Professional Jeweler Archive: Cultured Pearl Market Update

August 2003

Gemstones & Pearls/News

Cultured Pearl Market Update

Weak prices and greater supply remain the norm

Cultured pearl prices are weak because of increased supply, especially in cultured South Sea, Tahitian black and Chinese freshwater pearls, according to Richard Drucker of Gemworld International, publisher of The Guide. While speaking on production and pricing at the recent JCK Show-Las Vegas education program, he also said more methods of nucleation, often at a lower cost, are yielding larger or rounder Chinese freshwater cultured pearls.

Boom Time

Production is increasing in all major categories except Japanese akoyas, which are still plagued by high mollusk mortality rates and competition from finer Chinese freshwater pearls. Production of South Sea pearls grew 1,233% to 5 tonnes between 1980 and 2002. Tahitian black pearl production increased 2,650% to 11 tonnes in the same period. Gemworld International’s sources estimate that, in lieu of reliable government figures, Chinese freshwater production totaled 2,000 tonnes. By contrast, Japanese akoya production fell 2,200% to 10 tonnes between 1966 and 2002.

The top Japanese akoya pearls still command high prices, but all other akoya categories have suffered price declines, Drucker said. Overall pearl prices fell 30% in 2002, while Chinese freshwater pearl prices fell 60%.

South Sea Cultured Pearls

Though the finest ones hold their price, a 12mm-18mm graduated strand that once cost $30,000 might now sell for $17,000-$22,000. Imperfect pearls will cost far less. Drucker showed pearl strands from the recent Tucson shows starting at $740. Several larger producers are forming marketing partnerships, such as Australian megaproducer Paspaley’s alliance with U.S. distribution giant Stuller (Professional Jeweler, June 2003, p. 12).

Tahitian Black Cultured Pearls

Overproduction of commercial qualities is expected to ease, but overstocks mean the effect on pricing will linger. Drucker estimated prices have fallen 40%-60% from more robust times. But some say prices might be stabilizing.

Chinese Freshwater Cultured Pearls

Chinese producers recently admitted they’ve used bead-nucleation since 1995, he said. This followed debate whether the pearls, now available up to 14mm, were mostly tissue- or bead-nucleated. Drucker said it’s now believed most are bead-nucleated, still with impressively thick nacre. Bead size has grown too – one producer offers mother-of-pearl nuclei up to 20mm.

Nucleation techniques are growing more sophisticated. Drucker cited an example of a company inserting a second bead into a sac that’s already yielded a pearl. The second pearl grows faster because the sac was already formed.

A producers group in China called Joint Venture Pearls Cultivation Holding is trying to support prices by controlling production, but Drucker fears it may be too late. He said a 9mm-10mm near-round, high-luster strand can be had for $2,000, much lower than comparable akoyas.

Enhancements & Sources

Drucker advised that even higher-end pearls can be bleached, waxed, irradiated or dyed, so jewelers must get assurances from trusted suppliers before selling pearls as “all-natural.” Because of increasingly fine freshwater qualities, he said, labs should be more consistent in identifying pearls as saltwater or freshwater because the two can be confused.

– by Peggy Jo Donahue

Untreated, natural color Tahitian cultured pearls range from 8.2mm to 10.8mm and feature an 18k ball clasp. Courtesy of Elyria Pearls, San Francisco, CA; (415) 674-1406.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Copyright © 2003 by Bond Communications