A natural pearl is one that has been created solely by the chance forces of nature, without human intervention. A cultured pearl, on the other hand, is the result of a ‘seed’ particle being manually inserted into a pearl-producing mollusc. Until the early twentieth century, all pearls were natural, because the method of culturing pearls was not developed until the first decades of the twentieth century, by the now famous Mikimoto Kokichi. While the culturing of pearls have made the gem more widely available, it has also resulted in a decline in appreciation for the rarity of natural pearls.
To understand why the occurrence of a perfect, spherical white pearl—the type which comes to everyone’s mind when a pearl is mentioned—is quite so phenomenal, one must first understand that pearls naturally occur in all shapes, colours, sizes and qualities. Pearls can form in a myriad of shapes (from free-form to a perfectly spherical), colours (white, pink, purple, black, and all manners of overtone), sizes (from the size of a tiny seed to the size of an egg), and exhibit anything from a dull and bumpy to a lustrous and pristine surface. Furthermore, even with these variations, the vast majority of natural pearls found are not of gem quality, meaning that their condition and appearance is not of a good enough quality to be set into jewellery. Only one in a thousand natural pearls is round, white, lustrous and unblemished.
Being that one perfect pearl is so exceptional in itself, it is no wonder that a string of matching pearls was prized throughout much of history above all other forms of jewellery, typically taking years, and sometimes decades, to assemble. Unsurprisingly, it was so unusual to have a matching string of pearls that only the wealthiest individuals could afford them, typically royalty or the most affluent of the elite. Tiffany, the premier American jewellery, exhibited a strand of thirty eight natural pearls at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with a price of two hundred thousand dollars; around the same time they sold a string of pearls valued at over one million dollars to New York socialite Mrs. George Gould (which would be approximately twenty-five million dollars today!).
Quality natural pearls are only becoming rarer with time due to both the popularity of cultured pearls and the diminishment of natural pearl habitats. To assemble a matching strand of natural pearls today is near impossible, not to mention prohibitively expensive. It is believed that pearls were the first gem to be revered by man, as they are unique in that they are the only gem which needs not be altered to be set into jewellery. Bearing in mind both their ancient history and extreme rarity, it is no wonder that they are symbolic of wealth, perfection and true love, and are ever a worthy investment.