Pearls: A Booming Market

You don’t need to ask around much to learn that pearls are hot. Sales of all types are climbing, and even fresh-water pearls are selling well, say wholesalers. Nor does the trend seem to be slowing. Pearls are, after all, a luxury item, and as long as the economy continues to do well, so will pearls.

Sales of multicolored strands, in particular, have been skyrocketing. They’re as popular as any other pearl jewelry now. Appearing in golden, white, pink, gray, and numerous overtones on black, pearls are giving fashion-conscious consumers all the necessary colors from which to choose.

Besides the fact that pearls are very fashionable, there’s a set of unusual circumstances that are helping boost pearl sales: increased production, increased competition from the Chinese, and favorable currency exchange rates.

Increased production. Cultured, fresh-water, and salt-water pearl production has increased dramatically over the past few years, all in response to growing demand. This includes Chinese akoyas (salt-water bead-nucleated), Chinese fresh-water (mantle-tissue- as well as bead-nucleated), Japanese fresh-water, North American and New Zealand abalone, American fresh-water, and South Seas cultured, encompassing Tahitian blacks and yellows as well as Australian and Indonesian whites and goldens.

Even though it’s increasing, the production of high-quality Tahitian blacks still lags behind demand. On the other hand, increased production of medium- and lower-quality blacks has saturated the retail market, causing dramatically weak prices, especially in lower-quality pearls.

With more product than buyers, Tahitian pearl farmers have been reaching outside the traditional wholesale auction market and going directly to the retailer, creating supply and price fluctuations. The United States has been the target for many of these farm representatives.

All of these products on the market have made Tahitian and South Seas pearls very affordable, with drop pearl pendants starting at $250 to $300 (retail) and up. Finer-quality pearls set with diamonds are within reach of many customers. Even the goldens have been popular and affordable for at least the last 18 months, much to the surprise of many pearl dealers, reports Armand Asher of Albert Asher South Sea Pearl Co. in New York. Goldens have been fashionable overseas for many years. Strands, of course, are more expensive.

Japanese akoyas. Pearl production has increased with one obvious exception: Japanese akoya salt-water cultured pearls. Akoya production is still very limited in all qualities and sizes, but especially in fine quality from 5 mm to 8 mm and up, which remain almost impossible to get, even for wholesalers.

The Japanese pearl industry has been reeling from high akoya oyster mortality rates, now close to 70%. Little is known about the cause of the devastation, which has been occurring for the past two or three years. Meanwhile, the Chinese akoyas are improving in quality, and many experts suspect that Japanese exporters have been importing cheaper Chinese akoyas to beef up their own stocks. It’s difficult to pinpoint how many akoyas are from China as opposed to Japan, but estimates run as high as 40%. Nonetheless, dealers are simply happy to get any product, Japanese or Chinese.

With the Japanese unsure of future product, Japanese producers may be investing heavily in Chinese and South Seas pearl farms. It doesn’t look as if the Japanese akoya farms are going to be back in solid production for several years.

Meanwhile, Japanese fresh-water cultured pearls, rebounding from the past few years of lower harvests, are still yielding comparatively small production. Lake Biwa has been active again for the past three years, but overall, it accounts for a very small percentage of the fresh-water market.

Chinese akoyas. There seems to be good supply of Chinese akoyas under 6.5 mm. Prices for these pearls are about 20% to 30% less than prices of comparable Japanese akoyas, according to the Cultured Pearl Information Center. Since the Chinese seem to be competing very well in these smaller sizes, the Japanese are focusing their attention on growing 6.5-mm pearls and larger.

Chinese fresh-water pearls are still king, especially in the rice to “nuggety” shapes. The fresh-water mantle-tissue-nucleated rounds, while still not perfectly round or as lustrous as the Japanese akoyas, are being promoted as being better than the Japanese, since they’re “actually nacre throughout.” Rounds of 7 mm to 8 mm are available, and we will see larger rounds, even 10 mm to 11.5 mm, in production soon, according to Michael Randall at Gem Reflections of California, San Anselmo, Calif.-based wholesalers of fine gems and Chinese fresh-water pearls.

