Pearls Gone Wild!

If it’s Friday in Tucson, it’s time for our annual pearl walk. We take to the floor of the American Gem Trade Association GemFair with a team of pearl experts and visit several pearl exhibitors, gathering information and listening to opinions. Pearl expert Lois Berger, Fuller & Associates, McLean, Va., who reviews pearls for The GemGuide, Glenview, Ill., leads the team and maps out our plan of attack.

We start with Gina Latendresse, American Pearl Co., Nashville, Tenn., who focuses on rare and unusual natural pearls. She has a half dozen or so Quahog pearls (pronounced kó-hog) from the North Atlantic coast, priced at $200–$1,000 per carat. Colors are light mottled grayish-pinkish-purple, and sizes range up to 9 mm. In addition, she has about a half dozen golden yellow Vietnamese Melo Melos, priced at $500-$1,500 per carat, with sizes up to 20 mm, as well as several natural Mississippi freshwaters priced at $50–$500 per carat. The largest natural “wing” measures 64 mm. Latendresse also has a nice selection of U.S.-grown fancy-shape bead-nucleated freshwaters from her own company.

Next, it’s off to see Avi Raz, A&Z Pearl, Los Angeles, who talks about Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. Raz notes that the baroques are getting larger—14 mm and up—and he’s clearly impressed. Though a die-hard akoya fan, he’s excited about some of the CFWCP strands.

Jack Lynch, Sea Hunt, San Francisco, is the trend spotter and has the most unusual collection of CFWCPs, including big coins (25+ mm), twins, triplets, and other strange combinations of growths.

Next stop, Betty Sue King, King’s Ransom, Sausalito, Calif., who brings out high-end Chinese freshwater petal pearls and rosebuds, all with top luster and natural pastel colors. King also shows us some of the smallest South Seas whites and goldens (8 mm) we’ve seen yet.

Last stop is Marc Freeman, Freeman Gem, Los Angeles, who tells us about his recent trip to China, where many of the freshwater pearl ponds are now spent. Speculation is that Chinese production may soon have a lull as old ponds lay vacant.

Freeman shows us some of the best (but still not quite perfected) pearl-nucleated pearls. With their round bodies and obvious tails, these pearl- and bead-nucleated CFWCPs resemble tadpoles. Freeman is best known for full strands of the finest top-round tissue-activated CFWCPs. These are rare, since the pearls take six or seven years to grow, and their roundness is natural. These rounds are not bead nucleated. They are all nacre.

Berger notes that most of the 9 to 11 mm round, high-luster CFWCPs are used in mixed-origin strands with Tahitians, golden South Seas, and white South Seas bead-nucleated cultured pearls. That makes the rare, high-end CFWCPs more affordable. This is somewhat true of the Tahitians and South Seas, but their rarity is also due in part to the weak dollar, which results in most of the high-end Tahitian and South Seas cultured pearls going to the East and not to the States.

Also new this year are smaller South Seas cultured pearls. Sizes of 8 to 8.5 mm were available in both white and golden natural color. They are still no competition for akoyas (which were seen from 5 to 10 mm), because their typical luster is still considered more dreamy than mirrorlike.

Peter Bazar, of Imperial-Deltah Pearls, East Providence, R.I., argues that there is no competition for akoyas. He and Avi Raz are happy to show you that the shape and luster of their best Chinese freshwater rounds do not come close to those of their best akoyas. Bazar also showed us his line of Eyris blue pearls, which are natural-color half-bead-nucleated abalone blister pearls from New Zealand.

As for Tahitians, quality control seems to be working, says Berger, who notes that prices have increased 10–15 percent. Nevertheless, there were few top-quality aubergine and peacock Tahitian pearls in Tucson. Most likely, the weak dollar is driving the best-quality Tahitians elsewhere, and the U.S. market is getting the leftovers.

Chinese freshwaters in nontraditional shapes always attract great interest, and this year was no exception. There were new petal pearls, still a popular shape, ranging in size from 8 to 16 mm. King’s Ransom had the best, but Sea Hunt had the widest variety. We saw Chinese freshwater keshi with terrific orient and in more unusual shapes—Berger calls them avant-garde free forms—from 6 mm all the way up to 40 mm.

As large baroques become more popular, they’re becoming more difficult to find. Speculation is that since it’s really large rounds the growers seek, once they perfect the growing process for them, baroques will become ever scarcer.

While it was predicted last year that South Seas golds would be popular, Berger found prices 10–15 percent lower this year than last. One reason might be greater supply. Another might be the treatment issue. Enhancement disclosure on golden South Seas was difficult to obtain outside the AGTA show, which requires disclosure on everything.