Marc Freeman, of Freeman Gem and Pearl Co. in Los Angeles, believes the term “nucleated”—as in “mantle-tissue-nucleated”—when used to describe Chinese freshwater cultured pearls is a misnomer.
First, some background: In creating bead-nucleated pearls, producers use a small piece of tissue from the oyster’s mantle alongside a mother-of-pearl bead to stimulate the growth of nacre. The bead becomes the nucleus, hence the term “bead-nucleated.”
But in creating a CFWCP, only a 1 mm × 1 mm piece of mantle tissue—no bead—is implanted in the mussel. According to Dr. Lore Kiefert, director of the American Gem Trade Association Gem Testing Center laboratory, the implanted mantle tissue determines the growth of the pearl. But that tissue dissolves and becomes the pearl sac, not a nucleus. “In the case of a beadless cultured pearl, [the pearl forms] around a tiny hollow,” Kiefert says.
Thus, Freeman argues that CFWCPs should be described as “tissue-activated,” not “tissue-nucleated.”
The AGTA Gem Testing Center laboratory has re-examined the issue and concluded that Freeman’s CFWCPs, although they still will be labeled “tissue-nucleated,” deserve an additional comment: “Radiograph shows approximately 100 percent nacre thickness, no bead present.”
“We do not have such a comment on a natural pearl report,” says Kiefert. “It is understood that a natural pearl is made of 100 percent nacre and does not need an extra explanation.”
Underlying the issue of terminology is the issue of pricing. Natural pearls—generated from an irritant, yet not considered nucleated—can be worth millions of dollars, based on beauty and rarity. Meanwhile, producers of fine-quality CFWCPs may have to defend the four- and five-figure prices they charge.
Figuring a price range on natural pearls requires looking at the auction market. Gail Levine at AMR (Auction Market Resource), for example, notes that a single-strand Edwardian necklace with a 7 mm center pearl brought $14,100, and another Edwardian necklace strung with larger, more rounded pearls and a 10 mm center pearl, sold for $84,000.
Gary Schuler, senior vice president, director of jewelry, Sotheby’s New York, says the better natural strands average around $80,000 to $90,000. “Of course, there were two very major strands that sold for over a million dollars each,” he adds. These sold at Christie’s, one in London, one in Geneva. “They were important sizes, probably 10 to 12 mm,” notes Schuler.
Compared with those kinds of prices, Chinese freshwaters of the highest quality might be considered a bargain, costing a retailer between $800 and $1,000 per strand for the smaller sizes (8 mm to 10 mm), and generally from $5,000 to $40,000 per strand for the larger pearls (10+ mm to 15 mm).