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Freshwater Keshi

Mention China to jewelers and pearls will come to mind as swiftly as tea, rice, or computers. If they're old-timers, the pearls conjured may be elongated, dull, and crinkly. But if they're newcomers, the pearls will more likely be round, glowing, and often pink and peach colored. Should they be Chinese pearl aficionados, they may think of a new freeform pearl that was first—and, for many, last—seen at American trade shows in 2003 and 2004.

These pearls are best known as "petal pearls," but they go by two other names that reveal more about how they are grown than what they resemble: "second growth" or "keshi" pearls. Whatever you call them, they were, and would still be, among the hottest items in the pearl trade if supply could keep pace with demand. Alas, these sudden sensations are now so scarce—in larger sizes especially—that some jewelry makers have taken to casting look-alikes in silver and gold.

The scarcity has some importers worried. "A dealer in Hong Kong alerted me to these pearls three years ago and said he was putting a special assortment aside for me," says Sayoko Adachi of Adachi America, Los Angeles. "They sold so fast I regret that I didn't take more. Now he tells me I'll have to wait and hope until next year. In the meantime, I have none left."

How strange it is to hear about a variety of Chinese freshwater pearl that is nearly impossible to find. China has such a roiling reputation for quantity that it often seems its pearl farmers have no understanding of the word demand. "They are completely supply driven," says a Los Angeles dealer who refuses to stock Chinese freshwater pearls. "It's like they pulled an ‘on' switch that has no ‘off.'"

But resistance is waning as more consumers are turned on by the sheer variety and versatility of Chinese pearls. Indeed, China has become the undisputed master of freshwater pearl farming. What's more, China's reputation is based as solidly on innovation and quality as quantity. "You always thought of Australia and Tahiti as the places for pearling breakthroughs," says Peter Bazar, president of Imperial-Deltah, East Providence, Rhode Island. "But petal pearls have put China's growers on a par with the best anywhere else."

China's freshwater keshi come at a time when baroque pearls are a hot fashion item. In August, I devoted this column to South Sea baroques and complained supply was lagging. The paradox of baroque pearls was that they represented failures of the pearl culturing process since it was designed to produce as many round pearls as possible. Asking South Sea pearl farmers for more baroques was like asking them to sabotage their crops. Of course, people tend to want what they can't have. Baroques are like forbidden fruit of the seas. Except for keshi.

This is where Chinese mastery of aquaculture is writing a whole new chapter of pearl history. While pearl culturing is a science, it can never be a perfect science. No matter what precautions are taken, nucleated oysters and mussels will produce accidental all-nacre pearls. These unplanned pearls provide jewelers with many baroque shapes.

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