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September 1999

Gemstones & Pearls: News

Pearl Sources Broaden and Change

Chinese freshwater cultured pearls are creating a new pearl order. Among saltwater pearls, there's a declining number of Japanese akoyas and more South Sea and Tahitian pearls

There will be a "new pearl order" in the new millennium, said James Peach, president and CEO of American Shell Co., Camden, TN, a speaker at the Gemological Institute of America's International Gemological Symposium in June. This will be particularly evident in the increasing production of Chinese freshwater pearls.

Among the advantages of Chinese pearls: a wide range of shapes, colors and sizes. They're also often 100% nacre while Japanese akoyas are 3%-5% nacre, so the resulting durability will appeal to consumers, Peach said.

Peach encouraged attendees to be objective and open-minded about China's future in the cultured pearl industry, saying the country already produces 800-900 metrics tons of pearls per year and aims for 1,500 metric tons per year in the future.

In another session on marketing pearl jewelry, Ralph Rossini of Honora, New York City, spoke of his recent trip to Chinese pearl farms, where Honora buys pearls that are 70% nacre and 30% mantle tissue. Initially, Honora's retail clients were against selling Chinese freshwater pearls because of their lower prices and off-round shapes, Rossini said. But strong acceptance by consumers and the quality and durability of the pearls gradually convinced retailers the pearls are viable for fine jewelers. Rossini said freshwater pearls sell for such low prices because one mollusk produces 40 pearls, there's no expensive mother-of-pearl bead to start the culturing process and the Chinese have low labor costs.

Explain to Customers
Devin Macnow of the Cultured Pearl Information Center, New York City, and several pearl dealers who sell primarily saltwater pearls, sounded a note of caution concerning the way retailers identify Chinese freshwater cultured pearls to consumers. They advised jewelers to make it clear when they sell Chinese or other freshwater pearls, especially now that they are so close to round they could be mistaken for saltwater pearls. This is important because freshwater pearls are more plentiful and often less expensive than many saltwater pearls.

Part of the reason for the ascendance of Chinese pearls is a vacuum in the supply of traditionally popular Japanese akoyas because of massive deaths of akoya oysters. During a session on pearl sourcing, Shigeru Akamatsu, general manager of K. Mikimoto & Co., Tokyo, Japan, discussed steps the Japanese are taking to remedy the situation. They're selecting healthy oysters at the time
of hatching; keeping them in virus-free, environmentally safe tanks; killing infected oysters; and avoiding stressing the oysters during the culturing process.

The decline in production of Japanese akoyas and an increase in production of South Sea and Tahitian black pearls have significantly altered the world's saltwater pearl population percentages, said Andy W. Müller, president of Golay Buchel, Kobe, Japan, who also spoke during the pearl sourcing seminar. In 1994, akoyas accounted for 66% of the saltwater cultured pearl industry, white South Sea pearls made up almost 20% and Tahitian black pearls filled in the other 14% of the total world production. By 1999, the numbers had shifted to 27% Japanese akoya, nearly 45% white South Sea and nearly 29% Tahitian.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G. and Peggy Jo Donahue

   Chinese freshwater cultured pearls have exploded onto the pearl scene. These 18k gold earrings with freshwater pearls are $700 keystone. Conni Mainne Designs, El Cerrito, CA; (510) 559-7823.

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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