Pearls Blast Off

Pearls have been selling strongly for several years, with more pearls and greater selection than ever before, and it doesn’t look as if the boom will let up anytime soon. To paraphrase Armand Asher, if Iridesse can open 16 pearls-only stores, what are you waiting for?

Asher, of Albert Asher Pearls in New York, speaks well of Iridesse, Tiffany & Co.’s stand-alone pearl retailer. “If they’re taking that kind of risk,” he said recently to an audience of retailers, “maybe now is the time for you to go for it.” If U.S. retailers do go for it, here’s what they can expect in the coming year.

South Seas whites

Large, round, white South Seas bead-nucleated cultured pearls—the classics—come from Australia, Indonesia, and Burma, but Asher says the top qualities in anything 14 mm and up will most likely be Australian. Production continues to improve, so numbers should remain steady, and sizes could increase, says Aziz Basalely, of Eliko Pearl Co., New York. “There’s a greater supply of larger rounds, 16 mm plus, in higher qualities,” Basalely notes.

Michael Bracher, manager of pearl distribution for Paspaley Pearls in Darwin, Australia, says his company’s main focus is quality, and he notes that most Australian producers keep their oysters in the water long enough to produce top-quality pearls. Harvesting early can result in smaller sizes, thinner nacre, and a dull luster. Asher notes that chokers of top-quality large South Seas whites could range from $50,000 to $75,000 a strand wholesale.

Indonesian producers take a different tack. “The general supply from Indonesia has increased due to lesser regulation and governmental control of production,” says Basalely. “Consequently, the overall quality of Indonesian pearls tends to be more ‘commercial’ when compared to Australian production.” That’s good news for U.S. retailers who are looking for more affordable pearls, but note that, besides being commercial quality, Indonesian pearls are usually smaller than 14 mm.

Akoyas

These bead-nucleated pearls, from Japan, China, and now Vietnam, are typically 7 to 9 mm. Demand for perfectly round, perfectly white specimens is still strong, and prices for top-quality akoyas are firm. Because of limited production in Japan, Japanese akoya is hard to come by.

Basalely notes that this year’s production of pearls 7 mm or less was tight. Asher says production of larger pearls was even tighter. “The rare 9.5 to 10 mm akoyas—and these are only from Japan—are almost impossible to get,” he says, adding that top strands in this size range can cost upwards of $8—$10,000.

The supply of akoyas in the United States is limited, partly because of strong demand elsewhere. “In Japan, most of the pearl usage is akoya and South Seas black,” says Basalely. “At least 60 percent of the world’s production of these is sold in Japan.”

Not all akoyas are from Japan, but most, if not all, are cleaned, bleached, drilled, set, and strung there, and will be labeled “Product of Japan.” Dealers stress that buyers should be more concerned about quality than locality. Chinese akoyas can be fine quality, but examine the goods. “Better quality is very limited,” says Basalely. The majority of the Chinese production ranges from 5 to 7 mm, sometimes 7.5 mm, rarely 8 mm.

Akoyas from Vietnam are in small supply at the moment, but quality is good. Vietnam is preparing to become a major force in the cultured pearls arena.

South Seas blacks

South Seas black pearls from the French Polynesian Islands are called Tahitian. Others are simply South Seas black pearls. These include the Cook Islands and Fiji. We also include Vietnam, where the farming possibilities look promising.

But despite demand, new farms, and willingness to pay, it’s difficult to find top-quality South Seas black pearls in the United States, and it will soon get even more difficult to find large blacks. Martin Coeroli, general manager of Perles de Tahiti, sees not only an increased demand for larger pearls ranging from 13 mm and up but also one more increase. “I predict an increase in price in this category,” says Coeroli. Top Tahitian cultured pearls for 15 to 18 mm strands already are priced at $100,000. In 9 to 12 mm strands, $18—$20,000 is likely.

Instead, the U.S. market will probably see a lot of small pearls. “For a number of reasons,” says Andy Müller of Hinata Trading, Kobe, Japan. “They can make smaller sizes by harvesting after only 12 months.” This is less risky than trying to grow larger pearls with longer harvests. “To keep them in for 24 months or longer to get the bigger sizes means you need bigger oysters, which cost more. It’s all about risk. It’s just easier to go to smaller pearls.”

“Because of the price and availability of the commercial goods, especially circlé pearls, we will see more and more designs in this category,” says Coeroli. Peacock, though hard to find, remains the top color. The most popular variety, and still affordable in the United States, is dark green ranging from 9 to 15 mm. Expect to keep seeing multicolor strands, too.

The Cook Islands, Fiji, and Vietnam aren’t producing enough to affect price and availability. The Cook Islands probably produce 10 percent of the French Polynesia output, notes Peter Bazar, of Imperial Deltah Pearls in East Providence, R.I., who has made several trips to the Cook Islands recently. Bazar estimates Tahitian production at approximately 5 million pearls a year. “If only 5 percent to 10 percent are fabulous, then that equates to 500,000 fabulous pearls,” he says. “Now if you’re talking about the Cook Islands, well then you’re talking about 500,000 pearls total production, and only 5,000 pearls that are really fabulous.”

Bazar continues, “What everyone should understand is that a fabulous pearl is rare. And that should be appreciated. The price of a fabulous pearl always stays high … and there are a lot of pearls that aren’t as stunning.”

South Seas goldens

Indonesian and Philippine strands of golds can range from 14 to 12 mm, 16 to 13 mm, and 17 to 14 mm. These were quite rare just a few years ago. Apparently many dealers prefer Philippine golds over Australian and Indonesian golds. For smaller goldens, look to Burma, which produces pearls as small as 9 mm.

Chinese freshwaters

The Chinese are producing big and small sizes and various shapes including round. Round Chinese freshwater tissue-activated (no bead) cultured pearls have taken over the part of the market once dominated by small akoyas. Costs are substantially lower and selection huge for 5 mm and smaller rounds and off-rounds. The Chinese also are going after the large-round market. Rounds of 9 and 10 mm, scarce a few years ago, are readily available today. Rounds of 13 and 14 mm also are available, but at some cost to quality.

To obtain top-quality CFWCPs, buyers have to go to China and buy direct. “The supply has changed. The demand is high,” says Asher. “If you are at the farm immediately during the harvest, you find the better freshwaters. Prices don’t drop, but you at least get the goods.”

To increase size, the Chinese have been working on spherical-bead-nucleated freshwater pearls. “Most of the production of these nucleated pearls tends to be baroque shape,” says Basalely. “For these pearls, 14 mm and above, the prices are extraordinarily high for freshwater, comparable to those of South Seas baroque pearls.”

In fact, Asher notes that while nice strands may be available at $1,500, single loose pearls can be as high as $1,000. Top-quality strands of 10, 11, and 12 mm perfectly rounds can go as high as $25,000.

American pearls

Supplies of U.S. top-quality (nonspherical fancy-shape bead-nucleated) freshwater pearls are still available, but competition from Chinese products is fierce. In the early 1990s, the Chinese realized they also could produce fancy shapes and created tons more product. Gina Latendresse, owner of American Pearl Co., Nashville, Tenn., says her company is not at the capacity it once was. “Our last commercial harvest was 89,000 pearls, and that was a small harvest,” she says.

Company founder John Latendresse mandated that 10 to 15 percent of every year’s harvest be set aside for the future, and for 20 years the company has done so. “The one thing you can expect is the quality of the American pearl,” says Latendresse. American Pearl offers only natural colors in designer shapes, especially coins and bar shapes, with a minimum nacre thickness of 1.3 mm.