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Pearls are a fashion staple that add sophistication and glamor to any outfit. Because they look beautiful on just about anybody, pearls can be found in almost every woman’s jewelry collection. However, there are many convincing fake pearls on the market that distinguishing between the real deal and the fake ones can be very difficult for the average consumer.
Genuine pearls are quite pricey and what could be worse than spending all that money only to find out you were sold fake pearls!
Before we begin to distinguish between real and fake pearls, we first need to understand the different types of pearls on the market. There are three main types.
What are Natural Pearls?
You may have heard that pearls are an organic gemstone. This means that unlike stones such as diamonds or sapphires, pearls come from an organic source – mollusc animals. In nature, pearls typically come from oysters, but sometimes they can also be found in clams and mussels.
In fact, pearls are the only known gemstone to come from a living animal. Natural pearls are very rare and very costly.
A pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a piece of shell or fish scales, gets imbedded between the mollusc and the shell. To ease its discomfort, the animal coats the irritant with layer upon layer of nacre, the material it uses to make the inner shell. It can take roughly up to 6 years for a natural pearl to form.
What are Cultured Pearls?
Cultured pearls refer to the pearls obtained through the farming and harvesting of molluscs. Just like how diamonds are grown in a lab, pearls are now harvested in large farms where ‘farmers’ raise their oysters. The only difference in the process is that the pearl farmer carefully embeds the irritant in the oyster and then lets the oyster do its work. The oyster then begins to create the pearl to combat the irritant.
Saltwater pearls from oysters and freshwater pearls from molluscs are the two main types of cultured pearls in production. From the two, freshwater pearls are more affordable as it is much easier to produce them.
So, here’s the burning question. Are cultured pearls real? The answer is an obvious yes. They are the same as natural pearls in every way except price. They go through the same process of formation and the final product is a real pearl. The only difference is that humans have found a way to commercialize and increase the production of pearls by farming them.
What are Imitation Pearls?
Imitation pearls are other substances masquerading as pearls. These are actually ‘fake’ pearls and the ones you need to watch out for as there are many types on the market. Unlike natural and cultured pearls, fake pearls are essentially worthless in comparison.
The most commonly used are glass, ceramic, shell and plastic beads. These are then coated in some substance that makes them appear like pearls, such as powdered mother-of-pearl, synthetic or natural pearl essence or plastic. These ‘pearls’ are manufactured skilfully and look identical to real pearls.
Now that we’ve got the three types out of the way, it’s important to know how to identify whether your pearl is a real pearl or an imitation one. There are many at-home tests you can do to examine your pearls for authenticity. It’s always best to conduct a few different tests rather than rely on the results of just one test.
Simple ways you can test if your pearls are real.
1- Observe Your Pearls
Natural pearls are unique and individual, with no two pearls being identical.
Imperfections in Your Pearls
If you observe carefully, you’ll notice that natural pearls have little fingerprint-like ridges on the surface, and other flaws such as blemishes. These imperfections give each pearl a personality. Fake pearls are smooth and perfect without flaws. In short, perfection is a key indicator that your pearls aren’t quite real.
Similarity in Size and Shape
Because they’ve been mass-produced, each fake pearl has the same shape and size. Fake pearls are perfectly spherical and the sizes would be identical. However, this is not the case with natural pearls, as most natural pearls are slightly irregular in shape and come in different sizes.
Real pearls often have an overtone color, which refers to the slight color that is visible when touched by light. Because pearls are found in a range of different colors, and not just white, the overtones are different based on the color of the pearl. However, for white pearls, check for a creamy or rosy hue. However, just because there is no overtone doesn’t necessarily mean that the pearls are fake. Some real pearls don’t have a clear overtone.
Real pearls reflect light and appear to glow. Hold your pearls up to a source of light and check to see if each pearl reflects the light. This gives the pearl a lustrous iridescence. Fake pearls aren’t reflective although they can be shiny. They’re often quite lackluster and do not interact with light.
2- The Weight Test
Real pearls are substantial and solid. You should be feeling the weight of the pearl when you hold it in your hands. Fake pearls are often very light, especially plastic or ceramic ones, while glass pearls often feel heavier than real pearls.
3- The Drill Hole Test
Most pearls used in jewelry have a drill hole. Carefully check this area with a magnifying glass or a good-quality jeweler’s loupe. If you have a real pearl, the edges of the hole will likely be smooth and sharp. However, if the pearl is fake, you may notice bumpy edges.
Another giveaway is if there is damage to the coating around the hole. You may notice flaking paint and even see the real material of the bead, such as glass or plastic.
4- The Tooth Test
This might seem strange, but it’s one of the best ways to tell if your pearl is real. Simply rub the pearl against your front tooth from side to side and observe how it feels. A real pearl should have a gritty texture to it, somewhat like sandpaper, while a fake pearl will glide smoothly across your tooth.
When doing this test, take care not to rub the pearl against the sharp edge of your tooth as this can damage it.
5- The Temperature Test
Take your pearls out of their storage box and feel them. Real pearls often feel cold regardless of the temperature outside. However, once you put them on, they will warm up to your body temperature. Fake pearls often feel warm, especially if they are plastic beads.
6- The Rub Test
If you have two pearls, rub them gently against each other. Because real pearls have ridges and imperfections, the pearls should generate a gritty feeling when rubbed, similar to the tooth test. If the pearls are fake, they will feel smooth and produce no friction.
Another sign of authenticity is powdered nacre. When you rub the two pearls together, the friction will cause the surfaces of the pearls to produce a little bit of powder. This will not damage your pearls; just simply wipe away and they return to their original luster. Fake pearls may flake paint but won’t produce powder.
7- The Price Conundrum
The price of real pearls depends on a large number of quality factors, including size, overtone, shape and color. Even a strand of freshwater pearls, the most affordable variety of cultured pearls, can cost up to $2000.
If the pearls you are interested in seem unusually cheap, it’s highly likely that they aren’t the real deal.
8- See a Professional
It can be difficult to try to distinguish between real and fake pearls if you have nothing to compare them against. This is why, if you’re still unsure after conducting the above tests, your best option is to take your pearls to a licensed jeweler and ask for an appraisal.
In order to do this, ensure that you have sought out a reputable jeweler. It might be a good idea to check out any reviews that may be available of your chosen gemologist and what other customers are saying about them. Appraisals come with a considerable cost so consider whether it’s worth it before you take your pearls to be appraised. If you do have your pearls appraised, check whether the gemologist is able to provide you with a certificate of authenticity as evidence of the quality of your pearls.
It always makes sense to shop smartly and check your pearls carefully prior to buying. Whether you opt to shop online or at a brick and mortar store, the rules remain the same.
To avoid unnecessary headaches, buy from a reputable and registered retailer. These vendors often provide a certificate of authenticity to ensure that the pearls meet the standards and expectations you have of them.
Whether you decide to buy natural, cultured or fake pearls, is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong type of pearl to buy and what matters are your priorities. If budget is a concern, stick to imitation pearls. If you want only the best, and something that is heirloom-quality, choose natural pearls. Whichever you choose, the important thing is to know the origins of what you are buying and avoid being ripped off.
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