Pearlicious!

Large round white South Seas pearls, most commonly from Australia, are getting bigger and better. Single pearls and strands of 18, 19, and 20 mm rounds with clean surfaces and excellent luster, while still rare, are becoming more available. We’ve even seen top-quality rounds of 22 mm. With short supply and steady demand, expect to pay top dollar for the best in big.

The Philippines and Indonesia are producing top-quality golden South Seas round pearls in record numbers. These reach 15 and 16 mm. A decade ago, such pearls were too rare to consider for inventory. “Of course, you can always get lesser-quality merchandise, but anything in fine quality is difficult to get,” says Aziz Basalely, Eliko Pearl, New York. “Especially in large baroques.”

As better cultivation techniques result in more large rounds, one consequence is fewer baroques, which are mistakes in the culturing process. “Ten years ago, when we had so many baroques, consumers began to enjoy the fanciful shapes, large sizes, and affordability,” notes Basalely. Designers created demand, and a new category of pearl was born. But with fewer baroques, prices for the best baroques are approaching prices for top-quality rounds.

Top-quality Tahitian pearls with dark color and nice overtones are becoming harder to find. That situation may worsen if Tahitian authorities relax export restrictions on qualities, which they appear set to do. Export taxes may have been lifted by the time you read this, eliminating government inspections for nacre thickness and surface quality. By Christmas, product from early harvests may have flooded the market. Overall prices for average- to commercial-quality Tahitian pearls might drop dramatically, even as prices for rare top qualities continue to rise.

Akoyas are no longer the only pearl in town or exclusively Japanese. Most commercial sizes (5 to 7 mm) and qualities with acceptable thickness and good luster come from China. Japanese production is a fraction of what it once was.

But while Chinese akoya farmers had decent harvests in 2005 and ’06, typhoons last year caused a reported 80 percent loss, and typhoons this year wiped out most of what was left. That will have a major effect on the market for small, perfectly round akoyas for the next year or two. Competition with Chinese round freshwaters could discourage some Chinese akoya farmers from attempting a comeback.

“The pearl business is so fragile,” says Leonard Federer, Tri-Gem Pearls, New York. “It’s like growing wine grapes. There may be a good year, and you come home from the auction with a new product. But then maybe it’s not available the next time you go.”

Chinese freshwater non-bead rounds and near-rounds can be found from 6 mm and smaller. In larger rounds, white bead-nucleated South Seas in 8 and 9 mm (and larger) are squeezing the limited Japanese akoya production of 6 to 9 mm rounds.

Look for Vietnamese and Australian akoyas to enter the market sometime in the next few years.

In old-school parlance, they’re Chinese freshwater mantle-tissue-nucleated cultured pearls. In modern parlance, they’re freshwater tissue-activated cultured pearls, cultured nacreous freshwater pearls without bead, or freshwater non-bead-nucleated cultured pearls. Whatever you call them, know this: The tissue used in all pearl culturing (including bead nucleation) prompts the oyster to create the pearl sac in which the pearl is created. That piece of tissue does not end up in the middle of the pearl—what’s often thought of as the nucleus. Consequently, these pearls, like natural pearls, are all nacre. Unlike natural pearls, they result from human intervention.

There’s a lot of human intervention in China’s freshwater pearl business. Doug Fiske, writing for the Gemological Institute of America’s pearl course, reports there are some 8,000 freshwater pearl farms in China, and they produced an estimated 880 tons of jewelry-quality pearl last year alone. “That jewelry-use tonnage is nearly 13 times the volume generated by all the other pearl-producing countries combined,” Fiske says.

Tissue-activated pearls are grown in so many different shapes it’s impossible to list them. Natural colors are typically whites and pastels. Sizes are as large as 12, 13, and 14 mm, and rounds and near-rounds in good quality reach 12 and 13 mm and are getting larger.

“An emerging area is bead-nucleated freshwaters,” says Jack Lynch, Sea Hunt Pearls, San Francisco. “We’re getting nicer and nicer merchandise. … Very nice baroques with smooth skin, really stunning.”

Lynch, who’s been looking for larger top-quality rounds, has observed a surprising development that may bode well for his quest: “A lot of farmers are not opening their shells, leaving them in the water,” he says. “Hopefully they’re holding on to get bigger and nicer quality.”

Jewelry designer Chi Galatea, San Dimas, Calif., stunned the pearl world last year with amethyst-, citrine-, and turquoise-beaded carved black pearls, and he’s set to do it again. In January he’ll harvest white Vietnamese South Seas Pinctada maxima oysters implanted with red coral beads. Galatea will carve them to expose the coral. They’ll be on display at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas.

Special thanks to Bo Torrey, Pearl World, for editorial assistance.