We’re all familiar with what a pearl looks like, but how do you know if it’s a natural oyster pearl, or a manmade imitation such as a Swarovski pearl?

The history of pearls

Natural pearls represent grandeur and luxury due to their rarity and pure form. They are a symbol of wealth, and for years, we’ve seen members of the Royal family wearing stunning pearl jewellery, in the form of necklaces, earrings or even in tiaras.

Image source: Town & Country magazine

This tradition dates back to Elizabeth 1st who was often depicted in portraits wearing many pearls; the famous Armada portrait shows the Queen wearing pearls in her hair, necklace, cloak, dress and crown. Pearls were used to present Elizabeth as the Greek Artemis, who was a virgin and therefore pure, hence why pearls are now seen as a symbol of purity.

Image source: The National Maritime Museum

The high demand for the look and shine of a natural pearl resulted in the manufacturing of glass imitation pearls. Of all the makers of glass pearls, Swarovski is probably the most famous. They have been able to produce a Nacre like coating so similar to that of an oyster pearl that it can be almost impossible to tell the difference.

How are natural pearls formed?

Natural pearls are made by freshwater mussels and marine oysters, and are formed as a defence against parasites that enter their shell, or damage to their body. To protect itself from harm, the mussel or oyster secretes a substance that encases the parasite, and over time, this forms a smooth dome over the top. The substance is made from the same material as its shell, called Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl.

Commercially cultured pearls are where an irritant has been manually inserted into the mollusc shell, forcing it to create a pearl.

Creator: Maciej Toporowicz, NYC | Credit: Getty Images

Copyright: copyright 2005 Maciej Toporowicz

How are imitation pearls made?

Imitation pearls, produced by crystal manufacturers such as Swarovski and Preciosa, are essentially made from a round glass bead that have been perfectly rounded with a smooth finish. The bead is then coated in a single layer of Nacre to give it the lustre effect of a natural pearl.

What are the physical differences between natural and glass pearls?

The main difference between a natural pearl and an imitation pearl is the Nacre coating. While good quality man-made pearls do have a similar shine, the hardwearing and durable aspect doesn’t match the layers of strong Nacre formed on a natural pearl. There are also a few physical differences:

  • Imitation pearls can be scratched, so damage is more likely to be seen on a glass pearl.
  • Natural pearls are made from the same material as the mollusc shell, so there isn’t a huge variation in colour. However, imitation pearls can be produced with many different coloured coatings.
  • Natural pearls are more often round in shape, whereas a glass pearl can be formed into many different shapes, such as baroque, pearshape, flatback or elongated.

Image source: Winterson.co.uk

What are the different types of imitation pearl?

All three top crystal manufacturers, Swarovski, Preciosa and Zodiac produce their own glass imitation pearl, with the first two having the largest range of different pearl types:

  • Round (full-drilled) PearlRound pearls are probably what you think of first when you picture a pearl, they are a completely spherical pearlescent bead with a hole through the centre. This classic shape has a timeless appeal, and is the most popular pearl type for jewellery design, fashion and bridal. The ‘full-drilled’ term refers to the hole being drilled all the way through the pearl, as opposed to ‘half-drilled’ which is where the hole stops in the centre. Because the hole runs all the way through the pearl, it can be sewn onto fabrics or threaded onto jewellery wire and elastic to make necklaces and bracelets.
  • Round (half-drilled) Pearl – ‘Half-drilled’ is referring to the fact that the hole running through the pearl stops at the centre, so it has been drilled only halfway through. This means that the pearl can be set onto a peg or piece of wire from the bottom, where the hole cannot be seen and you get a nice clean, smooth finish. Half-drilled round pearls are most often used in jewellery making, for pearl stud earrings or rings. In appearance they are identical to a full-drilled pearl, however they are missing the hole on the other side.
  • Non hotfix flatback PearlFlatback non hotfix pearls, sometimes known as cabochon pearls, are more commonly used for dancewear embellishment, bridal couture, nail art, cardmaking and craft. Unlike a round pearl, they have a completely flat bottom, allowing them to be glued onto the surface.
  • Hotfix flatback Pearl - Hotfix pearls are available in the Zodiac brand and they require an applicator tool or household iron to attach them. Hotfix pearls are popular among bridal designers and costumiers who prefer to use heat than glue or hot melt glue guns. Looking from above, flatback pearls are similar in appearance to round pearls, they have a smooth, pearlescent shiny coating that is rounded – essentially, they look like a round pearl that’s been cut clean in half.
  • Drop PearlDrop pearls can be oval, elongated or pearshape and are usually used for making drop earrings.

Where to purchase glass pearls?

Glass pearls are available to purchase from Crystal Parade in the Zodiac, Preciosa and Swarovski brand, with Preciosa having the largest choice of colours and shapes.

Swarovski preciosa & zodiac