Introduction 

Nothing beats the uniqueness of pearls, considering how they're the only gemstones that materialize inside living creatures. This is why you will hear the majority describe pearls as the queen of gemstones, and we wholeheartedly agree. 

Pearls have been a timeless symbol of wealth and elegance and an outstanding gemstone choice. Royalty and other wealthy people with a fine taste for exquisite jewelry have treasured pearls since the Roman Empire. 

Despite modern times, pearls have an unparalleled status in the jewelry industry. They exude a phenomenal elegance, charm, and class that no other can outdo, and this is the reason for their huge market demand. However, the uniqueness and unmatched beauty of pearls make them a significantly costly gemstone choice. 

Due to this, many fake pearls are now available in the markets, with many trying to pass off the dupes as real ones. So how can you tell if the pearls are genuine or not? Let's find out below!

Authentic Pearls: Natural and Cultured Pearls 

Often, people get confused about the authenticity of cultured pearls. The truth is that both the natural and cultured pearl varieties are real and are sourced directly from mollusks, like mussels and oysters. Hence, you needn't worry about the value of your investment if you opt for cultured pearls, for they, too, will be a real treasure to own. 

Perhaps the primary difference between the two is their formation process and how it begins. 

Natural Pearls 

The formation of natural pearls truly happens by random chance when a microscopic irritant entraps inside the pearl. Triggered by this event, the mollusk then covers the irritant with nacre, the wild chance culminating in the formation of a pearl a few years later. 

Cultured Pearls 

Cultured pearls are not a random event, unlike natural pearls. For cultured pearls, their formation is orchestrated by inserting an irritant with a pearl cultivator into the mollusk. It takes a delicate and targeted incision for this. 

When pearls became known around the world, the only variety that was popular for a long time was the natural pearl. It was only in 1893 that cultured pearls came into existence; before then, natural pearls remained the only extremely expensive and rare variety. 

Considering natural pearls' phenomenal value, formation, and exquisiteness, it wasn't surprising that only a few elite and royal families could afford them. Many weren’t even aware of pearls before that, and it was only after the inception of cultured pearls that the gemstones became more widely available. 

Cultured pearls, although real, are also comparatively a more affordable option. Soon after the introduction of cultured pearls, they slowly picked up the pace until they became a more popular option for pearl lovers. 

You see, pearl farmers invest tremendous care and precision in maintaining ideal water conditions to produce pearls and protect them against predators. Finally, their efforts bear fruit when the cultured pearl is ready to be extracted and used in valuable jewelry items. 

With time, natural pearls ceased to be more popular, and today, you will commonly find them as vintage jewelry pieces, if anything. Cultured pearls were an ideal solution when the mollusk population rapidly diminished due to excessive fishing. 

Many countries promptly banned hunting for natural pearls when the alternate production option existed.

The Rise of Fake Pearls 

As we mentioned above, the only authentic varieties of pearls are natural and cultured pearls. Before the advent of cultured pearls, the natural ones were the only available option, but they were tremendously rare and expensive. 

Only the wealthy could afford it, but the mollusk population was at great risk even then. Advanced procedures made it possible to have an alternative, more readily available, and less costly option. Thus cultured pearls were born into existence. 

They grew so much in popularity and attracted so much attention from jewelry lovers that the demand for these unique gemstones grew unbelievably. However, the high demand and the still significantly high cost made them unaffordable for many. 

This gap gave birth to the market for counterfeit pearls. These are most often manufactured in Chinese labs and other locations worldwide, comprising of glass and plastic materials. At a glance, many who are not well-informed about gemstones might now be able to distinguish real pearls from fake ones. 

This can be a disadvantage if you don't recognize a genuine pearl and end up paying an unfair amount, thinking you're making a valuable investment. Fake pearl producers have been operating at a large scale for a while now, and unfortunately, many fall victim to their scams. 

To identify a true pearl and protect your gemstone investment, we have outlined the difference between real and fake pearls below. 

