Pearls

Today’s luxury customer wants to make a social splash without flaunting her wealth. South Sea pearls make her feel like a natural woman. She’s developed a successful career, raised her children, dedicated herself to social causes and achieved financial success. She is today’s affluent woman – independent, educated and hard-working. And whenever she gets the opportunity, she rewards herself by indulging in soft, dreamy, feminine things: a luxurious spa weekend, a slinky silk dress for a charity ball and a bold, breathtaking strand of South Sea pearls.

“Pearls? I thought diamonds were a girl’s best friend,” you may say. But this is no girl; she is the sophisticated woman of the ’90s, and her demand for a unique and personalized fashion is causing a boom in the South Sea pearl market.

“The demand for South Sea pearls has grown significantly in the past few years,” says Avi Raz of A&Z Pearls, a South Sea pearl dealer in Los Angeles, Cal. “People who previously wanted to buy diamonds are recognizing the importance of this very fine jewel and looking very seriously into putting their money into South Sea pearls.”

Cultured pearls farmed in the South Pacific include the white, cream and golden pearls of Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the “black” pearls (most commonly known as Tahitian black pearls) of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. They are grown in several varieties of mollusks that are much larger than the mollusks used for the ubiquitous akoya pearls of Japan and China. Thus, South Sea pearls reach spectacular sizes, ranging from about 81/2mm to 18mm, sometimes becoming as large as 20mm.

The usual correlation between size and price obviously applies in the case of South Sea pearls. But they also are grown more slowly and in lower volume than akoya pearls and, therefore, are harder to come by. The price likewise jumps dramatically for white South Sea pearls: small, low-quality strands start around $10,000 and can move into the millions. Consumers should prepare to pay more than $20,000 for acceptable quality South Sea pearls. Prices for Tahitian black pearls are lower because supply is high and constantly increasing – production grew by 81.6% in the first eight months of 1996.

It’s a price that affluent consumers are evidently willing to pay, especially in the past few years. Raz estimates demand rose for Tahitian black pearls by 50% and for white South Sea pearls by 30% in 1996. Other dealers across the country prepared for a busy year but could not anticipate the onslaught of South Sea customers.

“We bought a good deal of goods in 1996, and the demand still outstripped our supply,” says Armand Asher of Albert Asher South Sea Pearl Co. in New York, N.Y. “It used to be only one out of 10 jewelers would even have a strand of South Sea pearls in his case. Now you can’t walk around any big city without seeing dozens of them.”

Some say pearl sales are cyclical, that they’ve simply come around again. But the sudden recognition of the big, colorful pearls can be attributed also to a great deal of publicity in the media. On Barbara Walters, white South Seas took on a serious, respectable role, while Tahitian black pearls added glamour to Elizabeth Taylor’s Black Pearl perfume in magazine ads and on TV shows.

Most significantly, the fashion world has taken note of the pearl’s popularity. Oscar de la Renta won the pearl race against other eager fashion designers. He commissioned $25 million worth of South Sea pearl jewelry for models to wear while showing his spring haute couture line in Paris in January. Created by Salvador Assael of Assael International, New York, N.Y., the necklaces and earrings of Australian white, Indonesian gold and Tahitian black pearls were the first genuine cultured pearls to accompany a designer’s line. “Oscar wanted to be the first designer in Paris to show beautiful pearls with his fashions,” says Assael. While the jewelry was strictly for exhibition, de la Renta asked Assael to create five Australian white pearl buttons and a matching pair of cuff links for a black suit that sold after the show for $500,000.

No matter how fashionable pearls are, however, convincing a well-heeled customer to slide over money that would buy a luxury car or a summer home – and, of course, she could always use a bigger diamond – for a strand of South Sea pearls is difficult. It’s obviously much harder than selling the smaller akoya pearls most Americans recognize and can afford. Despite these barriers, these pearls have taken a place as a successful and sought-after luxury item.

The 1990s luxury customer

Market researchers have been scratching their heads over the new upper-class consumer in the past few years, because they now reject everything for which the affluent used to stand. The free-spending 1980s are long gone, but so is the early ’90s recession and its conservative consumer. Ninety-five percent of today’s affluent have earned their wealth rather than inherited it, and they are not shy about spending it.

