Are you the owner of a set of pearls? If yes, you’ve got some priceless pieces of gems on your hands. Pearls are cherished for their rarity, beauty, and value. But if you have doubts about the authenticity of your gems, we’ll teach you how to tell if pearls are real.
We’ll be sharing 13 tests to help you determine real pearls over fake. First, let’s answer a fundamental question.
How are real pearls formed?
Pearls are complex glistening objects produced within the soft tissues of living shelled mollusks or other animals such as fossil conularids.
A natural pearl is formed when a tiny organism invades and agitates the cell in the mantle of mollusks such as mussels, oysters, abalones, or marine snails. The creature then secretes a smooth crystalline fluid called nacre or mother of pearl on the invading organism as a natural defense. Thousands of layers of nacre build up to form a smooth, lustrous beauty – the pearl.
Pearls can also be produced through human intervention. It is done when a human introduces an irritant into the body of an oyster, kick-starting the natural process. The oyster then secretes nacre onto the irritant, continuing the pearl-producing process. Pearls made through this process are called cultured pearls.
💡 Did You Know? Pearl experts view natural and cultured pearls as real pearls. Both are composed of calcium carbonate. Genuine pearls are a treasure.
Now, let’s get down to how you can know if your pearls are the real thing.
How to Tell If Pearls Are Real
There are several ways to tell if pearls are real. You can try some of these tests at home while others will require expert help.
The Tooth Test
Your teeth can do more than help you savor tasty dishes. It can also help you test if your pearls are genuine. Here’s how:
- Hold a pearl or a string of pearls to the front of your teeth.
- Rub the pearl across your front teeth, but not the edge.
- Watch out for a sandy feel. If you get a sandy/gritty feeling, your pearls are likely genuine. Fake pearls will likely feel smooth against your teeth.
If you have false teeth, this test may not work for you. Avoid rubbing your pearls against the edge of your teeth as this can scratch them.
The Friction Test
You can do this test using two sets of stringed pearls.
- Hold a string of pearls in your left hand and another in your right hand.
- Rub the two strands against each other.
- Check for sandy friction. If both pearls produce friction and do not glide smoothly over each other, they are possibly genuine.
This test is based on a fact about the texture of real pearls. They contain imperfections and are not perfectly smooth as they are products of nature. This test is possible if you have two sets of stringed pearls you want to test for genuineness.
The Rubbing Test
This test closely follows the friction test. After checking for friction versus smoothness as you rub two strings of pearls together, open your palms and observe them.
If you find residue of a white, powdery substance, then you’re likely looking at powdered nacre- the base of real pearls. However, if you see a flaky, shiny residue, you’re probably holding on to an imposter! The flaky, shiny residue are possibly coatings on plastic beads.
The Slithering Test
You can perform this test using any space between your fingers.
- Slide a string of pearls across the room between your thumb and index finger or your thumb and middle finger.
- If the pearls slide down smoothly, you likely have real pearls on your hands. If they feel sticky or roll down your hands somewhat awkwardly, you’re probably holding on to fake pearls. Real pearls glide down in a slippery manner.
The Temperature Test
This test is based on a proven fact about real pearls. They are not good absorbers of heat. Here’s how to put this test to use:
- Collect some pearls you have not worn recently. If you’ve recently worn them, your body will transfer some heat to your pearls. This may affect the outcome of this test.
- Hold the pearls in your right hand for about 5 minutes.
- Move the pearls from your right hand to your left hand.
- If the pearls feel cool on your left hand, they are likely real. But if they are warm, they have absorbed your body temperature and are likely fake. As noted earlier, real pearls do not absorb heat well.
If you feel that your hands are not sensitive enough, you can try this temperature test using your cheek or your lower lip. Be sure to seal your lips when you do.
You can tell if pearls are real by carefully studying the surface.
- Examine the feel. While real pearls glide down smoothly across the skin, they do not look perfectly smooth. They are rough to the touch. Check for blemishes, scratches, and bumps. If your pearls contain these imperfections, you’re likely holding on to a ‘‘perfect imperfection’’ – real pearls.
- Examine the shape. Are all the pearls in the string perfectly round? Or do they vary, containing a mix of oblong, oval, drop, button, near round, or baroque shapes? While it is possible to have some perfectly round pearls, they are rare, and a string of pearls will most likely contain a variety of shapes because they are natural. If all your pearls are perfectly round, they probably originated from the factory, not a mollusk.
