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Pearls of wisdom: Unravelling the complex world of appraising pearls

China takes the lead

The rapid development of Chinese perliculture has greatly impacted the international pearl market. Recent Chinese pearl exports are in the range of 1000 to 1500 tons per year compared to Japan’s eight tons per year. Chinese freshwater cultured pearl varieties include tissue-nucleated, bead-nucleated in-mantle, and bead-nucleated in-body spherical, baroque, and fancy shapes, all of which are available in natural and treated colours.

Concurrently, there is a limited supply of finer-quality Chinese cultured freshwater and Akoya pearls (0.5 per cent of its annual export); their increased prices may overlap that of South Sea and Tahitian pearls. There seem to be new techniques in pearl culture and treatments every year, which impact the pearl supply chain and value. For example, the strand of hollow, Chinese freshwater ‘souffle’ pearls your client purchased three years ago may be extremely difficult to replace today, as the labour-intensive method used to produce them is no longer cost-effective and production is limited. When appraising these pearls, your choice may be to replace them with new old stock or an entirely different freshwater pearl strand of comparable quality and desirability. Make sure your reasoning and method of replacement are clearly described next to your value conclusion.

It is difficult to discuss Chinese freshwater pearls without mentioning Edison pearls. Introduced in 2012, these in-body, bead-nucleated freshwater pearls have become the darling of the pearl industry. Betty Sue King of King’s Ransom Pearls offered the following description: “The spectrum of peach, pink, rose, lavender, and metallic finishes simply dazzle the eye and work their magic. The best are the classic round shape due to similar nucleation techniques used for South Sea cultured pearls. Pricing is primarily determined by quality of nacre, symmetry of shape, surface, colour, and size.”

Combined with an oversupply of commercial qualities, China’s introduction of new varieties has steered other pearl-producing countries in new directions. For example, Japan and Vietnam are focused on producing ‘classic’ Akoya pearls of exceptional quality, which they believe cannot be matched by Chinese Akoyas. As a result, consumers benefit from a greater supply of these pearls, making it easier to find replacements for grandma’s fine mid-century cultured pearls with a thicker nacre. The same may be said for cultured South Sea and Tahitian pearls. The commercial end of the market is saturated with these varieties. Farmers are focused on producing pearls of higher quality with a thicker nacre to set themselves apart from the competition and this is sure to have an impact on price.

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