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Real and Imitation Pearls

Copyright (c) 2006-2022 PearlsOnly
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We are often asked how to tell if pearls are real or imitation. To start, we'll need to look at pearl growth and different types of imitation pearls. Then, we'll look at different pearl tests.

Pearl Growth

First of all, let's look at the pearl growth process. Natural pearls are formed within an oyster or other mollusk. Mollusks are filter feeders and open their shells slightly to allow water to flow in. The mollusks then take nutrients from the microscopic particles and organisms in the ocean water.

As a result, small irritants, such as small ocean animals, can also float in. Parasites can also drill right through the mollusk's hard shell. To protect itself, the mollusk encloses the irritant in a sac and then secretes layer upon layer of nacre around the irritant. This slow and gradual build up of nacre creates the pearl.

Cultured Pearl Growth

Today cultured pearls are grown using a similar process where the irritant and nucleus are placed into the mollusk by skilled technicians. Freshwater cultured pearls are nucleated with tissue so they are closest to natural pearls in growth. Saltwater Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea cultured pearls are bead nucleated. This means that the nacre is formed on the round bead resulting in rounder pearls.

Imitation Pearls

Imitation pearls are ones made from other materials so that they resemble real pearls. Imitation pearls can also create a bold fashion statement and some are quite beautiful.

Imitation Pearl History

Imitation pearls have roots that dating thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians made imitation pearls using a mixture of wax, quartz, powdered metals and salts. After glass making evolved, imitation pearls were made by lining the inside of glass beads with foil. To make up for weight difference, the hollow beads were then filled.

In the seventeenth century, essence d'orient was created as an imitation pearl. Made from fish scales and varnish, this type of imitation replaced the foil inside of glass beads. This invention was credited to Jaquin, a French rosary maker.

Today, there are different imitation pearls available.


Shell imitations are created by creating shell beads then coating them with a layer of powdered mother of pearl.


Mallorca is an island off of Spain and is home to an imitation pearl company established in the 1890's. The Majorica pearl is created by many, many layers of a coating similar to essence d'orient over a specially prepared nucleus. The resulting imitation pearls are quite beautiful.


Swarovski is famous for their beautiful crystal and crystal creations. Their jewelry and bead lines also include imitation pearls.

Pearl Tests

There are a few scientific tests as well as ones you can perform right at home or at the jewelry counter.

Cross Section

First of all, the pearl can be cut open. In the cross section, you can see the nucleus and the layers of nacre formation. Now this test will destroy the pearl so you may want to consider one of these other following ones.


Next, is the X-Ray test and should be performed by a trained gemologist. The X-Ray will show the inside of the pearl with nacre layers and the nucleus.

The two above tests require specialized equipment that may not be readily available. Next are a few simple tests you can perform right at the jewelry counter or at home.

Tooth Test

The simple and traditional tooth test can be best. Simply rub the test pearl against the surface of your front teeth. Do this gently and remember, you are not trying to chew on the pearl. Since a real pearl has a natural layered surface it should feel slightly gritty or have a sandy texture against your teeth.

Weight And Feel

Next, the pearl should be substantial and heavy for its size. The pearl should feel just a bit cool to the touch (unless it has been kept under showcase lights). Pearls are natural gems so each should not look exactly like the next. Look for a slight but pleasing variation.


Under magnification, the surface of a pearl will show a scale like appearance as the thin layers of nacre overlap.

Drill Hole Under Magnification

Also, take a look at the drill hole. The edges should be clean. Also, for saltwater pearls, you can often see the nacre and nucleus layers. For imitation pearls, the outer layers of coating can peel away.

When shopping for pearls, look for a published return/exchange policy as well a knowledgeable sales staff. We want to help you make an informed choice so that your pearls or pearls you've selected as a gift are exactly what you want.

About The Author: Shop Amazon - Top Gift Ideas
Norma Jones is a GIA certified Pearls expert and the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at PearlsOnly is an internet based eCommerce business that provides high quality pearl jewelry direct to consumers. Our goal is complete customer satisfaction with the best selection of the finest pearls anywhere. We leverage our multinational presences to offer our clients high quality pearls, with above-and-beyond customer service at incredible prices. Visit us online at or call us at 1(888)834-4148.

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Last Distribution Date:
2006-06-22 10:00:00

Internal ID: #3040

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