Pearl experts focus on the unique

“My customers don’t want their mother’s classic look,” said Eve Alfille, a retail jeweler in Evanston, Ill., during the Pearl Panel discussion that took place Thursday morning at the JCK Show ~ Las Vegas 2005. “They want something unique.” Alfille said she gives her customers what they want: unusual strands of multicolor black Tahitians, South Seas golds, Chinese freshwater pinks, and unusual shapes such as Australian keshi pearls.

Alfille said she also uses Kasumiga pearls, which are large, round Japanese bead-nucleated freshwaters with unusual surface features. Alfille compared the surface to the look of a “peony bud.” She also mentioned baroques, which she said typically spark interest among sophisticated buyers.

Alfille is an award-winning designer and the owner of Eve Alfille Gallery and Studio. During the Pearl Panel she said that she promotes pearls not only in her retail gallery but also to her Pearl Society, a group of pearl aficionados who gather at her shop a number of times every year to hear experts and see what’s new in pearls and pearl jewelry.

“Mabés are dead,” Alfille insisted, but she made an exception for cultured blister “domé” pearls from American Pearl Corp. in Tenn. With the domé pearl, a portion of the shell comes with the blister pearl, offering a more casual look. Alfille said this look appeals to her upper-income clients, who want cutting-edge, novel products.

Panelist Armand Asher speculated that shapes might be the biggest pearl trend, and he cited colors as another major trend. Asher, of Albert Asher, South Sea Pearl Co., New York, is a top U.S. pearl supplier and a leader in promoting pearl education. He’s also president of the Cultured Pearl Association of America.

What may also be a trend is the apparent stabilization of prices. Asher said that over the past several months he’s noted that at most overseas wholesale pearl auctions, almost everything has been selling.

Styles run in cycles, Asher noted. Once pearl jewelry hits the fashion runways, it takes six more months before the new designs are available in retail jewelry stores. Asher noted three styles that retail jewelers should take note of: large unusual shapes, what he called “a return to the past,” and a chance to “mix it all up.”

Large brooches with floral motifs and a large stone or pearl center fit the first style category, as do drop earrings with a baroque pearl dangle.

Linking the second category to Coco Chanel, Asher said that one style that fits neatly into this category is pearl bracelets with thick, heavy links between pearls. He also said “Y” necklaces are back and noted that long rope strands (36 inches or longer) can be quite affordable—especially with freshwaters—and versatile. He said some people have been known to wrap a rope strand around the wrist three or four times to make a bracelet, and others make a fake dog collar by wrapping it around the neck.

The final category Asher sees as one of the trends to follow is the lessening of inhibitions to mix pearls from different localities, for example, mixing Tahitians with Philippines, South Seas, or Chinese freshwaters. In the past, there was an unwritten rule that an item of jewelry should be created using only pearls from one locality.

Richard “Bo” Torrey, editor and publisher of Pearl World, the International Pearling Journal, said golden pearls are hot.

Torrey recently returned from the Philippines where he saw the results of breeding mussels for their color. He said he saw shells whose insides were once completely white that now have a huge amount of gold.

Torrey came to the Pearl Panel with numbers. South Seas pearl production is up 14% in value from six years ago. Akoya farms are producing only 25% of what they were creating some 10 years ago, which means akoyas are even more difficult to find in top qualities.

Among the main concerns of the retailers in attendance was identification. “Just how do you identify a dyed pearl?” asked one retailer. The answer: through experience, and by sending the pearl to a laboratory. This is especially true of gold pearls, since the enhanced golds look very much like natural-color golds.

Retailers also expressed concerns about nacre thicknesses, and some had questions about nucleation. Looking for nacre thickness by looking down the drill hole is difficult, noted Asher. “How do you measure the thickness?” asked an appraiser. Another questioner wanted to know how to determine whether or not a bead or another pearl was used as a nucleus. Send it to a professional lab, was the consensus. However, Bo Torrey had this to add. “We at Pearl World do it a little differently. We cut the pearl in half.”

The Pearl Panel was moderated by Gary Roskin, gemstone editor for JCK magazine.