How to Tell if Pearls are Fake

What are fake Pearls?

Fake pearls, also known as imitation, faux or simulated pearls, are man-made beads that resemble pearls.

They come in a variety of types such as solid glass beads, plastic beads and many more. Some are coated with a pearl mixture called "pearl essence" or "essence of the Orient" which gives the beads a pearlescent shimmer on the surface.

Jacquin the pearl maker discovered this mixture in the 17th century, it is a combination of a pearly substance made from dissolved fish scales filtered from water, and a type of varnish. The mixture is then applied into the hollow glass bead before it is filled with wax - this was the birth of modern-day imitation pearls.

But today, with advanced technology, other synthetic blends can replace the pearl mixture. That's why some can look very similar to real pearls, so you need a test to spot fake ones.

Types of fake Pearls

It's good to understand a little more so you can more easily differentiate fake pearls from real pearls. There are a variety of fake pearls on the market, but these are the most common types:

Solid Glass Beads

Also known as glass pearls, they are coated with around 30-40 layers of pearl essence. These high-quality faux pearls are hand-polished between each layer of pearl essence and can be as heavy or even heavier than real pearls. However, some fake glass beads use a synthetic blend, plastic, lacquer, or other substances instead of pearl essence.

Plastic Beads

These lightweight fake pearls have coatings similar to fake glass beads and come in a wide range of colours.

Hollow Glass Beads with Wax

These fake pearls have pearl essence or pearlescent dye applied to the inside of a hollow glass bead, then wax is poured in to fill the hollow space.

Shell Beads

These fake pearls are also known as mother of pearl shell beads. Some sellers may refer to them as semi-cultured pearls, which can be misleading. They are coated with mother of pearl powder and may contain synthetic resin.

Be aware of these common types of fake pearls so that you can make more informed decisions when purchasing pearls.

How to Know Real Pearls from Fake

Simple test without equipment other than magnifier.

Test with Tooth

The "Tooth Test" is a simple method of determining whether a pearl is real or fake. The test is based on the idea that real pearls have a slightly gritty texture due to their organic nature, while fake pearls are typically smooth due to being made of materials such as glass or plastic.

To perform the test, you simply rub the pearl gently against the biting edge of your upper front teeth. If you feel a slight grittiness or roughness, the pearl is likely to be real. If it feels smooth, it is likely to be fake.

It's important to note that this test is not 100% accurate and some fake pearls may also feel gritty due to being coated with substances that mimic the texture of real pearls. Therefore, it's best to use this test in combination with other methods such as the weight test, drill hole test, and other test before making a final decision. Additionally, it's unhygienic to rub the pearls on your teeth and it may also leave a permanent scratch on the pearl if not done properly.

Checking the Surface Texture and Flaw

Examining the surface of a pearl under magnification is one of the most effective ways to determine if it is real or fake. Using a jewellery loupe with 10x magnification, view the pearl under strong, direct light. Real pearls will have a smooth surface with subtle imperfections such as tiny crooked lines that resemble a maze, scaly lines and blemishes. Imitation pearls, on the other hand, will appear coarse and grainy, with visible gas bubbles being a common feature under high magnification.

Some South Sea and freshwater pearls may also appear grainy, but they will have their own natural characteristics that are not found in imitation pearls. It is important to examine several types of pearls including fake ones, so that you can become familiar with the surface textures, and may not need any further tests to identify a fake pearl.

Drill Hole Test

The "Drill Hole Test" is a useful method for identifying real pearls from fake ones, but it is only suitable for loose drilled pearls. It can be difficult or impossible to see into the drilled holes if the pearls are already strung into a necklace or set into jewellery. Using a jewellery loupe with 10x magnification, examine the drill hole area of the pearl. Real pearls and imitation pearls have distinct characteristics:

Real pearls:

  • Straight cylindrical drill hole.
  • Thicker nacre layer.
  • Clear dividing line between nacre and nucleus.
  • Sharp and well-defined drill hole edge, but over time, the holes may appear rough as the nacre wears.

Imitation pearls:

  • Drill holes may be rounded inward or angled outward on the surface.
  • The coating looks like a thin layer of shiny paint and may flake around the edge of the drill holes.
  • Usually, there is no clear dividing line between the coating and the pearl.
  • If the pearl is made of glass, it may have a glassy sheen.

It is important to note that this test is not foolproof, and a real pearl can pass some of them and a fake pearl can pass others. It's always best to consult a professional or get a certificate of authenticity before making a purchase.

Weight Test

The Weight Test is a simple method for determining if a pearl is real or fake, no tools are required. Simply hold the pearl in your hand and feel its weight. Imitation pearls that are filled with wax or made of plastic typically feel very light and are easy to spot as fake.

However, those made of solid glass can feel heavier or have the same weight as real pearls, so it's best to combine this test with other methods to get a more accurate result. It's important to note that this test is not completely reliable. Therefore, it is always best to seek professional help before making a purchase.

Overtone and Matching Test

Real pearls have unique and varying iridescent overtones, as well as different shapes and sizes. Fake pearls, on the other hand, lack these overtones and if they do have any, the overtones will look the same on all of them. Additionally, even though real pearl necklaces have pearls that are similar in color, shape, and size, there are subtle differences between them when observed closely. In contrast, fake pearl necklaces have pearls that are identical in color, shape, and size and appear perfect.

However, it's important to keep in mind that this test alone may not be entirely reliable. It's best to combine this test with other methods to get a more accurate result.

Real or Fake Pearl?

It takes time for a layman to be able to tell real pearls from fake pearls. So if you still have doubts after testing your pearl, it is best to send it to your trusted jeweller to have it checked.

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