Jenny Berich discovers that mankind’s lust for the mysterious jewel from the deep continues to grow – irrespective of changing economic fortunes.
Pearls have been highly prized by men and women for thousands of years. The almost perfect beauty of these “living gems” has been considered a rare and almost priceless treasure by many throughout history – Cleopatra crushed a large pearl into a goblet of wine and drank it to convince Mark Antony that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth beyond conquest.
Today natural pearls are virtually non-existent in the traditional retail market but their successor, the cultured pearl, is equally desirable – and available in larger quantities and more colours, sizes and shapes than “nature” could ever produce.
First introduced to the general public in 1921 at the World Exhibition in Paris, cultured pearls are formed when humans intentionally introduce an irritant into an oyster (to protect itself, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of nacre thus transforming it into a pearl).
Currently there are three main groups of cultured pearls available around the world – Akoya, South Sea (White and Black) and Freshwater.
Akoya pearls are nucleated saltwater pearls cultivated in the Akoya oyster. Predominantly found in Japan, Korea and China the majority of Akoya pearls are round in shape and have primary base colours of white, cream or yellow.
The White South Sea pearl is recognised as the ‘Queen of Pearls’. Mainly produced in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, White South Sea pearls are normally pink, white, silver, blue, cream, yellow, champagne or gold.
Black South Sea pearls, commonly known as Tahiti cultured pearls, are cultivated in Tahiti. The iridescent colours of the pearls range from gold through green to aubergine and jet black while the most common shapes are off-round, oval, baroque and semi-baroque.
Freshwater pearls are mostly cultivated in China. They are available in an endless variety of shapes including oval, egg, button, drop and ‘potato’ but perfectly round are very rare. The most common natural colours are white, champagne, cream, orange, pink, purple, lilac, mauve, dark blue and brown.
Other popular pearls are Mabe and Keshi:
Mabe pearls are cultured half-pearls that are grown on the inside of a shell. Common shapes include round, oval, cushion, drop and heart. As Mabe are very fragile they are generally used for earrings and pendants.
Keshi pearls are naturally formed in the soft tissue of most cultured pearl bearing oysters as a by-product of the culturing procedure. The seedless pearls are normally small and irregular in shape.
Lustre, Lustre, Lustre
Although pearls vary greatly in type, size, shape, colour and price, each has its own intrinsic beauty – and there is no doubt that the beauty of today’s best cultured pearls far exceeds that of natural pearls.
However pearls desirability among the buying public is sometimes compromised by the lack of general knowledge about the gem’s unique qualities.
For example although many fine jewellery customers are aware of the four Cs in diamond grading few know any characteristics that differentiate a perfect pearl from a not-so- perfect one.
In fact there is currently no formal grading system for pearls in Australia.
According to the Gemmological Association of Australia, pearls can be graded by a number of factors including shape, colour, quality of skin, luster and matching (if on a strand).
The GAA does not have a formal pearl grading system but the association’s endorsed gem testing and diamond grading laboratory (Gem Studies Laboratory) offers an authentication service for pearls which involves x-ray testing of the pearls to prove whether they are natural or cultured pearls.
“GSL does not offer a formal grading certificate for pearls, although the authentication and x-ray report describes the shape, colour, quality of skin, lustre and, if in a strand, the matching of the pearls,” explains GAA’s Kathryn Wyatt.
As there is no national grading/certification system for pearls several grading systems have been developed by producers and distributors to help consumers and retailers understand why one pearl is worth so much more than another.
For example South Sea pearl producer and distributor Autore developed and published its South Sea Cultured Pearl Classification Guide last year.
The Classification Guide grades individual pearls by reference to the company’s five S’s – Shine (the lustre or iridescence of the pearl’s surface), Surface (the blemishes or pearl grain that appears on the pearl’s skin), Shade (the colours and hues reflected from the pearl’s nacre), Shape (round, near round, drop, button, baroque and circle) and Size.
Autore Group CEO Rosario Autore says the certification of pearls, based on the classification guide, allows retailers to sell pearls with more confidence and ultimately, “give the consumer assurances that the product purchased has an internationally recognised value”.
In a similar effort the South Sea Pearl Consortium has also published a guide outlining five basic criteria used to evaluate a pearl – Lustre, Size, Shape, Colour and Surface.
However the Consortium appears confident that a pearl’s natural beauty will impress potential customers far more than any quality grading.
“With gemstones there is an exhaustive set of standards by which cut stones are judged,” the Consortium’s Guide reports. “But with the pearl, natural beauty is the overriding factor in selection. And because beauty is in the eye of the beholder different pearls captivate different people.”
Thus despite the general public’s lack of pearl knowledge many a woman is convinced to purchase her first pearl earrings or pendant simply by trying them on and witnessing the effect of the pearl’s lustre on her own beauty.
And that lustre, which is considered by all the most important factor in determining a pearl’s value, is what continues to drive pearl sales – of all shapes, colours and sizes.
David Norman, director of pearl wholesaler Barok, believes that the pearl jewellery retail market has grown dramatically in the last 10 years and is likely to continue to grow.
He says pearls have become “more popular, cheaper to acquire and more mainstream in their appeal” thanks largely to celebrity endorsement.
