Tag, You're It

September 1998

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.

Rallying Support
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 costs.)

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.


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