences in internal structure between cultured and natural pearls. Of course, cutting a pearl in half to inspect it would destroy even a natural one, so this should never be attempted. 

A simpler approach is the tooth test. You gently rub the pearl across your teeth to feel its surface texture. If it feels gritty like fine sandpaper, it is likely natural or cultured. If extremely smooth like glass, it is probably an imitation plastic, glass, or ceramic fake. The tooth test has been used for many years without damaging real pearls. 


I hope these insights help introduce the wealth of knowledge and inspiration available to jewellery designers and artists through the world of pearls. Understanding the culture and identification of various pearl types adds authenticity and creativity to new designs. By embracing this learning, artists can push the boundaries of artistry and create pieces that resonate with the beauty and rarity of these organic gems. 

Gemmology online course materials provided

If you want to find out more and really explore the world of jewellery in more detail, we have a fantastic course called Gem and Jewellery Trade Secrets. It is a comprehensive course that will let you take control over your purchases if you’re a buyer or collector, or if you’re a designer or maker, it’ll help you better understand the gemstones that you’re going to be using in your jewellery. 

The program is taught by me, Tanja Sadow, and it is one of our most popular hands-on programs because you’re actually getting a chance to look at and handle over 1,800 gem and jewellery exhibits throughout the program (for the physical classes in Singapore) . If you can’t make it to Singapore for the hands-on portion, you can also join in the online self-paced programme from anywhere in the world! 

Tanja M. Sadow G.J.G.
Dean and founder of the Jewellery Design and Management International School

Pearl Origins and Differences: A Comprehensive Guide 

Picture of a shiny black-pearl neacklace

In the ever-evolving world of jewellery design, staying ahead of the curve means understanding not just the craft, but the very essence of materials you work with. For aspiring jewellery designers and entrepreneurs eager to make their mark, pearls offer a realm of possibility unlike any other gemstone. I’m Tanja Sadow, Dean of the Jewellery Design and Management International School, and I will show you the enigmatic beauty and allure of pearls. Once pigeonholed into traditional or feminine categories, pearls have surged to the forefront of fashion, demolishing gender barriers and aligning with trends that span high fashion to street style. 

Picture of a 3-strand pearl  necklace worn by a woman

I’m a great lover of pearls. Pearls go way back into history; so many famous people have enjoyed and worn pearls for centuries. Pearls have long been treasured across civilizations, symbolizing wealth, power, and purity. In ancient China, Rome, and India, they represented status, only worn by the elite or used in important ceremonies. The Persians and Native Americans valued pearls not only for their beauty but as symbols of prosperity and a deep connection with nature. From the ancient markets of the Middle East to the courts of Europe, pearls have woven a rich tapestry into human history, embodying the intersection of nature, culture, and artistry that still captivates society today.

Natural vs. Cultured vs. Imitation Pearls 

Pearls are one of the organic types of gems that are used in jewellery. When we talk about organic, we mean that it is a byproduct of something that either was living or is living. It could be from animal or vegetable but originates from something that was alive. In the case of pearls, most come from molluscs. We have many different types of molluscs, but the ones we mostly use are the ones that produce saltwater. Saltwater is produced from oysters usually, and then we also have freshwater pearls, typically produced from mussels. 

There are quite a few different species that produce pearls, but we won’t go into all the different species at this moment. What I’ll do is tell you a little bit about the difference between natural saltwater pearls and cultured pearls, and we will also look at imitation pearls. So we want to look at all those different things. 

Diagram of the 6 main steps how natural pearls are formed

Natural Saltwater Pearl Formation 

What happens? People tend to have this idea that a little grain of sand somehow gets into the oyster, and then it irritates the oyster, and it produces the pearl. Yes, that is the general idea of it, but it’s not just it has to get in anywhere, and it’s not necessarily just a grain of sand. 

It could even be a little parasite or a piece of coral or something has to lodge itself deep within the fleshy part of the creature. And when it does irritate that creature, the only thing that the little creature can do is to secrete its own substance, which coats the irritant and makes it less irritating. 

Picture of a white and shiny pearl necklace
A Bonham’ natural-pearl necklace sold for almost $200,000 pounds in 2013

But, of course, over time, you have to realize that the secretion crystallizes, and as it crystallizes, getting harder and harder, then it irritates the creature again. So, it is going to secrete once more, and this is a consecutive thing; it goes on and on, secreting, crystallizing, secreting, crystallizing until finally, we get a decent-sized pearl. 