“This has led to the greatest change (in the pearl market) which is the development of the pearl jewellery business which has grown the whole pearl market,” he says.
“Branded pearl jewellery such as Kailis, Autore, Golay and Hodel is now commonly sold around the world, and some of the major pearl wholesalers have entered the finished jewellery market.
“It is also becoming more usual for pearl producers such as Australian firms Paspaley, Kailis and Autore to carry their own brand of pearl jewellery and sell it in their own retail stores. This in turn increases the whole pearl market’s visibility and encourages more and more jewellers to stock pearls so what was once only purchased by a few (South Sea pearls) are now widely available all over the world.”
Norman says Tahitian and Australian South Sea pearls and the Philippines’ golden pearls are all currently strong sellers for Barok but there has also been a recent surge in demand for “more bang for the buck“ items such as circled South Sea pearl strands which “despite their beauty and charm are five to ten times less money than round strands”.
He notes there is also strong demand for baroque pearls, rings and pendants, matched pairs of drops and rounds in all colours and “bigger, rarer, extraordinary single pieces”.
“There is also an ever growing segment in the market for finished pearl jewellery reaching new and younger clients,” he says. “This segment is growing at the expense of the traditional strand market although pearl strands still sell very well.”
Similarly Rudi Zingg, president of Devino Pearls, believes Australian women are becoming more fashion-forward in their pearl jewellery purchases.
He says wealthy consumers went on a pearl buying spree in the mid- to late-90s when South Sea pearls first rose to prominence.
“They wanted a white South Sea necklace, they wanted a black Tahitian necklace and then many of them wanted a gold South Sea necklace and now many people in Australia who can afford it, do have black, white and gold pearl necklaces in their jewellery wardrobe,” he says.
Zingg believes women are now often choosing baroque and keshi necklaces as well as long necklaces and fashion pieces.
“Today women want something that you don’t often see: Nice baroque pearls have become rare nowadays,” he says.
Russell Hanigan from the Australian Pearl Centre (which supplies Australian South Sea pearls to the wholesale market) also agrees that pearl jewellery is becoming increasingly popular.
“The most noticeable change in trends during the last 10 years is that jewellers are increasingly making the most of the tremendous versatility of South Sea pearls,” he says.
“As South Sea pearls have become more accessible, jewelers have ventured away from the traditional strand and stud earrings and are producing South Sea pearl jewellery that allows the best presentation of the pearl and demonstrates the individuality of the designer and the customer,” he says.
Nonetheless he says that despite the influx of new more exciting pearl jewellery designs white continues to the most popular colour for South Sea pearls in Australia “as it is the most flattering to the majority of skin tones”.
Pearls and a Lacklustre Economy
Pearls may be a popular choice with consumers but as the world’s economic crisis continues to dominate the media some wholesalers and retailers are concerned that pearl and pearl jewellery sales may fall in the coming year as purse strings are tightened.
Norman believes the combination of higher interest rates, less tourists due to the “high Aussie dollar for most of 2007”, falling stock markets and dwindling city bonuses, and rising fuel and food prices has “not put pearls at the top of the shopping list for many consumers”.
“I think the winter was particularly bad for everyone, but am optimistic spring and summer and the recent lower dollar will help,” he says.
Hanigan says sales for the Australian Pearl Centre have been steady in recent months.
“In 2007 sales were strong to local customers due to a bull market and a strong Australian dollar,” he says.
“In the last 12 months the local trend has become a little bit more conservative as the market has slowed however with the weakening Australian dollar we expect that sales to the tourist market will increase.”
Hanigan believes the immediate future for pearl sales is “very promising”.
“Pearls are becoming more and more popular as women appreciate that wearing South Sea pearls enhances their beauty more so than other gems,” he says.
“In addition the range of prices available (compared to other gemstones) allows the customer to purchase pearls at a price point that works for them.
Ben Bunda, the owner of Bunda Jewellery, a high-end retailer based at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel is also confidant that pearl and pearl jewellery will continue to sell well in coming months despite Australia’s currently lacklustre economy.
“Pearls are a staple part of every woman’s jewellery wardrobe,” he says.
“Most Australian women already have a strand of pearls so now they’re looking for something new but there is no distinct buying trend.”
“It’s not like five years ago when a celebrity in the US wearing a beautiful strand of 12 to 14mm Tahitian round pearls would drive demand for Tahitian pearl strands for Australian self-purchasers who want to wear them with a business suit.”
Bunda says that although the pearl itself was a relatively simple objet de beaute the pearl market was “very complex”.
“To successfully sell pearls you’ve got to know the product and understand the fashion trends of the market,” he says
“You must know what you are looking at or deal with someone who you feel knows what they are doing because there is such a large range of pearls to choose from and you’ve really got to know what you can and can’t sell.”
He says the large variety of pearl types, size, colours and shapes – and most importantly, price points, means that they are particularly well placed to survive any economic downturn.
“You can sell a pair of Freshwater pearl earrings for $20 or a pair of South Sea pearl earrings for $10,000,” says Bunda.
The beauty of a pearl is indeed always in the eyes of the beholder.
* Reference: Jewellery World Retailers’ Pearl Course 2003 by Rudy Zingg of Devino