Professional Jeweler Archive: The China Syndrome

May 2000

Gemstones & Pearls: News

The China Syndrome

The popularity and abundance of big Chinese freshwater pearls has prompted questions about culturing practices, pricing and integrity

Over the past decade, mainland China transformed itself into the world’s leading cultured pearl producer. According to industry estimates, China produces some 1,000 metric tons of freshwater pearls annually vs. 60 metric tons of saltwater pearls produced worldwide.

Many jewelry retailers, designers, manufacturers and wholesalers rave about the spice rack of colors, thick nacre, large sizes, near-round to round shapes and low prices of Chinese freshwater pearls.

Along with the hype, however, is speculation as to how China’s freshwater pearls are cultivated, whether they are valued properly and whether the flood of pearls on the market will depreciate their value and ultimately undermine consumer confidence in all pearls.

Touting Tissue Nucleation

Sellers of Chinese freshwater pearls say they’re all nacre, making them durable. Word is the Chinese use only mantle tissue to nucleate their mother shells (upward of 40 small sections in one mollusk), with no bead nucleus involved (as in saltwater pearl production).

Several dealers who have visited China over the years have witnessed the cultivation process from start to finish. “I’ve documented the entire process,” says Joel Schechter of Honora, New York City. “This pearl has no bead.”

A number of observers, however, say they can’t believe a piece of square mantle tissue can result in round pearls, particularly in the large sizes now on the market. “It doesn’t make sense,” says Fred Ward, an industry educator and author of Pearls. “You can’t get round pearls unless you start with something round or near-round.”

If there is no round nucleus, round and near-round shapes would be much more rare, adds Antoinette Matlins, another industry educator and author of The Pearl Book.

Only about 2% of the Chinese freshwater pearls produced are near-round to round, report many pearl dealers. (Two percent of 1,000 metric tons is 20 metric tons, which translates into 20,000 kilograms or 44,200 pounds.)

No one seems able to explain how square mantle tissue can produce a round pearl. “I have absolutely no idea,” says Ken Scarratt, director of the American Gem Trade Association Gemological Testing Center in New York City. “It’s definitely fortuitous how the pearls come out.”

Scarratt, who has visited pearl farms in China during the past 20 years, says all the round pearls he’s examined to date (by cutting them in half and/or X-radiography) are tissue-grafted. He says the X-rays show a wispy black void in the center of the pearl – left when the mantle tissue dissolves during cultivation. “If a bead nucleus was inserted into the mollusk, it would secrete an organic material [conchiolin] similar to what the pearl is made of, but less opaque, before it secretes nacreous material,” he says. “We would be able to detect that in the X-rays and we’re not seeing it.”

Several dealers, and even the Gemological Institute of America’s pearl course, suggest some farms in China have experimented with bead nuclei, but most dealers haven’t seen much of this material on the market. Matlins, Ward and others, however, suspect a shell bead is not at the core of this mystery, but another freshwater pearl.

All-Nacre Nuclei?

“I believe these pearls are nucleated with all-nacre nuclei fashioned from surplus tissue-nucleated, all-nacre freshwater cultured pearls that have been tumbled and polished round,” says Matlins. “Because it doesn’t show up in an X-ray, it must be an all-nacre nuclei.”

John Huang, sales manager for the New York City wholesaler Majestic, says the farmers he deals with use small seed pearls as nuclei. “No way are they just using mantle tissue to create big round pearls.”

Scarratt and others question whether the Chinese would use low-quality freshwater pearls as nuclei instead of selling them for a quick profit. “If you ground freshwater pearls perfectly round, it would be the same as shell beads. It would be cost-prohibitive to do,” says James Peach of the United States Pearl Co. in Hermitage, TN.

Matlins disagrees. “There is no shortage of inferior-quality, small near-round, all-nacre potato pearls, which I believe were also nucleated with small nuclei fashioned from even cheaper all-nacre ‘rice krispie’-type pearls.” Huang concurs that this makes sense – low-quality pearls are produced in nine months.

If you slice open a large round Chinese freshwater pearl, you see color banding (like tree rings), which Ward says may indicate several reinsertions. Scarratt says these rings may be part of the normal growth pattern of the pearl.

Matlins says that with reinsertions, producers could control the size and shape of the pearl by the size of the nucleus and the number of nuclei inserted into any given mussel. This could explain the three-to-six-year growth time many dealers claim, says Matlins. She says it would take 15-25 years for a mussel to produce the sizes now seen from a small tissue insertion.

Rarity vs. Value

Matlins says she has no problem with Chinese freshwater pearls. But she objects to what she calls misleading information being used to justify the high price of large round or near-round freshwater strands. “They may be rare now, but their rarity and their price will diminish with each year as larger numbers are being produced in shorter cultivation periods,” she says. “My main concern is that this will undermine consumer confidence.”

Schechter is offended by this stance – his company has solely concentrated on the Chinese freshwater pearl for the past six years. “I bet the future of Honora on this product. When I first got involved with it, I took it to Ken Scarratt,” he says. “I’ve submitted a large number of pearls for testing from many different farms over the years to verify what I was told.”

Schechter says he’s seeing a shortage in smaller sizes as farmers leave shells in the water longer to grow larger pearls. “I don’t think the market will be flooded with the larger, rounder goods,” he says.

Whatever the answers to the cultivation questions, pearl dealers say they depend on labs such as GIA and AGTA for information on Chinese freshwater pearls. Amid the speculation, all the dealers say they’re properly selling what they feel is a fantastic product the public loves.

– by Deborah Yonick

Despite questions about culturing and real value, buyers snapped up strands of Chinese freshwater pearls at the gem and mineral shows in Tucson in February. Consumers are just as happy with the merchandise.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications