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How To Spot A Real, Natural, Cultured, And Fake Pearl

Aug 17, 2007
I am not in New York City and am quite a bit more southern than that. As for "best of the best" that depends on how well the question fits my particular expertise. My main knowledge is in jewelry work, whether making a piece from scratch or repairing great grandmother's hand-me-down. Pearls I do know something about but am not the best of the best in that category!


First, the term "pearl" is not but should be applied only to natural pearls, formed in a mollusk when some event in nature induces the oyster or mussel to form a pearl. These pearls are quite rare and are the pearls of antiquity before pearl farmers learned to culture pearls. Freshwater pearls fished from the rivers in the USA are natural pearls but nowadays, most freshwater pearls are also cultured in freshwater pearl farms.

In any event, naturally forming or cultured, such pearls are formed in the oyster or mussel and are not fakes. The real difference in the totally natural pearl and the cultured pearls is what makes the pearl start to grow and the thickness of the nacre. Nacre is the pearly layers that make a pearl so lovely. The natural pearl will have very thick nacre, generally forming in concentric rings around some starting source or irritation to the mollusk.

A large natural pearl is very, very rare. Cultured pearls generally use a "core" of mother-of-pearl, the shell of the mollusk. The bead core goes into the mollusk and nacre is formed around the core. The core determines the overall shape of the pearl. How long the oyster is allowed to let the pearl grow determines the thickness of the nacre. Thicker nacre is better. Best of all is thick nacre and a smooth, almost blemish free surface.

Pearls grown inside the mussel or oyster do have a gritty feel to the tooth.


Fake pearls are made by coating a core of some sort (mother-of-pearl, plastic, etc.) with a plastic, a kind of paint containing ground fish scales or other stuff that look pearly to the eye. Generally, the fakes do NOT have a gritty feel to the tooth. Most may be identified with a little practice and a 10x jewelers loupe or microscope. The way to do it is to compare real pearls with some known fakes. The fakes almost always show a grittier "look" to the surface and not the more smoothly formed natural nacre. The look is grittier but the feel to a tooth is smoother. After some practice comparisons, most fakes are fairly easily identified.

Still, some are hard to detect without very thorough testing sometimes using solvents and acids which attack the real pearl nacre but not the plastic fakes and visa versa.

Other than that, a look at the drilled holes in the beads will help. Since the pearl is formed naturally without a hole, the hole must be drilled. The surface of the pearl at the drill hole will not "sink in" or "rise up" as is seen in many fakes that are formed and coated with the holes already made to the core. In the real pearl, the nacre will be smooth with the drill hole and might even be chipped a bit.

Some folks recommend having a dentist do an x-ray to see what is inside. Still, unless a person is very, very familiar with reading the images the results are very iffy. A core will look like a core whether in a fake or a cultured pearl. A core will not be present to any large extent in a pearl formed freely in the ocean but those pearls just are not around or to be had except in very small sizes.

Using a good loupe (hand held magnifier) of 10 powers is likely the best home test. Of course, try the teeth first! Then look at the drill holes and the surface compared to a good cultured pearl.

There is not a one-in-all test I can recommend. Some of this will simply require some "pearls" of real and fakes for comparison.

Even the jewelers are fooled once in a while but not often.Have you seen Mabe pearls? These are the large "half pearls" often seen in rings and pendants. Some years ago some really good fakes hit the market and were being sold at very competitive prices'that is, compared to the real ones. Many were sold and bought as the real thing! The testing for these required disassembly of the fake mabes plus solvent and acid tests. A lot of buyers were taken in on this one, likely never to know they bought and later sold fake mabe pearls.
About the Author
Victor Epand is the owner of http://www.JewerlyGift.biz, a huge online jewelry superstore featuring the greatest selection of jewelry including personalizable items. Clearance Sale items are here: http://www.jewelrygift.biz/collection/clearance-sales.html
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