Pearl farming is just that—farming. Like grape growers tending their vineyards, different pearl growers get different results. They are, after all, raising living things. Water quality, weather, nutrients, temperature, and human intervention all play a role in the final outcome, and each pearl-growing region has its own unique characteristics. Jewelers know the popular locales, but following is a guided tour of some of the “other” pearling locations.
Cook Islands The Cook Islands, a protectorate of New Zealand, are approximately 700 miles southwest of French Polynesia, so it makes sense that pearl farmers there use the same shells found in French Polynesian waters. Cook Island black pearls are grown off only one island in the region: Manihiki. “It’s a volcanic atoll,” says Peter Bazar, of Imperial Deltah Pearls, Providence, R.I. “They grow the pearls in the middle.” (Note: An atoll is an island made up of a reef encircling a lagoon.)
At present the Cooks grow 10 percent of the amount of pearls grown in French Polynesia. A few years ago their output was considerably higher, but a virus wiped out 90 percent of the crop, and after that, Typhoon Martin nearly finished them off. Now they’re slowly but steadily rebounding.
For information about the Cook Islands, visit www.cook-islands.gov.ck.
New Zealand The country’s Eyris Pearls produces blue cultured abalone mabe pearls, which are distributed in the United States by Imperial Deltah. “What people don’t understand, and it gets a little frustrating, is that it’s probably the rarest cultured pearl in the world,” says Bazar.
Eyris’s abalone pearl farms are in buildings that sit right on the water. This permits a more hands-on operation, with continuous monitoring. Unlike a bivalve farm, it also allows the abalone to walk around. A pumping station circulates the water in from the sea, for feeding, and simulates the tides. “It’s a little like taking care of your animals,” says Bazar. “It is quite unique.”
It takes 18 months to two years to create a pearl. This year Eyris probably will produce 3,000 to 4,000.
These blue pearls are rare
natural-color abalone mabes
from Blue Eyris in New Zealand.
East Providence, R.I.
(Visit to see a video from the
Photo courtesy of Imperial Deltah
Fiji The Fijian Islands are located 1,400 miles west-northwest of the Cook Islands and 2,000 miles due west of Tahiti. Fiji South Seas cultured pearls are stunning, but, with limited crops (around 30,000 pearls were sold at the spring auction), only a lucky few ever see the top qualities. “At our last auction we had a total of 16 companies attend,” says Justin Hunter, of J. Hunter Pearls Fiji. “Seven out of Europe, five from Japan, and four from Hong Kong.” Hunter says the company sticks with those who are already supporting it, which means they lean heavily on supplying the European market. “We find that they definitely want larger and more unique colored goods,” Hunter says. As for Asia and the United States, demand is mostly for traditionally dark goods—not Fiji’s specialty.
“About 60 percent of our pearls are in our pastel color range, with the remaining 40 percent being traditional Tahiti dark pearls,” Hunter explains. Sizes average about 2.32 grams (approximately 12 mm) per pearl, “closer in size to the large white South Seas pearls than the typical smaller Tahitian pearl,” says Hunter.
The country-of-origin label “Fiji Pearls” is important. “Customers now want to know where the pearls are from, how they are farmed, by whom, and how they benefit the communities and local people of these communities,” says Hunter. “I think there can be a stronger attachment to products when you know more about them, especially if they are being farmed in a socially and culturally responsible manner.”
Hunter has small regard for what he calls “corporate conveyor-belt type farms” (i.e., the Chinese freshwater cultured pearl industry). “Our operations are small but play a significant part in our communities.”
For more information, visit www.pearlsfiji.com.
Burma “Burma has made some efforts over the past several years,” says Andy Müller of Hinata Trading, Kobe, Japan. “Production is up. But at the end of the day, they have to give 25 percent to the government.”
To pearl dealers, the country-of-origin label “Burmese” has traditionally signified the best of the best. But pearls have some of the same country-of-origin issues as gemstones (see “Original Sins,” JCK, August 2007, p. 98), and Müller says top-quality Burmese pearls are scarce. “Quality is nice enough, but not quite the quality of the 1970s when they had beautiful pearls,” he says.
There are several subtle qualities to look for when considering Burmese South Seas pearls. “In terms of quality, there’s really very little difference between Burmese and Australian,” notes Armand Asher, Albert Asher Pearls, New York. If Australian pearls have a “higher” luster, then Burmese have what Asher calls a “slightly more satiny luster.” And while serious pearl aficionados speak of “true orient” when it comes to Burmese, you won’t find any consumers—or many retail jewelers—who understand that subtle visual effect. Asher describes orient as a quality of light associated with the inner growth of the pearl. There’s depth to it, as compared with surface luster.
There are some less-subtle qualities retailers can use to help identify Burmese South Seas pearls. “You don’t find large Burmese,” says Asher. “Watch for necklaces with 17 and 18 mm centers labeled Burmese. There have never been oysters in Burma capable of producing those sizes.” Color is another identifying feature. “Australia shows white, but Burma tends to be a little more creamy—not white, not silver. Cream rosé,” Asher says. “They tend to be a bit on the pink champagne color side,” says Müller.
Vietnam Few people think of Vietnam and bead-nucleated pearls, and that’s a good thing, says Chi Huynh, of Galatea, Jewelry by Artist, San Dimas, Calif. Huynh developed the gemstone-bead-nucleated black pearl using black-lipped oysters in Vietnam and offered his carved pearls at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas in June. (See “Black Pearls Have Gemstone Bead Nuclei,” JCK, August 2007, p. 50.)
Huynh is Vietnamese, now living in the United States. He still has dozens of family members, including five brothers and three sisters, living in Vietnam, and he felt compelled to do something at home. He accidentally discovered that Vietnam has the perfect growing areas for cultured pearls. “There are books, many books, on pearls that show maps of where pearls are found worldwide,” he says. “And if you look at Vietnam, they list nothing. So those who are using those maps to go exploring for pearls are unfortunately going to miss out. I didn’t expect it when I went there.”
Now Huynh has his own farm, with 5,000 oysters. “So small,” he says. “The potential is there. The momentum as well.”
Cold weather in the north makes the saltwater bays perfect for akoyas. Freshwater pearls are grown inland. The south is tropical. “In Tahiti you only get the black-lipped oyster,” says Huynh. “Here you get black, gray, brown, pink, purple. … It’s too exciting!”
For more information, visit www.diamondinapearl.com.
Chi Huynh of Galatea,
San Dimas, Calif., has
discovered that the waters
of his homeland are perfect
for growing pearls. This
carved Vietnamese black
cultured pearl has a
Photo courtesy of Galatea
The Philippines The golden South Seas pearls of Jewelmer International have put the Philippines on the pearl-farming map. They’ve also given the country one up on Burma, which produces few golds, and Australia, which produces brownish ones.
Jewelmer also relies on merchandising and training. “Sales representatives who used to push goods [put the product in front of the clients] find that there is a need to incorporate pulling,” says Pierre Fallourd, Jewelmer’s assistant managing director. That means pearls should tell a true story; have value factors that are easily identifiable, even by junior sales associates; be backed up by display materials and sales support, i.e., audiovisual and printed material; sell at a regular and predictable pace; and guarantee the natural character and color of the products sold. Fallourd stresses the last point since more dyed golden South Seas pearls are entering the market.
For more information, visit www.jewelmer.com.
Large, round, golden South
Seas cultured pearls are
accented by white South Seas
pearls and diamonds.
Makati City, Phillippines
Photo courtesy of Jewelmer