Telling the difference between Cultured and Synthetic Pearls

Customer Inquiry:  My mom recently passed away, and when going through her boxes, I found several strands of pearls that belonged to my great, great grandmother. They are very beautiful, but how can I tell if they are good pearls or costume pearls, and how can I clean them? Any help would be appreciated.  My friend told me about your website. Hope you can help.. Amanda J.
Dear Ms. J,
            Thank you for your interest in It’s always nice to know that our previous customers are talking about us!!
J It sounds like you’ve found yourself quite the treasure if your pearls are the real deal, and I can give you a few tips on how to tell the difference between cultured and synthetic pearls.
           The very first thing that we are taught at GIA is to use your powers of observation. Simply studying the pearls up close will tell you quite a lot! Is there a subtle color variation, or are all the pearls exactly the same with no variance in overtone or luster? Is light reflected back at you at exactly the same rate pearl for pearl? If so, the chances are good that the pearls are synthetic. Remember, pearls are an organic gem- farmers can control a lot of things in the culturing environment, but the oyster is still a living being that will impart it’s own unique print on the pearl- nature is all the more beautiful for her subtle imperfections. We call it character. 
J J   Also, keep an eye out for inclusions or blemishes- dents, flat spots, ridges, wrinkling of the nacre, pinpricks, light and dark areas of discoloration where conchiolin has accumulated irregularly. These are all indications that the pearls are cultured and not synthetic. Again, it is the subtle imperfections that will clue you in on the pearls’ origin.
            Another tried and true method for determining whether a pearl is real is called the ‘Tooth Test’. Gently rub your front teeth on the surface of the pearl. If it feels slightly gritty, then the pearl is a real cultured pearl. This is because nacre, the organic substance that essentially is the pearl, is composed of tiny crystal platelets called aragonite. Each platelet is so tiny it is measured in microns! They are continuously stacked on top of each other in a somewhat concentric pattern- like an onion- by the oyster, forming layers of crystals that should feel rough on your teeth. Synthetic pearls do not have crystal platelets- they are very smooth, and will feel almost like plastic against your teeth. Remember to be gentle- a pearl’s surface rates 3 out of 10 on the Moh’s Scale, rather like Talc, and scratches easily.
            Lastly, keep in mind that the very first round, cultured pearls were not made available on the market until 1912 or so; if the pearls are older than that, they are natural pearls and should be treated with the utmost care! Round cultured pearls should all be very round- if some of the pearls are ovalish or drop-shaped, then I would recommend that you send them to a gemological laboratory for X-ray testing to determine if they are natural, or if they have a bead-nucleus inside.

            For cleaning, at this point all I can recommend you do is to take a clean, slightly damp cloth and gently rub the pearls down. If they are cultured Akoya pearls, then you will not be able to erase the Ivory tone that comes naturally with age. You may be able to get rid of some accumulated dirt, but the pearls will never be a true white again. Also, consider having them restrung by a jeweler that specializes in pearls- if the pearls have been stored in a trunk or jewelry bag for as many years as you think, then the silk thread will have undoubtedly undergone some deterioration! Most jewelers will charge about $20-25 per inch of pearls.
            The very last piece of advice that I have for you if the pearls turn out to be real cultured pearls is: wear them!! Wear them often! Pearls have a porous surface, and tend to dry out, losing some of their luster if kept for a long time in storage. After cleaning and restringing, it will be safe to wear the necklaces without fear of them breaking- wearing your beautiful pearls will help them to absorb some of your natural oils and will bring back some of their shine and glow!
            I hope that these tips have been helpful, and if you have any other questions, please feel free to ask- I am always happy to be of assistance! Best of luck in your detective work, and have a great day!
 Ashley McNamara

Vice President Sales, 

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