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I'm often asked how to tell real pearls from fake pearls, usually followed by some reference to the "tooth test." The larger question is really this: how do I make sure I'm paying a fair price for the pearls I'm buying?
With many of today's freshwater pearls available at reasonable prices most people can afford real pearls of one type or another. I would argue that consumers lose far more money overpaying for real pearls of low quality than they do buying fake pearls misrepresented as real.
That said there are some things you should know to judge real and fake. First is the nomenclature. Artificial pearls go by many names: fake, faux, manufactured, semi-cultured, imitation, simulated and dozens of branded names such as La Tausca, Majorica and Laguna. Most of them are plastic or glass. Some are actual shell beads lacquered with layers of a pearlescent substances made from oils and ground fish scales. There's nothing wrong with liking these costume pieces. Some are worth only a dollar or two. High quality imitations can be $ 100 to even $ 300, but be very hesitant to spend more than $ 50 on fakes.
The best way to spot fake pearls is to fully engage your senses. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Hold them. Real pearls have heft that makes them feel heavy for their size.
- Feel them. Real pearls are cool to the touch and will warm slightly when held for a minute or two.
- Look them over. Real pearls have natural blemishes and markings and slight differences in size and color. Fake pearls have a uniform quality. If the pearls are perfectly round and perfectly matched but not expensive you can be perfectly certain they are perfectly fake.
- Examine the drill holes carefully. The hole itself should be small and clean at its edges. Rough and broken areas around the edges can indicated either a fake or a poor quality genuine pearl. Looking into the hole, a uniform quality to the surrounding material all the way through indicates an artificial pearl.
- Examine the knots and the clasp. Lame string, neither silk nor knotted, is a surefire sign of imitation pearls. A cheap clasp of brass or gold vermeil also signals fakes.
- Light Test. Plastic is the most common material for fake pearls. Shine a bright pen light from behind. A plastic bead will have a uniform glow. A real cultured pearl will have a dark center.
- Tooth Test. The nacre of a real pearl is comprised of calcium and aragonite crystals and binding proteins that are layered on in a grid pattern. Gently rub a real pearl along the edge of your front upper tooth and it will feel slightly abrasive or gritty. A fake pearl will feel slippery and smooth.
- Common Sense. Fine pearls are expensive. A perfectly matched necklace of round 10x12MM Tahitian pearls is not a $ 900 item. Know what pearls cost. The pearl market is fairly efficient. Pricing anomalies are not common. If you find a deal too good to be true the pearls are probably fake, poor quality or stolen.
- EBAY. Reputable sellers exist at EBAY and auction sites but there is an abundance of hucksters hiding there, too. Be especially wary of buying pearls direct online from China. This is a great way to turn your hard earned dollars into a handful of worthless beads.
The more you plan to invest in fine pearls the more you should undertake your due diligence.