Soufflé pearls were a big draw at the AGTA show  in Tucson this year. Moments after the show opened, the gem press lined up to have a look at the newest entry in the high-end Chinese freshwater cultured pearl market. Displaying beautiful colors and ranging in size from 13 to 20 millimeters, the pearls garnered the immediate attention of buyers.
Talk among pearl industry insiders exploded in the days leading up to the show because these attractive pearls hide a dirty secret-muck! Pond muck has been dried into spherical shapes and used for nucleation. After a cultured pearl is harvested, a dried muck bead is inserted in the existing pearl sac, creating a new kind of freshwater pearl.
These pearls do have a downside for those who must drill them. Because water seeps into the pearl sac, the resulting fluid trapped inside has an especially noxious smell. Those who have experience drilling baroque pearls will be familiar with this, but with soufflé pearls, it's worse. Fortunately, once they are drilled and washed out, there is no lingering scent to interfere with wearability.
The nacre is very thick and lustrous, with many pearls exhibiting extreme iridescence. Strands of large pearls, similar to Ikecho, or fireball pearls, have the advantage of lighter weight due to hollow centers. They also eliminate the environmental problem of nucleation with bead implants from the threatened Tridacna gigas, or giant clam.
Elements present in soil, including metal oxides, may be the cause of the intense colors. Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls has been working with renowned pearl expert Elisabeth Strack of Hamburg, Germany and Nick Sturman of the GIA laboratory in Bangkok, Thailand  on an upcoming Gems & Gemology  article that should shed more light on these pearls.
The pearls available at AGTA were the cream of the crop. But, like any new technique, there is bound to be a wide arc of quality, including failed attempts that were available at other shows.
Blaire Beavers follows the latest trends and lectures extensively on rare and cultured pearls. She is the current president of the San Diego Chapter of the GIA Alumni  and a recent winner of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers  Essay Scholarship Contest. Blaire can be reached at email@example.com .