Gemstones & Pearls:News
U.S. retailers start to feel the effects of Japan's oyster deaths
There's irony in the cultured pearl craze that's sweeping the nation:
at the same time retail sales are soaring, there suddenly aren't as many
pearls to go around. Scientists are still trying to conclude the exact nature
of an epidemic that has smothered millions of akoya pearl oysters and slashed
production in Japan's pearl culturing areas by 45% since 1996. When the
problem surfaced, importers were padded by low sales in Japan and inventory
stockpiles. Now, however, supply in the U.S. is starting to suffer.
"We had exceptionally good pearl sales last year; we didn't anticipate
sales growth to be 12%," says Devin Macnow, executive director of the
Cultured Pearl Information Center, New York City. "Especially for smaller,
better-quality pearls, stocks are being depleted."
Consequently, supply shortages are starting to affect retail prices.
The New York Timesreported in May that Tiffany & Co. and some
independent jewelers had raised prices up to 25% for top-quality cultured
Other jewelers are still anticipating the supply crunch. "I expect
to see some higher prices come Christmas or in time for the Tucson gem shows,
but right now the supply seems to be OK," says Nathan Ludlum of What
On Earth Inc., Columbus, OH. Some dealers have been able to absorb the price
increases so far or are still selling off inventory, says Macnow. "At
most we're seeing a 10% price increase in medium-quality pearls and a 20%-30%
increase in higher qualities," Macnow says. The 4mm to 5mm better-quality
cultured pearls are suffering the biggest shortages.
Sink or Swim?
Until scientists diagnose the exact cause of the oyster deaths (a suspected
virus), cultivators face the possibility of an even lower harvest this year.
So far this year, farmers say not as many oysters are turning the dreaded
red that is the virus' mark. The water in Japan's pearl culturing bays has
returned to normal after last year's excessively warm temperatures, which
many felt agitated the situation.
"If the sea conditions continue, it's possible production could
be higher," says Kazuyoshi Watanabe, managing director of the Japan
Pearl Exporters' Association in Tokyo. Cultivators are taking special pains
with the oysters that have survived, spreading them out to avoid crowding
and staying away from areas hardest hit by the mortalities. They also hope
baby oysters they started to raise last year will be ready for nucleation
in 1999, though it remains to be seen whether the new oysters will remain
In the immediate future, such measures may not matter. "The number
of oysters nucleated this year was smaller than ever," says Watanabe.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact U.S. retailers are getting smarter
and pickier about cultured pearls. Of the retailers and dealers CPIC interviewed
at the JCK International Jewelry Show in Las Vegas this year, 80% said they
were looking for better quality.
How are retailers coping? "Here in New York City I've noticed an
increased shortage of higher qualities," says John Gravano of John
Gravano & Co. in New York. "I've dealt with this problem by carrying
fewer strands and increasing my very-high-quality freshwater pearl selection."
by Stacey King
Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.