INTRODUCTION TO PEARLS

Pearls are among the oldest and most universal of all gems, indicators of wealth in the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran. Unlike precious gems worked from ore or stone that needed to be faceted and polished, pearls arrived in an already beautiful form that ancient peoples could readily use.

With today's pearls available to almost any working person, it is practically impossible to comprehend the extraordinary value our ancestors placed upon the oyster accidents. Contemporary strands are relatively inexpensive because they are made from plentiful cultured pearls. An average necklace for $1,000 will have from 56 to 58 pearls, thus retailing at under $18 a pearl. The whole world of pearls changed between 1920 and 1930 as cultured pearls from Japan almost totally replaced naturals. In the 1920's there were over 300 U.S. natural pearl dealers. By the 1950's they were down to six, and now there are none.

How then is a cultured pearl made or produced? A trained technician makes an incision in a precise area of the mollusk using specialized tools. Then, a spherical shell bead or “nucleus”, along with a graft of tissue from a carefully chosen donor mollusk is inserted into the host mollusk. This process is called “nucleation.” These techniques are highly guarded secrets. After the operation, the oysters are taken back to their beds where they are placed in special protective nets and allowed to recuperate and grow. A "nacre" sac (pearl sac) will form within 10 days, enveloping the nucleus, and will then begin to create a nacre coating on the surface of the shell bead. Nacre is that lustrous substance on the inside of the shell more commonly called mother-of-pearl. As time goes on, this mother-of-pearl coating surrounds the nucleus. Approximately 18 months are required to form enough concentric layers of nacre to withstand drilling and to create the luster of the pearl. At the end of 18 months, the oysters are removed and their gems are released to be sold in the world markets.

The Market for Traditional Pearls

Pearls are second only to diamonds in the volume of global jewelry sales. Unlike other precious and semi-precious stones, pearls are the only grown gem. Pearls are renewable and have always been a primary jewelry product for the young and old. Today’s pearls fit almost any designer trends – they are used as accents to clothes and are common adornments for young girls. The world market for pearls has shown dramatic growth over the last decade, with the retail market estimated at around $3 billion. Over $400 million worth of pearls are imported into the United States annually. However, due to smuggling and undervaluing, it is impossible to accurately value the retail market for pearls, and the above numbers are likely only a fraction of the true market. Further, since there are no duties or tariffs on loose pearls coming into the U.S., few reliable statistics are available for the import of these gems.

With pearls from the South Pacific islands and other sources becoming more available, as well as the huge influx of freshwater pearls from China, the consumer market of the since the mid-1990s has been faced with more pearl options than ever before. Beginning around 1995, major markets in the United States and Europe began to significantly increase their purchases of pearls. In Europe, pearl imports doubled in quantity between 1995 and 2000, while in the United States they quadrupled. Since 2000, the popularity of pearls has continued to grow.

The suppliers of the traditional pearl industry are spread throughout the South Pacific and Asia, with the Japanese and Chinese producing primarily the smaller common white pearls. Currently, the market for black pearls from Tahiti is estimated to be in excess of $150 million, which represents 75 percent of Tahiti's gross national product. Two independent producers are responsible for an estimated 75 percent of all Tahitian black pearl production.

Although Japanese companies once produced the largest number of pearls, the Chinese have come into this industry and have been very competitive with the Japanese. However, despite no longer controlling all pearl production, the Japanese maintain significant influence in terms of nucleus production, color enhancement, technology, and distribution networks. Japanese pearl quality in recent years has dropped dramatically, with primary blame being laid on two factors. First, pollution plagues Ago Bay, which has long been the hub of pearl production in Japan. Recent pearl crops are down by as much as 60 percent because of both natural and man-made pollutants, which kill off all but the hardiest of the Japanese mollusks. Second, the Japanese desire to have greater and quicker pearl growth to satisfy demand has resulted in pearls of inferior quality. Instead of one-and-a-half to two years of growing time, some Japanese enterprises are harvesting pearls in as little as six to nine months, creating pearls with such thin nacre that they will crack and become dull in just a few years.

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