Now that China has been churning out cultured freshwater pearls in such staggering amounts that you can get a strand for as cheap as $20, many high-end jewelers like Mikimoto and Tiffany & Co. are trying to find ways to make their pearl jewelry seem luxurious and worthy of their high price tags. As a result, natural pearls, which are far more expensive because they're fished from oysters living in the ocean rather than in farms, are getting hyped as being prettier and more precious than cultured ones, the New York Times reports.
But do they really look any different? Jewelers say yes, obviously: “Natural pearls have a much quieter luster, which is really appealing," jeweler Viren Bhagat told the New York Times. But enough cultured-pearl-makers have successfully deceived jewelers and been mistakenly certified as "natural" to suggest that in many cases it's almost impossible to tell the difference. Unlike fake gemstones, cultured pearls are still technically "real": They're all pried from the goopy insides of mollusks and can be manipulated to resemble natural ones with relative ease.
Perhaps most important, people are always willing to pay for something that no one else has, and natural pearls are legitimately rare. “It goes to show the appreciation buyers have for things that are no longer produced,” said Rahul Kadakia, Christie's head of jewelry to the Americas, who recently sold a batch of natural pearls for $7.1 million. Most natural pearls are either antique or fished by a few closely regulated companies off the coast of Australia.