Unlike the conspicuous consumption that fueled the ’80s, affluent shoppers in the second half of the ’90s are looking for quality and value instead of status, practicality rather than exclusivity. (According to Marketing Tools magazine, the No. 1 automobile among America’s affluent is the Mercedes Benz, but the second choice is the more humble Ford.) They shop around to get the most for their money and hesitate to flaunt what they have.

Many discerning jewelry customers are discovering exotic pearls from the South Seas fill their requirements when it comes to big-ticket spending. They are beautiful, but also offer advantages that appeal to the value-minded customer.

Quality. “The good thing about South Sea and Tahitian pearls is that they carry the quality we all like to see in pearls,” says Raz. “The way they are grown produces thick nacre and consistent luster and color all over the surface of the pearl.”

Producers of these pearls focus on rarity rather than commercialism to maintain quality products. Australia, the major producer of fine-quality white South Sea pearls, limits the number of farms permitted to operate at one time, then further limits the amount of production by each farm. Producers of the white and black pearls place only one nucleus in each oyster (akoya producers have been known to insert up to three) and leave the nucleated oysters underwater for three to four years. Additionally, the warmer waters in the area cause nacre to form much faster than in the waters of northern pearl farms. The resulting pearls have the thick nacre that results in fine luster and durability.

“The South Sea pearl can stand the test of time,” says Antoinette Matlins, a gemologist, lecturer and author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide. She laments the thin nacre that peels after a matter of years on some commercial-grade akoya pearls, but says even lower-quality South Sea pearls have a sturdy nacre thickness because of the rapid formation and prolonged production time.

Practicality. Glorious diamond necklaces, the bigger the better, dazzle audiences at the Academy Awards and onlookers at charity auctions and balls. But how many times do those necklaces come out of the jewelry box or, more likely, the safe?

“When you spend $50,000 to $150,000 or more on a diamond necklace, you usually save it for an evening that’s super-dressy, and how many evenings are like that,” asks Donald Levinson of Trabert & Hoeffer, an upscale jewelry store in Chicago, Ill. “People don’t usually get that much use out of a diamond necklace. Women can wear their South Sea pearls 10 times as often as a diamond necklace of the same value.”

People who sell South Sea pearls say their customers love them because they’re just as appropriate for “casual Friday” as for important social occasions. They look just as lovely with jeans as with a suit or expensive formal.

Subtlety.

Levinson points out that women who wear South Sea pearls are often affluent enough to have other jewelry and are confident enough to wear jewelry that doesn’t need to announce status. “A South Sea pearl necklace shows value without shouting ‘expensive,’” he says.

Women also say they do not feel as vulnerable wearing the pearls as they would diamonds. “I don’t think most of the public realizes how much South Sea pearls are worth,” Levinson says. They may keep them in the safe at home, but owners of these necklaces can wear them more confidently without security guards close by.

Femininity. “Soft,” “sensual,” “glowing” and “beautiful” are among the words that designers, retailers and dealers use to describe why South Sea and Tahitian black pearls appeal to their customers. They are not flashy, but the larger, unique pearls make women feel personally exclusive, special and secure.

“A South Sea pearl necklace is the ultimate sign of femininity,” says Erica Courtney, the jewelry designer whose white and black pearl designs have wooed the likes of celebrities Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and Demi Moore. “A pearl necklace with beautiful luster is so magnificent it literally lights up your face. How perfect is that?”

In older women, larger pearls draw the gaze away from lines in the neck and face, says Eve Alfillé, a jewelry designer and owner of Eve Alfillé Ltd. in Evanston, Ill. “They are the first thing you see, and they glow from across the room,” she says. “They enhance a woman’s natural beauty.”

Like natural fabric in clothing, a necklace of pearls cultivated from nature has a soft, warm comfort about it, says Andy Johnson of The Johnson Family’s Diamond Cellar in Columbus, Ohio. “The subtle, sensual beauty of South Sea pearls makes a woman feel special and gives her something very unique to wear,” he says.

