Unlike diamonds and other precious stones that are forged through pressure within the earth, pearls are created organically within a mollusk. Both natural pearls (those created from mollusks in the wild) and cultured pearls (those created from farmed mollusks) are real. They undergo the same process of wrapping nacre layer-by-layer around an irritant to form, in time, the lustrous pearl. Pearls are often imitated because of their beauty and rarity, which leads us to the one conundrum that most often plagues new pearl buyers: how to tell the difference between real and fake pearls.
Fake pearls can go by many names: faux, costume, imitation, man-made, simulated, artificial, Mallorca or Majorica. Often though, fake pearls are not so blatantly labeled. With a few tips and insights, you’ll know how to tell the difference between real and fake pearls, and make a confident decision the next time you shop for pearls. Here are some common methods for making sure you’re not deceived:
- Note the pearls’ setting. Strands should have small, single knots separating each pearl. This ensures that real pearls do not bump and chip against each other. Other settings, like pearl earrings or pearl pendants, should appear well made and secure. Manufactures of fake pearls cut costs and effort by taking shortcuts and putting little care into craftsmanship.
- Feel the surface of the pearls. Real pearls will have a very fine, gritty feeling. A common method for testing the surface is to very gently rub the surface of a pearl across the front of your teeth. Fake pearls made from glass or plastic will most often feel perfectly smooth.
- Are the pearls cool to the touch? Just like stepping barefoot onto a marble floor, pearls will at first feel cool to the touch before warming from contact with your skin. Fake pearls will feel room temperature when first picked up.
- Gauge the weight of the pearls in your hand. Strands of real pearls will feel heavy for their size, whereas fake pearls will feel light and unsubstantial.
- Look for minor blemishes and imperfections on the pearl surface. As an organic gem, pearls often display slight irregularities. Fake pearls will appear completely uniform. It is worth a note that the higher the quality of real pearls, the closer they reach one consistent, uniform appearance.
- Check the pearls for luster, a mirror-like surface, or flashes of light. Real pearls will have a glassy depth and will often reveal an overtone or secondary color that dances across their surface. Fake pearls, or lower quality pearls, will appear chalky and dull.
- Is the drill hole precise and surgical? You are more likely to notice chips, rough edges, overly wide diameters, or separating layers around the drill holes of fake pearls.
Any one of these tests will bring you closer to knowing the truth behind your pearls, but we recommend evaluating across several tests. There are some tests we recommend against: avoid exposing your pearls to any chemicals, excessive light or heat, or open flame. If you’re still unsure or are not comfortable assessing how to tell the difference between real and fake pearls, bring your pearls to an independent third party. Appraisals by an expert are the best method for being completely sure, as they have the tools and training to identify the real from the fake. Often, x-rays will be used to determine the inner structure.
High-quality real pearls will command prices commensurate with their value. If a deal appears to be too good to be true, it likely is. Shop from licensed, certified jewelers and pearl retailers like Spey. At Spey, we never sell imitation or fake pearls; only natural and cultured pearls of the finest waters. Ready to go shopping? We’d be delighted to have you try something on.