Pearls are beautiful, feminine, demure, and classic. If you know what to look for and how to shop for antique jewelry at an estate sale, you can find real pearls for yourself or to resell. But what do real pearls look like? The following is a guide to help you find and purchase real pearl jewelry.
Uncultured vs. cultured vs. imitation
First of all, let's talk about the different categories of pearls. Pearls that occur naturally, in a mollusk shell, that are discovered and then harvested, otherwise known as uncultured, are extremely rare. All mollusks have the ability to create pearls. Most pearls that you see have been cultured, meaning that they are "real" but were made by introducing a foreign object into a mollusk and then harvesting the resulting pearl.
Pearls used to be considered more valuable than diamonds. They were reserved for royalty and the extremely wealthy. Even when pearls were first being harvested, they were very rare and therefore very valuable. Pearls began to be cultured in the early 1900s. If you come across estate jewelry with pearls that was made during the civil war, during reconstruction, or during the Victorian periods, if the pearl passes the tooth test, it is most likely real. Jewelry experts swear by the tooth test. Real pearls, whether cultured or uncultured, will feel gritty, while imitation pearls will feel smooth. Naturally occurring pearls are also very small and are rarely uniform in shape. Faux pearls will not pass the tooth test.
Antique pearl jewelry from the Edwardian period and Post-World War I, may have real pearls but any pearl jewelry that you find from the 20th century is likely to have either cultured or imitation pearls. Antique Imitation or "fake" pearls are made out of varied substances including the inside of oyster shells, bone, glass, and fish scales.
How to tell if a piece of jewelry has real or fake pearls
Cultured pearls are still "real" pearls. You are much more likely to run across cultured pearls than the rare and valuable uncultured kind. If you encounter a piece of antique pearl jewelry at an estate sale, ask yourself the following questions. First of all, what era is the piece from? Jewelry manufactured prior to the 20th century is much more likely to have real pearls set in it. Next, look at the size and color. If you find a piece with large, uniform, white pearls, it is most likely to be a fake. Real pearls will be smaller and have slight and subtle variations in color.
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