Misusing Pearl Terminology: Let the Buyer Biwa

Pearl watchers at this year’s Tucson gem shows encountered a noticeable rise in the misuse of pearl terminology, including “keshi,” “Biwa,” and “natural.”

In an article in the Washington, D.C., GIA Alumni Chapter newsletter and Web site, gem author and photojournalist Fred Ward discussed the recent increase in the number of keshi pearls and strands, noting that “the logical question is: ‘What’s going on?’ “

What’s going on may simply be loose usage of pearl terminology. Lois Berger, an appraiser from McLean, Va., reminds us what “keshi” actually means. “The term is derived from the Japanese word for poppy seed, and it was originally used to describe small seed-size pearls found as byproducts of Japanese cultured pearls,” she says. “These are not naturally occurring pearls.”

There are three ways for keshi to form, says Gina Latendresse of the American Pearl Company in Nashville, Tenn. The more traditional poppy seed keshi are created during nucleation of Japanese akoya, when loose epithelial cells wind up inside the mollusk and form tiny pearls. Alternatively, the bead nucleus is rejected and the graft tissue remains to become a pearl. Finally, keshi can result from a second harvest, in which the mollusk is returned to the farm after the first harvest, the original pearl sac is filled with nacre secretion, and a second pearl is born. The second and third methods produce large pearls, and in neither case are the pearls considered natural.

“CIBJO guidelines/rules actually renamed ‘keshi’ to ‘keshi cultured pearl’ because of all the problems in determining the keshi origin,” says Latendresse. She points out that most of the “keshi” on the market today are really tissue-nucleated cultured pearls.

“As I made my way around the GemFair in Tucson, I was alarmed by the use of the term keshi,” Latendresse says. “They are not true keshi, so why use the term? In fact, these are Chinese freshwater tissue-nucleated cultured pearls that look like the larger versions of ‘keshi’ and ‘Biwa’ cultured pearls.”

“Biwa” is another term that’s apparently being used imprecisely. Latendresse explains: “The term ‘Biwa’ must be reserved only for pearls cultivated in Lake Biwa, Japan. It is a locale description, not a description of shape as it is loosely used today. Many dealers in Hong Kong use the term ‘Biwa’ to describe Chinese freshwater tissue-nucleated cultured pearls. They use it, their buyers use it, and the end users are using it. This is also very common, and I make a point to express to the dealer that the term ‘Biwa’ is used exclusively for the cultured pearl from Lake Biwa in Japan. I am not certain that I am heard even when I quote that this is not my rule but is clearly stated in the FTC guidelines.”

Latendresse also is concerned about the term “natural” as used in conjunction with Chinese freshwater tissue-nucleated cultured pearls. “I have heard many dealers use the term ‘natural’ when describing or selling natural-color (pink, orange, purple, etc.) cultured pearls from China. In fact, the term is loosely used as follows: ‘These are our naturals over here.’ Again, they refer to color, but a client could easily misunderstand the reference and think the seller is indicating natural [pearl] origin.”

“Keshi used to be rare, expensive, and even considered by Arab buyers to be ‘semi-natural,’ ” says Ward. Because the Chinese are harvesting so many pearls, the numbers of accidental/unintentional keshi will be that much greater. And they are obviously much larger than the original Japanese keshi. It’s a different product.

Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls in San Fransisco showed the new Chinese keshi cultured pearls at Tucson. His double keshis are strung and labeled flower leis.

Latendresse thinks that Lynch should give them a new name. “He is very upbeat, stylish, and in-the-know. I look forward to a new name. The pearls have provided our industry with a face lift and it deserves its own name.”

“Maybe they should be called second-generation cultured pearls,” says Lynch. Well, maybe not. At press time Lynch was still working on it.