Gemstones & Pearls:News
Tag, You're It
Inspection system to change the way jewelers buy pearls
For 46 years, all cultured pearls marked for export from Japan have passed
through the Kobe Pearl Inspection Office, a small, government-run operation
in the country's jewelry capital. But because Japan
is deregulating its government to encourage free trade, the inspection
office will close in December, ending mandatory quality control.
As an alternative to self-regulation, the Japan Pearl Exporters' Association
will offer a private, "voluntary" inspection service in Kobe and
Tokyo for its members, who represent about 86% of Japanese akoya pearl exports.
JPEA members who plan to use the inspection service, which will begin in
January 1999, export about 60% of the pearl strands leaving Japan.
What Will Change
If these estimates stay true, roughly half of Japanese cultured pearl strands
entering the U.S. at the onset of the new year will wear a tag indicating
they have "passed the quality standards of Japan." The tags will
be attached with eyelets at the clasps and can accompany the strands to
the retail counter.
Tags indicate the pearls have endured a pass/fail inspection that's loosely
based on the current government inspection, which further separates passing
pearls into "high" and "low" grades. Under the new system,
inspectors will weed out very visible flaws cracked or pitted surfaces,
"peek-a-boo" thin nacre, damage from bleaching or dying. The extent
to which pearls will be judged beyond this is vague to those outside the
inspection office. But JPEA says the new system will be "more strict."
The cost is the same as the government inspection (about 65¢ for
a 16-in. strand with 7-71/2mm pearls), so JPEA doesn't anticipate prices
will rise because of the new system. "The exporter will by no means
add the cost of the inspection to the cost of its goods," says Kazuyoshi
Watanabe, managing director of JPEA in Tokyo.
Exporters who have not committed to using the inspection will most likely
rely on their own internal grading structures. Many pearl companies use
multilevel grading that's more detailed about quality than a pass/fail test
and varies widely, depending on the size of the company's inventory.
JPEA hopes its Quality Inspection and Tag System will become the standard.
"Even those who aren't committed to using the inspection may not have
a choice if their importers request the tags," says Watanabe.
U.S. suppliers are divided in their opinions. Some say it's too easy
to counterfeit, that it requires extra time and that it's a disguised fund-raiser
for overseas promotion. (Watanabe says JPEA isn't supported by inspection
So to create demand, the association will appeal directly to jewelry
consumers. The Cultured Pearl Information Center in New York City, JPEA's
U.S. marketing arm, will conduct a two-day consumer media "blitz"
near the end of the year and send video news releases and press releases
to 10,000 media outlets across the country. CPIC expects consumers to respond
favorably: 90% of shoppers polled recently at five U.S. malls said they
would feel more comfortable buying "tagged" cultured pearls.
As awareness grows, JPEA hopes retailers will start requesting tagged
pearls from their suppliers. In a JPEA survey of jewelers around the world,
70% said they would support a quality tagging system; in the U.S., 82% were
in favor of the idea.
"It's a security blanket," says Devin Macnow of CPIC. "The
tags mean something to somebody who has taken the time to attach them, and
consumers appreciate that."
by Stacey King
Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.