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Natural vs Synthetic Pearls

How to Tell Whether a Pearl is Synthetic or Cultured

One of the most commonly asked questions we get here at Pure Pearls is how to tell the difference between traditionally cultured pearls and man-made synthetics. This article will briefly go over some of the easier ways to visually tell the difference between the two so you can shop with confidence. Today, about 90-95% of all commercial pearl jewelry comes from cultured pearls, with natural, wild pearls mostly residing in collector’s markets and estate jewelry shops. There’s a stunning variety of synthetic pearls out there too, many of them marketed under names like Majorica or so-called “shell pearls.”


If you have the pearl necklace (or other jewelry) in front of you, your very first and most formidable tool in your chest is simple observation. Place the jewelry on a plain white sheet of paper and begin examining the pearls inch-by-inch. Are they all perfectly round, or are there shape variations? Do you see any inclusions or blemishes on the surfaces? Cultured pearls are a product from nature- the mollusk still leaves its fingerprint on the gem during its creation, so you’ll always be able to find some kind of imperfection somewhere. Synthetic pearls are usually either plastic or glass beads, and visually perfect with very little to no variation in shape, size, luster or color.

The Tooth Test

One of the easier tests to try, the Tooth Test entails gently rubbing or scraping the surface of the pearls against your teeth. Do this Very Gently, as pearls are soft - rating no more than a 3 on the Moh’s Hardness Scale - which is equivalent to Talc, so you really want to avoid scratching the pearls’ surfaces. What you’re feeling for is a gritty texture, somewhat like a fine-grain sandpaper; this texture is the result of thousands of microscopic layers of aragonite (crystalline) platelets layered on top of each other, creating a somewhat rough top layer. Synthetic pearls should feel smooth, like plastic because man-made gems lack these crystalline plates. The Tooth Test is not 100% definitive, but it will point you in the right direction!

Common types of synthetic pearls include:

Majorica or Mallorca

Notice the perfect uniformity of shape, luster and color with zero surface blemishing. Majorica pearls are considered to be fine synthetic pearls that are often found in high-end departments stores like Barney's or Nordstroms. 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 polished to remove blemishes, bumps or uneven areas of coating.

Shell Pearls

Shell pearls also exhibit perfect uniformity in shape, color and reflectivity. Shell pearls can be made in two ways. The first and most common method is by crushing the interior mother of pearl substance found in shells into a fine pearliscent powder and 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 dyeing them in various colors. The shell pearls are then baked at high temperatures to ensure the coloring is permanent and then given a high polish.

Swarovski Crystal Pearls

Swarovski Crystal Pearls will usually be labeled as synthetic pearls by the manufacturer. 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 tough to wear and tear, and an excellent alternative to real pearls for costume of clothing purposes- the pearls can even be dry-cleaned without damaging the outer layers!

The attributes that almost all synthetic pearls have in common are smooth, somewhat plastic-looking surfaces. Unnatural colors that can be anything from ruby red to pitch black, lime green, sapphire blue and royal purple are often seen. The pearls will exhibit little to no overtone because they don’t have layers of crystalline platelets, however some will feature an artificial iridescence that is fairly easy to spot. Where cultured pearls feature soft iridescence, synthetic pearls’ iridescence can appear over-saturated in color.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls are pearls that come from a mollusk, whether saltwater or Freshwater. These pearls are nucleated with either a small mother of pearl bead nucleus or a square 1mm piece of mantle tissue, which irritates the mollusk into nacre formation. Because the resulting pearls are a product of a natural process, they will invariably have small inclusions, variations in nacre depth, luster, color and shape.

Pictured is a up-close example of a section of a cultured Freshwater pearl necklace. Notice the small wrinkles in the nacre, tiny pin prick inclusions and softly glowing luster.

At PurePearls.com we carry only the highest quality cultured pearls, however it should be noted that because cultured pearls are from nature, there will always be some form of inclusion (even if you can’t see it with the naked eye!).

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