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The JPEA Japanese Blue Tag

What about that Blue Tag (JPEA Tag)?

It has been called a lot of things: JPEA Inspection Tag, Japan Pearl Exporters' Association Inspection Tag, Blue Tag, Japanese Tag of Quality... all of them referring to the same thing. It is that little blue tag that is issued by the Japan Pearl Exporters' Association, to pearls that are submitted to them for inspection. It sounds impressive doesn't it? To understand what this tag means, or more important what it does not mean, we need to know a little history.


The History Of Pearl Inspection In Japan And The JPEA

In 1952 ,and in the wake of the Second World War, the Japanese Government set up a mandatory system of inspection for all the cultured pearls that were exported out of Japan. This practice contributed greatly to consumer confidence in the quality of pearls that were cultivated in Japan. It also established a more stable marketplace for cultured pearls that was similar to the marketplace of diamonds and other gemstones. However, due to the pressure for unrestricted International trading, the Japanese Government Inspection Office ceased operation in December of 1998 as part of their national administration reforms. This led directly to the creation of the JPEA Inspection Program.

The Japan Pearl Exporters Association Is Born


In January of 1999, the Japan Pearl Exporters' Association, (JPEA) launched a new privatized and voluntary program that was loosely based on the Japanese Government Inspection standards. The intention was to continue the promotion of Japanese pearls and to help "boost sales" in a slowing market. This system is known as either the "Cultured Pearl Quality Inspection and Tag" system or the "System for the Quality control and the Labeling of Cultivated Pearls".


How The JPEA Inspection Process Works

Under this system, pearls that are submitted for evaluation and pass the guidelines will be issued a tag. Each strand in a hank will be issued its own separate inspection tag. In the case of loose pearls that are un-drilled, fully drilled, or half-drilled, a single sticker will be affixed to the bag of pearls submitted. It is now important to talk about what this inspection is, and what it means. The JPEA compares submitted pearls against a set of master pearls kept in their Kobe office. While there is little information on the criteria for a pearl to pass inspection, we can get a good idea by looking at the criteria for what is rejected.


JPEA Criteria For Rejecting Pearls

The JPEA will reject pearls for the following reasons:

  • Pearls with nacre so thin that the core nuclei can be seen through the nacre
  • Pearls with extremely low luster
  • Pearls that exhibit excessive amounts of blemishes, such as bumps, pits and scratches
  • Pearls that exhibit visible cracks, in the nacre or on the nuclei
  • Pearls exhibiting signs of damage from bleaching or dyeing, or which are judged too unstable in terms of permanency of appearance and quality


Example of pearls that would not pass the inspection

We can see from the rejection criteria that the standard for obtaining an inspection tag is fairly low. Basically, any pearls that are not damaged, cracked or pitted, or pearls that do not have the nuclei showing, will pass examination.


The JPEA Blue Tag Is Not A Seal Of Quality, It’s A Seal Of Acceptability

Some companies will lead you to believe that the JPEA tag is an assurance of quality. This is really just a play on words. While it does show that the pearls are of "acceptable minimal quality" it certainly does not specify that they are top quality, or even good quality.


The JPEA Blue Tag Does Not Signify Japanese Pearls

Another misconception of this tag system, is that it signifies that the pearls are true Japanese pearls, (pearls that are cultured in Japan). There are two things to understand. First, the inspection system does not have criteria for country of origin, and second, they do not specify "type" of pearl. According to their own guidelines, any type of pearl may be submitted, including cultured Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia, cultured South Sea pearls from Australia, as well as cultured freshwater pearls from China.


What The JPEA Blue Tag Does, And Does Not, Mean

Here are the facts about what the JPEA Blue Tag does mean and what it does not mean.

The JPEA Inspection Tag DOES mean:

  • That the pearls are not damaged or cracked
  • That the nacre is at least thick enough to cover the nucleus
  • That the pearl is not bleached or dyed to the point that is it unsuitable for use
  • That the pearls are of a minimum acceptable quality

The JPEA Inspection Tag DOES NOT mean:

  • That the pearls are cultured in Japan
  • That the pearls are top grade
  • That the pearls are of any better quality than those without tags
  • That each pearl that passes inspection receives a tag

The JPEA Blue Tag System Began As A Good Idea

In the beginning, like many other professionals, I felt that this inspection tag was a good idea. The strides that the Japanese Government had made post World War II, to gain customer confidence in akoya Pearls were great. The JPEA Tag System showed promise to continue this, but through a privatized company, rather than through the Government. In fact, early polls when this system was first introduced showed that 90% of consumers, and 70% to 80% of the jewelers worldwide were in favor of the continuing the once mandatory Government inspection through this program.


Why The JPEA Blue Tag System Does Not Work

In reality, very few exporters ever adopted the system. This can be accredited to the inspection system being entirely voluntary, the feeling of some professionals that the tags are too easily counterfeited, and that it is only a "pass/fail" inspection and not a standardized grading system. Adding to this is the practice of only attaching one tag to a bag of loose pearls and a single tag to each strand in a hank. This makes it impossible for a company that manufactures its own jewelry to affix a tag on every one of its akoya products, unless that same company is printing and/or buying the tags separately and tags the pieces themselves. This defeats the entire guarantee and lends credibility to the early notion that the tags were too easily counterfeited.


The JPEA Is A Good Organization, And Is Not At Fault

It should be pointed out that this is not meant to discredit the JPEA. Close to 90% of the pearl exporters in Japan are JPEA members, (although they do not subscribe to the blue tag system) and the JPEA does play a large part in keeping substandard, damaged or otherwise unsuitable pearls out of the marketplace. They have even published a few books on the topics of cultured pearls and do a good job in educating the public in general on that subject.


Dishonest Sellers Portray The JPEA Blue Tag As Something It Is Not

However, over time, some consumers have been lead to believe, (either intentionally or unintentionally) that the JPEA Inspection Tag signifies top-grade, Japanese cultured, akoya pearls. In reality, the JPEA Inspection Tag does not have anything to do with the grade of a pearl and does not guarantee or stipulate that the pearls come from Japan. It only distinguishes between pearls that could be sold and those that should be destroyed.

Be wary of any retailer or online seller that will lead you to believe that these tags signify a superior pearl or that make the claim that the tag guarantees the pearls have been cultured in Japan. This is intentional dishonesty and they are only attempting to charge you a premium, for the same pearls that you can purchase elsewhere from a respectable dealer.