Pearls in the Market

Pearls remain popular, especially in South Sea, Tahitian, and Chinese freshwater varieties. Except for akoyas, there are plentiful quantities at more affordable prices, and fall fashion trends favor increased demand.

South Sea. These include large whites and goldens from Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. “South Sea” also has been used loosely for blacks from French Polynesia (including Tahiti) and the Cook Islands.

Gary Tarna, Hanadama, Los Angeles, who specializes in South Sea pearls, says prices have been falling for years, but he’s seen stabilization this year. “You’re getting a lot of people now who are accepting South Seas—because of the change in prices [lower than five years ago].”

Supply is good for smaller sizes (9 mm to 12 mm) in whites and golds, but 13-mm-plus gold strands and large white South Sea baroques are the harder to find. “There’s more demand than supply,” says Tarna.

At the July JA New York show Sunny Sethi at Tara & Sons, New York, exhibited a strand of round white South Sea pearls measuring 11.8 mm to 10 mm, slightly blemished, with high luster and very good matching. The strand was priced at $6,000.

London Pearl exhibited a 10.8-mm to 13.6-mm round, very high luster, clean golden strand priced at $44,000. The company also had a 15-mm single pearl, white, round, for $1,000.

At the lower-quality end, Tarna notes, there’s much more supply than demand.

According to Joe Orlando and Harold Dupuy at Stuller, Lafayette, La.—whose latest venture is with Paspaley Pearls in Australia—supply is not a concern. “Almost everything is available because we’re directly related to the farm,” Orlando says. Stuller’s South Sea whites range from 10 mm to 15 mm, in 12 shapes and four quality categories.

Golds. There are two sources, Indonesia/Philippines and Australia. The dividing line is 12 mm to 13 mm: Under this mark, the golds come out of Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Australia. Over 13 mm, they’re almost entirely Australian, but Australian golds are limited.

South Sea baroques. Why baroques? “It’s the look,” says Tarna. “It’s not a price-point thing. Because of what’s happened in the market, if you see a nice baroque necklace, people are asking a premium.” There is a difference in price between baroques and rounds of comparable quality and size, but not enough to make a significant difference in affordability. “It’s no longer a price consideration,” Tarna says.

“You have two colors that come out of the South Sea baroques, a silver-blue and a white,” says Tarna. “Most are silver-blue.” Tarna says the pearls are then bleached with light to make them whiter. If a pearl is very blue, it probably won’t be bleached, because bleaching could damage the luster. “Strongest demand is in the white baroques. The silver blues are beautiful, but second in demand. Average sizes run up to about 15 mm to 16 mm in width,” he says.

Keshi. “Most of what you see is the South Seas keshi, both in white and black [Tahitian],” says Aziz Basalely of Eliko Pearl, New York. Since production in pearls is up almost everywhere in the world, you will see more keshi as well. “Akoya keshi are smaller in size, and this makes them less usable.”

Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls in San Francisco says his keshi—mostly Chinese freshwater pearls (CFWPs)—are his second-best sellers, and he can’t get enough of the “flower petal” keshis.

Tahitians. Tahitians continue to be popular and are available in high-quality rounds to high-luster baroques. Joseph Assarasakorn of Tahitian Pearls, Bangkok, notes that in general, qualities are picking up “thanks to the good work of the Tahitian officials.” Smaller sizes, including 9 mm and 8 mm, are now available.

Tahitians also are getting lighter in color. “Most of what you see are grays, maybe a charcoal color, but the blacks and the silvers are not being produced as much,” notes Basalely. “Silvers have become a lot more popular over the past few years. Designers are using the silvery tones. They want to have a variety of colors, using the silvers with golds and peacocks and whites.”

Lynch says multicolor Tahitians are his best-selling strands, up 30%-40% this past year. Also up are smaller strands with peacock color or unusual colors.

Stuller’s fine-quality round Tahitians range from 10 mm to 14 mm. Stuller is putting together a more complete Tahitian program, with baroques, ovals, drops, strands, and multicolors, including a mix of South Sea goldens and whites with Tahitians.

Akoya. Akoyas are getting bigger: Mastoloni showed 9-mm to 10-mm extremely fine quality akoyas at JA New York.

“Every year it seems production is decreasing and shifting up in size,” says Basalely. “All smalls up to 7 mm in better quality are very hard to find. Most of what you find are 7 mm plus, up to 9 to 9.5 mm.” Production of small sizes is too labor intensive to compete against Chinese freshwaters.

Stuller’s akoyas range from seed pearls up to 8-8.5 mm. Pearl sales are still growing, according to Orlando. Like most of the industry suppliers, Stuller’s akoyas are mixed Chinese and Japanese, with the focus on pearl quality rather than origin.

Chinese vs. akoya. “There’s quite a strong demand for the Chinese freshwaters, and the quality over the past five years has improved a lot,” says Basalely. “There seem to be a lot more rounds, and the processing has been improved.” Processing, which includes bleaching and polishing, gives this year’s product whiter colors and better luster. “We have demand pretty much clear across the board,” Basalely says. “The smaller sizes are replacing the akoya, which are now very, very hard to find. And the bigger sizes are much cheaper than the akoya.”

But Lynch says top-quality round white CFWPs up to 12-14 mm are not strong sellers. “They’re still around $3,500 per strand, and people find it difficult to pay that for a freshwater strand.”

“There is some production over 11 mm, but it’s very, very hard to come by,” notes Basalely. “Only a few companies have enough material to be able to make necklaces. We expect quantities in larger sizes to increase over the next few years. Demand also is appreciating for larger-size freshwaters, so the question is whether the supply can keep up with the demand.”

Processing. “Generally, luster is a combination of polishing, chemicals, and naturally grown,” notes Basalely. “There is in Japan certain preprocessing, where they use certain chemicals to improve the luster before any kind of bleaching. All freshwaters are bleached, which means they also probably use some kind of chemical to bring out the luster, and then a different kind of chemical to bleach them to get white. Traditionally in Japan they use wood chips to polish pearls. I’m sure they do that also with Chinese freshwater pearls.”

Basalely says it’s possible that something like a wax is being used to produce very high fine shine, but no one has admitted to using anything.

But with so many pearls in the market, and at such low prices, luster enhancement isn’t much of a concern. “Up to 8-mm freshwaters are pretty inexpensive anyway, so in my opinion, that doesn’t really detract from the value,” says Basalely.

Colors in demand. “Basically, there is a strong demand for white, pink, and lavender” in CFWPs, says Basalely. “In akoya, you don’t have that.” Basalely also points out that designers have some fairly strong demand for the orange peachy color, “but not as much as the lavender.”

Mixed strands. “With mixed strands, the Chinese freshwaters come in a variety of shapes, so they don’t need to be mixed with anything else,” says Basalely. What they will do is mix natural and treated colors—for example, the silver metallic or gold treated colors with anything natural.