Industry / Pearls

Surging Chinese Demand Is Fueling Dramatic Increases in Pearl Pricing


Ashwani “Sonny” Sethi, the CEO of Tara Pearls, a high-end pearl supplier in New York City, had just returned from Asia, where he showed at Jewellery & Gem World Hong Kong (aka the September Hong Kong show), when JCK called him to ask about the current state of the pearl market.

Sonny Sethi
Sonny Sethi

His answer was unequivocal: “All prices have gone crazy.”

“Let’s take Japanese akoya pearls first,” Sethi says. “From last year, prices have doubled. On everything, from the commercial to gem quality, everything has doubled because of demand in China. Availability for outside Asia is so limited that if we order 100 strands, we might get 10.

“For the last 18 months, China has been gobbling everything that has the name pearl. From us to Mikimoto, nobody can get much nice merchandise because everything coming out is going to China, and they’re paying top dollar. Akoya supply to the U.S. has gone to maybe 10 percent.”

The situation with South Sea pearls is no better, according to Sethi. “Nine-millimeter pearls we used to buy and sell around $250 are now costing us $400, so the selling price is $500,” he says. “Availability is again very minute—because now you have to pay by the lot. Nobody wants to sell you a selection or pairs. They say, ‘Buy mixed lots, and you have to pay top dollar.’”

Tara Pearls golden pearl pendant
Elite golden South Sea pearl (13–14 mm) pendant in 18k yellow gold with 0.92 ct. t.w. diamonds, $5,990; Tara Pearls

If that all seems wild, hold on to your hats when you hear what’s happened to another segment of the market: “Tahitian pearls have tripled in price in the last six months,” Sethi says.

Blame it on Ni Ni. In early June, the Chinese actress and influencer posted a series of selfies showing off a Tahitian pearl strand and other pearl jewels.

“The market went crazy,” Sethi says.

He recounts a dramatic example of the enormous appetite Chinese buyers have for pearls from the annual—and eagerly anticipated—Robert Wan pearl auction that takes place at the September Hong Kong show.

“He was holding an auction when we were in Hong Kong, and the night before, some Chinese guy came and bought the whole auction from Robert Wan,” Sethi says. “The auction was canceled.”

Sethi says that multicolor Tahitian pearls in 9-11 mm and 10-12 mm necklaces were going for $40,000 wholesale. “But they were $10,000, $12,000, $14,000 in March.”

The current dynamic is not sustainable, Sethi says. “Right now there are no pearls to sell, or to buy.”

Tara Pearls white earring studs
Elite white South Sea pearl studs (14–15 mm) in 18k white gold with 1.81 cts. t.w. diamonds, $10,490; Tara Pearls

“The bottom line is that the whole pearl industry, the farmers and manufacturers, are in seventh heaven,” he says. “I’m happy because I sold a lot of stuff, but I’m not happy because we can’t buy anything anymore. It’s going to be a very challenging last quarter and into next year. Demand is not slowing down.”

Sethi advises retailers to set their expectations accordingly. “We have a sad story—we have to tell people that we can’t supply them,” Sethi says. “We were selling 8 mm pairs of Tahitian pearls for $500 retail a pair, and now the price is going to $800 to $1,000 a pair retail and we don’t have supply.

“My suggestion to all retailers is they should look at their suppliers and if they have older merchandise and they’re willing to sell at old prices, don’t even blink—grab it,” he adds. “Once this inventory is finished, supply will become very tight unless the Chinese market takes a 180-degree turn. It’s insanity.”

Elite white South Sea pearl drops (13–14 mm) in 18k white gold with 1.88 cts. t.w. diamonds, $4,095; Tara Pearls

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By: Victoria Gomelsky

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