Differences between Real and Fake Pearl

On the surface level, anybody would find it difficult to tell a natural pearl apart from a fake one. But if you're aware of the subtle and distinctive characteristics between the two varieties, it will be easier to recognize the authenticity of what you're buying. 

Let’s take a look at the difference below:

  • Your fake pearls will primarily have a uniform luster. Hence, when you turn it around at all angles, you will note the fake pearl is radiating the same level of shin or light. Genuine pearls, on the other hand, have slight imperfections, and thankfully so. Since they form inside mollusks, they do not have a uniform luster on all parts. Therefore, you have to turn a pearl around at several angles and take careful note of its shine. It is a genuine pearl if the luster is deeper in some parts, almost like illuminating from within, and weaker in others. Note that real pearls have a deep luster, while fake pearls only shine at surface levels. 

  • True pearls have slight imperfections, which are easy to pick when observing closely. Firstly, a real pearl necklace will not have all pearls or perfectly spherical shapes. There are also bound to be some blemishes, which you can examine closely or under a microscope. 

  • Weight is another excellent way to recognize real pearls from fake. Since the fake counterparts are usually made of plastic, they're comparatively more lightweight. But beware of those who sneakily add glass to pass the dupes as originals. Real pearls are certainly heavier than plastic, but if you find pearls weighing unnaturally heavy, there's a good chance they're glass-made dupes. 

  • Like ununiformed luster, real pearls also have an unregulated overtone and color. You should see the subtle difference in the color and overtones of a pearl to know that it's real. This, again, is because real pearls come from different live mollusks, so there are bound to be tiny imperfections and differences in each. 

How to Tell If Pearls are Real 

Genuine pearls form in pearl-bearing mollusks, such as oysters and saltwater or freshwater mussels. Some form without human assistance, which we refer to as "natural pearls." Others require human intervention, as discussed above, but those, too, are real organic pearls. 

The primary reason for the popularity of cultured pearls was to protect the mollusk population and encourage its multiplication. Secondly, natural pearls form entirely on their own and are also not commercially viable, which is why they're rarer to find. 

At most, you will find them in auctions as vintage pieces or in museums. But if you wish to know that the unique gemstones you’re investing in are truly organic and not machine-made, here are some ways to do so. 

  • The Tooth Test

The tooth test is still one of the easiest ways of differentiating between real or fake pearls, but it may not be so easy in a store. If anything, sales representatives might throw you out of the store if you threaten to bite their precious pearls to pieces to check their authenticity. 

But the fact is, the tooth test is a foolproof way of checking pearl authenticity. You only need to rub the pearl against your tooth's surface. If you find it running over your tooth relatively smoothly, it's fake. Organic pearls tend to have a grittiness in their texture, almost like sandpaper, which you can pick by sensing the friction between your tooth and the gem. 

  • Check their Uniformity 

You'll notice that we emphasize time and again that natural pearls are sourced from living creatures, which is why they're so valuable. But another advantage of this exquisite formation is that each pearl is unique, considering how it comes from a live, individual mollusk. 

Even a genuine pearl necklace will not have uniform-looking pearls, and a close inspection will reveal the tiny, exclusive imperfections of each. Pearl enthusiasts around the world refer to this as the "steam of authenticity." 

But this works to our advantage because the unique individuality of each pearl, with its imperfections and not-so-regulated spherical shapes, alerts us to its authenticity. If you find a pearl jewelry item in a store where all the gems lined up look identical, they're likely fake. Identical, perfect spheres in uniform shapes and sizes may look pretty, but they're a dead giveaway that they're dupes. 

  • Rub Two Pearls Together 

If you're heading to a jewelry store to search for real pearls, perhaps you'd like to arm yourself with a few tips to test the authenticity of your investment. If you have mastered the tooth test and have excellent observation skills, you could add this third test to your list. 

Another simple way to judge if the pearls are organic is to rub them together, two at a time. When you rub two genuine pearls together, they should release a pearl powder. You will also see this powder come off when you lightly brush a real pearl with a knife.

