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Pearl Goddess - Tucson Report

Cultured Pearls Galore: A Tucson 2002 Retrospective


Pearl descriptions herein are not meant to convey formal grading nomenclature, such as proffered by GIA's pearl grading course, but more common "trade terms/jargon" used by dealers and buyers. For example trade references to round, drops and baroque pearls would be formally delineated by GIA into three categories:

The terminology at the end of this chapter is my personal combination of trade-friendly and scientific terms. For readers who crave a system, I highly recommend the GIA pearl course as the way to study this unique gem in a well organized and systematic manner.

If you are a pearl aficionado, I recommend the book, Pearls: A Natural History (see bibliography). It is a splendid educational and illuminating experience that weaves science, history, literature, and jewelry into the story of pearls, both natural and cultured.

By all means, attend the exhibition, "Pearls," at the Field Museum in Chicago. It will continue into early January 2003. It has just finished a very popular run at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Another venue after that has yet to be announced. At this exhibition you will experience the beautiful and fascinating story of natural and cultured pearls.

As a pearl importer/dealer, these are my experiences as one who is in the trenches of the industry. I communicate regularly with oversea suppliers and have an ear to the ground about the pulse of the pearl farmer and how they deal with the caprices of the most recent collections of pearls.

On the home front, I deal with wholesalers, retail stores, manufacturers, designers and the challenges of time to complete all the demands that an entrepreneur wants and needs to meet. I am in the front lines buying and selling these beautiful biological gems from my office and at trade shows. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't want to be in any other business, I love what I do.

For centuries from the time they were first found in artifacts in Mesopotamia (c. 2300 BC) pearls have enchanted people with their beauty. Their mysterious origins were intriguing. Pearls have been an important part of human history serving as indicators of power, status, wealth and style. Now pearls are available for everyone to enjoy at a multitude of prices and have become fashion in their own right.

Continuing investigation and improvement of culturing pearl techniques have created an abundance of color and pearl choices. Full disclosure on (THE) treatment of pearls has contributed to an educated buyer and, in turn, an informed consumer. The pricing of cultured pearls - South Sea, Tahitian, Akoya or freshwater pearls - reflects the intensity and effort needed to bring the pearls to market.

The Tucson Gem Fair is the Mecca where buyers seek new products as well as add to their tried and true inventory. The vast selection of natural and dyed colors drives sales in every pocketbook and budget. Eclectic contemporary lifestyles reflect how pearls have become integrated into everyday enjoyment.


When I entered the wholesale market in 1979, pearl choices were limited to Akoya, South Sea and Biwa (Japanese freshwater pearls from Lake Biwa) with a few freshwater from the United States. The Japanese "Biwa" pearl was the reigning queen of the freshwater pearl market through the 1980s. Chinese freshwater pearls were just making their way into the world market at that time.

Early production of freshwater cultured pearls came from Cristaria plicata, a mussel found in rivers and lakes of China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. This was the source of the "rice krispie" Chinese freshwater pearls cultured during the 1970-80s. Those with a smoother finish sold handily as well as the more irregularly shaped pearls. This was a welcome addition to my inventory. Buyers welcomed something new, affordable and different from Akoyas.

Everything changed in the 1990s with the introduction of the triangle mussel, Hyriopsis cumingi. Pearls grown with this mussel are less wrinkled and typically range in size from 4mm to 10mm. In addition, new technology changed nucleation techniques, resulting in shape, size and quality improvements.

A hardy mussel, Hyriopsis cumingi, thrives in less than perfect conditions. Freshwater pearls are not as delicate as their prima donna South Sea, Tahitian and Akoya aunties. They can survive in two meters of mucky water. They don't need pristine water quality, or constant checkups at the labs.

Freshwater periculture systems are far less costly than saltwater systems. A freshwater pearl farmer doesn't need the professional divers to clean their mussels, the imported grafters, the boats and the variety of complex equipment which adds to the cost of saltwater production. A few hundred meters of shallow water, trained local youths for grafting, a rowboat, some low-tech equipment and a Chinese freshwater pearl farmer is in business.

