The Jewelry Box Blog

How to Tell if Pearls are Real or Fake

on Jul 26, 2023 10:00 AM
Pearls and pearl jewelry in a tray on a silky white background

Is there anything more classic and tasteful than a string of pearls? Take it from style icon and screen legend, Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, who famously said “The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens.” Throughout the ages, these delicate gems of the sea have effortlessly and elegantly adorned the necks of empresses, heiresses, rock stars, screen sirens, and countless other stylish types (including your mom and grandma—and maybe even your coolest brother or uncle!).

Because pearls are always in vogue—and currently more popular than ever—there are bound to be fake or imitation pieces on the market. Keep in mind that fake isn’t necessarily a bad thing—the costume jewelry world is teeming with options in the “faux pearl” category. And Coco Chanel famously adored them—that should tell you something!

Still, you want to know what you’re buying (or have inherited). Ahead, we’ll help you understand the differences between real and fake pearls and provide some simple tests you can perform to determine if the pearls you’re wondering about are the real deal.


What Are Natural Pearls?

Pearls form when an irritant—say, a piece of shell or a parasite—lodges itself inside a saltwater or freshwater mollusk’s soft muscle tissue (think of it like getting a splinter in your finger). As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes layer upon layer of a substance called nacre around the intrusive foreign object (nacre is what gives pearls their lustrous appearance). Eventually, after anywhere from six months to six years, the layers of nacre form a pearl that can be pried out and used in jewelry.

This process can happen naturally (read: by chance) in the wild inside oysters, clams, mussels, conchs, and gastropods. Or it can happen in a highly controlled freshwater or saltwater environment, under the supervision of pearl farmers. Known as cultured pearls—99% of the pearls sold today—these gems are produced when a skilled technician inserts a small bead called the nucleus into an oyster to stimulate the production of nacre—and replicate what happens in nature.


What Are Fake Pearls? 

Fake pearls—also known as faux, imitation, or synthetic pearls—are “pearls” made from glass, plastic, alabaster, or shells finished with an iridescent coating to mimic the look of real pearls. With today’s cutting-edge technology, it’s not uncommon for fake pearls to look remarkably like the real thing. 

If you’re shopping at a department store, you might encounter Majorica pearls—artificial glass pearls that are made and manufactured on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Majorica pearls are specially treated to withstand sweat, perfume, detergents, or other chemicals (which can cause damage to natural pearls); they’re also a great way to get the luxe look of pearls for less.


How to Tell If Your Pearls Are Real

Any retailer you buy jewelry from should be upfront and honest about the authenticity of their product, whether you’re shopping for natural or faux pearls. Should you doubt the claims, or if you want to check on the authenticity of a strand of pearls you already own, there are some simple tests you can perform to get clear on whether the bauble in question is real or fake. Keep in mind that no single test guarantees 100% accuracy. Consider trying a combination of tests to reduce the chance of error.


Real Pearls Feel Gritty Against Your Teeth 

The “tooth test” is one of the easiest ways to see if your pearls are authentic or artificial. Gently rub or scrape your pearl(s) side to side against the outside of your (clean) teeth. The surface of real pearls will have a gritty feel. This sandpapery sensation might be a bit nails-on-chalkboard (cringe, cringe) but at least you’ll have answers. Meanwhile, fake pearls will feel slippery and smooth in comparison. Skip this method if you don’t own the pearls you’re testing.


Real Pearls are Heavy 

Carefully bounce your pearls in your hand. If they are very light, they may be made from plastic. Real pearls should feel similar in weight to a palmful of rocks or pebbles of the same size. Note that some glass pearls can also have some weight to them and “pass” this test so make sure you try one or a few of the other testing methods for extra peace of mind.


Real Pearls Have Smooth Drill Holes 

The pearls on a necklace have usually been drilled with tiny holes so that a string can pass through them when assembling the strand. Examine these holes carefully – do you see any peeling, flaking or chipped paint? Does it look like dyes or coatings have built up around that opening? If so, your pearls are likely fake. Real pearls will have a drill hole that is perfectly clean.


Real Pearls are Cool to the Touch 

Hold the pearl(s) in your hand to gauge their temperature. Real pearls should feel slightly cool to the touch at first before slowly warming up against your skin. Fake pearls remain at room temperature.  
Note that glass pearls can also feel cold to the touch, so again, conduct this test in conjunction with a few others to get a better handle on their authenticity.


Real Pearls Have Imperfections 

Inspect your pearls with a magnifying glass. Do you notice any super tiny imperfections or blemishes, such as bumps, welts, or ridges? Believe it or not, this is a good sign. Real pearls are rarely, if ever, perfect. Mother Nature always leaves its mark! 


Real Pearls Are Not Uniform in Shape, Size, or Color  

Do you know the saying that no two snowflakes are alike? The same is true of natural pearls. In fact, they will have subtle variations in their size and symmetry. In contrast, fake pearls will appear identical, almost too perfect, with no nuances in appearance to distinguish one from the other.

Pay attention to the color of your pearls as well. With fake pearls, the color will be perfectly uniform. Real pearls, on the other hand, have slight tonal differences that vary from pearl to pearl.


Real Pearls are Reflective  

If you hold up your pearls to natural light and see a reflection of the light in them, they are likely real. The surface of fake pearls generally won’t be reflective and will instead have a dull, almost matte appearance. 

If you’re still in doubt about the authenticity of your pearls, show them to a jeweler or certified gemologist for examination. These pros   have expensive, specialized equipment that can definitively verify whether they are real or fake. If your pearls are of significant monetary value, ask to obtain a certificate of authenticity for peace of mind.

Protect your pearl jewelry by obtaining personal jewelry insurance through Jewelers Mutual. It’s an affordable option that covers loss, damage, and mysterious disappearances. You can receive a jewelry insurance quote in just 30 seconds by clicking the button below. 


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