GemNotes – Chinese Pearls a Hit in Tucson

What will be popular this year in pearls and colored gems? There’s no better place to find out than at the annual February extravaganza of 25 overlapping gem shows in Tucson.

This year, pearls were the talk of the town, as they were in 1998. But last year’s main attraction, black Tahitian cultured pearls, stepped aside to make room for Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. They upstaged everything else. That’s saying a lot, because among the highlights of this year’s shows were the most outstanding color-change garnets from Madagascar ever seen and some incredibly beautiful, large, clean Nigerian pinkish-red to purplish-pink tourmalines. Here’s our report.

Chinese Freshwater Pearls

Judging by the foot-high piles of freshwater Chinese cultured pearl hanks at every show, the science of growing multiple near-round pearls in freshwater mollusks clearly has become an art in the lakes of mainland China.

The finer-quality Chinese freshwaters were represented mostly by Japanese firms. C. Link International of Tokyo, which last year displayed nice-quality (but not great) freshwater Chinese pearls, this year was selling terrific high-luster 8-mm and 9-mm natural white to peach-colored rounds, for prices comparable to what you might pay for 7- to 7.5-mm top Japanese akoyas. (In fact, top-quality Japanese akoya cultured pearls were difficult to find in any size at any price in Tucson.) Tetsu Maruyama, managing director for C. Link, was selling a half-dozen 9-mm strands of the high-luster Chinese freshwater rounds for $8,000 each, and another half-dozen 9.5- to 10-mm strands for $10,000 apiece and up. Gem Reflections of San Anselmo, Calif., also had some fine-quality “spice-color” rounds as well as “circles,” freshwatersshowing concentric rings, which sold for a very-reasonable $600 per strand.

Chinese freshwater mantle-tissue-nucleated pearls are almost all nacre. Some pearl merchants claim that they’re made up of only nacre, that the implanted mantle tissue just stimulates the growth and is not actually caught up inside the pearl. In either case, these pearls are the closest of any cultured pearl to rival their natural counterparts. To prove their point and dispel any past reputation for mediocrity, dealers displayed pearls sawed in half, revealing the almost entirely bead-nucleus makeup of the akoya (with only .5 mm of grown nacre) and Tahitian (with only 2 mm to 3 mm of nacre).

Since last year, the Chinese freshwaters have increased in size (up to 13 mm), roundness (almost perfectly round in some cases), color range (from whites to fall pastels to Tahitian-like blacks), and especially luster (getting closer to akoya than ever before). Unsubstantiated reports and firsthand observations suggest that post-harvest polishing is the method of choice to create the higher luster. To obtain the nearly perfectly round shapes, the pearls apparently are grown for two to three years, removed, polished into very round pearls, and then placed back into the mollusk for the remaining two to four years of growth.

In any case, these pearls have a very nice appearance, and they’re inexpensive. The Chinese off-round strands, which are still very appealing, were selling at an incredibly low $10 per strand and less. The “old-fashioned” baroque shapes, typical of production from a decade ago, were almost being given away at dollars per strand.

The competition. The Japanese have been concerned about the Chinese pearl industry for the past few years, especially in light of the still-increasing pollution and viral problems that have plagued the Japanese production. Now the Tahitians are beginning to worry too, after this year’s Chinese production saw 9- to 13-mm blacks as well as white South Seas-appearing freshwaters. Luster, roundness, and color qualities are not nearly what they should be to truly compete, but the potential is there.

James Peach, president of United States Pearl Co. in Hermitage, Tenn., who is well-known for his fine selection of U.S. natural pearls, was also showing Chinese pearls in Tucson. With sales going well, he suggested that the top-quality Chinese market could account for 40% to 50% of the cultured pearl business in the next five years. He expects 6- to 7-mm Chinese top qualities to dominate the Japanese akoyas during that time. Within the next 10 years, 8- to 9-mm top-quality Chinese freshwaters may do the same.

While pearls dominated the Tucson gem shows, other gem finds were worth noting. Here’s a rundown.


Rod Griffin of Edgecliff, New South Wales, one of the many Australian opal miners at Tucson, showed some incredible lightning-ridge opal and boulder-opal nodules. As a novelty, Griffin brought with him $10 carvings of crocodiles made of “Australian green stone,” better-known as chrysoprase. The host matrix, a brown iron-stone, gave the crocs that natural look. He made good sales from them.


