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Chocolate Pearls
Gem Profile

Beauty by Subtraction

You might not think so, but chocolate goes well with red—maybe too well. Chocolate pearls and red carpet, that is. So says designer Erica Courtney, Hollywood’s reining avatar of taste when it comes to adding the final touch of jewelry for scores of starlets who walk down the red runway that leads into the Kodak Theater on Oscar night.

Nearly three years ago, Courtney was shown Tahitian pearls bleached brown, and given the tasty brand name of “Chocolate Pearls.” Ever since, she has been on a personal crusade to put these sepia splendors on the ear lobes, necks, wrists, and fingers of as many celebrities as she can. Judging from the yet-to-crest popularity of these pearls, she has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. And there’s the rub. Without intending to do so, Courtney’s dream has created a nightmare for the pearl industry.

True chocolate pearls are much more of a rarity than the publicity that surrounds them would lead one to think. They are produced by a proprietary bleaching process developed by Ballerina Pearls in New York and never, the firm claims, duplicated by anyone else. Ordinarily, I would be suspicious of such a boast—especially by the inventor. But GIA, which has conducted extensive tests of these pearls, says it has yet to see their like from anyone else.

After Ballerina enhances the few select Tahitian pearls that it believes will benefit from its bleaching process, the vast majority are sold to Emiko Pearls in Bellevue, Washington. Emiko, in turn, sells at least half of these pearls to Courtney. While that’s great news for Ballerina, Emiko, and Courtney, it’s bad news for everyone else. Courtney’s advocacy of chocolate pearls has been a major contributing factor to a dramatic shortage. I know what many of you are thinking. What shortage? Chocolate pearls are everywhere these days.

Not true chocolate pearls. Most of what you are seeing is Brand-X pearls created, in most cases, by a silver nitrate dyeing process to look like bleached chocolate pearls. A generic look-alike is being sold as the genuine article—at perhaps a 100 to 1 ratio.

No wonder Ballerina, Emiko, and Courtney are up in arms. They feel chocolate pearls are the victim of what might be called battered brand syndrome. They’re not the only ones bothered by the glut of dyed brown large pearls. But others blame their agitation on a separate, related form of brand abuse. “Dyeing Tahitian pearls crosses a line that should never have been crossed,” says Betty Sue King of King’s Ransom, Sausalito, California. “It cheapens the prestigious name of South Sea pearls.”

Those are harsh words from a pearl dealer who unhesitatingly sells dyed Chinese freshwater pearls. King explains her double standard: “Chinese pearls are a high-volume product. Tahitian pearls are a high-integrity product. You shouldn’t play with Tahitian pearls the way you can with Chinese pearls.” King has raised an issue that could divide the pearl community as deeply as it has the colored stone community.

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Chocolate cultured pearl earrings by Erica Courtney
Chocolate cultured pearl earrings by Erica Courtney, (323) 938-2373.