NUCLEATED FRESHWATER PEARLS
by David Federman
Fuji Voll has been waiting a long time to buy pearls like those pictured on the previous page. Some of you familiar with freshwater pearls may wonder why the Mill Valley, California, importer has been keeping vigil since they look, at first glance, like pearls from Japan’s Lake Kasumigaura that have been produced for decades. Take a second glance. These pearls are from China. And Voll paid four times more than he did for any of their predecessors for the honor of being one of the first American dealers to have these new-breed freshwater pearls in such quality and quantity. Honor, you say? Hey, they’re just a bunch of baroque pearls, right?
If this were anybody but Voll, and the jewelers he caters to, you might be right to be so dismissive. But Voll has built his company, Pacific Pearls, on a dedication to the contrarian premise that beautiful pearls do not necessarily have to be spherical, smooth, or uni-colored. So when he was offered two strands of these multicolored baroques, he paid the sky-high asking price. Try looking at these pearls through his eyes. To Voll, these baroques represent a major breakthrough: the production of attractive pearls using the difficult and expensive method of in-body nucleation. When Voll first saw such pearls more than a decade ago, they were so ugly as to be of only theoretical value. Beauty gives them practical value.
Voll is not alone in his excitement about these newcomers. Author-gemologist Elisabeth Strack sees them as proof of a new plateau in pearling. “You can see from the shapes, surface, and coloring that the pearls have been nucleated in the guts of the oyster rather than its mantle,” she says.
By inserting bead nuclei in the soft inner tissue rather than the mantle, which is closer to the outside of the shell, in-body nucleation produces pearls with deeper luster, highly nuanced colors, and mottled surfaces reminiscent of hammered gold. What’s more, in-body Chinese bead-nucleated pearls do not have the tadpole-like shapes common with mantle-nucleated pearls (which were aptly called “fireballs”). In-body pearls are more symmetrical, more spectacular, and pay tribute to the triumphs of Japanese freshwater pearl culturing. To pearl lovers, they invite overt comparison with “Kasumiga-type” pearls.
But don’t use the word “Kasumiga” in reference to Chinese pearls within earshot of Voll. Since the term is now a bona fide brand name for Japanese pearls, he uses only the broader term “freshwater” and takes offense at any reference to Chinese pearls as “Kasumiga-like.”
Classic Japanese freshwater pearls and their Chinese derivations are acquired tastes. So while pearl experts like Strack share Voll’s high technical opinion of these newcomers, they do not yet share his high aesthetic admiration for them. Asked if she finds them beautiful, Strack answers, “Let’s just say that I find them interesting.” Since it is doubtful that the Chinese have baroque pearls as an objective, this triumph of aquaculture is at best an intermediate step. Even so, Voll’s pearls predict a new era.
Go back to Tino Hammid’s picture for a moment. What do you see? The first thing you notice is that many of the pearls are highly variegated with colors that run a wide gamut of purples, pinks, oranges, golds, yellows, and whites. Some of the purples are dusky, others silvery. No pearl has a uniform body color. Next you notice the pearls have very textured surfaces, some with soft hammerings, and others with striations.
When I first saw this strand during Lois Berger’s annual pearl walk at this year’s Tucson show, I was struck by their intense iridescent play of color and their high, almost metallic luster. Berger, who has been leading pearl walks at Tucson for at least a decade, took me aside and told me that in her opinion Voll’s pearls were of extraordinary beauty and unlike any that she had seen before from China. I only wish photographs could capture the very animate and vibrant appearance of these pearls.
Although reminiscent of classic Japanese lake pearls, China’s latest in-body freshwaters offer greater size. “These pearls are all 14 to 15mm,” Voll notes. “Japanese freshwater pearls were rarely larger than 12mm.” Strack adds that she has seen some of these pearls as large as 20mm.
But even with norms of 14mm, China’s new in-body freshwater pearls send a warning shot across the bow of every Australian pearl frigate. “The Chinese are not out to produce the kind of pearls that please me,” Voll says. “They are out to produce round, smooth pearls that compete with South Seas production.” So far, harvests of such pearls are a lofty dream. But Voll expects the Chinese to continue at full throttle to reach this still-distant goal.
Presently, China produces nucleus-free South Sea look-alikes. However, since freshwater mussels produce nacre faster than saltwater mollusks, in-body nucleated round freshwater behemoths would have generous nacre coatings. The upshot is a spectacularly affordable alternative to South Sea pearls—with the added palette of freshwater colors. Of course, all this depends on the Chinese being able to produce in huge quantities.
For now, however, there are only in-body baroques. Nevertheless, given the sustained popularity of these shapes from South Sea farms, Voll believes that Chinese growers have a very good incentive to continue experimenting with in-body nucleation. When he tells me the price (I almost wrote “ransom”) he paid for the strands he bought, I think Voll and other willing buyers among vanguard pearl dealers are reason enough for Chinese farmers to push the envelope when it comes to in-body nucleation.
*** Poster's Note: I am having a hard time posting pictures of the strand, sorry to everybody! ***
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