Simulated pearls have existed for over a thousand years. In fact, evidence suggests that people have been trying to produce imitation pearls since approximately 83 A.D. That’s when Chinese Philosopher Wang Chhung (or Wang Ch’ung) recorded his thoughts on how heating, proper timing, and the right mix of chemicals could be combined to form pearls that were quite close to the real thing. At the time, natural pearls were so rare and valuable that they were exorbitantly expensive. In fact, pearls were worth more than gold in many parts of the world, so it’s only natural that people would want to imitate the beauty of genuine pearls.
Experiments continued throughout the years with few mentions of imitation pearls. The Venetians discovered a method by which they could create beautiful iridescent glass in the 16th century, but the industry did not take off until finally a man named Jacquin discovered that the shimmer of fish scales could be used to create a substance known as “pearlessence” or “essence d’orient.” He was able to create simulated pearls by coating glass beads with essence d’orient and then filling them with wax. Unfortunately, getting the materials for pearlessence required harvesting scales from thousands of fish. These days, many faux pearls use other methods. For example, some manufacturers use plastic beads instead of glass. Also, while some companies still use pearlessence, others cover their beads in pearl film.
There’s nothing wrong with simulated pearls; in fact, well-made versions can be quite pretty. It can be helpful to know the different types on the market so that you know whether your pearls are real or not, however.
If you are shopping for simulated pearls, you should look for strands that are labeled fake, faux, simulated, artificial, imitation, or man-made. Manufacturers and retailers are supposed to disclose this information, but unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. There are specific brands/types that are always artificial, including:
- Red Sea
- Shell (a specific type of artificial pearl)
- Pearlfection (more about them below)
- Mayoka (this might be the same as Majorca)
- Swarovski (these are made of glass beads and are generally high quality in comparison to others)
Pearlfection has, in the past, been promoted in such a way that consumers might be confused. I’m not sure if this is on the company’s shoulders, or on the retailers/programs that promote them (QVC, etc). However, some of the claims I’ve heard are that these pearls are as much as 98% real, they are not imitation, their black pearls are from the Pinctada Margaritefera oyster (that produces black Tahitian pearls), a jeweler would not be able to tell whether their strand was real or not, and black is a natural color in Akoya pearls. Now, please be aware that none of these claims are true! Pearlfections pearls are indeed simulated.
What if you aren’t sure of the authenticity of your strand of pearls? Do you know how to tell the difference between real and fake pearls? Here are six common tests:
- The tooth test. This one is something that many people in the industry swear by. To perform this test, run a pearl over your teeth (lightly!). Natural pearls should have a gritty feel, whereas simulated pearls should feel relatively smooth. The problem with this test is that cultured pearls tend to feel nearly as smooth as their man-made cousins. Basically, if your pearl(s) feel gritty, you’ve most likely got naturals; if they feel smooth, move on to another test.
- Magnification. Under close inspection, real pearls should have ridges, grooves, or other surface imperfections. Simulated pearls are designed to be perfectly smooth. You should also inspect the drill holes carefully. The drill hole of a fake pearl will probably be ragged and uneven; you might even see some dye peeling around the edges.
- Sunlight. Take your pearls out and look at them in the sun. Real pearls have more depth (due to the nacre) and color variation. Simulated pearls tend to have very little shine when compared to the real thing. They also lack that “inner glow” that pearls with very high luster possess. If you have a pearl necklace, take a look at several pearls in the same strand. Do they match exactly? If the colors are exactly the same, with little to no variation, chances are that your pearls are man-made.
- Density. This one can be a bit tricky. In general, real pearls will feel heavier than simulated ones. High-quality artificial pearls may feel just like real pearls, unfortunately.
- X-ray. If you’re willing to pay an expert to x-ray your pearls, this is the best test of all. An x-ray can tell you several things: whether your pearls are real, whether they are natural or cultured, and whether they have been dyed. This can be a bit expensive but is well worth the cost if you have any doubt.
- Destructive tests. This category includes tests that most people wouldn’t care to perform. For example, you could try cutting your pearls open to see what the core looks like. Alternatively, you could try heat, water, or one of several other tests that involve destroying your pearls. If you want to try one of these in the name of science, go for it – but don’t try these if you want to wear your pearls ever again.
Simulated pearls are more durable than natural ones in some ways, and less so in others. On the whole, caring for simulated pearls is relatively easy. Like real pearls, make sure that you avoid acids or body oils. Although these babies can handle a bit of heat, cooking with them might not be the best idea. Unlike the real thing, man-made pearls can handle some light cleansers, so be sure to clean them every so often with a soft cloth. One thing that you should watch out for – the outer layers of dye or coating may occasionally peel or scratch off. Low-quality strands may be especially susceptible to this type of damage. To keep your necklace (or other type of jewelry) looking great, store in a bag or jewelry box away from things that might scratch.
Simulated, man-made, artificial – they all mean the same thing. Although these pearls are not real, sometimes they can be well worth the purchase. Just make sure that you know what you’re getting before you buy!
- Caring for Simulated Pearls
- How to Spot a Fake Pearl Necklace
- How to Buy a Pearl Necklace – A Crash Course Guide
- Your Guide to the Best White Pearl Bracelets on the Market
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