If you have a pearl necklace (or pearl earrings, bracelets, pendant, etc.) in front of you, your very first and most formidable tool is simple observation. Place the jewelry on a plain white sheet of paper and begin examining the pearls inch-by-inch.
Questions to ask yourself while you're examining the pearls up-close and personal are:
- Are they all perfectly round?
- Are there shape variations?
- Do you see any inclusions or blemishes on the surfaces?
- Can you see any lighter or darker areas visible just underneath the surface? These spots are organic build-up of conchiolin (a building block of nacre).
- Do the pearls feel dense and heavy for their size? Or light and hollow?
- Can you spot any variations in body color or overtone, or are the pearls all exactly the same?
- Does the Luster on the surface have any visual complexity - i.e. depth, glow, and varying rates of light return, or do the pearls have a "plastick-y" shine?
- Do you see any Orient (the rainbow soap-bubble effect) subtly shimmering on the surfaces of the pearls?
Remember: Cultured pearls are a product from nature - the mollusk always leaves its fingerprint on the gem during its creation, so you’ll usually be able to find some kind of imperfection somewhere if you look hard enough.
Genuine cultured pearls like these Freshwater and saltwater Akoya varieties are fairly easy to spot - notice the slight variations in colors, overtones, luster, shapes and sizes. Even the Akoya (bottom row) which are known for their near-perfect matching still feature subtle differences in luster, overtone and iridescence.
Each and every cultured pearl harvested is a totally unique, individual gemstone with its own character and personality. Like snowflakes, no two pearls are totally, completely the same.
This gives us all a wonderful opportunity to enjoy jewelry that becomes yours and yours alone through the pearls' identifying characteristics. It's a lovely thought, in my opinion.
There are three major types of synthetic pearls commonly found on the market at the moment (although new, hard-to-spot fakes, and "off-brand" synthetics are always being experimented with and introduced). The ones you should know about are:
- Majorica Pearls
- Shell Pearls
- Swarovski Crystal Pearls
Let's take a look at each and see if you can learn to spot them in real life.
Majorica pearls are considered fine synthetic pearls that are often found in high-end departments stores like Barney's or Nordstroms.
Most traditionally seen in white, black, grey and gold, these pearls maintain a "realistic" palette of colors, and are VERY convincing - especially the newest versions featuring circled Baroque shapes.
Majorica pearls have been in production since the late 1800's on the Spanish island of Majorca. These man-made pearls are created by repeatedly dipping a solid glass orb (to give the "pearl" a realistic heft or weight) into a substance called "essence d' orient".
The exact recipe is a heavily guarded secret, however it is commonly known that the pearl-like substance is a liquified mix of ground up fish scales, powdered mother of pearl and oil. The "pearls" are dipped approximately 30 times to give them a nice, thick coating over the bead and then hand-polished to remove blemishes, bumps or uneven areas of coating.
The "Tooth Test" works really well on these pearls. Another dead give-away is their plastic-looking shine versus the softer glow of most cultured pearls.
Shell pearls also exhibit perfect uniformity in shape, color and reflectivity. These synthetic pearls are typically created in South Sea pearl sizes - 10.0-14.0mm ranges are the norm - and pastel colors traditionally seen in luxury pearl types: white, black, grey, gold, pistachio, brown/chocolate, and soft pinks - the better to fake you out, my dears. ;)
Shell pearls can be made in two ways:
- The first and most common method is by crushing the interior mother-of-pearl found in mollusk shells into a fine pearlescent powder. This mother-of-pearl powder is used to coat a bead nucleus, very similar to the process used in creating Majorica pearls.
- The second method creates rounded beads out of a saltwater pearl oyster's shell using the thickest part near the hinge. These pieces are smoothed and rounded out into perfect spheres and then dyed in various colors. The shell pearls are then baked at high temperatures to ensure the coloring is permanent and then given a high polish.
The Tooth Test won't be effective with Shell Pearls due to their composition (ground up mother of pearl or solid shell), and these pearls can also exhibit surface irregularities, making the evaluation even tougher.
Focusing on the "luster" and colors will be most helpful in determining whether the pearls you're looking at are genuine or Shell Pearls.
Shell Pearls will display very uniform rates of light reflection, and their colors will all be solid, uniform hues with little to no natural shading/variation.
Swarovski Crystal Pearls are always labeled as synthetic pearls by the manufacturer, and are easy to spot due to their plastick-y looking shine and perfect uniformity in color and size.
These pearls are created using a Swarovski crystal core or bead, which is then coated with a powdered mother of pearl substance available in a rainbow of colors.
Swarovski Crystal pearls are extremely durable in terms of daily wear and tear, and an excellent alternative to real pearls for costume jewelry or clothing purposes - the pearls can even be dry-cleaned without damaging the outer layers.
They're also a fabulous choice for beginning beaders who want to learn how to string and play around with creating unique fashion jewelry without investing too much.
This close-up of Swarovski crystal pearls shows that they are unmistakably coated beads- check out the holes and their coated edges, showing both smooth and rough "plastic-looking" material globbed around the edges.
I hope you found this shorter post helpful - Christmas is coming soon, and these are skills any pearl shopper should have. Not to mention being able to evaluate all the wonderful finds you come across in jewelry boxes, at yard sales and even antiquing. Happy Hunting!
Until next time ...
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This pearl pendant is comprised of approximately .167 carats of SI-quality diamonds and is made of 1.737 grams of the highest quality 14K gold. All of our pearl pendants are made on site, and our experienced staff of GIA certified specialists pay careful attention to all details in order to create a truly beautiful pearl pendant. The pearl pendant comes in a beautiful jewelry gift box.