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September 1999


Pearl Passions

These lustrous gifts from Mother Nature – with a helping human hand – come in an array of types, shapes and colors to suit any customer.

The latest waves in the rising tide of pearl popularity are the improving quality of freshwater cultured pearls from China and the growing consumer interest in colored pearls. Both offer sales opportunities for jewelers.

When China began commercial production of freshwater pearls in the 1970s, the market quickly flooded with tiny "rice krispie" pearls that sold for pennies apiece. Predictions quickly filtered through the trade that one day China would produce larger, rounder and better-quality freshwater pearls. These predictions have come true – so true, in fact, they're now challenging traditional Japanese akoya cultured pearls in many consumers' minds, especially since their abundance and minimal production costs allow for lower prices.

The Chinese pearls also are available in a range of colors popular with consumers, including pink, lavender, peach, apricot and beige in addition to white. What's more, thick nacre makes them durable.

But be sure not to confuse cultured pearls with natural pearls, or freshwater pearls with saltwater pearls.

Sorting It Out
"The FTC Guides for the Jewelry Industry require that if a pearl is cultured, it must be described as such," says Cecilia Gardner, executive director of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. This can confuse customers interested in Chinese freshwater cultured pearls because they've come to associate cultured pearls with the saltwater variety from Japan and the South Seas. Here – on a very simple level – is how you can explain the differences to customers:

  • Natural pearls form around an irritant that enters a mollusk on its own and are extremely rare today. Cultured pearls form around an irritant – or nucleus – inserted into the mollusk by a human; these comprise almost all pearls harvested today.
  • Saltwater pearls grow in mollusks in oceans, gulfs and tidal bays. Freshwater pearls grow in mollusks in rivers and lakes.

There are some visual clues to these differences. "Chinese freshwater cultured pearls are slightly off-round," says Devin Macnow, executive director of the Cultured Pearl Information Center, New York City. While Japanese cultured akoya pearls are formed with 0.5mm or less of nacre (the lustrous, protective material on the surface of a pearl) around a perfectly rounded mother-of-pearl shell bead, freshwater cultured pearls are largely nacre and rarely completely round. So it's harder to build well-matched strands with freshwater pearls.

There has been some argument about the content of Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. Some say the product is 100% nacre, nucleated with a bit of mantle tissue (which secretes the nacre and lines the inner shell of mollusks) that dissolves as the pearl develops. Others argue this is misleading, confusing consumers into believing the pearl is natural. To achieve rounder shapes, some Chinese farmers round off tiny "rice krispies" and other commercial pearls and reuse them as nuclei for rounder pearls. Macnow says he's heard some Chinese freshwater pearls are cultured with shell nuclei, like Japanese pearls, creating cultured freshwater pearls that are 60% to 70% nacre. "This will show up if the pearls are X-rayed," he says.

Pearl Designs
Along with the technical knowledge, you should be current with pearl jewelry trends:

  • Focus on the neck – For South Sea cultured pearls, the latest looks are pendants with a single pearl, chain interspersed with pearls, minichandelier necklaces, station necklaces and solitaire necklaces with chain or wire through the pearl. For black Tahitian cultured pearls, a possible trend-in-the-making is a single pearl on a black choker for men, a casual athletic look geared toward Gen Xers with retail prices around $300. For Chinese freshwater pearls, the lower prices have made the dog collar (multiple rows that fit close against the neck), chokers and bibs popular again. Also look for pearls cut in half and used in invisibly set looks.
  • Size – Bracelets will look bigger this fall thanks to more use of white or black South Sea cultured pearls. Speaking of size, consumers are leaning toward bigger jewelry, so single 13mm to 15mm baroque or circle pearl (with ring-like formations around it) pendants are expected to sell well.
  • Metal – White is dominant. "But there is a significant movement into yellow gold with matte or textured surfaces," says Macnow.
  • Shape – For customers with flare, offer drop pearls (often but not always pear-shaped) and circle pearls, which should put you slightly ahead of the curve. (Mikimoto recently introduced an ad featuring a woman wearing a strand of black circle pearls.) "High-quality mabé pearls are really moving also," adds Joe Nakamura, president of Shogun Trading, New York City.