Monetary devaluation. With Japanese production low, pearl prices have increased dramatically – in yen. The dollar’s strength, however, has effectively countered a good percentage of the increase. So U.S. buyers have been spared the sticker shock of Japanese product – when the supply is available.

In “first-level” wholesale pricing, in relation to last year, there’s been a 10% to 15% increase for 5-mm to 6.5-mm pearls in medium quality, and up to a 30% increase for 6-mm to 9-mm fine-quality akoyas, according to the Cultured Pearl Information Center.

The effect of the Asian monetary crisis shows up in other ways as well, according to Tahitian government statistics reported by G.I.E. Perles de Tahiti. Japan, still the No. 1 importer of black Tahitian pearls, showed yet another increase in the volume of imports for this year compared to last. But with fewer high-quality pearls in the mix, their overall value has dropped considerably, almost 50% during the first half of 1998. During the same period, the volume of imports to the United States climbed more than 130%, including more high-quality pearls, with an increase in value of almost 60%. Hong Kong increased its imports by more than 80% during the first half of 1998, with a value exceeding 70% of the country’s 1997 imports.

Other pearl sources. Abalone natural as well as abalone cultured pearls are still very limited in supply. However, with a small number of developing farms both on the North American west coast and in New Zealand, more are on the way, perhaps as early as this holiday season.

The American Pearl Co. in Nashville, Tenn., continues to grow and develop new shapes of fresh-water cultured pearls to enhance the lines for designer jewelers.

In the natural pearl harvest in Texas this year, quantities were fairly limited, but they have been for several years. This year’s harvest brought in about 1,500 to 2,000 pearls, few by normal standards, more commonly between 4,000 and 5,000. This year, because of extreme weather conditions, harvested pearls from the area – known for its pink semi-round pearls – have a green metallic color.

Texas has been in the throes of a drought for the past two to three years. With water levels down dramatically, it will be some time before the shell population returns to more typical numbers. The dry conditions have also made harvesting more difficult because of the concentrated populations of water moccasins and rattlesnakes.

Enhancements. While it is commonly known that most “white” pearls are bleached, irradiation is the biggest concern right now, especially among Chinese fresh-water pearls, enhanced to look like Tahitian grays. Modern irradiation techniques produce more subtle color changes than in the past, making detection almost impossible, particularly when the pearls are undrilled or already set in jewelry.

Irradiation changes the color of the fresh-water nucleus. Thin-nacred akoya cultured pearls irradiate well, since the color-changed fresh-water bead nucleus can be seen beneath the nacre. If the pearl is drilled, you can easily identify it as irradiated by noting the unusual color of the fresh-water bead.

When Chinese fresh-water pearls are irradiated, on the other hand, the whole pearl is essentially changed throughout. And because the Chinese fresh-water pearls overlap in size ranges of South Seas pearls, identification is very important. As radical as it may seem, in some instances, the only way to determine color origin is to actually saw the pearl in half. If it’s a Chinese irradiated fresh-water pearl, there will be no mother-of-pearl bead. If it’s a naturally colored Tahitian cultured pearl, there will be a nucleus. South Seas and Tahitian pearls do not irradiate well because the irradiated bead would not be visible beneath the thick nacreous outer growth.

Sales Are Strong, According to Poll

In a poll conducted in June at The JCK Show in Las Vegas by the New York-based Cultured Pearl Information Center, 62% of the 207 jewelers responding said pearl sales for their first five months of this year were up 10% or more. Necklaces were the strongest seller, at 56% of all pearl sales. Earrings were a close second at 34%. Bracelets, rings, and pins trailed far behind at 5%, 3%, and 2%, respectively.

Forty-three percent of respondents predicted this year’s holiday season would show an increase in pearl sales of at least 15% or more. Only 4% thought pearl sales would remain flat.

What were the buyers stocking up on? Japanese akoya topped the list, followed, in order, by fresh-water, Tahitian blacks, Chinese akoya, South Seas whites, and goldens. All pearl importers polled indicated “exceptional increases” in sales. Akoya sales were in part attributed to “panic buying” as a result of more awareness of the high Japanese muscle mortality rate.