Plunging Into the Freshwater Pearl Revolution



With metal and diamond prices rising, the value and appeal of fine quality freshwater pearls is becoming a lot more obvious.

On a buying trip to Zhuji, China, in March, Peter Bazar stumbled upon what he thought was a deal on 600 strands of 12 mm–13 mm white Chinese freshwater pearls. “I thought the price was good but I was a little nervous,” says the president of Imperial, a 119-year-old firm in East Providence, R.I., of purchasing such a huge volume of strands with no buyer in mind. Still, he pulled the trigger, emailing images of the hanks to seven different clients. Within three days, Bazar had received two competing offers to buy everything.

So as not to lose a sale, Bazar sold the first lot of 600 to the first respondent, and another lot of 500—which the farmers frantically scrambled to put together—to the second. Upon returning home, Bazar bought and sold yet another lot of 400 strands. His clients—chains and television merchants—were clearly in a buying mood.

“Freshwater pearls are not only a fantastic bargain in the pearl category, but with rising metal and diamond prices, they are also one of the best values in the entire jewelry category,” says Bazar.

Natural color freshwater baroque pearl strands with yellow and pink sapphire clasps; $27,765 and $38,770, respectively; Yvel, New York City; 866-983-5583; yvel.co.il

Bazar has a point: Pearl jewelry can hit a price point without sacrificing a big look like nothing else on the market today—especially as prices continue to rise in other categories, sending many in the industry scrambling to find “substitute products,” says Daven Sethi, vice president of operations for TARA in New York City.

Freshwater pearl providers have gamely stepped in to fill the price void, to the degree that the pearls once scorned for their misshapen “rice krispie” appearance have virtually replaced the akoya in most large chain stores—and could account for unit sales upwards of 90 percent of the market, according to Bazar.

Freshwater pearl and diamond earrings in 18k gold; $9,500; Katy Briscoe, Houston; 713-662-9886; katybriscoe.com

The great strides made by pearl producers are the biggest reason for the freshwater pearl’s newfound acclaim. Boasting sizes rivaling those of South Seas pearls—and prices a fraction thereof—fine freshwater pearls “continue to be the most undervalued genre of pearl,” says Jeremy Shepherd, president of PearlParadise.com in Los Angeles. “With the advances of technology and technique that we have seen in the past decade, freshwater pearls have come very close to rivaling high-end saltwater pearl varieties both aesthetically and in quality.” Among the most-in-demand freshwaters? Nucleated baroque pearls, often in white and natural colors, because they are the closest rivals to the premium pearls of the South Seas.

Freshwaters are now averaging 7 mm–10 mm (up to 15 mm are available), a notable increase over the 5 mm–6 mm beads popular in the past. Prices for the larger pearls have also, naturally, plumped up—anywhere from 10 to 20 percent, according to dealers. In fact, growing bigger pearls has proven so valuable that many farmers now have their eyes set on larger prizes—in excess of 11 mm, to be precise.

These metallic pearls change color in different light; $400 per strand; PearlParadise.com, Los Angeles; 888-507-3275; pearlparadise.com

Even as demand sends prices climbing, generally affordable prices remain one of the most attractive reasons to stock freshwaters. Starting at well below $100 retail, many options exist in trendy colors of dyed pearls, while 10 mm–15 mm strands can total less than $500.

“I have done well with purple and gold metallic strands,” says Jack Lynch, president of Sea Hunt Pearls in San Francisco.“I can offer 13- to 16-millimeter strands of these goods from $300 to $500 wholesale; it is an item where the retailer can make a decent markup.”

Among pearlers, however, opinions remain mixed about the availability of top-end merchandise. In December, Shepherd received an order for 15,000 round to near-round freshwater strands. “We were able to source and assemble the entire order in less than four weeks,” he says. “This would have been impossible in any other type of pearl.”

However, Lynch’s sources tell him that some farmers are saving on labor costs by skimping on maintenace, thereby affecting health and quality. Others are tinkering with the idea of not harvesting this year in order to drive up prices next year. “Whatever the reason, the result is lower pearl quality and, as a result, higher prices,” he says. “I’ve always had a strong market for high-end unusual goods and am having a very hard time finding them on the market this year.”

More pearls of wisdom from JCKonline.com:
+ Cultured Club: 27 Chic New Looks
+ Shell Shocked: Diving Into the Modern-Day Pearl Industry
+ Dream Pearls