It is no wonder that saltwater pearls are also more costly than freshwater, because they require more labor to produce. In addition, labor costs are higher in Japan and the South Seas than in China. Consider, too, the mortality rate: out of 1,000, half the nucleated Pinctada fucata (Akoyas) in an average Japanese farm will die during the culturing period. Out of
1,000 Pinctada margaritafera (Tahitian black pearls) 440 will die during the culturing period and 240 will reject the nucleus. The number of gem quality pearls from surviving Akoyas is 50; and only eight gem quality Tahitians are produced from the initial 1,000 oysters.

Akoya pearl oysters are often double nucleated and sometime triple nucleated depending upon the size of the nucleus. South Sea oysters almost never receive more than one nucleus at a time. Tahitian oysters are normally nucleated three times in succession.

Records of mortality rates are sketchy from the farmers but the numbers speak for themselves. An estimated 1000 tons of Chinese freshwater pearls was produced in 2000 making China the leading producer of pearls in the world.

The average number of nucleations performed on the Hyropis cumingi, freshwater pearl mussel, was 40. In the past, the mantle tissue from two-year-old mussels was used for nucleation creating rice, oval and baroque shapes. Now, mantle tissue from one-year-old mussels is used for the process. This tissue is thinner, more pliable and is easily shaped into spheres for nucleation.

Further improvements have occurred with the reduction of nucleations to 28 or fewer per mussel. The results are greater quantities of rounder pearls with better shape, luster and color.

In the late 1990s, the increased production of round freshwater pearls led to speculation that poor quality pearls were used for nucleation. A controversy ensued among a group of pearl gemologists because such pearls could pass as tissue-nucleated or natural pearls. Studies conducted by the AGTA Gemological Testing Center, the Gemological Institute of America and others reported in 2000, that the growth characteristics of freshwater pearls are consistent with tissue-nucleated cultured pearls. Some hanks of pearl strands were found at the 2001 Tucson Show indicated the use of pearl bead nucleation. This timely topic is undergoing further analysis.

My pearl suppliers in Hong Kong were astonished that this would be an issue. "Even if this were the case, they're all nacre anyway," was the common thread of consensus. Of the fifteen I spoke to last year, they unanimously agreed that implanting pearls with pearl nuclei was not the normal procedure. On the home front, my clients felt perplexed when this issue was brought to the public eye. Many who did not know much about these aspects of cultured freshwater pearls felt confused by this and were hesitant to buy. What they needed were assurances that they were still buying pearls that were all nacre, essentially all pearl, and that the colors were natural and/or dyed as indicated by disclosure.

Freshwater pearl farms have used shell nuclei for the production of specific shapes such as coin pearls. While there are a few commercial operations for the shell bead nucleation of freshwater pearls, they are the exception rather than the rule. The use of shell for the production of round freshwater pearls is considered only marginally successful. Recently wax bead-nucleated freshwater pearls have been produced. I have collected a number of freshwater shells that have been nucleated with wax figures of Buddha, Quan Yin and other designs. These are more interesting to me as specimens but can be used as blister pearls where the figure is cut out of the shell outlining its shape or simply with the shell surrounding it in an oval or square. Growing blister pearls in this way is an ancient technique that still works today.

In Kobe, I found not only Japanese Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian pearls but incredible freshwater Biwa pearls as well. I later learned that Biwa pearls were mixed with freshwater pearls cultured in China and sold initially as Japanese Biwa and later as Chinese freshwater pearls. When I saw how freshwater pearls from China were improving in variety and quality in the middle 1980s I gradually shifted my purchasing from Kobe to Hong Kong. Hong Kong offered the new and unusual, more and more exotic pearls that were beautiful and out of the ordinary. Here I found ample suppliers of Akoya, South Seas and Tahitian pearls.

