When the first small nucleated freshwater pearls (7mm size) were shown in Hong Kong in autumn 2017 the fact was hardly noted in the jewellery press. But in 2018 larger amounts of these new pearls appeared on the market and it became obvious to the pearl trade players that it was the beginning of the revolution, which could dramatically change the cultured pearl market in the forthcoming years. What are these new pearls which fire the imagination of pearl trading companies?
Searching for the perfect beauty
It is the sphere that has been – for centuries - considered the most perfect shape, and perfectly spherical pearls have always been the most appreciated ones. The natural pearls have this most desired shape only very rarely as the process of forming the natural gem is purely accidental and its resulting shape is affected by many factors such as shape of the seed, initial placement and size of mantle tissue and disturbances of the mother of pearl layers creation.
It is not surprising then that the pioneers of the pearl culture were searching a way of obtaining perfectly spherical gems, and the experiments aiming at improving the shape of the pearls have been conducted up to this day. In the case of seawater pearls the technique for obtaining perfectly shaped pearls was discovered at the beginning of XX century and has been commonly used since that time. But the freshwater mussels for decades resisted the man’s efforts to apply the same procedure and the pearls obtained from these species were only very rarely round.
Two common techniques have been used in pearl culture for years:
Growing the pearls in the oyster’s gonads with the use of spherical nucleus implanted together with a piece of mantle tissue epithelium (mother of pearl producing cells). The nucleus plays a role of a shape pattern which enhances the probability that the resulting pearl will be perfectly round.
Growing non-nucleated pearls in the mantle of freshwater mussels. In this case, only the pieces of epithelium are implanted into the cuts made in the mantle (a muscle adjacent to the shell and covering the mussel organs). The technique allows to make up to 50 grafts, but attempts of using round nuclei have not been successful for many years.
The pearl market in XX century was thus dominated by two types of distinct pearls – non-nucleated, mantle grew freshwater pearls produced in vast quantities (used mainly in popular jewellery) and more exclusive nucleated and gonad grown seawater pearls. The spherical shape was an attribute of the latter ones almost exclusively.
The first major change - Edison pearls (2012)
The experiments aiming at obtaining spherical nucleated freshwater pearls were intensified at the beginning of this century and eventually resulted in success – gonad grown bead nucleated spherical shape freshwater pearls that came out in 2012. Offered by two Chinese companies, they appeared on the market under two different names – Edison and Ming, the first one becoming more popular and widely used. They were very different from what Chinese farmers had produced until that time – mostly round or semi round, sized from 10 to 20 mm, and supplied in much smaller numbers, as only one pearl could be grown in each mussel.
The high cost of production and limited supply resulted at very high prices at the beginning, comparable to their seawater counterparts. But the market success soon resulted in increasing the volumes produced and it took only 3 years for the new gems to reach the level of 30% of total freshwater pearl supply, so the prices dropped substantially. At the same time, the farmers stopped the production of non-nucleated pearls bigger than 10 mm, as Edison became a more attractive option.
Small-sized freshwater pearls were however still produced with the use of the “traditional” method, as growing them in gonads would not be economically justified. Mantle grown pearls can be produced in bigger amounts, so the experiments with grafting nuclei to the mantle were still conducted. The success eventually came in 2018.
New freshwater pearls (2018) – the revolution that will change the market
Small freshwater nucleated pearls of a spherical shape were first shown in Hong Kong in 2017, and their first lots appeared on the market in 2018 offered under the names of “new freshwater pearls”, “Mini-Ming pearls” or just “freshwater nucleated pearls”. They are grown in the same shells together with the Edison/Ming pearls, and the process of production is as follows:
One-year-old mussels get the gonad grafting (epithelium + big nucleus) for the purpose of growing Edison/Ming pearl
After 18 months the same shells are opened again and get 10-15 mantle grafts (epithelium + small nucleus, usually 6-7 grafts to each wing of the mussel)
The pearls are harvested when the mussel is 4 years old and the result is one big gonad grown pearl and 10-15 small mantle grown pearls.
The whole cycle is 3-4 years long, and the technique used for grafting is still kept secret. What we know from research done by SSEF 1) is that drilled nuclei are used, so we can guess that the epithelium is placed in the hole in the nucleus which probably helps to keep it adjacent to the bead when forming the pearl sac. In 2018 the pearls offered had the size range of 5-8.5 mm and sizes up to 10 mm are available now, so the nucleated freshwater pearls cover the whole range of 5-20 mm.
The pearls have a relatively thick nacre, which is the reason why only a very small percentage of them are perfectly spherical. Anyway, they have more regular shapes than most of the” traditional”, non-nucleated ones. In the first lots offered in 2018, most of the pearls had smaller or bigger imperfections on the surface, and the luster was not any better than in the case of the other freshwater pearls. They were offered at the prices comparable (or slightly higher) to top quality round non-nucleated pearls, which made me choose the later ones at that time.
In 2019 much more of these new pearls appeared on the market and I could find some really good ones that met the high-quality standards established in our company. We can expect a growing supply of that top quality pearls together with expanding and maybe improving the use of the new technique. And when this happens the prices should also fall with increased supply.
Pearl trading companies agree that this invention will change the market of freshwater pearls.
What changes can we expect in the future?
Any forecasts made on the basis of these early lots offered may be flawed, so probably no attempts to make them have been made so far. Anyway based on the present market situation one could hypothesize that the next decade may bring the following changes:
The traditional technique used for freshwater pearl growing will soon become obsolete, and the new freshwater pearls will be superseding the non-nucleated ones pretty fast. Increasing the scale of production will be much easier as the existing Edison/Ming pearl farms will provide the natural base for growing new pearls to the benefit of the farmers. The latest environmental regulations in China will also favor quality over quantity production.
The prices of cheap button-shaped and drop-shaped freshwater pearls will substantially increase. Relationship between the price and the shape will become weaker as it is now in the case of seawater pearls. If the traditional technique is completely abandoned, the prices of these forms may even rise by 100-200% in the case of drop-shaped pearls and by 300-600% in the case of buttons. This forecast is based on the analogy to price/shape relations of seawater pearls which are all grown on nuclei.
The change of price structure will eventually hit the cheap pearl jewellery segment, where button-shaped pearls are commonly used – the producers of such jewellery will have to raise the prices or accept very low-quality pearls. It will not happen fast as there is still a lot of low-quality drop-shaped and button-shaped pearls on the market, so the supply should be quite stable for the next few years
The use of seawater pearls in luxury jewellery does not seem to be threatened, as the characteristics of the new gems cannot compete with those of top quality seawater ones. Although the shape advantage will not be so visible, the luster of the best Akoyas seems to be difficult to achieve in the freshwater environment. However, the spread of prices between low and high-quality Akoyas will certainly increase, as the new pearls will surely be an interesting alternative to the cheapest seawater ones.
The next years will definitely be very interesting, and there is no doubt that the pearl market will experience big changes. Will they follow the path described above? We will see it quite soon.
pearl expert, member of Jewellery Experts Association (SRJ), Poland
owner of Gemartis pearl trading company, Poland
1) Hänni, H.A.(2018): “Mini Ming” Pearls ahead: a challenge for Akoya? The Journal of the Gemmological Association of Hong Kong, Volume XXXIX (2018), 34-35