There are essentially three types of pearls: natural, cultured and imitation. A natural pearl (often called an Oriental pearl) forms when an irritant works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.
A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference is that the irritant is a surgically implanted bead or piece of shell called Mother of Pearl. Often, these shells are ground oyster shells that are worth significant amounts of money in their own right as irritant-catalysts for quality pearls. The resulting core is, therefore, much larger than in a natural pearl. Yet, as long as there are enough layers of nacre (the secreted fluid covering the irritant) to result in a beautiful, gem-quality pearl, the size of the nucleus is of no consequence to beauty or durability.
Pearls can come from either salt or freshwater sources. Typically, saltwater pearls tend to be higher quality, although there are several types of freshwater pearls that are considered high in quality as well. Freshwater pearls tend to be very irregular in shape, with a puffed rice appearance the most prevalent. Nevertheless, it is each individual pearls merits that determines value more than the source of the pearl.
Regardless of the method used to acquire a pearl, the process usually takes several years. Mussels must reach a mature age, which can take up to 3 years, and then be implanted or naturally receive an irritant. Once the irritant is in place, it can take up to another 3 years for the pearl to reach its full size. Often, the irritant may be rejected, the pearl will be terrifically misshapen, or the oyster may simply die from disease or countless other complications. By the end of a 5 to 10 year cycle, only 50% of the oysters will have survived.(3) And of the pearls produced, only approximately 5% are of substantial quality for top jewelry makers.(4) From the outset, a pearl farmer can figure on spending over $100 for every oyster that is farmed, of which many will produce nothing or die.
Imitation pearls are a different story altogether. In most cases, a glass bead is dipped into a solution made from fish scales. This coating is thin and may eventually wear off. One can usually tell an imitation by biting on it. Fake pearls glide across your teeth, while the layers of nacre on real pearls feel gritty. The Island of Mallorca is known for its imitation pearl industry.