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.”
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:
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.
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!
The attributes that almost all synthetic pearls have in common are smooth, somewhat plastic-looking surfaces.
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:
Let's take a look at each and see if you can learn to spot them in real life.
Notice the perfect uniformity of shape, luster and color with zero surface blemishing. Photo courtesy of Pearl Dreams via 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.
Multi-colored strands of "South Sea Shell Pearls", which are incredibly convincing synthetic pearls.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.