Individuality

The array of colors, shapes and sizes that characterize South Sea and Tahitian black pearls means that every woman can have a design that fits her personality and look. Colors of South Sea pearls from Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines range from the pinkish-white, which has been popularized as the “ideal” pearl color for pale-skinned Americans, to white, cream, yellow and deep gold. Tahitian black pearls, somewhat of a misnomer for the colorful gems, are found in many shades and combinations of white, gold, blue, purple, pink, green, gray and black. The most popular is the “peacock” color, a black pearl with a green sheen, but consumers are gradually discovering the other hues. Tiffany & Co. has adopted gray as its signature black pearl, and designers are increasingly combining colors to create breathtaking designs with which women immediately fall in love.

“My customers are fascinated with all the different colors,” says Erica Courtney. “Skin tones vary by the hundreds, and so do the colors of these pearls. Choosing a color is very personal, and customers fall instantly in love with a design because it’s theirs and they know it. These pearls take on a personality.”

Designer Hugh Power, whose designs combine rainbows of Tahitian pearl colors, says his designs create excitement when his customers discover the diversity of the pearls he uses. “The actress Lindsay Wagner, who is a good client of mine, told me she hated pearls,” he says. “The pearl is her birthstone, and they just didn’t excite her. Then she saw my designs, and she told me I changed her life.”

Many consumers think of pearls only in the traditional sense, he says. “American consumers have been trained by the Japanese to think round, white and under 9mm when they think about pearls,” says Power. “When they discover that Tahitian pearls come in every color in the rainbow, they become very excited.”

Alfillé, who specializes in designing jewelry with pearls, says her customers also get a thrill when they discover the various shapes in which they can buy South Sea and Tahitian pearls – again, because they never dreamed a pearl could be anything but round. “Why would the Japanese, who created asymmetry in art, favor only round pearls? It’s a marketing problem,” she says. “The men who run the industry are trained to deal with linear qualities; they can fax Japan from anywhere in the world and ask for a certain number of 7 to 71/2mm uniform pearls.”

What industry leaders are beginning to realize is that the baroque pearls are the real bargains. These pearls have grown off-round in their prolonged time in the oyster and range from slightly tear-shaped to elongated with ridges. The less perfectly round the pearl, the less expensive it is, so baroque pearls are offered at a much lower price. When designers began to use the oddly shaped pearls, they discovered a useful secret.

“Women adore them!” says Alfillé. “The rounds ones are very nice, but they point to the baroque pearls and say ‘These I love.’” Like color, unique shapes offer a bit of exclusivity, personality and individuality. Today’s affluent woman may not want to flaunt her wealth, but she can afford to be different, and she will own jewelry that she loves.

So who is this woman?

Not everybody is a “pearl person” and not everybody feels comfortable with the extravagant investment that South Sea pearls demand. So who is the typical South Sea pearl customer?

“The adage is ‘the older the woman, the bigger the pearl,’” says Alfillé. Retailers agree the customer is at least middle-aged, sophisticated and fashionable, often professional and usually married to a very successful husband. She has already obtained her important diamonds and is very fond of jewelry. She is looking for something different and precious.

Often, South Sea pearl customers are in the limelight frequently. “They are society leaders,” says Alfillé. “They want something they can wear to the big benefit that they’re chairing, to open houses, parties. Social expression is very important to this customer. When she is at a ball or another event where the atmosphere is dark, jewelry made of gold, colored stones and smaller pearls doesn’t show very well. Diamonds and large, white pearls glow in the dark, and they photograph wonderfully.”

Designer Ella Gafter of Ellagem, who uses top-quality Australian pearls in her designs, says the customer is someone who travels the world and has seen everything, yet appreciates the opportunity to find new and exciting designs close to home. “Why should she buy jewelry in Italy and France when she can find exquisite American design?” Gafter says. “Americans should buy in America, and we have brought the best of the world here for them.”

While occasionally a woman is able to cash in some investments or dip into her personal savings account to buy a South Sea pearl necklace, Alfillé says most of the time the expensive jewelry is a present from the husband or man in the woman’s life. The problem, retailers agree, is that male consumers do not appreciate pearls the way their wives do. “The man has been so educated about the 4Cs,” says Alfillé. “He feels in control and knowledgeable when buying diamonds. With pearls, the woman must fall in love with them first.”

