Saved by the Shell: Why Pearl Sales Are Soaring



Pearl sales are poised to soar, thanks to new farming technologies that are making the gems less costly and thus more attractive to designers who once shunned them

It was at the VicenzaOro Winter fair in January 2013 that Ray Mastoloni first suspected that pearl jewelry sales were about to spike.

“You see trends starting with the small Italian firms, and it was not hard to find pearls at that show,” says the partner at the New York City pearl jewelry manufacturer.

Many people in the jewelry industry already know the value that pearls offer. Recent advances in farming methods have given rise to soufflé pearls—large, lustrous nucleus-free freshwaters that are lighter in weight than traditional pearls—as well as bead-nucleated South Sea baroques that are grown with the help of a Japanese firm’s little blue nuclei and are often mistaken for super-sized keshi. Then there are Edison pearls—freshwaters named after the American inventor by Chinese pearler Weijian Zhan—that are round to baroque in shape, and available in white to natural lavender-peach colors with golden to bronze top hues. (The trade also calls these Ming pearls, a sexier name than Edison.) All these varieties have, not surprisingly, led to a greater appreciation of pearls among designers.

“We are definitely seeing more interest in pearls on our end,” says Josh Bazar, chief ­marketing officer for Imperial in East Providence, R.I. “We’re contacted on a regular basis by designers who want to incorporate pearls into their work.”

Earrings in 18k gold with South Sea pearls, turquoise, and 0.19 ct. t.w. diamonds; $10,180; Irene Neuwirth, Venice, Calif.; 310-450-6063; ireneneuwirth.com

New York City–based jewelry designers Jenny Klatt and Stephanie Wynne Lalin of Jemma Wynne unveiled their first-ever pearl pieces at Couture 2014.

“Our main attraction to pearls is their metallic sheen and luster that cannot be duplicated by any other material,” says Klatt, with her new Tahitian pearl ear climbers, among other pieces, in mind. And when paired with the firm’s signature geometric effects, they offer a modern element of asymmetry. “Since the pearls we are using are perfectly round, they make a nice complement to the emerald-cut diamonds in our rings and to the designs of our open cuffs,” adds Lalin.

Beverly Hills, Calif.–based Loretta Castoro had been wanting to add pearls to her portfolio but didn’t know which ones until she first saw soufflé pearls at the AGTA Tucson GemFair in 2010. “Those large baroques bring that beautiful luminescence into the collection,” says the longtime fan of top-quality colored stones like Paraiba tourmaline. “Their luster was so high and they had those amazing, unique shapes.… I was inspired.” Castoro bought some and then let them sit in her safe for more than a year before determining a fitting design.

Open ring in 18k gold with a Tahitian pearl and 0.33 ct. diamond; $5,250; Jemma Wynne, NYC; 212-980-8500; jemmawynne.com

It was a similar story for New York City–based designer Tanya Farah, who couldn’t resist the strands of Ming pearls she saw at this year’s Tucson GemFair. “I couldn’t keep my hands off of them,” she says. “They almost look like gold balls, and I loved the fact that they were natural colors.” For the vendor—whom Farah declined to name for fear that other designers would flock to him and deprive her of future supplies—her purchase (his entire inventory for the show) was bittersweet, considering she scooped up everything on the first day of the fair. “He was upset because he thought he wouldn’t be able to find more, and because he wasn’t sure he priced them right,” she adds. “It was a good price…but price had nothing to do with the purchase.”

Dove necklace in 18k yellow gold with soufflé pearls, 0.6 ct. t.w. diamonds, and morganite beads (not shown); $9,250; Loretta Castoro, Beverly Hills, Calif.; 865-789-0690; lorettacastoro.com

Farah ended up making several strands using the Ming pearls, setting many with tiny karat gold ornaments like dragonflies, butterflies, and frogs. “I just thought that was a cool and whimsical way to bring classic with a modern edge into my line,” says the maker of primarily yellow gold jewels featuring traditional and funky colored stones.

