How to Spot Genuine Cultured Pearls Over Fake Pearls

How to Tell Whether a Pearl is Genuine or Man-Made

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 VERY realistic-looking synthetic pearls out there too, many of them marketed under names like Majorica or “Shell Pearls.”

How to Spot Fake Pearls by Simply Looking at Them

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.

Well, maybe not THAT close - 3 to 6-inches away from your eyes should be just about perfect for pearl evaluation.

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? Examples would include Wrinkles, Ridges, Chalky Spots, Pin Prick Inclusions, Mottling/Bulleting.
  • Can you see any lighter or darker areas visible just underneath the surface when you hold the pearls up to a strong light source? These spots are organic build-up of conchiolin (one of the building blocks of crystalline nacre).
  • Can you spot any subtle variations in body color or overtone within the necklace's layout, 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.

Synthetic pearls are usually either coated plastic, glass or crystal beads, and generally are visually perfect with very little to no variation in shape, size, luster or color/overtone.

Take the Tooth Test

Pearl 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 with your teeth 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 microscopically 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

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 that will look "oily" to the eye and overly intense.
  • Where cultured pearls feature soft iridescence, synthetic pearls’ iridescence can appear over-saturated in color.

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 or Mallorca Pearls

Majorica Imitation Pearls Close-Up Pearl-Guide.com

Notice the perfect uniformity of shape, luster and color with zero surface blemishing. Photo courtesy of Pearl Dreams via Pearl-Guide.com

Majorica Imitation Pearls Close-Up Pearl-Guide.com

Another shot of the same Majorica strand by Pearl Dreams. Again, the perfect uniformity of shape, luster and color with zero surface blemishing is striking. Photo courtesy of Pearl-Guide.com

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

What are Shell Pearls? Shell Pearls are Synthetic, Fake Pearls

Multi-colored strands of "South Sea Shell Pearls", which are incredibly convincing synthetic pearls.

What are Shell Pearls? Shell Pearls are Synthetic, Fake Pearls. Close-Up of Colors, Surface Quality and Luster

This close-up image of a "South Sea Shell Pearl" bracelet is very instructive - notice the nearly exact same rate and quality of light reflected off the surfaces, with that near-plastic looking shine ...

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 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.

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. 

Swarovsky Crystal Pearls

Synthetic Pearls Types: Swarovski Crystal Pearls

Swarovski crystal pearls in a Light Peach - I think the Swarovski pearls are pretty, but they're the easiest to spot as fakes due to their intense uniformity and plastic appearance.

Swarovski white pearls close-up

Swarovski pearls come in every color of the rainbow, with 4 shades of white, currently. Shown above is a pretty Ivory color. Notice again the total uniformity of color, size, surface and light reflection.

Swarovski pearl colors pink and gold

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.

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.

Spotting Genuine Cultured Pearls

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.

Genuine Cultured Tahitian Pearls

No plastic-looking shine here! These genuine cultured black Tahitian pearls feature a touchable, satin-like glow, among other genuine cultured pearl markers such as multi-hued overtones, Orient that shimmers and shines with an iridescent shifting ability, surface inclusions and circling.

Genuine Cultured Pink Freshwater Pearls

These Pink to Mauve and Lavender-colored cultured Freshwater Drops are well-matched, but you can still easily spot slight variances in each pearl's body color and overtone, marking them out as unmistakably genuine cultured pearls that haven't been dyed or color-treated.

Genuine Cultured Freshwater Pearls - Large Freeform Baroque Pearls

Distinguishing genuine cultured baroque pearls from their synthetic counterparts is easy when you know what to look for. These cultured Freshwater Baroque pearls feature unique shapes and sizes, all with their own unique character and reactions to light. No single pearl is exactly like another.

Genuine Cultured South Sea Pearls

Genuine cultured White and Golden South Sea pearls, mixed in with some cultured Tahitian pearls. Notice the touchable luster, the GLOW these pearls seem to radiate versus the "plastic" shine of synthetic pearls ... Shell Pearls can barely get close to their beauty despite the large sizes and pastel, "realistic" colors. Also notable here is a shifting, subtle soap-bubble iridescence that appears to play over their surfaces (nothing "oily" about it!), and gentle variances in body colors and overtones that today's synthetics can't even touch. 

Cultured pearls are pearls that come from a mollusk, whether saltwater or Freshwater varieties. 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 forming a pearl sac, and then subsequently coating the "seed" with crystalline nacre layers, eventually forming a pearl.

Because the resulting pearls are a product of a natural process, they will invariably have small inclusions, variations in nacre depth, luster, color/overtone and shape.

This means that each and every single 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.

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