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Imitation or Not
Imitation or Not
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Imagine a rosary-bead maker watching a fish being scaled in a basin of water. The water has colorful, pearly reflections which seem to form as the fish scales dissolve. The bead maker then gets the idea to filter the water, recover the pearly substance from it and mix it with a kind of varnish. Later he coats the inside surface
of a hollow glass bead with the pearly mixture, fills the bead with wax, and what's the result? The birth of the modern-day imitation pearl.

This occurred in France in the 17th century. Jacquin was the name of the rosary-bead maker. And essence of orient (or pearl essence) is the name of the pearly mixture he discovered. Today, the finest imitation pearls usually have several coats of essence of orient.

Types of Imitation Pearls

Even though pearl essence is used to make many of the best imitation pearls, such as Majorica pearls. Imitations come in a variety of types. The main ones are:

• Hollow glass beads containing wax. These pearls, made by the same process as Jacquin's, are most likely to be found in antique jewelry.

• Solid glass beads. Majorica imitation pearls are an example of this type. They may be covered with as many as forty coats of pearl essence and hand polished between each coat. Imitation glass pearls are also coated with other substances such as synthetic pearl essence, plastic, cellulose and lacquer.

• Plastic beads. These may have the same type coatings as the glass type. Plastic imitation pearl necklaces sometimes hang poorly due to their light weight.

• Mother-of-pearl shell beads. These are coated with the same substances as plastic and glass imitations. A coating made from powdered mother of pearl and synthetic resin may also be used. One company calls such beads semi-cultured. This is just a misleading term for "imitation." Powdered mother-of-pearl coatings are not new. Centuries ago, American Indians produced imitation pearls by applying such coatings to clay beads and then baking them.

Occasionally, people sell uncoated mother-of-pearl beads as pearls or they describe them as very valuable. In the Pacific Islands, you can buy mother-of-pearl shell bead necklaces from the natives for a couple of dollars. Some of the better ones cost more.

Simulated and faux pearls (the French term for fake pearls) are two other terms used to designate imitation pearls. These pearls can be distinguished from natural and cultured pearls with the following tests.

Tests that Require No Equipment

Tooth Test: Rub the pearls lightly along the biting edge of your upper front teeth. If they feel gritty or sandy, it's likely they are cultured or natural pearls. If they feel smooth, they are probably imitations.There are a few problems with this test. It's not the most sanitary test. It may scratch the pearls, if done improperly. And it doesn't always work. There are some imitation pearls that feel gritty. Also, accordingto the Fall 1991 issue of Gems & Gemology, real pearls may feel smooth. A cultured pearl sent to the GIA New York laboratory gave a smooth tooth test reaction because the surface had been polished. Therefore, don't rely solely on the tooth test. If you use it, combine it with the magnification tests listed below.

Surface Magnification: Examine the surface of the pearl with a 10-power magnifier such as
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