Initially, while I sought better prices for more beautiful, basic cultured Akoyas, my heart was looking for the special, the unusual, the seductively wonderful. I quickly discovered that I wasn't interested in buying pearls just because they were inexpensive. Ultimately, beauty, luster, iridescence and allure, not just price, became my selection criteria. Pearls that have the shimmer of fine orient and brilliant luster simply call out to me like a siren and I cannot resist. It doesn't matter whether they are from China, Tahiti, Australia, Philippines, Japan, or the USA. A beautiful pearl is a treasure.

Post Tucson THOUGHTS

Today's pearl market has something to offer virtually every pocketbook, every consumer, and every designer. Most freshwater pearls suppliers in the Tucson Gem Fair had brisk business. Tahitian and South Sea pearls sold well for dealers with unusual color combinations and well-priced choices. The leveling of Tahitian and freshwater pearl prices made for better buying all around.

Two months after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the phones seldom rang - we were all recuperating from shock and uncertain of our futures. Buyers, then and now, made commitments previously put off for the future. With tomorrow being uncertain, gifts were expressions of caring and love that needed to be said today. Phone calls received at our office were often prefaced with these comments. We often discussed how sentimental values and their powerful effect on buying were universal themes. These conversations took place daily at the Tucson Gem Fair.

While cash flow problems and fear of flying diminished the numbers of buyers at Tucson, those that came to the exhibit area were dedicated to finding all the pearls they could fall in love with. Dealers with low quality merchandise had the most challenges with slower sales. On the other hand, those with the better quality pearls generally have very good shows. Not all gemstone dealers could say the same. Pearls are riding a wave of popularity and many who once sold only gemstones have made pearls their primary business. Now there are more pearl dealers than ever before and there is plenty of competition.

Buyers looking for low-end freshwater pearls found them heaped in mountainous peaks at many venues at Tucson. Most of these pearls had very little luster and iridescence, but they were freshwater pearls nonetheless. For a few dollars investment, buyers could leave happy with a ziplock bag filled with strands of freshwater pearls. With 28 venues from which to choose, not all buyers have the time to investigate the variety of pearls available.

Experienced and dedicated buyers came with their designs and shopping lists. Many have already had their fill of the low-luster, no-luster bargains and have moved onto better quality pearls.

Variety Spices Choices

Offering the full range of freshwater pearls means buyers may purchase 3-4 mm strands of "peacock sequins" for $8 and a strand of 11-13 mm "lavender sky near round" for $6000. Most of our inventory consists of price points that range from $40 to $500 per strand of freshwater pearls. Of course there are numerous choices, for more and less, that are lustrous, colorful and pleasing. Strands of 8-11 mm metallic multicolor Tahitian rounds for $6,000 and a strand of multicolor 10-12 mm sea foam green, white and golden round Philippine pearls for $16,000 were traffic stoppers.

Only this year I have purchased a few hundred, very fine, round Pinctada margaritafera (Tahitian) pearls in unusually small sizes, 7 - 9 mm. Until now, 9 mm have been the smallest size readily available. The luster was fine to very fine, with full saturation of color, few blemishes, and most with shimmering rainbows of orient. When luster is excellent, GIA describes the reflections of light on the surfaces as "bright and pinpoint sharp." At the other end of the light meter, pearls with poor luster have virtually no reflections at all, their surfaces are chalky and dull. They are pearls in name only.

When queried about the new supply of smaller 7-9 mm, Tahitian pearls, the supplier explained that younger oysters, 1.5 years old, are being nucleated. If they receive more than one implant, the pearls will become baroque, so they are nucleated with only one small bead. These are harvested after 10-18 months then re-nucleated two more times, successively with larger nuclei that the oyster accommodates as its size increases with age. Occasionally, they will nucleate a fourth time. By then, however, the luster is inferior compared with the younger oyster's pearls. This being the case, the technology of nucleating younger mollusks in freshwater as well as in saltwater pearls has produced larger freshwater pearls and smaller Tahitian pearls. Both are desirable additions to the marketplace.