Meanwhile, Margery Hirschey’s aha moment came via a manager at New York City’s Fragments, which represents her work and handles her sales. “I was told that I needed to show some pearls,” says the Boulder, Colo.–based designer. “I was a hard sell. I kept saying, ‘I don’t like pearls.’?” But ultimately, she fell for the organic and old-world look of iridescent baroque freshwaters, adding them to her vibrant tourmaline- and emerald-intense 18k and 22k gold line. She’s even using mostly cream colors, though they initially reminded her of the color of her grandmother’s pearls. “I had a very old-fashioned view of pearls that I had to get out of my head.”

Ring in 18k gold with a Tahitian pearl and 0.1 ct. t.w. brilliant-cut diamonds; $8,525; Todd Reed, Boulder, Colo.; 303-442-6280; toddreed.com

Die-hard industrial diamond devotee Todd Reed also embraced soft and feminine pearls—the antithesis of his rough-looking aesthetic—earlier this year. “Working with pearls is different because they are perfect spheres,” he explains. “I love the challenge and the feminine feel. Like warm water, they invite you in.” And Tahitian pearls, in particular, beautifully complement his signature gray color scheme. (Retail prices for his styles range from $8,000 to more than $100,000.)

Even gemstone junkie Irene Neuwirth is getting into pearls. In the first week of June, she posted a photo of a white pearl, turquoise, and diamond ring to her Instagram account. “My very first pearl ring,” she shared with her 12,000 ­followers. Neuwirth tells JCK that she has made only four pieces featuring South Sea and akoya pearls so far, but more are in the works. “It was a natural progression for me, replacing diamonds and moonstones with pearls,” the designer explains. The looks, meanwhile, are still ­typical Neuwirth (read: plenty of color) but “a little more grown up,” she says. “I was just really excited to mix them with my traditional ­colored gemstones and to use them in a more modern way.” Not surprisingly, all—with retail prices starting at $10,000—sold at Couture 2014.

Dove earrings in 18k yellow gold with soufflé pearls, and 0.33 ct. t.w. diamonds; $4,750; Loretta Castoro, Beverly Hills, Calif.; 865-789-0690; lorettacastoro.com

“Pearls are a quiet statement and an understated luxury. That’s what people are looking for right now,” says Mastoloni.

Still, not everyone thinks this interest in pearls is so new.  “Everybody seems to think they’ve been gaining in popularity,” says Ralph Rossini, senior vice president of Honora, “but I think people are just jumping on the bandwagon because the value is so great. People are looking for something to get a lot of wear out of that doesn’t break their bank accounts.”

And while beauty drives most pearl sales, reasonable prices certainly don’t hurt. Both Imperial and Honora, based in New York City, are heavily promoting value-intense Mings this year. Imperial calls them Windsor for their regal appearance, and Bazar insists that when a white strand of 13 mm–16 mm Windsor pearls is placed next to a strand of South Sea pearls, you have to look pretty hard to tell the difference.

Signature 18k gold Bar bracelets and diamond bracelets with 8 mm–­10 mm white and multicolored South Sea pearls and Tahitian pearls; $5,800–­$13,900; Mastoloni, NYC; 212-757-7278; mastoloni.com

“Before now, we could only find that size in the South Sea variety, where a single pearl can cost $1,000 or more. But now we’re getting freshwaters in those sizes for hundreds of dollars opposed to thousands,” he says.

Imperial’s Windsor line ranges in retail price from $100 to $1,800, and features white topaz instead of diamonds to retain the line’s inherent value. (One word of caution: Dealers like Rossini say they’re struggling to find enough pearls for lines now, suggesting that prices could rise.)

“Pearls have come back as a fashion item,” says Mastoloni, who can’t keep up with demand for his $10,000 to $20,000 South Sea pearls with diamonds in gold and fringe and tassel styling. “And the more gold and diamonds around the pearl, the more popular it gets.”

Necklace in 18k gold with a baroque freshwater pearl and 3.87 cts. t.w. emeralds; $9,775; Margery Hirschey at Fragments, NYC; 212-226-8878; fragments.com