Mother of pearl is incredibly popular in the Middle East, making it a huge part of many of our most popular Holy Land gifts. That very popularity has done what greed and the desire for profit usually do, however, and encouraged many mother of pearl retailers to begin manufacturing “fake” mother of pearl (iridescent plastic) and market it as the real thing. So how can you tell when it’s real and when you’re looking at a fraud?
What is Mother of Pearl?
Before you can accurately launch a quest to differentiate real mother of pearl from a cleverly disguised fake you should know what mother of pearl is. Mother of pearl (also known as nacre) is, quite literally, the “mother” of today’s pearls. It’s the iridescent layer of material that makes of the shell lining of many mollusks and is made up of plates of aragonite combined with an organic material that strongly resembles silk to make it both strong and flexible and suitable for use in jewelry making.
When an irritant comes into contact with the mother of pearl the organism forms a large bump around it to create an actual pearl.
How to Tell if It’s Mother of Pearl or Just Pretty Plastic
There are many opinions out there on how to differentiate real mother of pearl from fake when you’re shopping in wares from the Middle East. One savvy shopper recommends a bit test (if possible), stating, “If it doesn’t click, its plastic.” Beware, they break. Others say real mother of pearl is usually colder than room temperature. If you happen to be talking about buttons or small accessories you can usually look at the reverse side to get a feel for whether it’s plastic or real mother of pearl.
Go Straight to the Source
Over time you’ll develop a feel for accurately determining which products contain real mother of pearl and which simply clever fakes are. Until then, consider asking retailers for the source of their products. Remember, real mother of pearl comes from mollusks and therefore originates in areas where these organisms can be found. It’s native to the Middle East, but chief sources for today’s products come from the pearl oyster, freshwater pearl mussels and abalone.
Pearl oysters used commercially are found in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and parts of the Western Pacific. Some are also harvested in the waters off the Australian coast, particularly the Shark Bay pearl oyster. Certain species are also harvested off the coasts of Fiji, Tahiti, Myanmar, Baja and the Philippines.
Freshwater pearl mussels are listed as an endangered species but are still harvested by permit. They are native to the northern regions of the world, specifically eastern Canada and New England, Russia and Continental Europe.
Abalone is considerably more common and much less endangered and can be found along the coastal waters of every continent, with the exception of certain parts of the eastern Atlantic. Most are harvested in the cold waters off the southern coasts of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia as well as certain parts of western North America and Japan. Inquiring into the source materials of your products should give you a very accurate idea of whether you’re dealing with the real thing or a cleverly disguised piece of iridescent plastic.