The Case for Pearls

We spend a lot of time examining pearls because of their beauty, their variety, their popularity, and their potential for bigger profit margins. You will read about saltwaters (akoyas and South Seas, including Tahitians) versus Chinese freshwaters. You will also read references to nacre thickness and the method of culturing (bead nucleation or tissue activation). These details are important when it comes to value. But don’t let details obscure the big picture. Following are some of the trends from this year’s Tucson shows.


While the classic round bead-nucleated cultured-pearl choker remains the ultimate in elegance, the Chinese freshwaters, mostly in shapes other than rounds, are taking advantage of their variety for the fashion industry. In her annual report, Lois Berger, G.G., NJA, of Fuller & Associates, pearl expert and reporter for Gemworld International’s TheGuide, touches on a few of the more important varieties. “Petal pearls were again a hot ticket item as they were in 2005,” says Berger. The sizes and prices for the petal pearls ranged from 10 × 11 mm whites for $150/strand to 15 × 18 mm pastels at $625/strand.


The largest-ever baroque-coin bead- nucleated cultured pearls (squares, rectangles, and rounds) were also available. They’re characterized by thick nacre, heavy blemishes, and lines that sweep across the pearl “as though the nacre was being pulled inside the mollusk,” says Berger. The range of sizes and prices for the cultured baroque coins are 10 × 12 mm whites for $150/strand to 19 × 25 mm light pastels at $500/strand.


Small off-round strands were priced from $18/strand for 3 × 3.5 mm to $48/strand for 6 × 6.5 mm. The cultured white-rosé pearls were tissue activated and had 100 percent nacre; they were clean and well matched and exhibited excellent luster.

Moderate-size (6.5 × 7 mm and up) pearls ranged in price from $80/strand for the smallest to $275–$300/strand for 8.5 × 9 mm. Sizes from 9 mm ranged from $250/strand to $2,800/strand for 12 × 14 mm specimens.


Top-quality round Chinese freshwater tissue-nucleated cultured pearls with nat-ural color and high luster that are clean, well matched, and 100 percent nacre remain rare. The growth period is still said to range from three to 10 years in the water. Multipastel strands with 11 × 12 mm pearls were seen priced at $28,000/strand.


Some producers insert Chinese freshwater cultured pearls as the bead; others use the standard freshwater shell bead. Both pearl- and bead-nucleated CFWCPs (5 percent to 10 percent nacre thickness) produced a high percentage of pearls with “tails.” Strands of pearls with “tails” were priced at $500.


Based on what she saw in Tucson, Ariz., Berger says that it looks as if the Pearl Ministry in French Polynesia “has curbed the exportation of low-quality and heavily blemished pearls with nacre thickness of less than 0.8 mm.” We saw very few low-quality Tahitians. But fine-quality aubergine (eggplant) and pistachio colors were sorely missing. Some feel that this may be the result of a change in the mineralization of French Polynesian waters. Others report that most of the nicer goods are going to the Far East. In Tucson we saw mostly black-and-gray mixed strands.


The trend of combining all South Seas varieties and large Chinese freshwaters continues. The pearls typically seen in such mixed strands are black Tahitian cultured pearls, white Australian South Seas cultured pearls, golden Indonesian South Seas cultured pearls, and peachy pastel Chinese freshwater tissue-activated cultured pearls.


Bead-nucleated Japanese akoya cultured pearls of 6 mm and 7 mm are rare, and most akoyas in that range come from China and now Vietnam. The trend began when the Chinese producers sent their akoya through Japan for final processing and manufacturing. As fewer and fewer Japanese pearls became available in the 1980s and ’90s, the lesser-quality Chinese became more apparent. Most dealers today claim it’s quality of nacre that counts, not where it was grown. (While this may be mostly true, the colder Japanese waters still result in a higher natural luster.)

Helping remove the cheap “made in China” stigma, Chinese akoyas are wearing thicker nacre these days, as evidenced by less “blinking.” (Bead-nucleated pearls with thin nacre will blink light/dark as the pearl is rotated. The blink comes from light traveling with—and then opposite—the straight layers of shell from which the bead is created.)

Top-quality (approximately 5 percent nacre thickness) akoya in larger sizes (8, 9, and even 10 mm) are generally from Japan and are priced accordingly. Berger saw prices for 9.5 × 10 mm at $11,000/strand.


Competition to the Japanese large akoyas now comes from Australian South Seas cultured pearls. Almost indistinguishable from Japanese akoyas or from high-end CFWCPs, the small Aussies were seen in sizes from 7 mm to 8 mm. This competition for the 7 mm through 10 mm round is merely a byproduct of experimentation. It is said that by cultivating these smaller South Seas pearls, a larger second harvest with lengthier cultivation period results in 9 mm to 14 mm pearls.