Big Japanese Akoya

Japanese akoya pearls, thought to be an endangered species, are back, and in a big way: in 8, 9, and 10 mm. How did pearl producers get the small akoya to handle such whoppers?

Avi Raz, pearl expert and owner of A&Z Pearls, Los Angeles, explains: “The Chinese started concentrating on the smaller-size freshwater pearls, improving their quality quite significantly, very much resembling akoya.” But only “resembling,” he adds. Raz has never seen a Chinese freshwater that can match the luster and roundness of a Japanese akoya, but he says the prospect of competing with the low prices, abundant quantities, and large size of the Chinese product scared the Japanese. “So they abandoned the cultivation of small-size pearls, up to 7 mm,” Raz says.

Raz points out that there is very little Japanese akoya product in the market under 7 mm. And since only a small amount of Japanese akoya is still produced, the Japanese are grabbing the finer Chinese product and mixing it into their own, he adds.

“Today, it is extremely difficult to find fine-quality akoya in the 5 to 5.5/ 5.5 to 6/6 to 6.5 mm sizes,” says Raz. And he doesn’t mind if the strand is of mixed origin, just so long as the pearls are of good quality: thick nacre, very fine luster. But Raz points out that the Chinese freshwaters actually look much better than the Chinese akoyas in these size ranges.

Pricing and Competition. “The price of a very fine strand of small-size pearls is almost as much as a larger-size pearl strand,” says Raz. “It’s a matter of supply and demand. And the 9 mm and above [akoyas] have competition now from the Australians and Tahitians, Indonesians, and even the Filipinos, who are cultivating smaller-size South Seas.”

Chinese freshwater farmers are also in this market. “They, too, are growing 7, 8, 9, 10 mm, and sometimes larger, rounds with very fine luster. Much cheaper than the Japanese,” notes Raz. “But a very, very fine strand of Japanese akoya pearls can distinguish itself from a very fine strand of Chinese freshwater pearls.”

According to The Guide, an 18-inch strand of cultured saltwater bead-nucleated pearls, in extra-fine-quality 9–9.5 mm, ranges in price from $5,500 to $8,000.

Japanese Akoya vs. the World. “There’s all this talk about Chinese akoya and Chinese freshwater,” says Edward Bakhash, owner of American Pearl & Diamond in New York. “The industry doesn’t realize that pearls have shown themselves in every history book, every civilization. When ancient societies opened up oysters for food, they found something beautiful. And because pearls were beautiful, they were valuable.” Bakhash points out that pearls were actually one of the first currencies.

“These days, when jewelers complain about margins on diamonds, with competition from the Internet,” says Raz, “this issue doesn’t exist with the larger akoya pearls. Jewelers can still get their full margin from the sales of large akoya. The reward for the effort in selling akoyas versus the reward from selling a diamond is much much higher.”

A Second Go-Round? At AA Pearl, New York, Sammy Abramov, 25 years in the business his father began back in the ’50s, is delighted to see the Japanese akoya make a comeback. “Although the quality was deteriorating for a while, technology has become better, so they’re starting to produce larger sizes.” In the early culturing decades, the akoya oyster was used only once. Today, it is believed that the healthy oysters get a second chance to create another pearl, and that’s why the 9+ mm pearls are possible. “They’re using a larger bead,” notes Abramov. “Larger pearls typically come from a second or third harvest.”

This is technology that was developed for the Australian South Seas bead-nucleated pearls. After 10, 11, and 12 mm pearls are grown, a second-harvest pearl is attempted using a 13 mm bead. This produces the larger 15, 16, and 17 mm and larger SSPs.

“It’s very hard for me to tell if it’s a second harvest or not,” says Raz. “It’s a very costly operation. It’s a fragile oyster to begin with—much weaker than the ones used for the black Tahitians. And we all know the mortality rate of this oyster.”

Abramov also points to greater competition as a stimulus to the 9 mm production. “Freshwater pearls that are coming out now are really round. The nacre on them is really thick, so the Japanese have to make their pearls look even better. Otherwise, they’ll lose that market share.”

“Yes, they’re polishing them up,” says Abramov. “The akoya has to look better in order for the consumer to pay three, maybe four times more for an akoya strand.”

Bakhash is not surprised that 9 mm Japanese akoyas are now in the market. “Japanese akoyas are known for producing 9, 9.5, even 10 mm pearls,” says Bakhash. But size isn’t the real issue. Bakhash feels that the Japanese akoya is everything a pearl ought to be. “It should be lustrous, round, and clean. Nothing in the world compares to the Japanese akoya.”

Bakhash says that the marketplace is confused. “Chinese freshwaters and Chinese akoyas are closer to costume jewelry than gems,” says Bakhash. “There’s no comparison in the luster of a nice Japanese akoya and a Chinese freshwater. And it’s great that the 9 millimeters are going to show themselves in the marketplace again.”

The quality from Japan is tops for Bakhash. “They’re master harvesters, master creators, master thinkers. They just know how to make things better.”

“As an overall category,” says Raz, “with the variety of pearls available in the market, this is the only gem that offers to the designer, to the jeweler, and to the jewelry store, any color their customer wishes to see. When you look at all of the fashion magazines, you see models running with all kinds of pearls around their necks because they go in concert with the dresses they are wearing.”

“Look at the Tahitians, and the Chinese freshwaters—all of the colors and fine lusters … and their affordability,” says Raz.

Raz reminds us, though, that the akoya is the queen of pearls. “Every woman has a strong desire to buy a pearl necklace for herself. She envisions wearing a Japanese cultured-pearl necklace.”

But Japanese akoyas are more rare these days than in the past. “The beauty they present, the size they present … it’s an extremely important piece of jewelry for the jeweler to carry in the store,” Raz says.

He adds that regarding akoyas, “9 to 9.5 mm are such a rare commodity, like anything else, it makes for a very special gift to the one that wears them. And they have a great look without having to spend the big bucks you might have to spend on a South Seas necklace.”

“I love akoya,” says Raz. “Even though I carry Tahitians, South Seas, and now a lot of Chinese freshwaters, my heart is with the akoya.”

Special thanks to Avi Raz, A&Z Pearls, (800) 732-7572; Sammy Abramov, AA Pearl, (212) 730-1731; and Edward Bakhash, American Pearl & Diamond, (800) 847-3275.