Pearls are riding a wave with no end in sight.

“The pearl market has never been better,” says Peter Bazar of Imperial-Deltah Pearls, New York. “The quantities, quality, and variety of pearls used in so many different jewelry manipulations continue.”

While the century-old traditional akoyas haven’t made a major comeback from their near extinction in the 1990s, they still hold the No. 1 slot for retail customers wanting a 6 to 8 mm perfectly round, white rosé, lustrous strand of cultured pearls. That said, Chinese freshwaters are fashionable and cover almost every corner of the market, from low end to high. They come in white as well as fashion colors, and range from perfect rounds to baroques. Production of South Seas pearls, including Australian whites, Indonesian golds, and Tahitian blacks, is increasing, as are sizes and shapes.

AKOYAS

Not many dealers refer to their strands as “Japanese” akoyas any longer. Pollution of the bays around Japan in the 1980s and ’90s destroyed many pearl-growing areas and the damage continues. Chinese akoya farms have filled the void, providing the quantities and qualities necessary to keep the entire akoya pearl market afloat.

“Today, we care less about where the akoya comes from,” says Avi Raz, owner of A&Z Pearls, Los Angeles. “What we are looking for is quality, as long as the quality is consistent. If it’s a wonderful cultured pearl, it doesn’t matter where it came from.”

Even Japanese companies—still No. 1 in processing, matching, drilling, and stringing—use akoyas from outside Japan. “There are akoyas being grown in the islands off of the southern coast of South Korea, and in Vietnam,” says Raz. “And Port Stevens, Australia,” adds Bazar.

Akoyas are selling well for Bazar, from 4 to 10 mm, with 6 to 8.5 mm the mainstay. “There are never enough of the higher-quality goods,” says Bazar, who has a supply problem with 6 to 6.5 mm.

Aziz Basalely, of Eliko Pearls, New York, agrees. “Anything smaller than 7 mm, in better quality, is almost impossible to find.” Supplies of Japanese akoyas are limited and concentrated primarily in the 7 to 9.5 mm range, says Basalely. “The Chinese akoyas seem to also be limited in supply, again in better-quality material. Production is primarily from 6 to 8 mm.”

Chinese freshwater pearls are giving akoyas stiff competition, says Shigeru Akamatsu, senior manager for K. Mikimoto & Co. in Tokyo. “Especially in smaller sizes, 3 and 4 mm, and middle sizes, 5 and 6 mm,” he notes. There are fewer perfectly round Chinese freshwaters in sizes above 7 mm, so the competition for those is less severe.

Price may be the ultimate factor determining the Japanese akoya’s fortunes. “Japanese akoya wholesalers want to export good-quality pearls,” says Akamatsu. “However, considering U.S. importers demanding prices of $200 to $300 for a 6 mm strand, it is natural that the akoya is being replaced by Chinese freshwater pearls.”

SOUTH SEAS—AUSTRALIANS, INDONESIANS, AND TAHITIANS

“The South Seas market is strong,” says Wesley Rutherford, Rutherford Pearls, Melbourne, Australia. “High quality is always sought after. Ten to 12 mm are the most popular and wearable sizes.”

“Even though the supply of white South Sea pearls is steady, the most important recent development is the alliance between Paspaley and MG Kailis,” says Basalely. “This means that now, up to 75 percent of the Australian South Sea production will be controlled by Paspaley. Although this should not have any immediate effect on the supply or prices of white South Seas, the bigger sizes and finer quality that is primarily produced in Australia will be under the control of Paspaley.”

Basalely says there is still strong demand for large white baroques, especially 15 mm and up. “There has been very little production of these this year, especially in appealing shapes and colors, perhaps because the pearl-producing techniques—harvesting more rounds—are improving,” he says.

Demand for Indonesian and Australian golds isn’t as strong as it was the last two to three years, says Basalely. “And finer colors are hard to come by,” he adds.

Tahitian pearls are also feeling the competition from South Seas pearls and Chinese freshwaters. But Martin Coeroli, general manager of Perles de Tahiti, the nonprofit organization that promotes Tahitian pearls, says they’re doing quite well despite the competition.