26 South Sea pearls perch on 8.56 carats of F/VS1 or better round and princess-cut diamonds in this platinum necklace ($90,000 suggested retail). Matching ring has one South Sea pearl and 2.45 carats of round diamonds in platinum ($20,000). Earrings consist of two South Sea pearls and 0.45 carat of round and princess-cut diamonds in platinum ($7,500). Sahara Gem Inc., Los Angeles, CA; (213) 623-9129 or (213) 623-9154, fax (213) 623-3329.
Bug pin has 18k white gold wings and legs and a black Tahitian pearl body. Prestige Pearl & Stone Co., New York City; (800) 729-7440 or (212) 398-0277, fax (212) 840-1803.
17-in. Tin Cup-inspired necklace features 8mm white freshwater cultured pearls in 14k yellow or white gold. Also available with black pearls. Suggested retail, $150. Jewelmak, New York City; (212) 398-2999.
Natural color golden South Sea cultured pearls are surrounded by diamonds. The earrings are $27,000 keystone, the ring is $14,000. Albert Asher South Sea Pearl Co., New York City; (212) 944-7230, fax (212) 921-1079.
Crafted in 18k gold, this pendant necklace features two 9mm-10mm drop Tahitian cultured pearls and 0.40 carat of diamonds. Suggested retail, $3,300. Earrings also feature Tahitian pearls and sprinkles of diamonds. Suggested retail, $3,000 (left) and $1,600 (right). Luna Jewels, Honolulu, HI; (888) 591-LUNA.
14k white gold teardrop pendant has a 10mm cultured pearl and 0.07 carat of diamonds. Skalet Gold, Chicago, IL; (800) 621-6017, fax (773) 477-6293.
18k bracelets with white or black cultured pearls are from the Milan collection by Greta Garbo Designs Inc. Each piece is stamped with the Greta Garbo signature and is numbered to verify its authenticity. The black pearl bracelet is $7,750 suggested retail; the white pearl bracelet is $7,350. The collection includes earrings, rings, brooches and pendants. Greta Garbo Designs Inc., San Francisco, CA; (415) 392-5676.
Set in white gold, this pin/pendant features 14.40-17.80mm Australian cultured pearls, onyx disks and baguette, round and oval diamonds. The chain glistens with 1.40 carats of diamonds. Ella Gafter for Ellagem, New York City; (212) 398-0101, fax (212) 302-0153.
South Sea cultured pearl necklaces feature natural colored pearls ranging from 8mm to 15mm. Suggested retail, $9,000-$45,000. Golay Buchel USA, New York City; (800) 223-6753 or (212) 869-9090, fax (212) 221-5876.
Airy platinum ring is crowned with a South Sea cultured pearl. Alix & Co., Mill Valley, CA; (415) 383-9164.
Diva link bracelet features 12mm cultured mabé pearls and 3.5mm blue sapphires in 18k gold links with engraved designs. Suggested retail, $5,681. Klass Designs Inc., Elko, NV; (775) 753-4262.
Grapevine necklace features cultured freshwater pearls fastened together by 18k gold wire handwoven into each pearl to form a chain. The clasp is made of 18k yellow and rose gold beads. Suggested retail, $9,891. Aaron Henry, Los Angeles, CA; (213) 623-4191, fax (213) 623-7891.
Three-strand illusion necklace with cultured freshwater pearls and 14k gold clasp is $120 suggested retail. Imperial Deltah Inc., East Providence, RI; (800) 556-7738 or (401)434-2597, fax (401) 434-0814.
Two South Sea cultured pearls hang from a generous length of supple platinum chain to form this bolero. Atelier Marisa, Beverly Hills, CA; (310) 275-7926.
