While most precious gems are formed in the Earth, pearls are the only “gemstone” created inside of a living creature. Pearls are created mostly by oysters in freshwater or saltwater environments. Natural pearls formed without human intervention are extremely rare, almost all pearls on the market today are cultured. Fake or imitation pearls are man-made beads made from glass, plastic, alabaster or shells that have a pearly coating to give a similar appearance to real pearls. Some fake pearls can easily be spotted but some look very close to the real ones.
What is a Natural Pearl?
Pearls are most often made by marine oysters as a natural defense against an irritant such as a parasite or grain of sand entering their shell, similar to getting a splinter in your finger. The irritating particle functions as the nucleus of the future pearl. To prevent damage to their fragile body, the oyster slowly secretes layers of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, which encases the irritant and protects the mollusk from it. Nacre is a composite made mostly of aragonite that is strong and iridescent, and the unique luster or glow of pearls comes from this material.
How long it takes for a pearl to form is dependent on the growth rate of the nacre, but most pearls take anywhere between two to four years to fully develop. Because it takes so long for a pearl to form they can be difficult to find in the wild so most pearls today are farmed. Cultured pearls are created the same way as naturally occurring ones, farmers intentionally insert an irritant into the oyster then put it back in the water to grow a pearl over a course of two to five years. Cultured and natural pearls are considered to be of equal quality although cultured ones are often less expensive because they’re not as rare.
Depending on the size and shape of the irritant the resulting pearl can take on a variety of sizes and shapes. The most sought after pearls are round; less-desirable shaped ones are called baroque pearls. The color can also vary based on the part of the ocean or body of water where the mollusk lives. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and luminous but often they come in unusual shapes and different colors including gray, red, blue, green and even black.
How to Tell if Pearls Are Real
As with many rare and expensive natural products, from the earliest times a cheaper and more readily available alternative to the pearl was sought so that those who couldn’t afford the real thing could purchase a convincing lookalike. Spotting fake pearls can be challenging, as modern imitation pearls have become quite convincing. There are a variety of fake pearls on the market, but these are the most common types:
- Solid Glass Beads: Also known as glass pearls, they are coated with 30-40 layers of pearl essence, and hand-polished between each layer. They can be as heavy or even heavier than real pearls. Some fake glass beads use a synthetic blend, plastic, lacquer, or other substances instead of pearl essence.
- Plastic Beads: These lightweight fake pearls have coatings similar to fake glass beads and come in a wide range of colors.
- Hollow Glass Beads with Wax: These fake pearls have pearl essence or pearlescent dye applied to the inside of a hollow glass bead, then wax is poured in to fill the hollow space.
- Shell Beads: These fake pearls are also known as mother of pearl shell beads as they are coated with mother of pearl powder and may also contain synthetic resin.
Now that you understand the distinction between real pearls and fake ones, let’s go through some easy-to-use methods that can help you determine if your pearls are the real deal.
Real pearls are rarely perfectly round, they come in all shapes including oval, button, near-round, circled, coin, drop and totally irregular baroque. If all the pearls in a strand or piece of jewelry look perfectly uniform, it’s probably a sign that they’re made by machines. Pearls also have small imperfections or irregularities on their surface which are less likely to be found on fake pearls. Genuine pearls have a deep, lustrous, and radiant glow that is difficult to replicate, and imitation pearls may appear too shiny or overly uniform in their luster.
Pearls don’t retain heat well and are generally cooler to the touch than their surroundings. Hold a pearl in your hand for a moment then touch it to your cheek, real pearls should feel cool, while fake ones may not have the same temperature response. Real pearls are also generally heavier than fake ones. You can compare the weight of the suspect pearl to the weight of a known genuine pearl of similar size. If you can access the hole where the pearl is strung, check the hole’s edges. Real pearls often have tiny, irregular drill holes, while fake pearls may have smooth, even holes.
One of the ways professionals try to tell if pearls are real is rather strange, the tooth test. If you take a pearl and rub it against the front of your tooth (not the sharp edge, just the flat side) it should feel slightly gritty or rough due to their layered structure, while imitation pearls will feel smooth. You can also rub the pearl on another pearl and see if it produces dust, and if it does, you’re in the clear. If you’re purchasing pearls, especially valuable ones, request authenticity documentation or a certificate of authenticity from a reputable jeweler or seller which can help ensure that you’re buying real pearls.
Keep in mind that some fake pearls, particularly high-quality imitation pearls, can be quite convincing and may require a combination of these methods and the expertise of a professional to make a definitive determination about whether a pearl is real or fake. Looking for high quality pearls? Drop us a line or call us at 303-385-8449.