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Are My Pearls Real?

If you’re wondering how to tell if your pearls are real, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common questions people have when considering purchasing pearl jewellery. First, it’s important to recognize that both natural and cultured pearls are classified as “real” pearls—one is just made in the wild, and one is made in a controlled lab setting. What you need to look out for are imitation or “fake” pearls, which are nothing more than beads made out of glass, plastic, alabaster or shells.

Are My Pearls Real?

Slight Imperfections

1. Slight Imperfections

This is one instance where imperfections are a good thing. “Real" pearls are very rarely perfect. Usually, they will have slight imperfections, such as tiny blemishes or an irregular shape. The outer layer of the pearl, or the nacre, will reflect light differently as the pearl is turned. Conversely, imitation pearls are usually too "perfect." They will be perfectly round, and the surface will show no blemishes.
While perfectly round pearls can be real, they are also quite rare. A strand of pearls made with only perfect pearls would be extremely costly. Realistically, if a strand of pearls both looks perfect and is inexpensive, the pearls may be simulated or fake.   
A sharp lustre

2. A sharp lustre

Lustre is the way a jeweller would describe the light reflected from a pearl – and a pearl's lustre is what makes it so desirable. High-quality pearls will have a strong, bright, and clear lustre and will shine almost like the light is coming from within. With lustrous pearls, you can usually see your own reflection. A fake pearl might have a chalkier appearance and won’t reflect light nearly as effortlessly.   
3. Overtones

3. Overtones

Good quality pearls are prized for their overtones. An overtone is the subtle colour that is visible on the outer surface when exposed to light. Silver is the most popular white pearl overtone, while rose is the most traditional. Ivory overtones give pearls an almost vintage look and are also a favourite.

Simulated or imitation pearls will generally not have a visible overtone. Their surface will look shiny but flat and without depth.   
Pearl drill holes

4. Pearl drill holes

Pearls strung along a strand will have holes drilled for the silk string to pass through. A real pearl will have well‐defined edges (like a hollow cylinder). Imitation or simulated pearls often have rough or rounded edges. Also, look for chipped paint or coating around the hole. As fake pearls rub against each other, some paint or coating will wear away, allowing you to see the plastic or glass base underneath.   

5. Disclosure at the time of sale

Genuine pearls must, by law, be described as "natural" or "cultured" pearls. If a pearl is a fake, it must be described as "imitation" or "simulated." Look at the small print on the advertisement or on the counter card for this information. If you shop at a reputable jewellery store like Peoples Jewellers, you can trust that the pearl you’re buying is real, whether that means it’s natural or cultured.   

Is a cultured pearl a real pearl?

In a word, yes.

Over 99% of the "real" pearls sold today are cultured pearls. These pearls are created the old-fashioned way, but with a little assistance from man. There are many varieties of cultured pearls, including Freshwater, Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea pearls.

A cultured pearl is a real pearl grown in a shellfish or mollusc. Instead of waiting for an irritant, like a piece of sand or small rock, to enter the shell, they are "seeded" by hand and in large quantities, using a bit of shell from a sacrificed mollusc. Over time, layer upon layer of nacre forms around the inserted irritant, forming a natural, cultured pearl. The process to create a pearl takes from one to three years, depending on the variety.

Freshwater pearls are more abundant because the molluscs used are able to create 6‐8 pearls at once inside the mother shell and can be used over and over again. Saltwater pearls are rarer, as the molluscs can only create a single pearl at a time. Saltwater molluscs also cannot make a pearl more than once, so they are sacrificed as seed for new pearl creation.

The cultivation of pearls has led to a greater abundance of these stunning and lustrous beauties. Large pearl farms, such as those used by Mikimoto and Honora, ensure that pearls are an affordable luxury for everyone.