Cultured Pearls in the 21st Century

The following article is an expert from the fall 2007 issue of Gems & Gemology, GIA’s professional journal.

Cultured Pearls in the 21st Century: A Free Market and New Looks

By Russell Shor, GIA Senior Industry Analyst

The cultured pearl industry has experienced a dramatic transformation during the past 15 years, from a single commodity dominated by one country to a multi-colored array of goods and an ever-expanding group of producers (figure 1).

The Fall 2007 issue of Gems & Gemology (pp. 200-226) offered an in-depth look at these changes and how they have transformed pearls into a must-have fashion item.

Japanese Dealers Relinquish Control
For many decades after pioneering the cultured pearl in the early twentieth century, Japanese companies maintained tight control over its technology, production and distribution (figure 2). In the 1960s, however, large, white South Sea cultured pearls from Australia and black cultured pearls from French Polynesia began entering the market alongside the traditional white Japanese akoya.

The French Polynesians initially struggled to gain acceptance for their products, as many believed they were treated-color. A breakthrough came in the early 1970s when GIA researcher Robert Crowningshield determined their black color was indeed natural. Meanwhile, the South Sea cultured pearl was becoming a branded fashion item, though the Australians still marketed their output solely through Japanese wholesalers.

The real changes began in the 1990s, when the nearly century-long grip of the Japanese loosened due to a combination of factors: aggressive marketing efforts for South Sea and black French Polynesian pearls; the rise of lower-cost, fine-quality Chinese freshwater cultured pearls (figure 3); and the outbreak of a disease that devastated much of Japan’s pearling industry.

The Australians and the French Polynesians (now selling under the “Tahitian” banner) began marketing their products as distinct from Japanese akoyas: the South Sea goods as luxury items that were not subjected to treatments, the Tahitians as exotic fashion pieces. Producers of both types of cultured pearls embarked on multi-million-dollar consumer campaigns to promote their goods and the images they wanted them to convey.

By the mid-1990s, Chinese farmers, who for years had produced small, irregularly shaped and very inexpensive goods (dubbed “rice krispie pearls”), were successfully growing round, akoya-like cultured pearls. The quantity of Chinese goods entering the market threatened to inundate Japanese distributors. The Japanese entered talks with the Chinese government in an effort to control production and exports of such goods, but they failed on both fronts.

Then, in 1996, reports began filtering in that Japanese pearl farms were suffering the massive mortality of their oyster crops. By year’s end, an estimated two-thirds of the akoya oysters under cultivation in Japanese waters had died from infectious disease—a blow from which that country’s cultured pearl industry has not yet fully recovered. As a result, Japanese producers no longer had the financial resources to control supplies and distribution, thus creating a true free market within the industry.

Market Instability Meets Fashion Revolution
The first test of the new free market came at the end of the decade, when the large amounts of Chinese goods depressed prices for some categories and the production of Tahitian black cultured pearls skyrocketed with little control over quality. Prices for lower-quality black cultured pearls in particular plummeted, a situation that took several years to reverse as the French Polynesian government imposed stricter controls on exports. The Japanese attempted to move akoyas more up-market by concentrating on larger sizes, while the South Sea producers increased their luxury marketing and advertising campaigns.

At the same time, cultured pearls in pastel shades of green, violet, pink and blue began showing up in designer pieces in the late 1990s, while a producer in the Philippines launched a marketing campaign for gold-colored goods. Within the past few years, “chocolate pearls” have become a fashion item. Once rejected by pearl producers and distributors who thought only in terms of black and white, such fancy-colored cultured pearls started a fashion revolution that still continues (figure 4).

As some of the world’s top designers began working with cultured pearls and the major producers increased their spending on branding and advertising (figure 5), large retailers took a much greater interest. Indeed, Tiffany & Co. created an entire chain of retail stores (Iridesse) based on pearl jewelry, because they could now offered a diverse array of products across a very broad price range.

In the future, the success of these many ventures will undoubtedly attract new enterprises in other nations, particularly around the Pacific Rim—but also in Mexico and the Middle East—while existing producers will continue to experiment with new products. Recently, one designer partnered with a Vietnamese farm to culture black pearls around gemstone bead nuclei.

Identifying treatments will remain a challenge, and retailers and consumers alike must beware of the many techniques that can be used to enhance the appearance of cultured pearls, especially irradiation and dyeing, and the methods that can be used to identify them.

Figure 1. Recent years have seen dramatic changes in the types of cultured pearls and their sources, with (top to bottom) Tahitian, Chinese, South Sea, and Japanese akoya (bottom two rows) goods represented here. Tahitian earrings courtesy of Mastoloni; South Sea strand courtesy of The Collector Fine Jewelry. Photo by Harold & Erica Van Pelt.

Figure 2. Japanese technicians controlled the art of grafting beads into mollusks for many years and in many different localities. Photo by Russell Shor.

Figure 3. The mussels used by Chinese culturers can produce dozens of pearls at one time. Photo by Doug Fiske.

Figure 4. Fancy-colored cultured pearls have greatly enlarged choices for jewelry buyers. Courtesy of Albert Asher Pearl Co.; photo by Robert Weldon.

Figure 5. Cultured pearls have become a favorite of jewelry designers worldwide. This suite (8–11 mm) by Mari Saki of Nagahori Corp., Tokyo, was a 2006 winner of the Perles de Tahiti design competition. Courtesy of GIE Perles de Tahiti.