Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Made in China: Cultured Pearls

Not limited to knock off handbags, bootleg movies and the occasional American flag, China is currently the world largest producer of pearls. This is due to the booming business of cheaper farmed pearls that are being used in costume jewelry with a price point that is much more affordable than their saltwater counterparts. 
Some consider cultured, or man made pearls the wave of the future, such as Zhan Weijian, owner of Grace Pearls, one of the worlds largest pearl farming companies and creator of the "Edison" pearl. Others, who value the rarity and natural beauty of saltwater pearls feel that freshwater pearls are, in a sense, bastardizing the industry.
Are cultured pearls the new cubic zirconia?

Natural Tahiti Saltwater Pearls
"Wholesale prices for half-inch white pearls have fallen about 30 percent in the last several years, as the influx of high-quality Chinese farmed pearls — grown in former rice fields — has the industry in turmoil...

“The U.S. has worried about China producing cheap goods — they really should be worried about China producing better goods,” said Bruce Rockowitz, the chief executive of Li & Fung, the largest trading company supplying Chinese consumer goods to American retail chains.
A Chinese half-inch pearl now sells for $4 to $8 at wholesale, which is typically less than half of the retail price. A Tahitian pearl of similar size sells at wholesale for $25 to $35.
The price gap reflects lingering differences in hue and luster. It does not take a jeweler to discern those differences when Chinese pearls are placed next to saltwater pearls...
"Zhan Yi, a senior Grace executive [Grace Pearls], stood next to a placid pearl pond near Zhuji the next morning and watched as workers earning $15 to $23 a day sat on benches at a long table. Using tweezers, they inserted tiny pieces of mussel tissue inside live mussels’ shells. The pearls develop around the tissue and may take four years to reach full size.

For Edison pearls, mussels selected through genetic research are implanted with tiny beads instead of mussel tissue, Zhan Yi said. The beads are inserted through a special method that the company will not reveal.
Source: NY Times
So, does buying cultured pearls carry the same stigma as lab created diamonds? Has the allure of rare treasures lost its luster to more affordable, yet convincing trinkets? Is it only an matter of time before Mardi Gras beads become the new pearl? ~vK 

1 comment: