Pearl is a smooth lustrous gem and clearly one of nature’s great treasure with a wide range of color and shapes. In the pearl jewelry, there are mainly three ways in which the pearl can be formed, including natural vs. cultured vs. imitation.


Natural (or wild) pearls, formed without human intervention, are very rare. A pearl is formed when an irritant accidentally, such as a piece of sand, becomes lodged in the shell of an oyster, mollusks, either oysters, mussels or another various bi-valve species. To protect its soft body from this irritant, the oyster secretes a smooth, hard substance called “nacre”. Layer upon layer of nacre coats the foreign object and hardens, ultimately forming a pearl. It commonly will take years to create a pearl of decent size and perfectly round shapes are rare. In general, the thicker the nacre, the richer the “glow” of the pearl – which can greatly enhance its value. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or mussels must be gathered and opened, and thus killed, to find even one wild pearl; for many centuries, this was the only way pearls were obtained, and why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past.


Cultured pearls are formed in pearl farms, using human intervention as well as natural processes. Essentially the process involves inserting an irritant into an oyster, mussels or another various bi-valve species and then caring for that oyster until it has developed a pearl.


Some imitation pearls (also called shell pearls) are simply made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell, while others are made from glass, ceramic or plastic and are coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d’Orient. Although imitation pearls look the part, they do not have the same weight or smoothness as real pearls, and their luster will also dim greatly. They are fake pearls.

Simulated pearl

Glass beads coated in the ground-up iridescent nacre from fish scales.

Characteristics of fake pearls

  • Fake pearls will be too perfect. They will appear to have a fantastic luster on every part of their surface. Real pearls are formed by nature and will always have some sort of imperfection if you look close enough.
  • Fake pearls have no deviations in their size or the rhythm of their size increases in a graduated strand. Once again, in a real pearl necklace, it won’t appear flawless and there will be some variation in size.
  • Fake pearls, when examined under a magnifying glass, show no hints of a ring or ridges around the drill hole, while a real pearl often does.
  • Fake pearls appear to have no difference in color from one pearl to another, seeming almost flat in tone, whereas a real pearl strand will have depth and include a body color and an overtone color.
  • Fake pearls lack the luminosity of real pearls and don’t reflect light as well. Imitation pearls may look shiny but won’t show depth and true luster.
  • Fake pearls, under magnification, will sometimes give themselves away with a sliver of glass or plastic bead showing visibly at the hole’s edge, where it is strung. A slight separation from the bead may show and chips of the pearl can even be missing.
  • Fake pearls feel light, and real pearls are heftier.