That being said, let’s say it was to start from a little tiny grain of sand, which is say a millimetre in size, how long do you think it would take to get about a 6 mm pearl, something the size of a pea? Well, it could take easily anywhere between 10 to 13 years, so it’s a very time-consuming process, and natural pearls are not something that are really common. They’re not something you can find everywhere; in fact, we would say they’re a real rarity. 

Diagram of how a cultured pearl from using a nucleus inserted into a mollusc

Cultured Pearls 

So what is it that you actually see in the market when you go out and buy pearls or when you’re looking for pearls? What you’re likely to find is cultured pearls. Now, the cultured pearls can be saltwater, or they can be freshwater, but let’s just talk about saltwater first. 

So, we can imagine taking the same type of oyster but instead of just waiting to see what happens if it will create a pearl. Men actually inserts a nucleus, and the nucleus is a very specific nucleus; it’s called the pig toe clam. 

Portrait of mikimoto, father of pearl culture process

This was discovered back in the 1800s, and I’m sure you’ve all heard of Mikimoto. He did so much trial and error; he tried every kind of nucleus possible, and it took him practically a lifetime to find out that it was pig toe clam that would actually work, and eventually, he did succeed and did very well. 

His mission, his aim, and what he wanted in life were to make sure that every woman would be able to wear a beautiful strand of pearls. And why was that? Because before the 1800s, mostly all the pearls were natural, and if they were natural, therefore, they were super expensive, and of course, only royalty and the higher-ups could all use, could wear, and buy pearls. 

Popular Types of Cultured Pearls 

The most popular pearls are currently the Akoya pearls, coming from Japan, and they tend to be quite small. They tend to be anywhere from 2 mm up to about 9, maybe 9 and a half, not very many are 9 and a half, but it’s pretty much 2 to 9 and a half millimetres in size, and the actual oysters themselves are quite small; they’re no bigger than the palm of a person’s hand. 

So they usually produce mostly white; they can produce grey, they can produce a few yellows, but in general, we see more whites with the Akoya, which are the Japanese variety. 

Picture of two oysters one black and one white with respective pearl strand

Then we also have very nice pearls coming from the South Seas, and the South Sea oysters tend to be much, much bigger. They can be even up to five times bigger than the Akoya, so therefore, they typically produce much bigger-sized pearls. 

The main difference between the Akoya and the South Sea, apart from location, is that we have two types: the white group and then the dark group. And so here on the slide, you can see the dark ones, the light ones, and when we say dark group, a lot of people call these black pearls. And it’s okay to call them black pearls, but actually, there are very few that are jet black in colour. 

Freshwater Pearls 

Lastly, I want to just highlight that we can also have freshwater pearls. And with freshwater pearls, they can be in many, many different colours. They can be in many different shapes and many different sizes. And today, freshwater pearls can look like Akoya because they can also be produced perfectly round in small sizes. 

They can look like South Sea pearls because they can be larger sizes but still very nice and round. And they can also look like all kinds of things because, of course, in your Akoya and South Sea pearls, they’re not necessarily all round; there are a lot of shapes that come into those different ones. They can come anywhere from round to symmetrical to Baroque. 

So the freshwater pearls have more varieties of shapes, and they can come from very small to very large and in different colours. So with that being said, yes, most freshwater pearls are also cultured today. 


Gemmology online course materials provided

If you want to find out more and really explore the world of jewellery in more detail, we have a fantastic course called Gem and Jewellery Trade Secrets. It is a comprehensive course that will let you take control over your purchases if you’re a buyer or collector, or if you’re a designer or maker, it’ll help you better understand the gemstones that you’re going to be using in your jewellery. 

The program is taught by me, Tanja Sadow, and it is one of our most popular hands-on programs because you’re actually getting a chance to look at and handle over 1,800 gem and jewellery exhibits throughout the program (for the physical classes in Singapore) . If you can’t make it to Singapore for the hands-on portion, you can also join in the online self-paced programme from anywhere in the world! 

