Shell Shocked: Diving Into the Modern-Day Pearl Industry
The freshwater revolution of the past decade has stirred debate over origin, nomenclature, and disclosure. The upside? Never a dull moment.
Jennifer Heebner | September 29, 2010
When pop-culture icons Lady Gaga and the pearl-loving characters from Mad Men collide with today’s diverse pearl landscape, the result is a renewed consumer appreciation for the iridescent beauties. Retailers may not have trouble buying the product—there are plenty of pretty pearl jewels for sale—but when it comes to the background story (supplies, nomenclature, and trending styles), store owners may need a little assistance. To that end, JCK has surveyed pearl authorities worldwide for a review of the most important facts to know now about selling pearls.
It’s imperative to know where a pearl is from, because producers’ reputations can often illuminate pearl qualities. Richard “Bo” Torrey, publisher of Pearl World in Phoenix, cites Jewelmer in the Philippines as an example. “You can depend upon the quality; they are intent upon maintaining their reputation and will not mix lower-quality goods in with their offerings,” he says. “You cannot count on that with every other pearl purveyor.”
Jeremy Shepherd, founder/CEO of Los Angeles’ PearlParadise.com, is more concerned with quality than with origin. “If 25 percent of Japan’s akoya crop is high quality and only 10 percent of China’s is, then both countries produce high quality,” says Shepherd. “Both countries produce low quality as well, but a high-quality Chinese akoya would be much more desirable than a low-quality Japanese akoya. If the pearl oyster is the same, the composite of the pearl the same, the quality of the pearl the same—it doesn’t matter where the pearl is grown.”
Even though akoya pearls are grown in countries including Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Australia, “most retailers without detailed knowledge of the industry will always claim that Japanese akoya pearls are the finest pearls on the market, but this simply isn’t the case,” continues Shepherd. “Pearls that have been cultured in Vietnam and Australia for the same amount of time will have thicker nacre, because the rate of nacre deposition of an akoya pearl oyster is higher in warmer climates.”
White coin pearl pendant with 18k rose gold and diamond accent on silk ribbon; $850; Laurie Kaiser, Brentwood, Tenn.; 615-373-7713; lauriekaiser.com
Pearls Are Not Boring!
They may be a wardrobe staple, but they are anything but basic. From pearls on leather cord or chain to mixed sizes and colored strands, pearls suit many occasions, ages, and consumers, even men and children. Says Jack Lynch, owner of Sea Hunt Pearls in San Francisco: “Every store I know that does a good job selling pearls has one or more salespeople that are enthusiastic and guide their customers toward the pearl case.” For those unsure how to pick out pearls, Betty Sue King, owner of King’s Ransom in Sausalito, Calif., offers this advice: If the color fades into your skin, select another. “Pearls should ‘pop’ on the wearer,” she says. And while round pearls—classic shapes—and even surfaces typically command the highest prices, exceptions always exist. “If a pearl is large and wonderfully lustrous, these pluses can outweigh some irregularities,” she explains. “Excellent luster and orient make many surface characteristics less noticeable.”
Knowledge of the Term Natural
According to Joel Schechter, CEO of Honora Pearls in New York City, many freshwater cultured pearls are 90 percent nacre. “This is the closest possible match to natural [non-bead-nucleated] pearls available on the market today,” he says. He attributes this to the shift away from the traditional process of nucleating pearls with beads—typical for akoya and South Seas cultured pearls—toward nucleating them with tissue, a tactic employed by producers of freshwater cultured pearls. Schechter says this move represents the biggest change in pearl production since Kokichi Mikimoto pioneered the cultivation process more than a century ago. Adds King: “If you are told a pearl is natural, ask if that means the color is natural, if the pearl is natural in origin, or both.”
Be Wary of Full Disclosure and Misidentification
Of course, most of the fashion colors—brown, red, green, etc.—are dyed (even most white pearls are bleached), while pearls with natural colors have a greater market value. But, often, it’s not the color that causes concern, but the proper identification of variety.
“The market is rife with impostor natural South Seas pearls,” warns Blaire Beavers, industry authority and JCK contributor. According to Beavers, there were rumors of tissue-nucleated South Seas pearls back in 2007, but none ever materialized for sale. Beavers’ research reveals that many of these tissue-nucleated specimens were, in fact, prescreened and sold as high-quality naturals after labs unwittingly—but mistakenly—verified them as South Seas pearls, the lustrous beauties born of the oversized Pinctada maxima oyster.
Complicating matters, South Seas pearls have been nucleated with natural Pinna pearls (“Natural nacreous or non-nacreous pearls produced in mollusks from the Pinna or Atrina genus,” explains Pearl-Guide.com), making clear identification difficult. When buying investment-quality pieces, Beavers recommends securing a laboratory report. Outlining its concerns in a recent newsletter, Lichtenstein-based Gemlab went as far as to temporarily “stop issuing reports for Pinctada pearls, except for evident cases such as pearls in ancient jewelry pieces of known provenance.”
To Each His Own
While Imperial president Peter Bazar advises seeking out the most lustrous pearls (“To be a fine pearl, it has to have an inner glow,” he explains), many experts say the right answer regarding what to know about pearls is that there is no right answer.
“Like great foods from around the globe, pearls from their own unique locality come with their own unique flavor,” observes Gary Roskin, G.G., FGA, host of the Roskin Gem News Report (roskingemnews.com) and adjunct instructor at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
A variety of pearl colors—“a personal preference,” says King—means “more pearl colors to match clothes in your dresser,” she adds, while the “broad range of shapes, sizes, and price points out there ensure there’s a pearl to appeal to everyone,” notes Lynch. Says Roskin: “Remember, baroques were all considered mistakes before they became popular—and expensive.” (Additional research by Jeremy Shepherd, PearlParadise.com)