Are Freshwater Chinese Pearls Being Misrepresented?

How do the Chinese create such round and lustrous freshwater cultured pearls? Antoinette Matlins, author of a number of gem books, including The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide, believes the Chinese freshwaters are “bead nucleated” with all-nacre beads fashioned from previously rejected freshwater cultured pearls. “The trade magazines have been describing them as ‘non-nucleated’ or ’tissue-nucleated.’ Both descriptions are wrong,” says Matlins.

“For those who know anything about nacre production and deposition, it was clear from the start that what was being reported wasn’t possible,” Matlins says. “First, without a ’round’ nucleus, the rarity of such large round pearls would be much greater than is currently the case. Second, the stated timetable of six to nine years is much too short for the sizes being produced. Without a nucleus having been inserted, it would take 15 to 25 years for a mussel to produce pearls in the large sizes we are now seeing.”

Matlins says you can detect the nucleus by cutting a large pearl in half. “You will instantly see it’s nucleated with freshwater all-nacre pearl that has been polished into round nuclei.” In addition, several dark nacreous rings will be revealed, indicating that the small all-nacre nucleus that started the process was harvested and reinserted into another mussel. The process is repeated three or four times to achieve the desired size and shape. “It’s cheaper than using Tennessee shell beads,” says Matlins, referring to products of the U.S. Pearl Co. in Hermitage, Tenn., which supplies starter beads for the Japanese akoya market.

If Matlins is right, does it matter? “I have no problem with what the Chinese are creating,” she explains. “In fact, I think they are beautiful and offer another wonderful cultured pearl product to add to the mix. But I do have a problem with intentional deception. We must all do whatever we can to correct the impression that large Chinese round freshwater cultured pearls are ‘rare’ non-nucleated pearls that take years and years to cultivate. They are nucleated pearls, cultivated in about the same period of time as any other freshwater cultured pearl, and they are rare only at the moment. We must also recognize that current prices imply a rarity that does not exist, so we must ask ourselves if we are serving the best interests of our customers to buy them now, at these prices. As retailers and consumers become more knowledgeable about what they are buying, I believe there will be a natural adjustment of the price, and it will fall into line with what we are truly getting.”

“She’s all wrong,” counters Joel Schechter, a pearl importer who is president of Honora Pearls in New York. He says the mussels are implanted with small cubes of mantle tissue. “They insert up to 40 or more into a mussel. A membrane is created around the implanted tissue, which compacts it. The tissue tends to completely dissolve in the growth process, leaving an almost-all-nacre pearl.” Schechter says Chinese producers are using larger mollusks and deeper water, which, combined with the cubed tissue, tends to produce rounder pearls.

James Peach, president of both American Shell Co. and U.S. Pearl Co. in Tennessee, also disputes Matlins’s contention that the pearls are bead-nucleated. But he says the Chinese are implanting not 40 but 20 pieces of tissue. “With fewer implants, the pearls grow faster. You can grow a large pearl in six or seven years,” he says. “With more than 20, they found that the 7- to 8-mm rounds had flat spots from growing so close to the next pearl.”

Peach cites another reason he differs with Matlins: “The mantle tissue is too thin—the bead won’t fit.” American Shell Co., hurt badly by the freshwater pearl market, has drastically reduced sales of shell nuclei—more evidence, says Peach, that the Chinese producers use mantle tissue instead of a bead. “I’d be a lot better off if what she said were true.”

“I’m not talking about ‘shell bead’ nuclei,” Matlins responds. “I’m talking about an already-grown freshwater pearl, tissue-nucleated and almost all nacre.” She says a cross section of a new Chinese freshwater pearl reveals “layers of nacre deposition and conchiolin, as expected. But then you will see a change in color at one point, with continuous layers in the new coloration. This indicates that the pearl has been harvested and reinserted into another mollusk. You may see the pattern repeated several times, indicating reinsertions.”

Matlins believes Chinese producers will stockpile nuclei in a range of sizes and eventually produce large all-nacre pearls with only one or two insertions. “As cheap as they may appear to be now—in comparison to South Seas cultured pearls—if past performance is any indicator, prices will drop significantly as supply increases.”

Peach agrees that the Chinese will dominate the pearl business, but he has a different take on the controversy. “Do you want veneer or hardwood? The Japanese cultured pearls are like a veneer over a bead, where the Chinese freshwaters are like hardwood, nacre all the way through. For Matlins to make these definitive statements that contradict those who have been in the business of growing pearls is ludicrous.”

JCK has seen Chinese freshwater pearls with baroque-shaped growth rings inside more rounded growth rings, as cited by Matlins. And it seems perfectly reasonable that a freshwater pearl could be harvested, polished round, and used as a nucleus. After all, the American Pearl Co. in Tennessee already grows freshwater pearls using sizable fancy-shaped freshwater nuclei. These factors argue in favor of Matlins’s theory.

‘Bahia’ Arrives In Los Angeles

The world’s largest cut gemstone sculpture is on display in the gem and mineral exhibit of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. The 602-lb. rutilated quartz crystal sculpture, which has also been displayed at the Gemological Institute of America’s Carlsbad, Calif., campus and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, will be shown in Los Angeles for several months.

The huge crystal was discovered in a coffee field in the Brazilian state of Bahia in 1987. North American gem artists Glenn Lehrer and Lawrence Stoller spent more than seven years sculpting the piece from the original 812-lb. specimen. The sculpture separates into three sections that are displayed as a giant pendant and mounted in gold-plated steel. A hidden inner light showcases the golden rutile needles.

The L.A. County Museum’s gem and mineral hall features more than 2,000 specimens and contains the largest exhibit of natural gold in the United States. It’s also home to the Hixon Gem Vault, a collection of 270 faceted gemstones. For more information, call (213) 763-DINO, or visit

GIA Reveals Results Of Pegasus Study

In the Fall 1999 issue of its journal Gems & Gemology, the Gemological Institute of America demystified the Lazare Kaplan-General Electric “undetectable” decoloring of champagne diamonds. The treatment was the prime topic at GIA’s Third International Gemological Symposium, held last year in San Diego (JCK, September 1999, p. 92).

“Once the results of GIA’s study of the 900-plus LKI diamonds seen in the lab became available, we worked closely with the authors to put together the most comprehensive article to date on the subject,” says Gems & Gemology editor Alice Keller.

The rest of the issue contains almost the entire proceedings of the symposium, including summaries of the live debates. To obtain a copy of Gems & Gemology: Proceedings of the Third International Gemological Symposium, call Debbie Ortiz at (800) 421-7250, Ext. 7138; e-mail:

GIA Slates Graduate Reunion

The Gemological Institute of America is inviting all Gemologists, Graduate Gemologists, Graduate Jewelers, and Graduate Jeweler Gemologists to its first-ever alumni reunion. All diploma graduates from 1931 through 2000—GIA’s entire 70-year history—are being invited to attend “Commencement 2000” on June 10 at GIA’s Carlsbad, Calif., campus.

At the commencement ceremonies, each returning graduate will receive a certificate of attendance and a special memento commemorating the event. Following commencement, GIA will host a dinner dance along with individual class reunions organized by the GIA Alumni Association. Before the event, GIA will host 12 two-hour “career advancement” seminars covering the latest in treatments, synthetics, and gem identification.

Invitations to the events were scheduled to be mailed in January. For details, see GIA’s Web site at or contact GIA’s Commencement 2000 organizers at (800) 421-7250, Ext. 4321 or (760) 603-4321, e-mail: