Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Saltwater Akoya Pearls

Pearls.   It is difficult to find any other category of fine jewelry that has changed more radically in the last 100 years than this one.  And there is hardly a category of fine jewelry that has more to know, study and appreciate because of the incredible variety of pearl types available today.

A hundred or so years ago, the only choices for a pearl lover were to either acquire natural –a gift from the sea, lake or river, and created by the mussel without intervention from humans– or imitation — a glass bead with a pearlescent coating manufactured from fishscales.   In the early part of the 20th century,  enterprising Japanese inventors, chiefly Mikimoto,  succeeded in developing the ability to control the creation of a pearl inside a mussel at will.  It was an extraordinary accomplishment.  The basic idea was to help the oyster along by inserting a bead inside its tissues, which would activate the production of nacre–the beautiful lustrous response the oyster makes when confronted with a foreign body inside.

These cultured pearls were formed in saltwater, inside a type of oyster known as akoya.  Today a distinction is made about whether a pearl is from the saltwater akoya oyster, or whether it is from freshwater production.    Until the late 1980s no one bothered to make that distinction,  because freshwater pearls were rare and natural.   In fact, if any distinction was made, it was between cultured pearls and natural pearls.  There just weren’t that many choices in cultured pearls, as there are today.   In fact, one of the early cultured freshwater pearls produced by the Chinese, the so-called “rice krispie” pearl, was dismissed for its oversaturation in the market and its pathetically low cost, and it wasn’t considered fine jewelry.
Most jewelers, pre-1990s, would have offered their customers a strand of pearls like the ones illustrated above.   In a typical jewelry store that stocked nice cultured pearls, there would usually be a wide variety of price ranges, and in comparison it was easy to understand.  It came down to size, color, luster, blemishes, nacre thickness, shape and matching.    Size is expressed in millimeters, typically 5mm to 7mm,  with akoya oysters unable to produce larger than 9mm (anything bigger will be from a different oyster).   Color typically refers to variations of cream or white, often with overtones of pink or green.  Luster is about reflection–dull to shiny,  with preference given to a higher mirror-like luster.   Blemishes, a certain amount at least, are tolerable, giving credence to them being “real” (although the use of that word is another blog topic!).  Nacre thickness is a function of how long the oyster was allowed to build up layers of nacre on the inserted bead before harvesting, and an important aspect of beauty and durability.  Shape refers to whether they are round, slightly off round, or baroque (a “tail” or distinct variation on an otherwise round pearl).  So, all of these components went into making a pearl strand a certain price range, which  at the time, started at several hundred dollars.  In those days, a strand of imitation pearls (like Majorica pearls for example), sold at better department stores would have cost more than the typical freshwater strand of today.

Freshwater pearls dominate the market now, and I will write about them as well.  There are many good things to say about freshwater pearls. However, it is a different pearl than the akoya, with different characteristics. It’s important to understand that, and in my opinion, we’re rapidly losing the appreciation for the differences.

So–why buy an akoya strand today, particularly a vintage one?

  • First:  Quality akoya pearls are prized above all for their luster and roundness.  Fine akoyas have a glow about them.
  • Second:  Appreciate the difference in pearls types, and treasure them for what they are.  Saltwater and freshwater pearls have different culturing methods, which result in higher and lower costs of production.   In saltwater oysters, one pearl is produced per oyster, with a nucleated bead.  In freshwater, dozens of pearls are produced in a single mussel at once.
  • Third:  In my opinion, akoyas may be going the way of the horse and buggy, as the market shifts to new and less expensive products.  Buy a nice old strand now, while they are still available.   Do your part to preserve a piece of jewelry history.

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