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Thursday, February 2, 2012


This is a post on pearls but before I get into that topic I first want to recommend a link to an excellent page on the numbers behind gold: It's a very informative read. Take a look if you get a chance.

I have also just brought in a line of beautiful hand made in America wood jewelry boxes (a picture of one is above) that we saw on our vacation and fell in love with. They are very reasonably priced and would make a great Valentine's Day present.

And just for a little more current news, my older son's (Ryan Sullivan) first one man show will be taking place February 10-March 17 at the Maccarone Gallery in New York City ( If you happen to be in the city please check it out.

Okay, let's talk about pearls. There are two basic types of pearls (I'm not going to get into the esoteric things here like abalone pearls): freshwater and saltwater. In each category we have the subset of natural or cultured. Within the cultured category there are another couple of subsets depending on how the pearls are produced.


Natural saltwater pearls were basically fished out of existence in the 1920's through over harvesting practices by the pearl fishermen. Natural saltwater pearls grow in oysters (and no, not the kind you eat, so you absolutely cannot find a pearl in the oysters you all consume at your local food establishments). Occasionally strands of natural saltwater pearls will still come on the market but they are invariably teeny tiny pearls (often referred to as seed pearls) and usually not very high quality. Once in awhile individual natural pearls will show up in the marketplace. I bought a number of irregular shaped ones about 15-20 years ago that were found off the coast of Baja (they've all been sold).

Natural freshwater pearls were also fished out of existence quite awhile ago. The Mississippi River provided an abundance of natural freshwater pearls in the 19th century. These pearls came from mussels and often had quite unique wing shapes (you'll often seem them used in older pieces) and, because they weren't smooth surfaced some fairly high luster (the sheen on a pearl) on them.


The term "cultured" when used in conjunction with pearls means man induced. Lately some of the synthetic gemstone manufacturers have started calling their products cultured as well, but as a traditionalist gemologist, I believe this is a misleading and unethical use of the term, in part due to its long association with the pearling industry.

As it happened, just at the time that most natural saltwater pearls were being fished out of existence, a gentleman named Mikimoto (most of you should be familiar with that name) and a number of associates (claims as to who actually developed the technique is still argued about) figured out that they could insert round bead nucleii made from shell into an oyster that would then produce a layer of nacre around the shell and produce an attractive pearl. In fact the process of getting oysters to produce nacre had been done for awhile, just not in a way that would produce round pearls. For years Japan was the sole producer of this product.

The Japanese also managed to figure out how to grow cultured freshwater pearls in mussels using mantle tissue from one mollusc inserted into another. Initially these pearls were all irregular in shape ("rice krispie" shaped pearls were dominant in the beginning of this production).

Unfortunately, over the years a number of things happened in the Japanese pearling industry. First of all, as Japan became a wealthier nation, inexpensive labor disappeared. It became more and more costly for the pearls to be produced. Additionally many pearling beds, both freshwater and saltwater, became polluted from industry in the area. In fact, we used to obtain strongly metallic colored freshwater pearls that we were told were that color because of heavy metal pollution in the waters.

In the meanwhile the Japanese took their pearling expertise and exported it both to the South Seas (to produce black (as well as other colored) larger cultured pearls (the maximum size of pearl the Japanese were able to produce in their colder waters was about 9 mm) and to China where a large freshwater pearl culturing business was starting up.

About the time that the traditional Japanese "akoya" (saltwater cultured pearl) business had reached new production lows, the Chinese were able to begin producing round freshwater pearls. While they were small and usually low luster at first, the pearls have increased in both size and quality every year since.

I'm going to continue this discussion in my next posting as it's a very long topic to get into. Enjoy!