Professional Jeweler Archive: Chinese Freshwaters: The Whole Story

February 2000


Chinese Freshwaters: The Whole Story

Large Chinese freshwater cultured pearls – those that some people say rival the South Sea variety – have been getting extensive attention. Let me set the record straight about some myths:

  • Myth 1: Many in the trade describe these pearls as non-nucleated or tissue-nucleated. Both are wrong. They are bead-nucleated, with all-nacre beads fashioned from surplus freshwater cultured pearls.
  • Myth 2: Some have reported these pearls remain in a single mussel six to nine years. I estimate the pearls currently in the market are the result of numerous reinsertions into different mussels, each time remaining in the mussel 18 months to two years, at most.
  • Myth 3: Some in the trade say the cost of very fine Chinese freshwater pearls – several thousand dollars and more – is justified not only by their beauty, but by their rarity and longevity in the mussel.

If you take 11mm round Chinese freshwater cultured pearls and cut them in half, as some of us in the gemological arena have, you see they are nucleated with freshwater all-nacre pearls that have been polished into round nuclei. This is cheaper than using Tennessee shell, and there is no shortage of inferior-quality, small, near-round, all-nacre “potato” pearls (which are themselves nucleated with small nuclei fashioned from even cheaper all-nacre “rice krispie” pearls). The end product is all-nacre and virtually impossible to detect by routine X-ray examination. The only way to know for sure is to cut one open, at which time you see several colorations of nacre rings, showing that a small “all-nacre” nucleus starts the process and then is harvested and reinserted into another mussel. This is repeated three or four times until the desired size/shape is reached!

We must all do whatever we can to correct the impression that large Chinese round freshwater cultured pearls are rare non-nucleated pearls that take years to cultivate. They are nucleated pearls, cultivated in about the same time as any other freshwater cultured pearl; they are “rare” only at the moment. As time passes and the Chinese have had the opportunity to stockpile large quantities of nuclei in a range of sizes, they will be able to produce the large all-nacre pearls with only one to two insertions. Unfortunately, the Chinese have no means to control supply; as supply increases dramatically, prices will fall dramatically and the trade will once again undermine consumer confidence regarding pearls.

We also must recognize current prices imply a rarity that does not exist; we must ask ourselves if we are serving the best interests of our customers to buy them now at these prices. As retailers and consumers become more knowledgeable about what they are buying, I believe prices will fall naturally into line with what we are truly getting.

Antoinette Matlins
Gemstone Press
Woodstock, VT

Editor’s Note: The writer is author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide.

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