Pearl Nuclei: The Heart of the Matter

Author and pearl authority Fred Ward would like to make it known that—despite what has been attributed to him in other publications—he actually believes that it makes little difference what Chinese pearl producers use as solid nuclei. “The first issue is whether a Chinese pearl is natural or cultured,” says Ward. “If it’s cultured, there’s probably a benefit to owning a tissue-nucleated pearl that will last for decades. If it’s cultured with a solid nucleus (shell or pearl), it’s probably worth less than a tissue-nucleated pearl and certainly less than a natural. Other than that, it really shouldn’t matter how the Chinese are making their pearls. Who really cares if they’re using shell beads, old pearls, wax, or composites?”

The issue was addressed in the Summer 2000 issue of Gems & Gemology, the quarterly journal of the Gemological Institute of America. In “Characteristics of Nuclei in Chinese Freshwater Cultured Pearls,” authors Ken Scarratt, Tom Moses, and Shigeru Akamatsu reported results of a six-year X-ray study of 41,000 CFWCPs conducted by GIA and the American Gem Trade Association. That study found no evidence of pearl-nucleation of pearls.

Ward takes issue with the article on two counts. The first concerns a passage stating that “articles in the trade press”—including one in Lapidary Journal (April 2000, p. 26) written by Ward—”have claimed that the vast majority of large CFWCPs currently being described as ‘non-nucleated’are bead nucleated,” using low-quality, all-nacre freshwater cultured pearls for the center bead. Ward says he’s never said or written that “the vast majority” or “most” of CFWCPs are bead-nucleated. In the Lapidary Journal article as well as in his book, Pearls, Ward says only that “at least some” of today’s CFWCPs are bead nucleated.

Ward’s second bone of contention is with the results of the X-ray study. At February’s Tucson shows, he found pearl-nucleated pearls—as well as bead-nucleated pearls—using a loupe and a saw. “It took less than an hour of searching at the Tucson 2001 gem shows to find numerous examples of such pearls,” Ward says.

Ward has seen and heard of other nuclei. “Everyone I know who is knowledgeable about pearls thinks the Chinese are using all currently available nucleation techniques. And no doubt there are a number of experiments we don’t know about yet. But it is known that small mantle balls, large mantle balls, mantle tissue pressed into a variety of shapes, shell beads, pearl beads, wax beads, and who knows what else are all being used. Not to recognize that pearls are being made with a great variety of nucleation techniques seems to be a gigantic oversight for a group doing a multi-year study.”

Ward believes the most important issue involving Chinese pearls is natural vs. cultured. “In 1998, I described [nucleation with pearls] as ‘disquieting’ because pearl bead nuclei in Chinese FWP had been confusing labs for several years. By not recognizing or acknowledging the presence of pearl-bead nucleation, millions of dollars of pearl-nucleated CFWCPs were sold as ‘naturals,’ and they were sold with flawed ‘natural’ reports from the best-known gem labs in the world.”

Dealers, jewelers, and consumers should know if the pearls they are buying are natural or cultured and whether the color is natural or dyed, says Ward. “For me, the issues are natural vs. cultured, dyed or irradiated vs. natural colors, tissue-nucleated vs. nucleation with solid objects. Should the solid nuclei material really affect cost or value? I doubt it. Certainly nacre thickness is going to become a Chinese issue just as it has become the biggest issue with Japanese akoya. Nacre thickness does and should affect value. What material forms the solid nucleus probably will quickly become irrelevant.”