Pearl Plight

Japanese akoya. The number of akoya dealers in the United States apparently has dwindled, according to some Japanese akoya cultured pearl dealers in Tucson, who report that U.S. dealers are quitting the business. Those still in the business seem to be focusing on the top goods—better quality, thicker-nacre, higher-luster akoyas. They believe that positioning themselves in a more stable, higher-income consumer market is the right move.

The same is true for Japan’s akoya dealers, only more so, notes pearl expert Bo Torrey, editor of the journal Pearl World. Because of the slowdown in the world’s economy, and especially the hard-hit Japanese consumer market, sales are very slow and have been for a longer period of time than here in the United States. The Japanese market is the major consumer market for akoya cultured pearls. And the lack of sales has crushed the wholesale market, with reports that some local major wholesalers have gone bankrupt and still more are expected to go belly-up.

Torrey confirms that on the farm front, the mortality rate for the Japanese akoya is still high. According to sources in Japan, the number of pearl farmers is down 10% to 15% compared with their numbers just a few years ago. Making matters even more difficult for the Japanese farmers are the large quantities of low-end akoyas imported from China and processed in Japan. The lower-quality nacre on these pearls is readily apparent: You can see the thinness at the drill hole and the mother-of-pearl bead’s straight layers through the sheer nacre. A technique known as “candling” can reveal low-quality nacre. While turning a strand of pearls in front of a light source, if the nacre is thin, you will see the pearls “blink”—go light and dark—as the light passes through or is blocked by the flat layers of the MOP bead.

Tahitians. With slow Japanese sales in both akoyas and Tahitians, the U.S. market is seeing more pearls and fluctuating prices. Retail jewelers are uncertain about Tahitian pearl value as prices continue to soften. The Tahitian government is trying to set quotas and reduce the number of lower-quality pearls being exported. While the government decree may be effective with large farms, the small farmers may not care. It is said that “everybody” in Tahiti has a farm, and they produce as much as they can, as fast as they can.

Second and even third harvests from the same shell are creating smaller and thinner-nacred pearls. The Tahitian government has actually stated that 0.6-mm nacre thickness is acceptable. For years it was expected that Tahitian, as well as other South Sea pearls, would have a minimum of 1.5 mm of nacre, with 2.0-mm nacre thickness considered the standard.

However, quota controls are working in Australia. The government is checking closely to see that once limits are reached, no more pearls are produced or processed.