Tuesday, December 29, 2009

5 Easy Tests For Pearls

I love pearls and you will see them regularly in my jewellery creations.  I love their natural and organic nature and I am just amazed that all kinds of beautiful and colourful pearls can come from the humble mollusk.

When buying pearls, how can you tell if pearls are real or fake? For a start, you may be able to identify fake pearls by their name: simulated, faux, glass, plastic, resin, artificial, man-made.

Genuine pearls also have different names depending on where they were harvested from - freshwater, akoya, Tahitian or South Sea.  One category is natural pearls that are formed by oysters living in the sea, without any human intervention at all and they are usually rare and found in heirloom pieces. 

All pearls sold today are cultured pearls.  The natural colours produced by the mollusks (not just oysters) include white, cream, black, gold, silver, peach, pink and lavender.  Tahitian pearls are produced by the large Black-Lipped Oyster which is the only oyster to produce naturally dark pearls. 

To add to the confusion, there are genuine pearls that have treatments applied to them, such as colouring or faceting. For example, black freshwater and Akoya pearls have been dyed to achieve their dark colour.  Genuine pearls also come in all shapes and sizes, such as round (most prized), potato, rice or peanut, biwi, baroque and stick.

Here are some simple tests and guidelines to help you figure out real from fake. Don't just rely on one test!  I have to stress that these are just guidelines to help you when you are shopping and you see a bargain.   If you plan to spend a gazillion dollars on a beautiful strand of pearls, always buy from a reputable store and ask to see some authentication and gemologist certificates!

So, here we go!

1)Rub test
Rub the pearl gently against your front teeth. If it feels grainy, then it's likely to be a real pearl. If it feel smooth and just glide across your teeth, it's likely a fake. But this test is not fool-proof because good fake pearls can feel grainy too.  So, go on and do other tests.

2) Magnifying and sun test
View your pearl through a magnifying glass under a bright light, preferably sunlight. Real pearls have slight variations in colour tones and iridescence,  unless of course they are very expensive ones.  You can also see small bumps, ridges and bands around the nacre and they are not perfectly round.  Less experienced people may confuse these marks with the molding of a fake, which is seen in the exact middle of all the pearls on strands of some faux pearls.   Real pearls come in different shapes and sizes.  If all the pearls on a strand look uniform in terms of size, colour, iridescence and didn't cost you an arm or a leg, then it's likely to be a fake.  Perfectly round genuine pearls are expensive and should come with a certificate from a certified gemologist.

3) Check drill holes and knotting
The holes on genuine pearls are smooth and as small as possible - just enough for silk cord to pass through. This is to maintain their value.  Fake pearls have holes that are larger (toothpicks can probably pass through some) and bumpy around the edges. Inferior fakes also tend to flake around the edges of the holes.  The holes of imitation pearls often form a shallow bowl shape, while the holes of real pearls are more likely to be flat. A genuine strand of pearls should also be strung on silk cords and knotted between pearls to prevent friction and the strand falling apart if it breaks. It should be finished with a solid gold hook clasp although some strands now come with sterling silver clasp for a more modern look.

4) Weight
Real pearls have higher density then imitation pearls. This means if you hold a strand of genuine pearls in one hand and a strand of similar sized fake pearls in the other, the real pearls will feel heavier.  Of course, good imitation pearls like Swarovski crystal pearls will also feel heavy like real ones.  But generally, fake pearls are less dense.

5) Touch
Genuine pearls feel cool to the touch and slowly warm up when held.  Hold the plastic handle of a knife and then hold the blade (careful now!) and you will feel the difference even though both are at room temperature. Resin and plastic pearls are warm on the first contact.

So, there you have it, a street guide to tell real pearls from fake when you are shopping at some pearl farm in Vietnam or China.  Try out some of tests above and see if you can identify pearls better now!

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