Clinical and histopathological evidence suggests that melanoma develops in a sequence of steps, progressing from benign proliferative lesions, to primary melanomas that do not show evidence for metastasis, to invasive primary lesions, and to metastases. This review focuses on the experimental studies examining the phenotypic characteristics of cultured primary melanoma cells as they relate to cells from non-malignant nevi and metastases. Genetic, biologic, and immunologic criteria have been established to distinguish melanocytes from different steps of tumor development. These include non-random chromosomal abnormalities, expression of melanocyte- and melanoma-specific antigens, requirements for exogenous growth factors, production of endogenous growth factors, and expression of receptors for growth factors. The transformation of melanocytes and nevus cells with viral oncogenes has facilitated studies on the malignant phenotype. Variants have been developed through successive selections from primary melanoma cell populations that have one or several characteristics of metastatic cells. The study of melanocytes isolated from various stages of tumor development and the generation of cell variants with specific properties should enable a long-term search for the molecular mechanisms of melanoma development and progression.