goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

In the Pearl Business
Everybody’s got a Thin Skin

by Richard W. Wise, G.G.

Recently, an editorial in Modern jeweler Magazine set off a minor brouhaha in the pearl industry. The subject of the piece was the increasing prevalence in the market of “thin skinned” Japanese Akoya pearls. The Akoya oyster is a species of salt-water mollusk that produces the type of pearl that has dominated the market for more than seventy years.

Cultured in the relatively cool Japanese waters, these pearls are bead nucleated which means that a bead, usually a sphere ground from a species of American freshwater clam, is inserted into the mantle tissues of the oyster. The oyster is then planted in protected bay waters for periods between eighteen months and seven years then opened and voila, a perfect glowing orb.

Well that’s, at least, what the pearl industry would like us to believe. The fact is that the pearl once it leaves its protected shell is subject to a high degree of processing. Normally the pearl is bleached to remove the characteristic blue-gray spots and the natural gold and green tones. They are then dyed pink to simulate the natural iridescent pink glow that experts call orient. Orient also called overtone is a quality that imparts life and characterizes the very finest of pearls. Pearls with relatively thick levels of nacre will exhibit this phenomenon without the aid of dye.

Actually the fact that in many cases the pearl is yanked out of its shell relatively early in the culturing process resulting in a thin skinned product is also, as David Federman the editorial writer himself admits, rather old news. As Avi Raz, President of A&Z Pearls points out, “this is a discussion that could have taken place twenty, thirty…even fifty years ago”. So then, why raise this dusty old issue now? Well part of the reason may be the fact that for most of the last century, Akoya was the only game in town.

Fuji Voll, President of Pacific Pearls is a man who literally grew up in the Japanese pearl business. His father now aged 89 and still an active dealer in Hong Kong, took his young family, fled Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930’s and set himself up in the pearl business in Japan where the family remained throughout the Second World War. In The Beginning:

According to the younger Voll, Federman is, in a sense, blaming the victim. In the aftermath of World War II, the Japanese pearl industry needed to make money. The U.S.A. was the primary market. American buyers demanded white, round, perfectly matched pearls and the producers set out to satisfy that demand. The fact that pearls of this description are rare made a high degree of processing a necessity. The Japanese product met American expectations. The Japanese pearl producers were happy, they had a monopoly. American jewelers were happy they had a product they could sell. Nobody asked questions about durability and everybody made money. It was, according to Voll, the ignorance and absolute contempt of American dealers for their clients that is the real cause of the current situation.

Enter the Chinese freshwater pearl.

Now the market has changed. We are in the midst of a pearl renaissance. Pearls seem to be coming from everywhere. American Freshwater pearls from Tennessee, Southsea Pearls from Australia, The Philippines, Indonesia and Burma. Black Pearls from the Tuamotu, Gambier and Cook Islands and last but not least the pearls that are taking the market by storm, freshwater pearls from China.

Here is a product that is, for the most part, tissue nucleated. This means that there is no bead insert. A small piece of mantle tissue from a host mollusk is inserted in the shell resulting in a pearl that is 100% nacre. Of course, The Chinese product is not without its own set of problems, among these: bleaching, dyeing and silicon coating.

The Lull Before The Storm:

According to Raz the whole durability issue is “hogwash”. As long as jewelers will buy cheap pearls someone will sell cheap pearls to them. Why blame the Japanese? Who then should we blame? Raz, a dealer, seems very willing to pass it further down the chain.

Raz has a point but that’s not what Federman is worried about. Federman raises the specter of the Emerald market and its recent crash, a situation brought about by a series of exposes of undisclosed emerald treatments that appeared in the national media. On that possibility Raz seems blasé but with everyone from Tom Brokaw to Debra Norville looking under every available rock for an opportunity to expose anyone who isn’t owned by the various media empires, dealers like Raz should perhaps take Federman’s heads up a bit more seriously.

Some of these pearls are harvested at eighteen months or sooner. The Akoya oyster lays down nacre at a rate of about 0.15 of a millimeter per year. Do the math. Pearls removed from the shell in under two years have a nacre thickness of less than a quarter of a millimeter. This sort of pearl will actually wear out leaving the consumer with a strand of very expensive freshwater shell beads. Mr. Raz doesn’t see this as a problem. Such pearls, he contends, are easy to avoid because “these thin nacred pearls carry little or no luster and are very pale in color.” What about the so-called late harvest pearls, pearls removed later in the season when the water is colder, thin-skinned pearls that have a very convincing luster and after processing a distinct pink tint. Mr. Raz claims never to have heard of cold harvest pearls. Voll has heard of them. He maintains that the best time to harvest is during periods when the oyster is dormant. This occurs during the hottest and coldest times of the year. At other times there is a chance you will harvest just when the oyster has secreted half a layer of nacre and that will be dull. Even so, he contends, much of what is attributed to the time of harvest is probably just a result of more effective treatment.

So where does that leave us. Seems like storm clouds on the horizon and some folks with their heads buried firmly in the sand. Sound familiar? What’s the problem here? Is it greedy producers, arrogant dealers or stupid jewelers. Maybe its some of all three. Wait a minute I hear somebody knocking at the door. Well what do you know its Mike Wallace! Maybe he can sort this whole thing out.


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