Pearls have always been desirable as jewellery. They were relatively easy to use as they didn’t need to be faceted or polished in any way although they do have to have holes added if they are to be strung as a necklace or bracelet. They were often relatively easier to find in some instances, found in shallow tidal waters or in rivers, although diving to ocean depths was required for truly large pearls.

Because the demand for pearls, particularly larger sized pearls, outstripped the supply of pearls, they were one of the earliest gems to be copied or imitated. Many of the writings about gemstones throughout history discussed recipes for improving gemstones but also discussed imitating them. For instance, the Egyptian Stockholm Papyrus, dated around 400AD, has a couple of recipes for imitating pearls:

‘This set of recipes contains the first account of the manufacture of imitation pearls. Recipe No. 18 describes their preparation in which shimmering scales from mica or ground selenite were incorporated in a paste made from gum, wax, mercury, and white of eggs. This was then shaped and dried, probably yielding an inferior imitation of the real thing, although the last sentence of the recipe assures us otherwise. Recipes No. 22 and 23 detail other methods of accomplishing the same end.’

From a translation of the Papyrus done by Earle Radcliffe Caley and published in the Journal of Chemical Education, Vol 4, No 8 in August of 1927, see

The Romans attempted to create imitation pearls by coating glass beads with silver and then re-coating them with glass or by coating small clay balls with ground mica and baking them (Anna Weller, Big Bead Little Bead, 1). As early as the 13th century, Venetian glassmakers combined egg whites, powered glass and snail slime and then let the beads harden to form pearls while, in Rome, the workshops coated alabaster balls with wax and then an essence created from fish scales (Weller).

In 1656, a rosary maker in Paris, Monsieur Jacquin patented a process for making imitation pearls. It involved taking round hollow glass balls and coating the inside with Essence d’orient, made by grinding the scales of the beak fish with ammonia and placing them in lacquer, creating an iridescent liquid. The balls were then filled with wax (Opper & Opper, 23).

Georgian wax filled imitation pearl

A slightly later recipe involved softening small pearls in vinegar and turpentine and creating a paste which was then formed into beads and placed in moulds lined with gold. The beads were then dried, placed in a stream for 20 days , then soaked in a solution of mercury and slaked lime, and left to dry. Another method also involved taking small pearls and crushing them, boiling them, forming beads which are baked in a fish, then cooked in various mixtures and baked again (Opper & Opper, 24).

The processes for making imitation pearls remained the same throughout the 19th century, with bead making workshops in Paris producing vast numbers of beads. German and Bohemian glass makers also produced imitation pearls. Collette’s novella, Gigi, set in 1899, talks about treated and imitation pearls among other things:

“From the age of twelve, Gigi had known that Madame Otero’s string of large black pearls were ‘dipped’ – that is to say, artificially tinted – while the three strings of her matchlessly graded pearl necklace were worth ‘a king’s ransom’: that Madame de Pougy’s seven rows lacked ‘life’; that Eugénie Fougère’s famous diamond bolero was quite worthless; and that no self-respecting woman gadded about, like Madam Antokolski, in a coupé upholstered in mauve satin.”

At the end of the 19th century, Eduard Heusch obtained a patent for man-made glass pearls and began production on the island of Majorca (Weller, pp5-6). Majorca pearls are still being produced today (

Imitation pearls continued to be desired in the 20th century, despite the availability of cultured pearls. Jackie Onassis, former First Lady of America, openly wore a strand of imitation pearls in the 1950s and 60s. Patents for making imitation pearls awarded to predominantly French bead makers in the first half of the 20th century is listed in ‘Imitation Pearls in France’ by M-J and H Opper, 26-28.

Vintage imitation pearl earrings

Imitation pearls have been around for many centuries. It is thought that Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in 1665, shows a girl wearing a fake pearl earring (M Enking, 2023), and many of the paintings from the Renaissance, including paintings of Queen Elizabeth I of England, depict women and men wearing fake pearls as jewellery and on their clothes in particular. The 20th century saw high quality imitation pearl jewellery produced by French designers including Chanel, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino, which sold for a lot of money. Imitation pearls continue to be worn now and probably always will be.


Enking, Molly, ‘Did Vermeer’s “Girl” really have a pearl earring?’, 15 Feb 2023,’t%20right%20about,rather%20than%20a%20real%20pearl.

Opper, Marie-Jose & Opper, Howard, (1996), ‘Imitation Pearls in France’, BEADS: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers 8:23-34.

Weller, Anne, ‘History of Man Made Faux Pearls’, BIG BEAD LITTLE BEAD,,snail%20slime%20and%20egg%20white.