This test involves using sunlight. Real pearls have a rich, creamier, or whiter look than fakes. They are also translucent, allowing some light to pass through them and reflecting colors on their surface when light hits them. This reflection is called an overtone and is different from the base color of the pearls.
Overtones on genuine pearls may be rose, cream, silver, ivory, pink, green, or even golden. On the other hand, fake pearls have just one flat, uniform color.
To do a light test on your pearls:
- Take your pearls outside under the sunlight.
- Spread them on your palms, allowing rays of sunshine to fall on them.
- Look out for a reflection of light and a rainbow-like play of colors as you shift the pearls under sunlight. These play of colors can be rose, pink, or green as earlier mentioned.
- If the pearls have a sharp luster, you may even see your own reflection on the surface of the pearls.
However, it is worthy to note that some real pearls lack overtones. Other real pearls may be of lower quality. Consequently, they may not have as much luster as their high-quality counterparts. So this test alone is not sufficient to draw conclusions.
Real pearls are made from natural elements, the same materials as the shells of mollusks. As such, they are about 20% heavier than fake pearls made from synthetic materials like plastic.
So, one way to tell if your pearls are real is to feel their weight on your hands. Real pearls feel heavier, but fake ones feel hollow. One disadvantage of this test is that beads made from solid glass weigh heavier than real pearls, so it can be tricky to rely totally on this method.
This requires visiting a reputable jeweler or a friend who has pearls that are confirmed to be authentic. You can ask them to give you some real pearls to compare with yours. How can you make the best of your “detective work”? Carefully follow the steps in the surface test as mentioned previously. Take your time.
Hopefully, the jeweler will be kind enough to allow you sufficient time to study your pearls against his. And maybe you may be kind to the jeweler by offering a tip or purchasing a piece of jewelry from his shop if you feel up to it.
Drill Hole Test
If several pearls have been stringed together to form a necklace or a bracelet, they would have been perforated to make holes that the string can pass through. Studying these holes is another way to tell if pearls are real. How to do it?
- Check the size of the holes. Real pearls are fragile and easily damaged, so they are delicately drilled with smaller holes. On the other hand, you can tell fake pearls by their larger drill holes.
- Check the edges of the hole. Real pearls have smooth clearly defined edges, while fake pearls have blunt and uneven edges.
- Check for coatings around the drill holes. If you observe shiny flakes around the drill holes, these are likely telltale signs of man-made beads coated in paint, indicating that they are fake.
- Look out for a nacre layer. If you find a clear line separating the nacre from the nucleus, you have good reason to rejoice. Fake pearls lack this feature as they were never built from nacre in the first place.
The drill hole test is suitable for stringed pearls without metal fittings. Metal fittings are likely to obstruct a careful examination of the drill holes. If you find that this applies to your pearls, please read on for other tests that may work better.
Magnifying Glass Test
For this test, you’ll need the pearls you want to test and a magnifying glass.
- Place the pearls on a surface or on your left palm.
- Look at the pearls through a magnifying glass. The glass should be at least 10x magnification. If the pearls look fine-grained, they are likely genuine, but if they look rougher, similar to the texture of egg shells, they are likely fake.
This is an effective method to tell if your pearls are real. You’ll need a 64-power magnification microscope for best results.
- Place your pearls under the microscope. Ensure that you have good lighting, preferably fiber-optic light.
- Observe the patterns of the pearls through the microscope. Real pearls have a distinct scaly appearance, while fake pearls will look grainy.
Can pearls be x-rayed? Absolutely! This is another powerful method to tell if pearls are real. For this method, you’ll need an industrial x-ray machine. You can find one in the Gemological Institute of America or a reputable gem lab.
The x-ray test works by taking a picture of the inside of the pearl. It reveals the growth pattern or the internal structure of the pearls. This method is so comprehensive that it can even reveal if a real pearl is natural or cultured. An industrial x-ray can generously reveal details about the origin, weight, shape, color, mollusk, and environment the pearl came. It may take several weeks to complete testing and reporting.
💡 Worth the Cost? This test is most suitable for checking if a set of pearls are natural or cultured. It may prove especially useful if there is a need to know the value of your pearls, perhaps for a sale or an auction.