Tanja M. Sadow G.J.G.
Dean and founder of the Jewellery Design and Management International School

The Evolution and Artistry of Jewellery Design: A Comprehensive Guide

Picture of various types of jewellery on white background

For an aspiring jewellery designer or artist, while it’s important to master basic drawing and creativity techniques, to truly excel in the craft, one must delve deep into the history and evolution of adornment to draw inspiration from the past to innovate for the future. In this comprehensive exploration, we’ll trace the intricate history of jewellery, delve into the diverse styles that define men’s and women’s adornments, and celebrate the innovative spirit that propels the world of jewellery design forward. 

A Brief History of Jewellery Through the Ages 

The journey of jewellery began with the most primitive of materials and designs—a hand-drilled shell, perhaps the first necklace, symbolizing the dawn of personal adornment. As civilizations blossomed, so too did the complexity and symbolism of jewellery. The Egyptians and Romans embraced earrings, not just as fashion statements but as markers of status and identity. Moving into the Middle Ages, where fashion dictated form, brooches became the accessory du jour. Each epoch brought new tastes and technologies, weaving a rich tapestry of tradition and trend that designers draw upon today. 

Men’s Jewellery: A Market of Masculine Elegance 

The notion of masculinity has always been mirrored in the jewellery of the times. In contemporary society, men’s jewellery strikes a balance between subtlety and statement. Rings, once symbols of power and commitment, have evolved into diverse styles ranging from the understated to the bold.  

Cufflinks and tie bars maintain their place as staples of the well-dressed man, while lapel pins offer a dash of personality to any formal attire. Earrings and bracelets have seen a resurgence, championed by icons like David Beckham, signalling both style and success. These pieces have transcended mere ornamentation, becoming integral aspects of a man’s wardrobe. 

Women’s Jewellery: A Spectrum of Style and Symbolism 

Women’s jewellery presents an almost boundless universe of styles, each category brimming with its own history and significance. Rings signify love, commitment, and celebration; they range from the intimate connection of engagement and wedding bands to the grandeur of cocktail rings. Earrings adorn in forms from the simplicity of studs to the opulence of chandeliers. Bracelets clasp the wrist in myriad configurations—tennis bracelets speak to sporty elegance; bangles and cuffs to bold individuality.  

Necklaces drape the décolletage in every conceivable manner, from the understated pendant to the dramatic lariat. And brooches, with their storied past, continue to fasten interest and admiration onto the fabric of modern fashion. For women, jewellery is not just an accessory; it’s a narrative woven in precious metals and gems. 

Understanding Jewellery’s Cultural Significance 

Beyond mere decoration, jewellery often carries deep cultural resonance. Pieces like the Indian pyjama, the Victorian Gothic anklet, or the toe ring rooted in ancient Egyptian culture, reveal the stories and practices of the people who wear them. These items are not just beautiful; they are imbued with meaning, connecting wearers to their heritage, community, and personal identity. As we study these adornments, we not only appreciate their aesthetic but also the rich tapestry of human culture they represent. 

The avant-garde artists of the contemporary jewellery scene push the envelope, challenging preconceived notions and offering new interpretations of what jewellery can be. These creators are unshackled by tradition, exploring materials and forms that defy conventional wearability. Their work invites us to reconsider the role of jewellery in our lives, prompting us to see beyond the ornamental to the expressive potential of every piece. In this brave new world of design, jewellery becomes a canvas for personal and societal narratives, a space where innovation meets introspection. 

Drawing from the Past, Designing for the Future 

Jewellery is more than just an accessory; it is a testament to our enduring desire to express ourselves, to celebrate our milestones, and to connect with our ancestors. From the courtly splendour of brooches to the modern magnetism of men’s stud earrings, every piece tells a story. As you embark on this creative pursuit, remember that the key to designing aesthetic and saleable jewellery lies in understanding the vast historical context and current trends. Drawing from a vast historical archive and contemporary trends, the best designers strive to capture the zeitgeist in their gemstone and metalwork. By considering the past and anticipating the future, your jewellery will not only adorn but also enchant, becoming a cherished part of someone’s personal story. 

Classical Jewellery Design I

Your Creative Journey Awaits

Eager to harness your creativity in a career that offers joy, personal growth, and a touch of sparkle? Enroll in JDMIS’ Fine Jewellery Design Certificate course today and begin crafting your future, one exquisite piece at a time. If you are more inclined towards working with computers and software, you can also consider JDMIS’ highly popular Digital Jewellery Design Certificate course.

Tanja M. Sadow G.J.G.
Dean and founder of the Jewellery Design and Management International School