The Mantle Tissue Issue

For months, there has been debate in the trade press over what is in the center of large round and near-round Chinese freshwater pearls. Antoinette Matlins, author ofThe Pearl Book, has insisted that the only way to produce so many nice, big Chinese freshwaters is to bead-nucleate the mollusks with old rejected freshwater pearls.

But Todd Cislo, spokesman for C. Link of Japan, says that all the pearls his company sells are mantle-tissue-nucleated. Any suggestions that they are bead-nucleated or old-pearl-nucleated is absolutely untrue, he maintains.

Now another group has joined forces to counter Matlins’s charges. The group consists of representatives from the American Gem Trade Association’s Gem Testing Center (GTC) and the Gemological Institute of America’s Gem Trade Laboratory (GTL) and Shigeru Akamatsu, former manager of the Pearl Research Laboratory and now general manager of sales for K. Mikimoto & Co. in Tokyo. They recently X-rayed more than 40,000 Chinese freshwater pearls to find out if Matlins was correct.

Their conclusion: She’s wrong. According to GTC director Ken Scarratt, there is no significant-scale growing of Chinese freshwater pearls with anything other than mantle tissue. There are no mother-of-pearl beads, and no old “ground-to-round” freshwater pearl beads.

Tetsu Maruyama, managing director for C. Link, says the company must search through tons of baroque and off-round shapes with ordinary lusters to find enough top-top round and near-round big, beautiful pearls for approximately 200 strands. “While reports in the trade press say there are ‘large quantities of round freshwater pearls,’ 200 strands is not a lot of pearls,” Maruyama notes.

Finding no signs of bead nucleation in a 40,000-pearl sample doesn’t mean there areno pearls with these unusual centers. In fact, according to second-generation pearl dealer Fuji Voll of Pacific Pearls, thereare bead-nucleated Chinese freshwaters.

Voll, one of the world’s leading bead-nucleated freshwater pearl experts, sells Japanese Kasumi bead-nucleated freshwater pearls and travels to China looking for pearls with some “novelty” interest. When we spoke with him, he had just purchased bead-nucleated freshwater pearl strands in China. “They are easy enough to [identify],” he explained. “You just look down the drill hole and you see the nucleus.” But Voll admits that the overwhelming majority of Chinese freshwater pearls appear to be grown under normal processes, using a piece of mantle tissue to stimulate the growth of 8-mm, 9-mm, 10-mm, and larger pearls in round and near-round shapes with fine to very fine lusters. But he, too, has wondered how so many large and round freshwaters can be produced without at least some bead nucleation.

Pearl expert Fred Ward says there are bead- and pearl-nucleated pearls as well as mantle-tissue-nucleated pearls-a little of this, a little of that. “I believe there is no doubt that some of the large, round, beautiful new Chinese freshwater pearls are nucleated, and some are nucleated with old pearls. It is logical, economical, and a natural progression from culturing successes in the South Seas, in the USA, and in Japan. Naturally, China has followed suit because it got so much of its culturing technology from Japan. Because large shell nuclei are relatively expensive, it is also only logical that Chinese farmers would use plentiful Chinese freshwater pearls as nuclei. Off-color and off-round old pearls can be tumbled to round to become an endless supply of nuclei for new crops,” says Ward.

Scarratt says that the X-rays show that there are no nuclei: “Tom [Moses] and I have been X-raying pearls for many years, but we felt that we should be looking at the most recent productions to answer the questions that have been raised. One way or the other, we needed to address the issue.”

But Matlins questions the researchers’ methodology. “I find the race to defend the pearl industry very curious,” she says. “Are we interested in the truth of the matter or simply stonewalling the investigative process? The laboratory findings of GIA and AGTA are based primarily on conventional X-radiography. The reliability, however, of conventional testing techniques to determine how these unconventional pearls have been produced is suspect. Scarratt and Moses say that 45,000 pearls were X-rayed, but how many were sectioned?”

X-raydoes tell the whole story, insists Scarratt. “When you cut a pearl in half, it’s like opening a book. You get only the information you can see,” which in a book is only one page on either side. “With a radiograph, you get all the information in the book.”

“The 1,200 tons of freshwater pearls that China produces annually contain every possible culturing technique,” notes Ward. “Give the Chinese some credit for innovation and creativity. It should be no surprise and no real issue in the trade to find the Chinese making pearls with and without solid bead nuclei, with tissue balls of all shapes, with wax, and no doubt with a dozen other items we haven’t even thought of yet. Who should really care what’s inside a nucleated cultured pearl? Does it matter? Does it affect prices? I think we’ve let the labs and the gemological gadflies in the gem trade scare us to death.”