She tells the story of a man who wanted to buy a present for his wife and considered buying her a diamond. “This woman loved pearls and had been admiring a design in my store that was particularly beautiful,” Alfillé recalls. “I told him that what she really wanted was pearls. He said, ‘I don’t know anything about pearls. I’m going to get her a diamond.’ I argued with him, and he decided to bring her and let her choose.” When the woman arrived, she quietly agreed with her persistent husband that a diamond would be appropriate. Alfillé did not press the matter but wrapped the diamond for her.

“The next day, the woman called me sobbing. ‘How could you let that happen?’ she asked. ‘I was scared to tell him that I wanted the pearls.’ I lost one of my best customers because I didn’t sell her what she really wanted.” Now she takes notes of the designs her female customers love, then sends a photograph and handwritten note to their husbands to put the idea of pearls into their heads.

Retailers and designers of South Sea pearls also realize families are not necessarily buying the expensive jewelry instead of competing luxury goods and extravagances. “They don’t choose them in contrast with other things,” says Johnson. “Often they already own the luxury cars, they already have the diamonds. This is a new category that is over and beyond anything they have ever owned before.”

The wealthy are still extremely careful with their money, however, and Alfillé says her pearls sometimes are a secondary priority. “A customer ordered a very important South Sea pearl necklace, then called me and said they were building a new home and she couldn’t pick up the necklace until the spring,” she recalls. “My customers don’t do this frivolously. Often they decide to travel or build a vacation home, and I have to take a back seat and wait. I have to be prepared to wait two years to make a major sale.”

If you build it, will they come?

As every retailer knows, not everybody can sell jewelry that starts at $20,000 and soars into six- and seven-digit prices. “Most of the retailers who successfully sell South Sea pearl necklaces carry the very fine products and higher price tags in general,” says dealer Avi Raz. “They sell platinum, large colored stones and expensive diamonds. A retailer often has to invest more than $20,000 wholesale just to stock a white South Sea pearl necklace, and they have to have the business and money to support that cost.”

Andy Johnson also believes a retailer has to have the clientele that can afford the jewelry, but he looks at it from a different approach. His store, located in an upper-middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio, stocks upscale designer jewelry, Mikimoto akoya pearls and many strands of South Sea and Tahitian black pearls ranging from $20,000 to $75,000. With these pearls, as well as with the rest of the store, he abides by what he calls the Field of Dreams philosophy.

“The Kevin Costner character in that movie loved baseball. He built the baseball field out of love for the game, not because he was chasing money. It was a passion for him. I think it’s similar with South Sea pearls. You have to like them and understand them to develop the clientele,” he says. “A jeweler creates demand by enthusiasm and love. You have to believe yourself that there’s a market. If you build it, believe in it, embrace it and work toward it, the business will come to you.”

Building the business may entail starting small, and there’s plenty of opportunity to do that, say pearl retailers, designers and dealers.

“It’s very important to present things that are entry-level to encourage customers,” says Eve Alfillé. Most retailers who sell South Sea pearls stock single drop pendants on chains, drop earrings and rings. Pendants and earrings can start around $500, and rings may cost only a few thousand dollars. Consumers learn to appreciate the pearls by starting small and can work up by finding designs that mix different colors and shapes of pearls with diamonds, colored stones and metals. v

CHARACTERISTICS OF SOUTH SEA PEARLS

The six major factors that affect the value of akoya pearls also apply to South Sea and Tahitian black pearls, but the characteristics of these pearls are slightly different.

Luster: In akoya pearls, a very intense luster, or iridescent shine on the surface of the pearl, means thick nacre, increasing the value of the pearl. South Sea pearls should also have good luster that will reflect the light back from the center of the pearl, like a well-cut diamond. However, warmer water in the South Pacific does not allow the luster to become as intense as in akoya pearls. The luster will be softer, and the details of the shadows reflected in the surface will be less crisp when compared with the akoya.

Color: The colors of South Sea and Tahitian black pearls vary greatly. Similar to akoya pearls, the most valued color of the white South Sea pearl is pinkish-white, and the greenish-black “peacock” color is the most expensive of the Tahitian black pearls. The gold South Sea pearls, which are in great demand in other parts of the world, and the “eggplant” (magenta and black) black pearl are also highly valued.

