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Pearls of wisdom: Unravelling the complex world of appraising pearls

Origin matters

Much like Burmese ruby and Kashmir sapphire, some pearls’ country of origin may significantly impact its value. Case in point: Japanese Kasumi pearls from Lake Kasumigaura. These gems are cultured and harvested by a very small group of pearl farmers and trade at a significant premium over their Chinese freshwater counterparts. Currently, the entire harvest of Lake Kasumi pearls is less than 33 lbs (15 kilos) per year. Unfortunately, Chinese freshwater in-body pearls are being misrepresented as Japanese Kasumi pearls, leading to much confusion in the trade and among consumers. “Japanese Kasumi pearls command on average 10 times the price,” says Sarah Canizzaro of importer Kojima Pearl Co., in San Rafael, Calif. Provenance is a major factor appraisers must consider when valuing these pearls. Her advice is to obtain copies of the client’s purchase receipts with dates wherever possible.

You may encounter other cases of mistaken identity affecting value, such as

  • “¨saltwater Keshi versus freshwater Chinese ‘Keshi’ versus Japanese ‘Keshi’ versus American freshwater;
  • “¨cultured Akoya versus natural saltwater;
  • “¨cultured freshwater versus natural freshwater;
  • “¨cultured round Akoya versus cultured round freshwater; and
  • “¨mixed pearl strands of various species, either antique or contemporary.

How can you avoid making costly errors? First, meet the suppliers. Many of them specialize in certain varieties, so get to know who sells what. Find out where they exhibit. If you cannot attend the major trade shows, you may be able to visit them at a regional gem show closer to home. Second, stay current to the latest trends, developments in perliculture, and treatments. It is essential appraisers understand which colours occur naturally and which do not and why. Become familiar with industry jargon and trade names, such as ‘fireball,’ ‘coin,’ and ‘petal.’ They’re incorrect from a gemmological point of view, but allow you to conduct market research and communicate effectively with pearl vendors.

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Remember, pearl prices are a moving target, so use price guides in conjunction with your market research. Attend gemmological conferences, read trade journals, and participate in online appraisal and pearl forums. I have listed some excellent resources at the end of this article.

Fortunate appraisers may encounter some of the rare species, such as conch pearl, quahog, abalone, melo melo, or cave pearl (not a typo). Look carefully and you will find most of these at the Tucson gem shows or your natural history museum. I was thrilled to see a Victorian gold necklace by Carlo Giuliano set with a fringe of cave pearls at Heritage Auctions. Each species is exotic and unique, with its own set of grading criteria that go far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, if you encounter any of these pearls, consult an expert.

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