Cultured pearl strands (from top) comprise natural black Tahitian ($52,000 suggested retail), natural gray Tahitian ($27,000) and white South Sea ($90,000) pearls. Earrings feature black Tahitian cultured pearls surrounded by diamonds in 18k gold ($11,800). Shogun Trading Co. Inc., Harrison, NY; (800) 458-8004 or (914) 381-1414, fax (914) 381-7235.
Cultured pearl ring is crafted in 18k yellow gold. Also available in pink or white gold or with a black Tahitian pearl. Suggested retail, $1,550-$1,910. William Richey Designs, Camden, ME; (207) 236-4731.
A Tahitian cultured gray pearl and the fire of diamonds make a charming necklace. Cotogno Gioielli, Borgomanero, Italy; (39-032) 284-3184.
Handcrafted in 22k gold, these stud
earrings feature 11mm cultured mabé pearls and granulation. Panos & Co., Edmonton, Canada; (403) 463-2883, fax (403) 490-1450.
Volo 18k white gold rings are handmade with the lost-wax casting technique. They feature a Nativo finish and are each set with one natural black Tahitian cultured pearl and brilliant-cut diamonds. Suggested retail, $4,972 (left) and $6,875 (right). IJG for Torrini, Beverly Hills, CA; (800) 443-1479 or (323) 653-4705, fax (323) 653-1768,
The swirl pin features a black Tahitian pearl and 1.30 carats of diamond pavé ($2,960 suggested retail). The stick pin holds a black Tahitian cultured pearl with 0.80 carat of diamonds and a pink tourmaline ($2,110). Susan Michel Ltd., Flushing, NY; (718) 591-3722, fax (718) 380-3835.
From the Fanfare collection come these 18k gold earrings and enhancer with removable Tahitian cultured pearls. The earrings are $2,200 suggested retail, the enhancer is $1,000. Conni Mainne Designs Fine Jewelry, El Cerrito, CA; (510) 559-7823.
From the Oceanic Collection, the 14k gold suite has 13 10mm-11mm black Tahitian cultured pearls. Discover Jewelry, Los Angeles, CA; (877) 4-KAZKAZ, fax (213) 891-0613.
Earrings feature diamonds on three sides of the 18k white gold hoops and 9mm South Sea cultured pearl drops. The ring has an 8mm South Sea pearl surrounded by diamonds in white and yellow gold. All are available also with cultured Tahitian black pearls. Frank Mastoloni & Sons, New York City; (800) 347-3275, fax (212) 582-0884.
Ring features a black Tahitian cultured pearl in a platinum mounting with a 0.03-ct. diamond at the bottom of the shank. Suggested retail, $3,300. Jeffery Pratt Fine Jewelry Inc., Dallas, TX; (800) 606-9764.
Chinese freshwater cultured pearl strands have natural white, pink and apricot pearls and irradiated blue and gold pearls. Suggested retail, $20-$500. New York Pearls & Jewelry Collection, New York City; (212) 268-8866, fax (212) 268-8515.
18k white or yellow gold "Tahitian Moon" or "South Sea Moon" necklaces each feature a 3mm Tahitian cultured pearl and 0.20 carat of G-H/VS diamonds. Available in 16.5 inches ($4,600 suggested retail) or 17.5 inches ($4,920). Deborah M. Blohm Designs, New York City; (212) 371-7875, fax (212) 426-5677.
Cultured pearl necklace features a double drop clasp crafted in 18k gold. KWM Exclusives for Tamara Comolli Fine Jewelry Collection, New York City; (212) 398-8662, fax (212) 398-8665.
Black Tahitian cultured pearl hangs from an 18k gold and platinum pendant, invoking light and airy images of medieval architecture. Christie Frantz, Berkeley, CA; (800) 468-8900, fax (510) 525-7782,
18k and sterling silver bracelet is set with 24 American cultured freshwater pearls. Suggested retail, $3,520. Kim Koch Designs, Mequon, WI; (414) 241-8244, fax (414) 241-1360.


– by Lorraine M. Suermann

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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