Not infrequently, someone will show me Grandma's treasured pearls only to have me point out that they are simulated pearls. If Grandma was a depression era bride it's particularly likely. Pearls were not cultured until the early 1900s and not customarily given as gifts to sweet sixteens and brides until the 1930s. Prior to the introduction of cultured pearls, natural pearls were the only ones available and they were rare and expensive. Pearl prices have gradually become more affordable over the decades as more become available and more countries become involved in pearl culturing with both seawater and freshwater pearls.
There are many do-it-yourself tests for discovering if your pearls are real. I'm giving you three of the easiest and most accurate that you can do at home.
- Look at the drill holes of the pearls in good light--can you see any chips or peeling paint? Fakes are generally plastic or glass beads that are coated with paint or paste. Looking at the drill holes closely can often reveal the bead underneath. But if the hole seems to be drilled through a natural blemish in the pearl it may be a sign that it is a real pearl. Pearl drillers choose to drill through blemishes to hide them.
- Do the "tooth test" by rubbing the pearls across your teeth (it doesn't work with dentures). Real pearls will feel slightly gritty due to the crystalline structure of the nacre and fake pearls often feel smooth (although there is a high-end imitation pearl brand called "Majorica" that also feels gritty). Don't do this if you are wearing lipstick or lipbalm. Colorants, flavoring and scents are not good for pearls.
- Look for any variations in color, luster, size and shape or any blemishes in good natural light. Real pearls are natural products. If they are perfectly uniform they are either fake, very expensive or one of the more modern cultured seawater pearls that simply don't have much nacre coating the nuclei in the center so they look perfect, but won't wear well.
Usually by combining these three methods you can determine if your pearls are simulated or real. Grandma may have never been sure, but you can probably figure it out. And if Grandma's pearls survived this long, real or fake, they may be worth re-stringing or you may wish to re-design them entirely with the addition of modern beads or clasp.
Natural Pearl: a pearl that is found growing naturally instead of farmed
Cultured Pearl: a farmed pearl
Simulated Pearl: a manufactured pearl--not a pearl that is grown