A well respected source in Japan explains that Japanese grafters have skills for nucleating beads over 9 mm that produce the larger Tahitian pearls, but Chinese grafters from Chinese Akoya pearl farms have been hired to cut production costs. They are not as skilled as the Japanese to perform the first nucleation so they nucleate the 7-8 mm sizes after the mollusks have already produced the first crop of 9-10 mm and larger sizes. Most nucleations are performed with mollusks that are at least 2-3 years old. Anything younger is unable to receive the bead because the gonad is not yet mature. The cultivation period of 10-18 months usually coats the bead with ample nacre because the bead is small. Sometimes the shorter cultivation period produces pearls with thin coatings that can chip. Now his curiosity is peaked and he promises to investigate further. The smaller 7-9 mm sizes are very popular in Japan as an alternative to, as well as a complement to, the Akoya.

Small is still desirable. Many designers incorporate 2-3.5 mm strands of pearls into their designs. Some weave with them, others intersperse these with multiple sizes of pearls, beads, and metal elements. Good quality pearls in smaller sizes are not always available because it is not as profitable for the growers to produce them as it is to grow the 10-12 mm sizes. Nonetheless, there were enough colors and shapes in small sizes to satisfy designers and manufacturers.

There is now an abundance of shell nucleated pearls as evidenced by the large selection of coin-type pearls. Not only are there rounds, but also squares, navettes (diamond), and numerous unique shapes. The quality has improved considerably and is more attractive. Now, there is enough material to appeal to a broader audience so that coin pearls are no longer, strictly a novelty item. Creative drilling concepts have broadened the use of pearl shapes. For example, instead of pearls drilled through their length, a drop shape coin pearl is drilled sideways through the smaller top to offer yet another design option. The better and fine quality coins are still very limited but there is enough presentable material to sustain the market.

With few exceptions, such as coin pearls, it is generally accepted that freshwater pearls are all nacre. This is an important selling point in their favor. In general, South Sea and Tahitian pearls consistently command higher prices simply due to all the factors in their cultivation. Even so, Chinese round pearls of gem quality command substantial prices. Fine quality pearls are priced accordingly for beauty that is less than perfection. Good quality pearls leave lots of room for price variation and are priced competitively.

First time buyers at the show were abundant this year. Quickly they discovered that dyed pearls are generally less costly than natural colors. However, just because the color is natural doesn't mean they are going to cost more. Luster, size, shape, color, and other factors affect pricing.

Color, Color - Everywhere!

Peach, pink, mauve, lilac, lavender are the range of freshwater pearls natural colors. Occasionally, some have brilliant metallic highlights which immediately attract the eye with their unique flash. These satisfy the buyers who only want natural colors. However, once they see the colors that are created by dyeing, they often succumb and have to have the "aubergine sunset nuggets," "platinum near rounds" and possibly some "18K green gold keshi-style" strands.

Pearls with natural or dyed colors often exhibit desirable overtones which are very appealing to buyers. For example, a pearl with white body color may have pink, green or blue overtones. It may also have considerable orient such as the shimmering rainbow of colors you see on soap bubbles. GIA classifies pearl color as having three characteristics:

With experience, buyers learn how to talk pearl talk to get what they really want. When they ask for peach blush coins baroque 13-14 mm, they are requesting a pastel peach body color with a pink overtone that is an off round, slight drop shape between 13-14 mm in diameter. That the strand also exhibits the iridescent shimmer of rainbow colors (orient) only makes it more desirable.

On overseas buying trips, I consistently find colors I have never seen before. New cocktail colors intrigue me. As long as they are lustrous and iridescent, I have no objection to the origin of their color, be it natural or dyed. What is imperative though is that all pearls in inventory are labeled with full disclosure to indicate treatment.

