Riding the Pearl Market Roller Coaster

Pearls remain popular, thanks to the wide variety and moderate prices of Chinese freshwater cultured pearls (CFWCPs) as well as the fine mix of colors in South Sea pearls (SSPs) and Tahitian pearls.

Larger sizes, better roundness, better qualities, new natural colors, new shapes, and attractive prices have given CFWCPs a big lead in sales, but uncertainty about the pearls’ durability lingers. The CFWCP is almost all nacre, as are natural pearls, but mystery surrounding the methods of luster enhancement have created doubt about the nacre’s wearability over the long haul.

The popular interest in larger pearls is focused on SSPs and Tahitians. At the retail level, customers who have become familiar with white SSPs are now more prepared to take a risk with mixing colors, says Wesley Rutherford, managing director of Rutherford Pearls, Melbourne, Australia. There’s growing interest in blacks, whites, and—especially—golds, and retailers are stocking them. “Many necklaces have mixtures of pearls from a variety of sources,” says Rutherford. “Indonesian are mixed with Filipino, with Australian, and Tahitian.”

Pearls of 14 mm and up are selling well because supply is small and demand is great, according to Robert Wan of Tahiti Perles, the largest producer of Tahitians. “People are looking for different colors, such as my Tahitian gold, Tahitian silver, Tahitian copper, and Tahitian cherry colors,” Wan says. “And there is still a big demand for peacock green Tahitian pearls.”

The new—and rare—Tahitian cherry color has strong pink and scarlet overtones. “It’s a matter of keeping ahead of trends by living up to the market’s expectations, while constantly searching for what’s new and original,” Wan notes. He plans to announce a new, original Tahitian pearl color each season.

Going for baroque. “Baroque shapes are not looked down upon as much in the South Sea market as they are in the akoya market,” notes Rutherford. Baroque SSPs are popular since they can be worn for almost any occasion and offer a big look for less money. Baroques also allow designers to show their talents by making unique pieces.

Wan views Tahitians in much the same way. “Drop, pear-shaped Tahitian pearls are rare and the demand is high,” he says. “There also is a big demand for baroque Tahitian pearls due to their less expensive prices.”

It’s not the size that counts. “Experienced customers are becoming increasingly aware of quality over size,” says Rutherford. “These customers are demanding better lustre and nacre.” This leads in many cases to more affordable smaller sizes, although overall prices have come down in recent years. And while more stores are carrying South Sea pearls, new retailers tend to carry bigger pearls rather than concentrate on quality.

Specialties. SSP pairs have to be a good match, and, for exceptional pairs and necklaces, customers must be prepared to wait. Mabés had a comeback in the early 1990s when Barbara Bush wore mabé earrings, and they remained popular for a few more years, but their popularity has diminished over the last three years.

What’s the downside? While the product is popular, the industry has had its share of problems. Japanese pearl oysters are still dying prematurely, and Tahitian producers are still producing large quantities of lesser-quality pearls. The Chinese are making so many freshwaters that the question must be asked: Does this lessen the pearls’ rarity, and therefore their value?

There’s no end in sight to the increasing rates of mortality among Japanese akoyas. Whatever the cause—pollution, virus, higher water temperatures, and overcrowded production are all suspects—the Japanese cultured pearl is having a tough time. Pearl World magazine has quoted several akoya pearl suppliers as saying that small pearl farmers quitting the business have sold their pearls directly to wholesalers, eliminating the auction and lowering the value of the harvest. Rounds of less than 6 mm are being forced to compete with Chinese akoyas, and the larger pearls (8 mm and up) must be raised in large, healthy oysters—which have not yet recovered from the blight. Of course, there will always be a supply of fine-quality Japanese akoya, but there are fewer suppliers able to offer adequate quantities from which to choose.

The Chinese cultured akoyas are not necessarily competing on quality—just on size and quantity. Nacre thickness is still the big issue, as most Chinese akoyas still are harvested too quickly, which produces thin skins. In an effort to compete, the Japanese also harvest too early, creating the same nacre problem. Some speculate that difficulties getting consistent quality from Japan are due to the poor Japanese economy. Whatever the reason, retail jewelers should inspect pearls for nacre thickness before making a purchase. (Closer to .5-mm is ideal.)

The pearl flood. Commercial goods are becoming cheaper because of oversupply and the need for some farmers and wholesalers to get cash quickly. “A year ago, many Cook Islanders were selling bottom-end blacks at very cheap prices,” notes Rutherford. “This has dropped off. Still, plenty of cheap Tahitian goods are available.” This doesn’t account for the fine to very fine large Tahitians, which are still in short supply and demand a high price.

Robert Wan notes that the new regulations imposed by French Polynesia’s government have placed more constraints on Tahitian pearl farming. The latest regulation requires pearl farmers to produce Tahitian pearls for export with a minimum nacre thickness of 0.8 mm. This means that all Tahitian pearls will spend more growing time in the water, which will result in a smaller production, slower turnover, and higher costs. Logically speaking, Wan says, the prices for those Tahitian pearls should go up. Wan cut back his production by about 30% in the first half of 2002, and full pearl production resumed at the outset of the second half of the year. “So in two years,” he predicts, “my harvests will be 50% smaller.”

Golay Pearls of Switzerland notes that production of SSPs has continued with moderate growth. The Australian government still maintains strict limits on how many oysters can be farmed. While some say that this is hindering the industry from expanding, others see it as a way to avoid the Tahitian experience.

One more SSP note: With the new interest in golden SSPs, buyers must be aware of enhancements such as irradiation and dyeing. According to Rutherford, more such pearls are coming into the market.

Chinese freshwaters. With so many inexpensive CFWCPs used as introductory gift items, there is reluctance by retailers to pay the price for larger, top-quality Chinese pearls. And again, there’s that underlying worry about longevity.

Advice for the retailer. Golay sees the trend toward pearl branding as a significant move to generate consumer interest. Retailers should look for Golay and Perles de Tahiti as two prime branding examples. “New retailers should look to carry a range of necklaces in varying qualities and sizes,” says Rutherford. “Existing retailers should consider taking a risk and introducing different colors and shapes.” How much inventory should you have? According to Rutherford, “A rough guide is 50% necklaces and 50% singles and pairs.”

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