Natural Beauty or Synthetic Gem?

Ninety-eight years ago this month, on 4th May 1921, the London evening papers carried stories of a new gem material, cultured pearl. At the time, this new-comer was seen as a threat to the whole pearl industry. Until now nearly all pearls were those which had been recovered from the warm waters of places like Bahrain and the South Seas.

The cultured pearl in every way looked like the natural pearl and initially caused confusion among dealers. Within a short time, gemmologists introduced ways of distinguishing the natural from the cultured. Cultured pearls were created on pearl farms in Japan by nucleating an ‘oyster’ with an irritant which would over a period of time grow to look like the real thing. Imitation pearls had long since existed but as they were made of other materials it wasn’t difficult to tell them apart.

The traditional ‘teeth test’ is still a simple and reliable method of identifying imitations which feel smooth on the teeth, whereas real and cultured pearls feel gritty. When they first appeared on the market the new Japanese cultured pearls rocked the market as they were produced in quantity at a far lower price than the natural gems. Thankfully the quick work of the scientists in the gem labs removed the threat and today natural pearls are more valuable than ever but very hard to find.

Today we have a very similar situation with the new synthetic gem diamonds which are now being introduced by various brands. Although synthetic diamonds have been produced for a number of years it is only in relatively recent times that white, gem quality stones have become available. Gemmologists have again pioneered methods of testing and distinguishing the real from the synthetic. Unlike the cultured pearl, synthetic diamonds are relatively expensive. Buying from a reputable jeweller is the best way to be confident in your purchase. The emotional significance of giving something rare and valuable can never be substituted with a synthetic product any more than a gift of plastic flowers would please their recipient.