Cultured Pearls Offer A Palette of Choices
Antoinette Matlins, PG

Natural pearls are rarer than ever before, but at the end of the 19th century, an Australian named William Saville-Kent and three Japanese “inventors”—Tokichi Nishikawa, a biologist; Tatsuhei Mise, a carpenter; and Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker—discovered techniques for culturing pearls. Were it not for them, most of us would never enjoy wearing these sensual gems at all. By 1920 Mikimoto had established Japan as the exclusive source of cultured pearls and it would remain so for almost a century. His pearls were round, white, typically less than eight millimeters in diameter and the pearls that first come to mind when people think of pearls. Known as akoya pearls, they are still produced in Japan today, and also in China.

During the 20th century, prices for cultured pearls soared as demand outpaced supply. In the mid-1990s, six necklaces of beautiful, large, round, white South Sea cultured pearls fetched prices over one million dollars at Sotheby’s and Christies, the record being $2,310,000 for a necklace of 23 very large pearls. While natural pearl necklaces have traditionally brought much higher prices, this cultured pearl necklace brought more than had ever before been paid for a natural pearl necklace! Such prices have not been seen for over a decade because of increased production and declining quality due to greater numbers of pearls being artificially treated, but fine, large, luminous South Sea cultured pearls still command $800,000 to $1,000,000, and exceptional naturally black cultured pearls, from $400,000 to $600,000.

The South Sea variety remains the “queen” of cultured pearls, but there are now more varieties of pearls than ever before. Color is the rage; naturally black pearls from French Polynesia (Tahiti) and the Cook Islands; rich golden pearls from the Philippines; exotic dark colors from Mexico; and multi-color strands from several countries, including Fiji, which produces an array of colors not seen elsewhere.

Multi-color pearl necklace from Fiji. Sotheby’s NY Sale No: 8629, Lot: 312, 4/20/10. Sold for $26,250. Photography Courtesy Sotheby’s, Inc. 2010, from the Collection of Mr. W. Graham Arader III.

Pearl Culturing Today

Whether natural or cultured, pearls are organic gems; that is, produced by something living. As discussed in part one of this series, pearls form when the oyster coats an “intruder” with pearly secretions called nacre (nay-ker). In natural pearls the intruder is usually a tiny sea parasite. In cultured pearls it is a nucleus inserted by skilled technicians. Cultured pearls can only be produced by certain oyster varieties and farms produce most of them, ensuring a continuous supply. When the oysters reach the right size, usually after two to three years, they are taken from the water to undergo a delicate surgical procedure in which technicians insert the nucleus. They are then returned to the water, to bays protected from waves, strong tides, and sea prowlers. Water conditions must then be checked regularly, nutritional needs supplemented, and the oysters periodically inspected and cleaned. It takes another 18 months to two years for the oyster to create a fine cultured pearl.

The entire process is long and arduous and there are many unpredictable variables. Despite all the efforts of man, science and technology, it is the oyster and nature that will decide whether or not there will be a pearl at all, let alone determine its lustrousness, shape, color and surface smoothness. Pearl producers have little control over whether the oyster accepts or rejects the nucleus, whether it will produce a beautiful pearl, whether natural disasters such as a deadly “red tide” will kill an entire oyster population, or whether acts of nature will alter water purity and temperature, thereby affecting nacre production.

Only a very small percentage of any pearl crop can be classified as “fine.” Following each harvest, producers invite major buyers from around the world to bid for them at auction. Because of their rarity, competition can be keen for the best lots. As with diamonds and other gemstones, pearl prices don’t vary much from country to country because they are largely based on what the major players have had to pay for them.

No Universal Quality Classifications

Although all pearls are judged on their luster and orient, size, color and surface perfection, there are no universally established guidelines. Pearls are often graded by retailers using an A,B,C scale, with AAA, AA or A being the top quality, but in the absense of universally accepted standards, one store’s AAA-quality might be another’s B or C. Pearls must be compared side-by-side, against a neutral background color, under a diffused light source -rarely the way they are shown in jewelry stores. Carry a piece of white tissue paper on which you can lay the pearls, and move away from the spotlights; you’ll be surprised at the differences you’ll then see.

When experts use the term “fine,” it is generally understood that the nacre is at least 0.35 millimeter thick, the shape very symmetrical, the luster very nice, the surface free of unsightly blemishes and that the color is beautiful. But whatever color you seek, the larger the pearl, the more difficult it is to have all these characteristics.

Understanding The Cost Impact of Size

Although size is determined primarily by the size of the oyster and the size of the nucleus, whatever type of pearl you are considering the costlier it will be as size increases. A small oyster variety such as that used to produce Japan’s akoya pearls will normally either eject nuclei over seven and a half millimeters in diameter, produce an inferior pearl, or die! This is why very fine quality akoya pearls are rarely over eight to eight and a half millimeters, and when they are, they cost much more than other seven and a half to eight millimeter pearls. By comparison, South Sea cultured pearls are grown in oysters which reach more than a foot across and can accommodate much larger nuclei, producing much larger pearls (typically 15-16 millimeters). Still, when larger nuclei are used to try to produce 18-20 millimeter pearls the rejection rate is greater, so there are fewer South Sea pearls in these sizes, and far fewer of fine quality.

Today, many inferior pearls are treated by a variety of techniques to improve their appearance, especially color and lustrousness. South Sea and naturally black cultured pearls are particularly subject to various treatments to make inferior pearls appear finer than they really are; this decline in quality and need for treatments to improve appearance has generally resulted in pearl prices that appear to be much lower than in previous years. Untreated pearls are now very rare and much costlier than treated ones, making estate auctions a potential source of (older) finer pearls at more attractive prices.

Ask The Right Questions

Unlike diamonds or rare gems, pearls are rarely accompanied by reports from gem-testing laboratories, so it’s especially important to ask the right questions, get the answers in writing on the sales receipt, and confirm representations with a gemologist-appraiser. When asking about treatments, don’t ask whether or not the pearls are “natural” when you mean “untreated.” Most salespeople will think you’re seeking reassurance that they’re not imitation and will answer “yes,” even if the pearls have been treated. Be sure to ask explicitly whether the pearl has been treated, and if it is represented as untreated, get this in writing, then have it confirmed by a gemologist-appraiser.

Where bracelets and necklaces are concerned, gemologists can usually confirm whether or not they are treated by using magnification to examine the drill holes, where they may see traces of dye or other indicators of artificial enhancement. Examining the drill holes may also reveal chipping if the nacre is too thin and has begun to peel off; overly thin nacre, usually resulting from the pearl being harvested too soon, will eventually wear off altogether leaving nothing but shell beads - the original shell nuclei! Such pearls lack the lustrousness of fine pearls so they are often artificially coated with wax or polymers to impart a superficial luster. Undrilled pearls and pearls with very thick nacre may need to be sent to a laboratory for special testing and X-ray examination to determine whether natural or cultured, and whether or not they have been treated.

When selecting pearls, you must work with knowledgeable, reliable sources and verify the facts. Then it’s a matter of deciding which type of pearl is right for you. In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss the most popular types of cultured pearls, how they differ from imitation pearls, and what you can do to ensure that pearls you select will give you and future generations many years of lustrous beauty and pleasure.