Collectors who regularly come to the show seeking something special and unique were pleased with the choices. Last year's expectations for fine freshwater rounds were unrealized. Speculations of stockpiling and selling all the top quality to Japan are some of the rumblings. During the May 2002 buying trip, I asked Hong Kong suppliers about the apparent shortage of finer larger sizes of Chinese freshwater round pearls. Reports of farmers not harvesting their crops were not uncommon. Concerned with the drop in prices they do not want to jeopardize the value of what they have when the prices have leveled. They've taken a "wait and see" approach. The pearls are still growing and may have a greater value later on in the year or even next year.

One explained that the Chinese in China have more money to spend and are buying better pearls from the source(s). Others complained that many of their buyers are going directly to China and selectively buying the better quality at whatever the market will bear. This makes it difficult for the suppliers to collect the large quantity of pearls that is needed to make the special, larger strands that are difficult to compose in the first place. Even though the supply of top quality round freshwater pearls was limited, those available were delicious.

Not everyone wants perfectly shaped pearls. How often have we heard, "they don't look real unless they're not round," ... "have different shapes," ... "are more irregular and free-form." No problem!

The craft industry often bridges jewelry and art in remarkable formats. Pearls become incorporated into objects in art glass such as essence bottles with pearls ornamenting the tops and often the sides of the blown glass. Boxes made of exotic wood, some of stone, precious metal teapots and unique sculptures have pearls as one of their essential components.

With improved techniques in freshwater pearl cultivation, larger sizes are more available. Bigger is simply bigger and that is happily acceptable. Even though these pearls may not be perfectly symmetrical and have brilliant luster, they quickly capture the eyes of the beholder with their presence. Attractive strands of 10-12 mm freshwater pearls in a never-ending variety of baroque shapes and freeform are readily available for reasonable prices and sold well in Tucson. The interest in larger freshwater pearls is very strong. The feeling is that compared with many gemstones, consumers get a lot for their money with pearls.

Glancing Back to Look Forward

In the mid-fifteenth century, the arrival of the Renaissance revived the adornment of pearls as the gem symbolizing wealth, status and taste in an age of splendor. Embracing the pearl's unique shape, baroque pearl pendants resembling miniature pieces of sculpture, set with gold, enamel and gemstones were among the most popular jewels of this era. Flappers in the 1920's wore long ropes while they danced the Charleston in their short dresses. Festoons of pearls gathered by diamond clips were popular in the
1950's. By the 1960's, the necklace most women wanted was round, white pearls in a uniform size. The pearl market has gone far beyond this classic cultured round strand.

Remember the quintessential elegance of Jackie Kennedy and her signature double strand of round pearls? It didn't matter that they were faux, she was real.

Advances in periculture have brought us rounder and larger pearls. Not only do they have better luster, there are more natural color choices available in pearls. Creative chemists have offered us new colors in pearls with their dyeing and treatment techniques. With full disclosure of these processes, informed buyers select with confidence from the enormous choices in the pearl market.

Enterprising growers eager to capture market share have continued to push the boundaries with offerings of a vast new variety of shapes and styles of pearls. It's no longer just rice, potato, corn and round. While round is still at the top the pricing pyramid - ovals, drops and coins, Chinese Biwa, exotic colors from the South Sea and Tahiti - are but some of choices that tantalize the buyer with their possibilities.

With their endless variety, pearls can match any color in everyone's wardrobe. South Sea, Tahitian and Chinese freshwater pearls are now combined in single and multiple strand necklaces. Behold the twists of multiple strands, lariats, pearl-chain necklaces, pearls mixed with gemstone beads and precious metal elements. Pearls are readily worn with jeans and tank tops with lingerie, what else? There are no rules for what can be mixed with what, nor how, and where to wear it. Now, it's anything goes. The only limit is one's imagination.


© June 2002 by Betty Sue King and  All rights reserved.

Contact Betty Sue King, Pearl Goddess at King's Ransom
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