The question is often asked: “How can I tell if the pearls I am buying are real or fake?” The honest answer to that is: “It is difficult but there are some guidelines you can follow that will help you make the distinction.” In this article I am calling a “real” pearl any pearl that is made by an oyster. Cultured pearls are made by farmed oysters that have had a piece of ‘foreign’ material inserted into them by the oyster farmers. This is called “seeding”. The ‘foreign’ material irritates the oyster and causes it to secrete a nacreous substance that coats the irritating particle and forms a pearl. In nature, this process happens naturally, but naturally-occurring pearls are rare and very expensive.
On the simplest level, the name of a type of pearl will tell you more about it. Mikimoto pearls, for example, are high quality cultured pearls.
Majorica is the brand name of imitation pearls that have been made by Majorica, S.A. (a Spanish registered company) on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean since 1890. Majorica pearls have a closer resemblance to natural pearls than any other type of imitation pearl (e.g. plastic beads) but are beads made on a glass matrix that have been dipped many times in a nacreous coating.
Shell pearls are pearls that have been created from the thick mother-of-pearl of the actual shell an oyster grows in. They are created by using the shell as a base, which is then coated and polished in the shape of the final bead, so if you are buying a necklace made of “shell pearls” or “sea shell pearls”, you will know that you are buying manufactured pearl beads built on a shell matrix. They will be very beautiful and will come in a large range of sizes and colours but you will know that their lovely, pearly, shine is an artificial coating on a manmade bead matrix: it is not a layer of nacre laid down by an irritated oyster! Also, beware of pearls that have been given exotic-sounding names that you haven’t heard before as these could be traps for the unwary.
Shape, size and weight are other factors to be considered. If a seller is offering you very big, perfectly round, “real pearls” at a low price, be suspicious! Perfectly round real pearls of any size are rare and extremely expensive. Freshwater pearls that are “near round” are more expensive than freshwater pearls that are irregular in shape. Real pearls will tend to be heavier than artificial pearl beads but note that glass pearls, such as the ones made by Swarovski, and shell pearl beads, are also quite heavy. However, Swarovski glass pearls are never sold as “real” pearls, so buyers are always sure of what they are buying. As to shape, imitation pearls are usually perfectly round, unlike the “potato” (oval) or “baroque” pearls that are now so popular. Real pearls will usually have an imperfection somewhere on them which helps to distinguish them from perfect, manufactured, pearls.
Another factor is lustre. Good natural or cultured pearls will have a deep lustre that artificial pearl coatings find hard to replicate. The very best real pearls will also have a colour overlay to their lustre; this may be pinkish or yellowish or there may be a sort of rainbow hue to the pearl that changes according to the way the light is falling on it. Poor quality real pearls will look duller and may even look a bit chalky. This doesn’t mean they are fake; it just means their quality isn’t of the best but they may still be perfectly OK for some really nice piece of jewellery, added to other beads to add a bit of pearly elegance.
Another visual test is to check around the drill holes of the pearls. Artificial pearl beads will sometimes show signs of flaking around the drill holes where the pearlised coating has started to wear off, exposing the matrix bead beneath.
Then, of course, there is the tooth test. If you rub an artificial pearl against your front teeth it will feel smooth. If you rub a real pearl against your front teeth it will feel gritty. This, however, is an unreliable way of testing a pearl and it has been found that real pearls that have been specially polished can feel very smooth in the tooth and friction tests. Also, if you walk into a jewellery store and start putting their merchandise into your mouth, you might expect the jeweller to be very displeased!
A great safeguard, of course, is to buy from a reputable seller. No pearl seller worth their salt is going to want to sell substandard goods and many of them put grade ratings on their pearls. Above all, enjoy the pearls you wear!