It was nearly 36 years ago that the first Akoya pearl was harvested in China- more than 50 years after the Japanese. The first Chinese pearls were harvested in the Guanxi province, in the city of Behai. This city is still today a well-known Akoya pearl center.
By the 1960's the Chinese farmers were experimenting with oyster hatcheries, and pearl farms were beginning to appear in Guangdong as well as other cities along the coast of Guanxi.
But as California was once swamped with gold miners, these pearling areas were overrun with new farmers looking to cash in on the new-found wealth. By the mid 1970's farming conditions had deteriorated so severely, and pollution was so rampant that the harvests were producing less than half of the previous crops.
The learning curve was a bit slow at this time, and conditions continued to get worse in the 1980's. During the 1980's pearl production had dropped to a mere 10 tons. While the 70's had a high oyster mortality rate of nearly 50%, the 80's brought the average to 70%. As conditions dropped so did quality. Farmers were partly to blame as they started to decrease the culturing time from 18-months to one year. While this cut their risk and investment, it also reduced the nacre average from 0.5 mm down to 0.4 mm on average.
By the late 1980's the government stepped in. Regulation was finally put in place and individuals and corporations were allowed to cultivate pearls under strict guidelines. Production began to spread once again and included Hainan province. Hatchery oysters began to replace wild catch, and the mortality rate began to improve.
Although regulation protected the environment and the farms, regulations did not stipulate how long pearls should be left in the oyster. By 1995 production had jumped to more than 30 tons, but many farms were only allowing the pearls to culture for 3-5 months, dropping the average nacre thickness down to 0.1-0.2 mm on many pearls. This of course dropped the value of the pearls considerably, driving prices from $2,300US per kilo in 1994, to $1,500US per kilo in 1995. These low-quality pearls poured into the market decimating the profit margins of many quality pearl merchants. Akoya pearls could now be purchased for $2-$300 per strand versus the $2-$3000 they cost a decade earlier. The average consumer, not knowing what to look for, was duped into buying these pearls that peeled, cracked, and became nearly worthless in a matter of months.
Production and price continued to drop in 2001 to a mere 18 tons, and an average price of $900US per kilo. This began driving many pearl farms out of the market. The gold-rush was finally turning into a real job.
Today we see a much brighter future for the Chinese market. Many farmers are beginning to see the big picture and are refusing to overpopulate their pearl beds, and are insisting on minimum culturing times. These farms are seeing the rewards of their forward thinking today with beautiful, high-valued crops. Many of the pearls from these harvests today rival any pearls I have ever seen in Kobe. The prices are still quite low, but the new value is tremendous. The pearls have much thicker nacre, up to 1 mm on many hanks. The shine and luster are a testament to the new skills and methods adapted by the Chinese.