However, they're likely fake if you see no powder coming off by rubbing two pearls together and feel only extreme smoothness. Real pearls also produce a thud-like sound when you knock them together. You could know two pearls together close to your ears if you have sharp listening skills. 

If there's no sound, you're holding fake pearls, dear friend!

  • The Fire Check 

Want to test the originality of the pearls you're about to invest in? Another simple way to do that is to carry a lighter with you on your pearl-shopping trip. Pearls experts describe how holding pearls against naked flames is a common practice to test their authenticity. 

If the pearls are real, the naked flame will not leave an odor with the pearls in close contact. You won't even see the real pearl lose its luster and shine with a naked flame up close. On the other hand, a fake pearl will produce a distinct odor close to an open fire and lose its shine quickly; the poorest quality fakes may even begin to melt. 

  • The Touch Test 

It takes a bit of practice to master this pearl-testing method, but once you've become an expert, you'll have an easier time recognizing natural pearls. In the touch test, you have to ensure the pearls are ones you or others haven't worn and are free of the body heat effect. 

Then take the pearl item in your hand and sense how it feels against your skin. If the pearls first felt cool and started warming, they're real. But if you felt the pearls warming up instantaneously since you took hold of them, they're likely not authentic. 

  • Feel the Weight of the Pearl 

You may test the weight of the pearls to get an idea of their authenticity, but we advise you against relying on them. This method is the least accurate, but you can combine it with the other testing ideas for better results. 

When you lift a pearl in your hand, carefully bounce it in your palm to sense how much it weighs. If it's real, it will be somewhat heavy. But if it's fake and made of plastic, the pearl will be insubstantial and lightweight. 

Since fraudulent fake pearl retailers are rather cunning, they tend to have glass added to the weight of their faux pearls. But this could also help you better judge if you're astute enough to sense the pearls are weighing as much as solid glass beads. If they do, you'd know that natural pearls are, although comparatively, not to the extent that they weigh down like glass. 

It would be better if you could compare the weight of the pearls you're testing against genuine pearls you already have. 

Learning What to Avoid

If you're planning to invest in real pearl jewelry for yourself or have a family heirloom made to hand down to future generations, you should know what to avoid. Look at the following helpful tips to note what to avoid when shopping for organic pearl jewelry. 

  1. Perfectly round and identically spherical real pearls are possible but extremely rare. Hence, you can assume that a necklace will rarely be manufactured from identical rare pearls because they're difficult to find in bulk. So if a jewelry store tries to sell you a pearl necklace featuring identical, smooth, and round-shaped pearls on the string, it is pretty likely a fake. 

  2. Don't always think pearls with chalky, dull luster are most certainly fake. You see, there can be low-quality real pearls, too, with a low luster, so it's better to combine other testing methods for the final verdict. 

  3. Another mistake to avoid is thinking that a real pearl has to have a visible overtone. That's not true because there can be rare exceptions of real pearls that don't have a visible overtone. Hence, double-check with other testing methods to confirm fakeness. 

  4. Never buy pearls with chipped coating or paint around the holes. You may mistake them for drill holes, which real pearls can have around the edges. Fake pearls that rub a few times against each other will quickly see their artificial coating coming off around the holes. If you've got excellent eyesight, you may see slivers of plastic or glass underneath it. This is a confirmed sign of fakeness. 

Final Thoughts 

The high market demand, against the exorbitant prices of the real variety, gave way to massive production of fake pearls. Most of the counterfeit pearls in the market today are so convincing that it can be difficult for even expert eyes to distinguish a real, organic pearl from a fake one. 

However, you'll make a better judgment if you learn some reliable testing methods, as covered in this article, before heading out to purchase. Combining the testing methods in this article and reviewing the jeweler's certificate of authenticity for the pearls will confirm that you are indeed making a worthy investment.

January 13, 2023 — Arun Yadav
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