How to Tell If Pearls Are Real

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A Chanel model piles on the pearls at Paris Fashion Week Womenswear in March 2014.
A Chanel model piles on the pearls at Paris Fashion Week Womenswear in March 2014. (Image: Francois Durand/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

Diamonds have sparkle, but softly shimmering pearls are ready to accompany you anywhere, through thick and thin. Pearls, of course, develop from thin to thick, in layers of nacre, after an irritant has found its way or been placed into an oyster. You might be able to tell whether your pearls are real or costume jewelry, but differences between cultured and natural are more subtle; you can try a few jeweler's tricks or seek out an appraiser for more detailed information.

Try This at Home

First, the tooth test: Jewelers really do rub pearls against the front of a tooth -- not an edge -- to see if they're real cultured or naturally occurring pearls. If they are, they should feel gritty, not smooth. Faux pearls -- costume beads of plastic, glass or other materials -- will be smooth and slippery. Jewelry consultant Berj Zavian, interviewed by PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," said looking inside a pearl also holds clues. Pearls that have tiny holes from stringing can be looked into with a flashlight and jeweler's loupe, although Zavian uses an X-ray. Natural pearls will have onion-like layers of nacre. Cultured pearls lack layers.

Check With an Appraiser

Jewelers also use criteria other than natural or cultured as they price pearls. Luster -- which results from multiple layers of nacre -- is one. Other considerations are size, color, shape and surface, whether blemished or smooth. Find more details from an appraiser, either through a reputable jeweler or an appraisal association.

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