Can you test if pearls are real with vinegar?
Vinegar is made up of acetic acid, while real pearls are composed of calcium carbonate. Technically speaking, calcium carbonate will react with acetic acid to produce calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. Can this be a test for real pearls? Yes, but an expensive and damaging one.
If a real pearl is dropped in vinegar solution for a period of time, it will gradually dissolve. On the other hand, if the pearls are fake, they will not dissolve.
It will take approximately 24-36 hours to dissolve about one gram of pearl in a solution that contains 5% of acetic acid like the white vinegar sold in the markets today. After this time has elapsed, a small amount of gel-like translucent material is left on the surface.
If you put a drop of vinegar on a real pearl, bubbles will appear on its surface. This method will destroy a real pearl, not a fake one.
Do we advise using vinegar to test the authenticity of your pearls? Much depends on you. If you’d like to use one pearl to test if a string of pearls is real and you don’t mind parting with it, maybe you might not mind this method.
However, we recommend that you avoid submerging a string of pearls in vinegar to ascertain that they are real, particularly if these are treasured heirlooms and there’s a big chance they could be real. Instead, consider sending them for x-raying. This will method will not cause irreparable damage to your precious possessions.
Now that you know how to identify real pearls, check out our top 10 genuine pearl earrings.
Our Best Tips for Caring for Real Pearls
Real pearls can last for a lifetime if you take good care of them. How can you keep yours in the best shape? Check out our recommendations for maintaining these organic gems.
Keep Pearls Away from Harsh Chemicals
Avoid allowing any chemicals or acids such as cleaning agents, cosmetics, make-up, perfumes, and even acids from food to come into contact with your precious pearls. Since real pearls are composed of natural elements, these chemicals can damage them, making them lose their beauty and luster. Wear your pearls last after you’ve gotten dressed. Take off your pearls first before other clothing to avoid snagging them on clothing.
Watch Out for Food Spills
Wipe food or drink quickly if they spill on pearls while eating. Be wary especially if they contain acids such as salad dressings, wine, lemon, orange, or vinegar.
Clean Your Pearls Carefully
Wipe your pearls with a soft cotton cloth to clean out sweat, body oils, and dirt after each wear. If your pearls need more cleaning, prepare a solution of lukewarm water (preferably distilled water since tap water may contain chlorine) and mild toilet soap. Dip the soft cloth into the solution and clean with another clean, damp, soft cotton cloth. Make sure you get all the soap out. Wipe your pearls dry with a soft cotton cloth. Then lay them flat on a soft, dry cotton cloth to dry completely. Once a year, take your pearls to a reputable jeweler for thorough cleaning and maintenance.
Give Your Pearls Some Moisture
Wear them often as these shell-borne gems love moisture (an added reason to look like a queen every day!). Store them in a breathable container lined with a soft material such as velvet, not an airtight box or plastic bag – your pearls need to breathe.
Store Them Safely
Don’t hang pearls on a jewelry rack as these may stretch the silk thread used to bind a set of pearls together, instead lay them flat. Don’t store your pearls with other pieces of jewelry as they are especially susceptible to getting scratched. Avoid getting your pearls tangled.
Avoid Prolonged Exposure to Sunlight
Exposing pearls to direct sunlight for a long time will cause the pearls to yellow over time.
Don’t Immerse Your Pearls in Water
Don’t soak your pearls in water. If they are strung with a silk thread, soaking it in water will weaken the thread. Avoid showering or swimming with pearls.
Keep Your Pearls from Getting Scratched
Remove pearl jewelry before washing your hands or doing rigorous physical activity that may cause the pearls to be scratched. Wear these delicate gems with soft clothing. Avoid pairing your pearls with clothing made of hard or rough materials such as sequins or beads to prevent damage.
Are your pearls real?
We’ve examined several tests to tell if your pearls are real. If you’re simply curious about the value of your pearls and nothing serious is at stake, you may want to try the DIY tests such as the tooth, friction, temperature, surface, and light tests or use a magnifying glass or a microscope.
However, if you need to know whether your pearls are real, then you might want to visit a gem lab to have your pearls x-rayed. Whatever methods you choose, we encourage using a test that will not damage these gorgeous treasures.
Have another jewelry piece you’d like to test? Here’s how to find out whether gold jewelry is real gold.
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