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Pearls: Gems of the Ocean

Before They Can Adorn Your Sweetheart's Neck, Pearls Must Be Gently Cultivated
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 2)

But neither China nor Japan competes in the sector of the South Seas cultured pearls. Here, in the warm waters of the South Pacific around Australia, Indonesia and Tahiti, mollusks grow to a huge size. Known as the Pinctada maxima family, these oysters produce pearls as large as 22 millimeters--three-quarters of an inch in diameter. The average size of South Seas pearls ranges from 12 to 16 millimeters in diameter. The technique used to culture South Seas pearls is similar to that used with the Akoya pearl. The cultivators in the South Seas have improved their production by keeping the oysters out of harm's way. If there is a drastic change in water temperature, they can raise the oysters quickly, with a minimum of disruption, to a more agreeable level of the ocean. They also get more mileage from each oyster; the South Seas oyster is tolerant of a second implant after the first pearl is harvested, and in some cases it can even tolerate a third and fourth implant. Various members of this family produce exquisitely colored pearls ranging from white to silvery to creamy pink. John Block, head of the precious objects division at Sotheby's, says, "The biggest prices have been for gem-quality pearls with a pink overtone."

The majority of Australian South Seas pearls come in a silvery tone. In Tahiti, the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster produces a range of deep tones, including purple and green-black. Black pearls are really anything but--they're peacock color, with greens and blues and reds all in one strand. They have an iridescence that makes them particularly colorful. Some are the color of eggplant, hence the term "aubergine." All of these colors are natural, even though the pearls themselves are cultivated. This makes for some cumbersome descriptions, but they're worth reading carefully. Recently some disreputable pearl producers have offered white South Seas pearls that have been dyed using a new technique that is very difficult to discern. The industry's most prestigious laboratory, the Gemological Institute of America, in New York, is refining a method for detecting this treatment. If pearls have been dyed, they should be worth a fraction of the price of naturally colored ones.

In spite of their enormous size, South Seas pearls still convey a feeling of refined beauty, quite different from diamond or colored gemstone jewelry of equal price. It's difficult to imagine almost anyone but Elizabeth Taylor wearing a half-million dollar diamond necklace at lunchtime, but a pearl necklace of that value would look quite graceful on any woman. It's the lack of flash that appeals to women from all tiers of society. It's the reason that pearls of all sizes and colors were avidly snatched up at Sotheby's Magnificent Jewelry auction last October. A single strand of 63 natural pearls, so beautifully matched it took 10 years to assemble them, was sold for $464,500, while a strand of 25 South Seas cultured pearls, measuring 15 to 18 millimeters, brought $618,500.

The production of South Seas pearls began with the arrival of Japanese companies, which brought technicians to the region following the Second World War. They sought to expand their businesses by cultivating larger pearls than could be grown in the bays of Japan. The Australian pearl farms dot the country's north coast, where the silver-lipped oyster can flourish. Around Indonesia, the yellow-lipped mollusk makes the creamy-colored South Seas pearls. This is the color that was once produced in the legendary Burmese pearls. The color of the lip is crucial to the color of the pearl produced, for it is the bit of mantle taken from this area that lends the nacre its color. Unfortunately for the world, and certainly for the Burmese, the takeover there by a socialist government in 1951 was the beginning of the end for its pearl industry.

An oddity of cultured pearl production, both for the Akoyaandthe South Seas, is the creation of "keshi." These smaller pearls form from bits of mantle that find their way into the oyster. Because they are byproducts of the culturing process, the producers do not consider them to be natural pearls. South Seas keshi may be as large as 10 to 12 millimeters.

While the warmer waters of the South Pacific do make life easier for the oysters, their lives are not without peril. To hear Salvador Assael, known as the king of Tahitian black pearls, tell it, there's always a natural disaster waiting just around the corner. "Right now Indonesia is producing very little, because about four or five years ago an earthquake and tidal waves destroyed 80 percent of the pearl farms."

Still, it's clearly worth all the risk. In terms of value, South Seas pearls are the Rolls-Royces of the industry. Measuring by kan (3.75 kilograms), the standard pearl weight, approximately 22,000 kan of Akoya pearls were produced in 1996, for a total value of about $880 million. About 1,200 kan of Tahitian black pearls were produced, with an estimated value of between $150 million and $200 million (figures supplied by the Cultured Pearl Information Center), while 400,000 Australian South Seas pearls brought $300 million.

Both the Akoya and the South Seas pearls are cultivated in the ocean, in mollusks that are at home in salt water. But rivers and lakes also host pearl-bearing mollusks. These, naturally, are known as freshwater pearls. Freshwater mollusks are more delicate than their ocean-dwelling cousins. They will not tolerate a hard nucleus. Instead, a piece of mantle tissue is inserted to initiate the creation of nacre. This yields an amorphous pearl.

But the times they are a changin' here, too. The Chinese have begun to produce reasonably round pearls in freshwater mollusks. If they are able to produce a consistent crop, they can give the Akoya pearl producers something else to worry about. For now, the majority of freshwater pearl production retains that soft free-form shape. The irregular shape of freshwater pearls, however, can be a virtue when the pearls are well matched and the surface texture is lustrous and pit-free. When the demand for freshwater pearls was at its height in the 1980s, production in China was pushed to the limits. In a wild period of hasty production, low-end, poorly formed pearls known as 'Rice Crispies' were produced.

The best of the freshwater production in the 1980s came from Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Although the lake is very deep and is fed by mountain streams, it was vastly overused and became so polluted, it no longer produced beautiful pearls. And yet, Lake Biwa is returning to life. The surprise is that the cultivators have taken a new direction. Instead of producing the smooth-skinned irregularly shaped pearls for which the lake was known, they have figured out how to produce nearly round 10- to 14-millimeter pearls that would cost a fraction of the price of South Seas pearls. The work is still in the experimental stages, but according to Devin Macnow, the quality is there. "I've seen some samples," he says, "but production is still five to 10 years in the future. They might find once they put a million oysters in the water, the production may be very limited anyway." Still, it's a tantalizing thought. The Japanese may be well advised to keep their focus on the pearls, one of their most traditional products, and stay away from those real estate and movie production deals.

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