Beware! Some overseas dealers bleach or dye poor-color black, white and golden pearls. The Gemological Institute of America provides certificates verifying natural color in black pearls. Salvador Assael, the North American representative for the South Sea Pearl Consortium, is working with GIA to provide similar certificates for white and golden pearls from its trade labs. If you are buying these pearls without a certificate, often unbelievably low prices for white, golden or black pearls are a tell-tale sign the pearl is dyed. Dark, flat hues also indicate artificial color.

Size: Like akoya pearls, price increases dramatically as the pearls increase in size. Sizes start at about 8mm for Tahitian black pearls and 9mm for white South Sea pearls, and grow to around 18mm. Occasionally, the pearls grow as large as 20mm. Price increases are not proportionate.

Shape: While roundness is extremely important for quality akoya pearls, perfectly round South Sea pearls are very rare. When the pearl spends so many years underwater, the friction of the water works it into different shapes. Perfectly round South Sea pearls are very expensive; off-rounds and baroques are viable alternatives for consumers with a limited budget.

Surface condition: Slight nicks in the surface are the surest way consumers can tell the difference between any real and imitation pearls. Sand brushes into the oysters while the pearl is forming and nicks the surface, but in akoyas too many nicks affect the quality of the pearl. The same is true for South Sea pearls, but expect more surface blemishes – scratches, dents and pinpricks – because the pearl has been underwater for so long. They shouldn’t be scarred to the point of being ugly, but few surfaces are close to perfect.

Nacre thickness: The very nature of South Sea pearls – that they are left underwater for a few years to achieve their notorious sizes – as well as the warmer water of the region makes the nacre on the pearls very thick and durable. Occasionally, some retailers say, customers complain of nacre peeling from baroque pearls or mabé and button pearls used in rings, but it is rare otherwise that a South Sea pearl has nacre that won’t endure if cared for properly.

KASUMIGA PEARLS CATCH UP TO SOUTH SEA SIZES

What do you get when you cross a Cistaria plicada with a Hyriopsis schlegeli?

It’s not a riddle, but an unusual experiment in pearl culture. Wilhelm Schoeffel GmbH & Co. of Stuttgart, Germany, has discovered a way to cross-breed the Chinese and Japanese freshwater mussels to produce pearls that range from 10mm to 15mm. The mussels are about the same size as those used in South Sea pearl culture, but they produce pearls with the distinctive pinkish and reddish colors of freshwater pearls. The pearls are being cultivated in Lake Kasumigara of Japan in cooperation with unnamed Japanese cultivators and producers and are being sold under the brand name Kasumiga Cultured Pearls.

Because it is difficult to grow round pearls in fresh water, only a portion of the production is round or semiround and of high quality, says Hans Schoeffel, the company’s managing director.

“The availability of these pearls is extremely limited. We expect at maximum 1,000 strands this year, including the low grades,” he says. “There will be literally only a handful of high-quality strands, but these will be really beautiful. The baroque strands will also be extremely attractive.”

As in the beginning of any experimental project, the Kasumiga culture is slow-going because of time and financial limitations. “The mussels must be raised over 10 years until they reach maturity for operation,” Schoeffel says. While there are not the costs for transportation of the pearls like the ones associated with South Sea pearl farming, he says, production costs in Japan are still fairly high. Jewellery News Asia estimates the Kasumiga pearl strands are starting at about $14,000 keystone, the price of a low-end strand of South Sea pearls.

Distribution has been limited mostly to the European market, but a few retailers in the United States and Asia carry the Kasumiga pearls. Jules R. Schubot Jewellers/Gemologists in Troy, Mich., shows the strands alongside white South Sea and Tahitian black pearls of similar sizes in the store’s displays and catalogs.

“Since Kasumiga pearls are not yet known to the public, there is no ‘demand’ yet from the consumer side of the market,” says Schoeffel. “These pearls can be sold successfully only by retailers who are enthusiastic about them and who are capable of transferring their enthusiasm to the right customers.”

The company plans to show its new productions of Kasumiga pearls at Basel ’97 in Switzerland April 10-17 and the JCK International Jewelry Show May 30-June 3 in Las Vegas, Nev.