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Fireball Cultured Pearls

Let's do some role-playing. You're a pearl dealer visiting Hong Kong. You've just been shown some eye-popping white baroque pearls that you would swear come from Australia. Hey, they've got the size, the shape, and the sheen.

The seller smiles. He knows what you're thinking. Then he tells you the price, which is a fraction of that quoted for bona fide South Sea baroque strands. You have a sudden moment of cognitive dissonance as you puzzle over the cost of these pearls. But just before you hear the price explained, you guess their true origin. It's China. How is this possible, you wonder. Are you sitting down?

They're bead-nucleated. You heard right: These pearls were grown in freshwater mussels implanted with 7 to 9mm balls of shell, along with pieces of mantle tissue, and then put in the water for two years while a cultured pearl grew. Now you're really confused. Aren't bead-nucleated pearls supposed to be round? Why are these misshapen?

So far, no one knows for sure. Fuji Voll of Pacific Pearls, Mill Valley, California, who has been predicting breakthrough pearls like these for some time, thinks farmers may be trying to avoid the high cost of training workers to be accomplished nucleators. So, instead of placing beads in the body of the mussel, they tuck nuclei just under the shell in easy-to-reach mantle area. There, unfortunately, beads can't keep pearls from going haywire.

Of course, few are complaining just yet about the failure to produce rounds because baroques are among the most popular pearls these days. At first glance, these first-ever top Chinese bead-nucleated freshwater baroque strands, especially if white, look like they come from the South Seas. In fact, the best of these freshwater baroques are being strung with their South Sea counterparts to make mixed-breed strands selling for $3,000 to $6,000. Available in 18 by 12 and 17 by 11mm sizes for under $200 per strand, the new Chinese baroques are easy to retail at three and four times their wholesale prices—and still remain bargains.

As you look closer and longer at these Chinese newcomers, you notice something distinctive about them that makes it easy to distinguish them from their South Sea counterparts. It's the wing-like protrusions, which have earned these new-breed baroques the name of "fireball pearls" among some Chinese farmers and dealers.

The name makes perfect—albeit provisional—sense because "fireball" pearls usually have meteor-like shapes. Turn back to Tino Hammid's photograph and you'll see pearls with round bellies and trailing wings that could be likened to flames.

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