by David Federman / Modern Jeweler, Oct 2007
Anyone watching the world pearling situation would think Mother Nature has put the Akoya pearl on her hit list. Japan is diminishing steadily as a producer. And China was ripped by two tropical storms between August 9 and 12 this year that destroyed 65 percent of its Akoya crop after days and nights of rain dropped the salinity levels of bays so low tens of millions of nucleated oysters died. Salt-free diets may be good for humans but they are as bad as bad can be for saltwater oysters.
As a result of this disaster, Akoya prices could climb by as much as 40 percent next spring and summer when pearl shortfalls start to be felt. Don’t worry. The price hikes are supposed to be temporary. As part of an industry rescue operation, China has already given farmers generous grants to buy new oysters and bead nuclei. But China is such an environmental basket case that both its saltwater and freshwater pearl industries face plenty of future stormy weather.
So what’s an Akoya lover to do? Well, if you’re a fan of Chinese Akoya pearls, our advice is biblical: Love thy neighbor. We’re talking about Vietnam to China’s south where for the past decade or so several promising pearl farms have been launched and are now prospering.
While it’s too soon to predict, or even pray, that this southeast Asian country will become a much-needed backup to China and Japan, Vietnam is definitely on better terms with Mother Nature as of late than either of those other pearl superpowers. What’s more, farmers there seem intent on growing pearls that are throwbacks—in terms of nacre thickness—to those from the last years of Japan’s golden age in the 1950s and 1960s. “Cut one of our pearls in half and see for yourself,” says Anil Maloo of Baggins in Los Angeles, which is now the main American conduit for Vietnamese Akoya pearls.
Speaking of throwback pearls, Vietnamese farms also produce what Maloo calls “baby Akoyas” in sizes as small as 2mm, which helps to fill the dearth of and demand for tiny pearls that Japan has not been able to address in years.
How did Maloo get an inside track on Vietnamese pearls? His family owns a pearl farm (on which he worked ten years ago) and gladly provides Baggins with enough pearls to have established a west coast beachhead for this newcomer pearl producer.
The rest are sold to and through Japan. Unlike Chinese Akoya pearls, however, which are shipped to Japan for processing and sold with a “Made in Japan” label, these pearls are sold as Vietnamese in origin. That should tell you something about the esteem in which these pearls are held. They deserve to be. Here’s why.
THICK SKINS, FAST GROWTH
If you talk to dealers familiar with Chinese and Japanese Akoya pearls, they’ll tell you that 0.5mm nacre thickness is above average these days. But at the Vietnamese pearl farm that supplies Baggins, that’s considered nacre thinness, not thickness. “Our aim is to make only thick-coated pearls,” says Maloo. “Our target is to have a minimum of 1mm nacre thickness. Already we have been able to cultivate 5-6mm pearls from a 2.5mm nucleus within one year of harvest.”
How has the farm been able to develop pearls with thick skins in such short times? For starters, warmer waters help speed up nacre accumulation. In addition, Vietnam’s waters are cleaner, less crowded, and more regulated than China’s. Last, there are only four or five farms in Vietnam’s relatively virgin southern coastal growing region. Altogether, Maloo estimates Vietnam’s current Akoya production at 700 to 800 kilos per year. But he hopes that farm output will double by 2010.
The emphasis on thick nacre pearls results in a greater percentage of off-round and baroque shapes. Years ago, that would have been bad news. But with baroque shapes as popular as they have ever been, this consequence suddenly becomes a compensation for high ideals and an insistence on quality.
Pushing the nacre envelope has other advantages. “As the nacre gets thicker,” Maloo continues, “the color tends to become warmer, which we believe is the true color of Akoya pearls.” So Vietnam presents pearl lovers with a choice: Creamier-colored thick-skinned Vietnamese pearls versus more ghostly-white thin-skinned Chinese and Japanese pearls. Indeed, Baggins’ farm produces so many distinct hues—including golds and grays—that it can make many multicolored strands.
Soon we expect to see out-and-out golden and black Vietnamese pearls. Indeed, jewelry designer Chi Huynh of Galatea, San Dimas, California, is producing small harvests of black pearls in middle Vietnam with the same black-lipped oyster used in Tahiti. Sizes are generally less than 8mm because Huynh wants medium-sized round pearls grown in eight months time that he can cut to expose sections of the gems like citrine and amethyst which he uses as a nucleus. But other farms are planning large productions.
The same goes for South Sea pearls. “Presently, we have white South Sea oysters in our hatchery, and this year we will be able to implant 10,000 oysters,” says Maloo. Last, freshwater pearl farms in northern Vietnam are also beginning to contribute to world production.
All in all, Vietnam now functions as a mini-microcosm for the full global range of freshwater and saltwater cultured pearl varieties. No wonder Maloo says, “I believe that Vietnam has the potential to become a major pearl producer.” Given the country’s high quality standards, it would be a welcome addition to the pearling league of nations.