Faceted cultured pearls

Precision gem cutting is essential to bringing out the beauty of a faceted pearl. The loose white and pink Chinese freshwaters, one golden South Sea, and three black Tahitian faceted cultured pearls are all fine examples, courtesy of Pala International, Fallbrook, Calif. The well-matched, graduated strand of Tahitian black faceted cultured pearls is courtesy of JOEB Enterprises, Solana Beach, Calif.

Pearls have been coveted for thousands of years. They’ve been used whole, drilled, and cut in half, and they’ve even been ground up and eaten. And since 1998, they’ve been faceted.

Faceting a pearl can bring out the best in a somewhat blemished but otherwise nice-quality pearl, even though in most cases the blemish will still be visible. The finest-quality faceted cultured pearls, however, start with top-quality pearls that combine virtues of color, luster, and nacre thickness. But faceting a pearl also can bring out the worst in the purist pearl merchant. Some experts are willing to break with tradition and offer something unusual and unique. Others feel that it’s disrespectful to Mother Nature and the pearl and insist that pearls should never be faceted.

Of course, when a pearl is perfectly round, relatively blemish free, and has even color, not many pearl merchants would consider faceting as an option. But with the proliferation of so many pearls in all categories, with the possible exception of the Japanese akoya, there is enough material that could benefit from some enhancement by faceting. After all, inorganic gemstones have been enhanced this way for centuries. Maybe it’s time to accept the faceted pearl.

History. Faceted cultured pearls were reportedly the result of nearly 20 years of experimentation by a small, undisclosed Japanese diamond-cutting firm. Initially called “Flower Pearls,” they were introduced to the U.S. market in 1998 by Edward Boehm of JOEB Enterprises, Solana Beach, Calif., and Pala International in Fallbrook, Calif. Boehm brought the first faceted mabé cultured pearls back from Japan in 1996 while still working for Pala International. Pala International & JOEB Enterprises later collaborated on an exclusive U.S. distribution agreement with the original company that invented and patented the process in Japan.

Today, you can buy fine-quality strands and single faceted cultured pearls from well-respected wholesale pearl merchants. It’s common to find dealers in commercial-quality Chinese freshwaters who also stock faceted strands as well as loose single faceted pearls.

Faceting. The nacre of the pearl is made up of aragonite and calcite crystals. Aragonite and calcite also are found in nature as individual single crystals that can be polished like any other gem by gem cutters experienced in cutting soft gem materials. Calcite and aragonite, both calcium carbonates, have hardnesses of 3 and 3.5-4, respectively.

Cutting and polishing diamond is completely different from cutting and polishing aragonite and calcite. Gem cutters who are experts in polishing single aragonite or calcite crystals should be able to polish facets on pearls.

If the pearl is a mantle tissue-nucleated Chinese freshwater, with the pearl being 99% nacre, there’s plenty of room on the surface to make mistakes and repolish and still end up with a nice product. With bead-nucleated pearls, however—such as Tahitians, South Sea, and especially Japanese akoya with its thinner nacre—there is little room for error before polishing into the nucleus, the mother-of-pearl bead. Therefore, achieving a high polish, making facets meet, and creating a symmetrical pattern on a spherical or baroque-shaped object with low hardness is more complicated than it seems.

Faceted pearls typically have 100 to 200 facets. Under close examination of a faceted pearl, each facet appears convex. Placing a flat faceted surface on top of a spherical object creates this optical illusion.

Types, colors, and qualities. All types of cultured pearls have been faceted, including bead-nucleated Japanese and Chinese akoyas, Tahitians, and South Seas, as well as bead- and tissue-nucleated U.S., Japanese, and Chinese freshwaters. Shapes most commonly seen are rounds (spheres), drops, and mabés, but almost any shape is a candidate. It has been reported that bead-nucleated faceted pearls need at least two years’ growth in the mussel for the nacre to be thick enough to be faceted without encroaching on the bead.

As with colored stones, the quality of the workmanship is dependent on the expertise of the cutter. Facet shape, alignment, symmetry, and polish are additional qualities to be considered before purchasing faceted pearls. (Unlike a spherical pearl, a faceted pearl can’t be tumble-polished.)

Prices. Prices for faceted pearls vary as they would for non-faceted pearls, based on typical pearl quality features and factoring in the additional faceting quality. For an 18-in. strand of fine-quality 8-mm to 10-mm round Tahitian faceted pearls, prices range from $4,000 to $10,000. For single white or golden South Sea faceted cultured pearls, expect prices for 8-mm to 10-mm fine-quality specimens to range from $200 to $800. Fine-quality 8-mm to 10-mm Chinese freshwater cultured faceted pearl strands can range in price from $2,000 to $4,000. On the low end, strands of commercial-quality faceted Chinese freshwaters are available at trade shows for as little as $500.

Care and cleaning. Faceted pearls should be treated as you would any other pearl. They can easily be scratched, and chemicals such as perfumes and hairspray also can damage the pearl. The long-standing rule for pearls applies: “Last on, first off.” Some additional care, such as reserving faceted pearls for evening wear, might be considered to protect facet junctions.

Special thanks to Edward Boehm, JOEB Enterprises, Solana Beach, Calif.