“Volume has been controlled and stabilized at an optimum of 8 tons per year since 2001,” Coeroli says. That’s due in part to local government regulations that address quality and nacre thickness. “It’s working very well,” says Coeroli. “It is estimated that 10 percent of a pearl crop is destroyed due to this regulation, which aids in maintaining pearl quality at a high level.”

Despite Coeroli’s assurances, the U.S. market has seen a lot of blemished Tahitian circle strands. What it hasn’t seen are long strands of perfectly round, blemish-free aubergine or peacock-color cultured pearls. Coeroli maintains that the blacks, peacocks, and aubergines are selling well this season, but at the latest trade shows, suppliers were seen asking retailers if they knew of any other suppliers who had any.

“These colors are continually sold out at the international auctions held by Robert Wan, or GIE Poe Rava Nui, in Kobe and Hong Kong,” says Coeroli. Some pearl experts have told JCK that they have not seen these colors even at auction. This raises questions about the possibility of environmental affects on color. Coeroli denies any problem. “No, our only concern is the impact of the greenhouse effect on the water temperature. This can affect the viability of the pearl oyster in the future.”

Medium and commercial qualities are abundant, especially in the 8 to 12 mm range, says Basalely. However, the supply of finer qualities is limited, and prices are strong, especially in fancy colors. “There is a big shortage of 14 mm and up. There is almost nothing available, especially in better qualities,” he says.

In high demand and short supply are 8 mm and anything over 12 mm; drops and baroques; fancy cherry, peacock, and gold colors; and top qualities.

“Retailers should most definitely be looking for long strands in general,” says Coeroli. “The long circled strands and larger-sized pearls are what are selling really well this season.”

The new copper-color Tahitians are popular, but questions regarding enhancement are surfacing again. It has been reported that copper colors are created by heat and bleach, but Coeroli denies that. “Actually, these are natural colors, but they are very, very rare,” he says. “It is strictly forbidden to enhance Tahitian cultured pearls in French Polynesia. The Pearl Inspection Office enforces these standards to uphold the integrity of all pearl exports.

“If pearl products are enhanced, it is done at the buyer level,” says Coeroli. “As chairman of the CIBJO Pearl Commission, I will address this issue at the next CIBJO Congress, in March 2007, held in South Africa.”

CHINESE FRESHWATERS

“The [Chinese] freshwaters are reaching South Seas sizes in quantity and quality,” says Gina Latendresse, of American Pearl Co., Nashville, Tenn.

Latendresse recalls a visit to China in 1993 when she and her father, the late John Latendresse, purchased a handful of large pearls, which amounted to the entire available stock. “They were very impressive sizes—over 11 and 12 mm,” Latendresse says. “In the last 13 years, the shapes, quality, quantity, and sizes continued to improve and impress everyone,” she adds.

The supply of Chinese freshwater seems to be abundant this year, even in the 10 to 12 mm sizes, says Basalely. “Good quality is moving well —as well as natural colors, especially pinks and purples.”

“Pearl sales are expected to continue their strong upward swing in 2006,” says Sonny Hung, director of Man Sang Holdings, the Chinese freshwater pearl conglomerate located in Zhuji, China. “Increased demand and stable production in 2005 translated into increased prices for most categories of pearls.”

Hung adds, “Retailers should note that there are more big players into pearls, including Tiffany and Christian Dior.” That kind of competition for fine-quality goods may push demand beyond supply, which would affect prices.

“Freshwater pearls are, without a doubt, the future of pearls,” says Jeremy Shepherd, owner of PearlParadise.com. “Our CFWP sales have been steadily increasing for the last several years. They used to be only 10 to 15 percent of total sales. They are now nearly 40 percent, and we bring in 60 to 80 kilos every month. Because high-grade freshwater pearls are now basically indistinguishable from high-grade akoya, yet cost a fraction of the price, this is what everyone wants.”

Shepherd carries only fine-quality Chinese tissue-activated freshwater pearls. “We do not deal in any of the bead-nucleated freshwaters currently. I have purchased a few strands in the past, however.”

Shepherd has a new high-quality line of freshwater pearls that he calls “freshadama,” a takeoff of the Japanese word hanadama, which equates to the “very best.” He says he purchases loose pearl lots in China that are of such high quality they are sold individually, undrilled. “I then have a friend who owns a factory in Zhuji, which I contract out for local labor,” Shepherd says. “She drills and matches all the pearls for us. The results are absolutely amazing.”