Upheaval in the Pearl Market

The alarming mortality of Japanese pearl-producing oysters hasn’t materially affected the retail market, a strong indication that the perfectly round, high-luster saltwater akoya—a bead-nucleated saltwater pearl typically ranging in size from 4 mm to 7 mm—is still king. That’s according to a recent JCK poll of retail jewelers, who reported that Japanese akoya pearls represent 70% of their cultured pearl strand sales.

Wholesaler Avi Raz, owner of A&Z Pearls in Los Angeles, has a simple explanation: “The Japanese akoya has a better luster.” Why? The combination of mollusk variety and colder water temperatures makes for thin, tightly packed nacreous layers, which disperse light with an iridescence that no other pearl can duplicate. A mirror-like surface gives the akoya pearl its brightness. And Raz says he has no trouble finding the right quality and size of these beauties for his clients.

Supply still short. While dealers like Raz remain sanguine, the numbers coming out of Japan are disturbing, if not shocking. Production of Japanese akoya pearls reached more than 100 tons five years ago, but this year’s harvest was down to only 24 tons. And the trend remains on a downward slope, although it’s slowed somewhat—last year’s harvest was 25 tons.

Many in the industry believe the mysterious death stems from careless disregard of Japanese inlet waters. “The Japanese neglected nature for more than half a century to obtain quick return of profit,” says Ryo Yamaguchi, president of Gems International Co. of Tokyo. “It’s like the potato farmer in Idaho,” says Raz. “You have to take good care of the land in order for the land to produce.”

Kyoichi Takeuchi, president of the Pearl Institute of Tokyo, blames the blight on more specific factors: changes in the ecosystem brought on by worldwide weather conditions such as El Niño as well as what he calls “the uninhabitable conditions which have been harming the environment,” such as pollution, red tide, and spent shells left to decay on the seafloor. “The bivalves cannot protect themselves from this,” he says. Adds Yamaguchi, “They are growing oysters in man-made tanks, creating thin shells which cannot survive the new environment. Naturally grown oysters continue to grow thick shells, which can withstand these forces of nature.”

Takeuchi still has hope for the future, based in part on “the recovering power of the marine environment.” Raz suggests that the Japanese may have to “take a break” and clean the bays.

The rest of the market. While the Japanese are coping with their pearl production problems, other producing countries are having a good year. Here’s a roundup of what’s happening globally.

  • China: Chinese akoyas are still coming into the market, but in much smaller quantities than Japanese akoya pearls. Fewer than 50% of retail stores knowingly purchase them. (Reportedly, a small percentage of retail jewelers don’t realize that some of their akoya merchandise may be Chinese and not Japanese.) Chinese akoyas account for a maximum of 20% of the pearl stock of the stores that order them.

These small numbers might indicate that the thin-nacred (hence inexpensive) Chinese akoya pearls are slowly being replaced by thick-nacred, mantle-tissue-nucleated freshwater Chinese pearls, which are becoming more readily available. Approximately 15% of all cultured pearl sales are now freshwater Chinese, but only at the lower price points—between $100 and $400 per strand. That’s a healthy percentage of the market when one considers that just three years ago, freshwater Chinese pearls were not even in the running against round Japanese akoyas.

The amazing Chinese results—nearly perfect, round, high-luster, pastel-colored, mantle-tissue-nucleated pearls—were on display at Tucson in February, but it was generally unrecognized that these spectacular pearls are rare. C. Link, a Tokyo-based Chinese pearl growing operation specializing in 9-mm to 11-mm very-fine-quality freshwaters, makes a startling observation: Of the estimated 1,000 tons of pearls produced last year, only 3% of those 8 mm or greater are considered round, and only 5% of those are considered top quality. This figures out to a meager 30 lbs. of top-quality, round freshwater Chinese pearls.

  • French Polynesia: After five years, Tahitian black pearls are still riding an upward trend. In our survey, retail jewelers report that 5% of their pearl sales are Tahitian strands priced at $5,000 to $15,000 each. Production in the islands has doubled over the past two years, and auction results show that twice as many pearls were sold in 1998 as were sold in 1997. Exports for 1998 topped 5 tons. Robert Wan, chairman of Perles de Tahiti, Tahiti’s largest pearl producer, predicts that exports will grow to 7 tons within the next five years, and he believes that as many as 40 of the 84 atolls in the area will grow black Tahitian pearls.

To be called a “Tahitian pearl,” the French Polynesian government has ruled, a pearl must be grown in French Polynesia (Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Gambier Islands, and Tubuai Islands) and be harvested from a Pinctada margaritifera, otherwise known as the black-lipped oyster. Three colors unique to the Tahitian pearl have been given “unofficial” names. Peacock, the rarest, is a greenish-black with a hint of magenta; aubergine is blackish-purple; and pistachio is a yellowish-green hue. Tahitian pearls typically range from 8 mm to 16 mm.

  • Australia and Indonesia: West of the French Polynesian Islands, Indonesia and Australia are major producers of the South Seas pearl. They use Pinctada maxima—both the silver- and the gold-lipped varieties—to produce 7-mm to 14-mm whites and goldens. Indonesia produces mainly goldens and yellows, and Australia produces mainly whites. Paspaley Pearls owns 60% of Australia’s production, which include some of the largest pearls in the world, some topping 20 mm.

The JCK poll indicates that South Seas pearls make up only 2% of retail sales, but the average selling price per strand ranges from $7,000 to $25,000, a healthy step up from Tahitian strands.

  • The Philippines: Although South Seas pearl production is new to the Philippines, the pearl has become the islands’ national gem, largely through the efforts of Jacques Branellec, managing director of Jewelmer International, the Philippines’ largest pearl producer. The warm Philippine waters yield a variety of colors, including white, cream, silver, bluish silver, cream rosé, champagne, and gold, from 11 mm to 16 mm.

Japan’s challenge. Even with their popular price point, the smaller (4 mm to 8 mm) Chinese freshwater pearls are in no danger of taking over the Japanese akoya market. However, Japanese pearl growers must turn around the declining production figures in order to continue their market dominance. In larger sizes, the Tahitian blacks are still very popular and continue to make strong gains every year. The South Seas goldens and whites are also very popular, and with the Philippines now entering into the market, the prices should remain competitive.