Imitations of Bead Materials

Necklace made of baroque polished Baltic amber beads, Poland, length 22.5'' 57cm. Necklace made of Baltic amberlike plastic beads, made in China, 1980's, length 20.5'' 52cm. Necklace made of Mediterranean red branch coral beads, Italy, length 18'' 46cm. Necklace made of plastic imitation red branch coral, made in Hong Kong, 1980's, length 41'' 104cm. Necklace made of dyed and natural color onyx marble beads, Mexico, 1990's, length 34'' 86cm.

Over and over again I am being asked: Is it genuine? Is the necklace made of real beads or is it made of faux pearls, fake amber, coral, stone beads or you name it?
In other words the question is: Is this a cheaper imitation of a more expensive material?
All materials are genuine, they are real stone, glass or plastic, or whatever is used for the beads.

Beads have to be considered as the smallest objects of art and there is no field of art where so much effort is made of imitations as with jewelry.
In general you can state: The more expensive the material, the more worthwhile to imitate it, with or without dubious intentions.

Especially precious stones, gold and silver, pearls, coral, amber and the more expensive semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli and malachite are being thrown over the world markets in countless forms of imitations. Often these imitations are very beautiful and have merits of their own. Sometimes these imitations are so well done that only a jeweler can tell you what it is, and if necessary, uses sometimes special tools to detect the truth.
Complete knowledge about imitations of bead materials you will not get from this guide, but there are some general rules you can learn easily and they will be of great help:

An unexpected price of the bead necklace:
A discrepancy between the price of the necklace and the place where they are selling it has to arouse your suspicion. At a jewelry shop you do not expect the low prices of a market, at a market you do not expect the high prices of a jewelry shop.
Unless it is stolen merchandise, you do not expect to find e.g. good quality pearls on a street-corner. The trade in new ivory has become illegal in order to prevent the extinction of the elephants, so low prices for real ivory can only be explained by the illegal selling of it. On the other hand, objects (and beads) made of old ivory from the tusks of elephants and mammoths are allowed to be sold and they are expensive.

The telling tale of the hole in the beads:
If possible, have a good look at the holes of the beads. Of valuable materials like jade, pearls and coral, maximum material has to be saved and subsequently the holes in the beads are very small. Here too imitations are abundant, like glass beads with very tiny holes selling for real pearls and stone beads.
Look for damage around the holes of the beads. It can reveal what really is in your hands: A thin layer of colored plastic over glass imitating stone or more elaborate glass beads, pearly plastic coating over a bead of plastic or glass imitating real pearls, or a white hole in a black painted bead which goes for "ebony".

Knotted necklaces and their clasps:
Although it looks expensive, knots between the beads are no guarantee the beads are valuable, the necklace can even be machine-knotted.
Neither the use of a more expensive clasp, nor the use of an additional little safety clasp-on-a-chain, made of silver or gilded, is a guarantee you have e.g. real pearls in your hands. A golden clasp you will not find on a cheap bead necklace, as gold is so expensive.

The color of the beads:
We all keep for granted that beads made of different materials like wood, bone, plastic and glass can be produced in a vast variety of colors. And stone? Yes stone beads too. Most people are surprised to learn that it is possible to color stones. There are different techniques to color beads or to alter or "enhance" their color, making them look more expensive.

The use of paint:
First of all, beads can be dyed. This is often done with wood, bone, and clay beads. Many soft stones, including alabaster (hydrated gypsum) and especially soapstone (steatite) are commonly dyed. The original color of soapstone is yellow-grey and it has long been a favorite bead material because it is easily carved and significantly hardens when heated. The white or gray Howlite is often dyed to imitate turquoise. Lapis-lazuli and garnets are sometimes dyed to "improve" their color.
Currently the deep red coral, called blood- or precious coral, is the most valuable of the different coral colors. So here too, the color is sometimes artificially enhanced by means of dye.
Stones which are dyed on the surface can be checked with acetone on a little bit of cotton wool. But as we do not walk with these materials in our pockets, you sometimes can detect the dye by simply rubbing over a bead with a wet finger and looking for color on your finger tip. If positive, do realize that in due time these beads will leave paint in your neck.
Paint can be left on the beading thread but this is difficult to detect if the necklace is well strung.
A thin layer of paint can be applied on the inner side of clear beads. It is sometimes done with beads of glass. This paint can vanish over time and will leave you with quite different beads than you originally thought.

Heating stones:
Heat is sometimes used to deepen, lighten or totally change the color of stones.
The most common bead stone which is artificially colored by heat is carnelian. It is a form of chalcedony which contains natural or absorbed iron and is of the same family as the agate. Chalcedony is a porous quartz, banded and semi-translucent, and its original colors are light-blue, grey or white. It is commonly color altered, brown or in different other shades, than we know it as banded agate, or into black, than we call it onyx. Since carnelian and onyx hardly exist in the natural state, and their treatments are so ancient, no one is really concerned about these alterations.
The stone-industry of the city of Idar-Oberstein in Germany has become famous for giving every conceivable shade to the Brazilian chalcedony they use. Since the beginning of the 19th century the lapidary workers of this German capital of gemstone industry obtain their materials from abroad, nowadays especially from Brazil, because their own stock of semi-precious stones retrieved from the mines in the surrounding hills is exhausted.
Poor quality amethyst can be heated to resemble citrine or topaz, aquamarine can be heated to deepen the color.
If the color of a "stone" bead is too uniform you have to become suspicious. In most cases the color in stone beads, formed in nature by chance, shows a kind of flowing irregularities, and in general, you should not pay as much for dyed stones as for those that are naturally colored.

The use of colored beading threads:
Another method to enhance the color of beads is the use of colored beading thread in a darker shade than the color of the beads themselves. This little trick is applied to clear beads of glass and plastic and often it is done to semi-translucent stone beads like rose-quartz, and especially it is custom with the dark red garnets.

More considerations:
Stones which are given double names like New Jade, Korea Jade, Swiss Lapis, smoky topaz, to mention a few, are nearly always something else. This even applies to Brazil Topaz, which is the much cheaper citrine, even although Brazil is the world's mayor supplier of true topaz.

Imitations of silver and gold exist in endless variations. In past and present, and I am sure in the future too, all materials which look like silver or gold are used.
Every manufacturer tries to invent his own metal alloys (combinations) and keeps them as a well hidden secret.
There is now a well developed method of putting a very thin metallic coating on plastic known as vacuum plating. These beads are light of weight and relatively cheap.
The bigger beads of silver and gold, like the other parts of the necklace, made of silver or gold (or gilded silver) should be stamped. There are guides which provide samples of these stamps, they differ from country to country, from period to period.
A problem is that small beads of silver or gold can not be stamped. In these cases you have to rely on the person who sells them.

Polymer clay beads can be as beautiful as intricate glass beads, especially when they have a glossy finish, but they are made of plastic!

"Fake" beads are repeating themselves, sometimes there are ten or more different forms. We encounter them among baroque pearls made of coated glass and among beautiful imitations of amber made of plastic.

Finally, beware of beads made of macaroni!
When wetting them you get porridge, when leaving them in a drawer, little mite will eat them!

Antique so called farmers necklace made of red garnets, on red cotton thread with gold clasp, Bohemia, ca.1900, length inner row 29'' 74cm., outer row 30.3.'' 77cm. Antique ivory necklace with ivory screw clasp, ca.1900, length 16.5'' 42cm. Vintage necklace made of plastic imitation ivory beads and fastener, length 16'' 40cm.



© 2009 Tsipporah Sofer. All Rights Reserved
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