John Robert Latendresse: In His Own Words

John Latendresse, who passed away on July 23, 2000, three days before his 75th birthday, was the first successful North American freshwater cultured pearl farmer. More than any other individual, Latendresse was responsible for creating the North American freshwater pearl farming industry, and he was voted one of the industry’s most important people of the century (See “Jewelry’s Visionaries,”JCK, November 1999, p. 130). In a 1998 interview with GIA, he looked back on a lifetime dedicated to the gem that he knew and loved best. Following are excerpts from that interview.On his early years: “When I first started in the pearl business, I would travel up and down the river buying pearls from the fishermen. Simply by chance, I met up with Morris Hanauer, then the owner of American Gem and Pearl Company, who had driven down from New York with his wife, also buying pearls along the river.”

On founding the Tennessee Shell Company, which became the primary source for American mussel shells: “The mother-of-pearl industry was big business. The shells were utilized by the Germans who, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, used them for buttons and handles on eating utensils, up until the early part of World War II.”

On selling shell to Japanese pearl producers: “I lost money the first year, because the shell was so cheap-$175 a ton back then. Now, [it sells for] several thousand dollars a ton.”

On how he acquired 75% of the Japanese shell business in less than five years: “I sent a sample and then sent a shipment, which was exactly what I said it would be, or better. So my success came mostly from integrity and getting along with the people on the river.”

On why the quality of Japanese pearls fell sharply in the 1970s: “Duration [of a pearl’s growth inside a mollusk] dropped from five to three years, then to two years, and then to 18 months, one year, and then finally eight months.”

On the early Chinese pearl industry, which he helped get started and which hewarned about overproduction: “The Chinese didn’t pay any attention and remained disorganized. Every farmer had a few mussels, and I taught them a few things, which I somewhat regret. But the Japanese would have taught them eventually.”

His response to leaders of the Japanese cultured pearl industry, who were ready to cut their ties to U.S. suppliers. (They had told Latendresse, “You are selling us more than 70% of the material we use for bead. We don’t feel that you belong in the Japanese pearl business. Mikimoto is a national hero. We began it, and we don’t feel that you belong in it.”): “There sure are a lot of Toyotas and Hondas in the U.S., and Henry Ford is a national hero.”

On resourcefulness: “Back then, in order to get a drilling machine out of Japan, you had to be Japanese, so I had my mother-in-law, [who] was Japanese, order it for us.”

On the future of the Japanese and Chinese pearl industries: “Having been in the business as long as I have, I see the Japanese will become the merchants. As China gets more people into university and college and becomes more democratic, the Chinese will outrank the Japanese. The Japanese may not be the largest supplier any longer.and when the water in China [becomes] as polluted-as bad as the waters of Japan-then they too will have less production.”

On starting a cultured pearl industry in the United States: “Failure after failure after failure. For 20 long years, in the lab experimenting, testing the shells, the water quality, etc. We tested close to 500 bodies of water for the best chance to grow pearl. Several million dollars went down the drain to find all this out. And in 1983, we began to see some results. [Nobody thought] it could be done.”

Donations in memory of John Latendresse may be made to the following organizations:

Scholarship for Pearl Research, Department of Wildlife & Fishery Science, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX 77843, Attn: Dr. Lenny DiMichele.

Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, PO Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204, Attn: Bob Hatcher.

Benton County Cancer Society, 2250 Highway 69A, Camden, TN 38320, Attn: Virginia Stigall.