What's the Difference Between Real and Man-made Pearls?
A real pearl is produced by pearl-bearing molluscs either in fresh or salt water. Real pearls can either be 'wild', or 'cultured' depending on whether human assistance is involved or not. It’s worth noting that almost all pearl jewellery on sale today uses cultured pearls. Wild pearls formed without human intervention are extremely rare and therefore are incredibly valuable.
Imitation pearls are man-made beads. They’re often made from low-quality substitutes such as shell beads, coated acrylic beads, and glass or crystal. These beads are then finished with a pearlescent coating to give a similar appearance to real pearls.
Some imitation pearls are easily spotted by just looking at them, but others can be harder to distinguish. Here, we discuss some simple ways to tell the difference, from the shape of real versus fake pearls, to the subtle, but noticeable dissimilarities in texture and temperature.
Your first test is to touch your pearls and feel the temperature. Real pearls are cold to touch for the first couple of seconds before adjusting to your body temperature. Fake plastic pearls will be room temperature to begin with and you won’t feel the coolness when you touch them. Imitation glass pearls can be cool to touch to start with but it will take much longer for glass beads to warm up to your skin than natural pearls.
While some real pearls can be as close to perfectly round as possible, most aren’t. If your pearls are entirely spherical then they are more than likely imitation.
It is easiest to tell when looking at a strand of pearls - even in a top quality, well-matched strand of real, rounded pearls, you can still see some slight differences in their shapes when comparing them to one another. If you find each pearl in a strand to be completely identical and perfectly spherical, it’s probably a sign that they’re man-made.
One of the most noticeable differences between real and fake pearls is that they are very different in texture. When you examine real pearls very closely, you’ll notice tiny irregularities and ridges on each pearl’s surface. Real pearls feature subtle ridges while faux pearls are always entirely smooth.
The difference in texture is not always easy to feel with your fingers. An unusual but traditional way to test your pearls is "The Tooth Test". Simply lightly rub the pearl on the front of tooth – if it feels smooth and glassy, then it is an imitation. If your pearl has a slightly gritty feel to it, then you are looking at a real, natural beauty.
The easiest way to make sure you are buying real pearls is to make your purchase from a reputable jewellers. Trustworthy jewellery retailers will always tell you whether the pearls you’re buying are real or imitation.