Those made without man's assistance have become so rare and expensive, that for the vast majority of people cultured is the only option. However, top quality natural and cultured pearls are identical to the naked eye in terms of appearance and quality. Only under an X-ray machine can a trained eye discern any difference.
Cultured pearls tend to have a larger core or nucleus. In all other respects, they are identical. The best-cultured pearls are those that come from an oyster that dies after the pearl is removed. Oysters, which do not die after the pearl is extracted, produce what are referred to as "Biwa" pearls.
Pearls also come in many colours. The most popular colours are whites and creams. Silver, black, gold and pinks are also gaining interest. A deep lustrous black pearl is one of the more rare finds in the pearl industry. Thus, they are expensive.
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.
Hyderabad is the main center for pearl jewelry in India and is famous world over. And has always been referred to as the “city of pearls” even though it is far away from the sea.
It is the largest center for pearl trading in the world and sells about 40-50 thousand kilograms of pearls per year.
The erstwhile Nizam rulers of Hyderabad laid the foundation of pearl jewelry in the 19th century. Skilled craftsmen, do processing and grading of pearls here. After the long process of grading and processing of pearls is over they are strung together by skilled knitters or patwas, using silk or gold strings. Different types of pearl necklaces are made in Hyderabad. Typical designs being Satlada (seven strands of pearls set with emeralds, diamonds and rubies, Kundan Ranihar (pearl sets with enamel kundan work), and the regular Jugni sets (several strands of pearls with a central pendant) and many more.
There are two kinds of pearls-real or cultured. After a pearl is made, it is separated as per the shape. The drilling is either done horizontally or vertically. This is done by highly skilled artisans.
Once this is done, the pearls are graded according to the sheen, glaze, shape, size, luster and uniformity.
Various kinds of ornaments are made from pearls like bracelets, Kundan sets and enameled sets, Satlads (seven strand pearl, set with precious stones), lacchas, chand bali (a moon shaped ear-ring), chokers, rassi (a chain set in the form of rope) chatai (a mat type chain, ear rings and rings), hath phool (for the fingers and the wrist), vaddenam (waist belt) and Tanmani.
Pearls are of two types - either real or cultured. If thick layers of nacre naturally cover the particle of the foreign matter that gets lodged in the fleshy centre of the mollusk, real pearls of sheen and spherical size are formed. Otherwise, the pearl makers manually introduce a mud pellet inside the mollusk. Thus, are made the cultured pearls, which can not match the shine of the natural pearl.
Once a pearl is made, it is segregated as per the shape, which decides whether they should be drilled horizontally or vertically. In Hyderabad, this delicate and lengthy process is very skillfully done by artisans - some 500 families that migrated from some 80 kms away from Hyderabad - who have been following this trade from generations. The entire process, explain the pearl merchants, get the pearls their sheen, and the mixed color pearls become cream colored.
Next comes the gradation as per sheen, glaze, shape, size, luster and uniformity. Maybe Hyderabad is a pearl city because talented craftsman, who can thus grade pearls, are available as cheap labor hereabouts. Next, the Patwas knit pearls through a soft, silken thread, which is preferred even to a gold wire. Then the ornaments are made, really customized.