Micro-crystalline quartzes and other micro-minerals were popular this year. Companies such as Maxam Magnata of Tucson, Judith Whitehead of San Francisco, and Lorenz Designs of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, showed hundreds of druzys. What used to be only mineral specimens, these tiny quartz, chrysocolla, pyrite, and other mineral crystal “blankets” are now being fashioned into drop earrings and pendants. Gemmy chrysocolla (greenish blue), uvarovite (dark green), black “onyx,” and rainbow pyrite and hematite (metallic multicolors) were the most popular among the natural-color gems.

Other druzys had naturally incorporated dendritic designs. One example: the carved druzy “leaves” from Rare Earth Mining Co. of Trumbull, Conn. There were also druzys enhanced with metallic oxides, giving the gem an obvious and unnatural spectral appearance. Druzys are popular this year for jewelry designers, who are making good use of these relatively inexpensive yet eye-catching gem materials.

Sphene from Madagascar

Shocking those in the know by how well it was selling was the Madagascar sphene. Sphene is not a new gem by any means, but its popularity this year was quite a surprise. Often seen as a greenish-yellow gem, it can occur in a number of closely related shades, including greenish and golden browns. Bud Lofing of Budsol Co. in Tacoma, Wash., spends most of his time in Madagascar collecting sphene and other gems. His showcase displayed a large and fine selection, and sales were brisk. Michael Gray of Coast to Coast Rare Stones in Missoula, Mont., was completely sold out. The dealer was surprised and delighted.

What makes sphene a pretty gem is its high dispersion, giving it a more-than-diamond-like appearance. However, its lack of durability (hardness of 51/2 and considered very brittle) makes you wonder what the buyers of Madagascar sphenes will do with them.

Color-Change Garnets

lso from Madagascar comes the color-change garnet, one of the most dramatic gems to appear at this year’s shows. GemEssence of New York and Madagascar Imports of Laurel, Mont., displayed these alexandrite-like rhodolites, in which the color changes from a raspberry purple-red to an indigo, slightly greenish-blue. Most color-change gems shift from predominantly reddish to greenish hues; the blue hue shift makes this gem impressive.

Pakistani Peridot

Large and abundant Pakistani peridots, which many dealers offered in highly saturated green colors, were giving the historically large and uncontested Burma stones a good run for their money. The very-fine Pakistani gems of 10 cts. to 20 cts. were priced from $80 to $120 per carat, comparable to prices for the Burma gems.

Sapphire: “Unheated” Yellow

controversy among the Sri Lankans concerned whether or not dealers can accurately claim that their gems are “unheated,” particularly when it comes to yellow sapphires. Intense yellow sapphire was on display this year more than ever before, accompanied by signs saying “unenhanced,” “unheated,” and “untreated.”

“Most don’t really know if it’s heated or not,” said Hamid Marikar of Naina Marikar & Sons in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where some of the finest yellow sapphires in the world are found. “It’s not easy to detect. You still have to use a laboratory to check what they claim.”


Prices of tanzanite continue to rise, but supply still looks good (See “Tanzanite Prices Rising,” JCK, January 1999, p. 36). The reportedly scarce violet-blue gem was seen in almost every showcase. Reports that modern mining operations may soon commence have fueled speculation that better production could yield a steady supply. Dealers were cautious about predicting further price increases or shortages.

In spite of that, tanzanite prices were 50% higher than a year ago. That’s due in part to the mining disaster last May, but also to a lack of modern mining efforts, which so far have been thwarted by government regulations.

Tourmaline: A Huge Nigerian Find

Nigerian pink tourmaline was prominent throughout the shows (see “Tourmaline Find Generates Excitement,” JCK, January 1999, p. 26). The large quantity of material produced from the singular and now-depleted deposit exhibited crystal-clear gems of typically pink and orangy-pink colors. Pala International in Fallbrook, Calif., and Barker & Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., had some of the finest examples and largest supplies of the gemmy material, including the darker raspberry colors. Prices were quite reasonable, but with the limited supply, that may not last long.

Next month: Demantoids from Russia, grape garnets from India, emeralds from Madagascar, and other noteworthy gems.