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Nucleated Freshwater Pearls

Fuji Voll has been waiting a long time to buy pearls like those pictured on the previous page. Some of you familiar with freshwater pearls may wonder why the Mill Valley, California, importer has been keeping vigil since they look, at first glance, like pearls from Japan’s Lake Kasumigaura that have been produced for decades. Take a second glance. These pearls are from China. And Voll paid four times more than he did for any of their predecessors for the honor of being one of the first American dealers to have these new-breed freshwater pearls in such quality and quantity. Honor, you say? Hey, they’re just a bunch of baroque pearls, right?

If this were anybody but Voll, and the jewelers he caters to, you might be right to be so dismissive. But Voll has built his company, Pacific Pearls, on a dedication to the contrarian premise that beautiful pearls do not necessarily have to be spherical, smooth, or uni-colored. So when he was offered two strands of these multicolored baroques, he paid the sky-high asking price. Try looking at these pearls through his eyes. To Voll, these baroques represent a major breakthrough: the production of attractive pearls using the difficult and expensive method of in-body nucleation. When Voll first saw such pearls more than a decade ago, they were so ugly as to be of only theoretical value. Beauty gives them practical value.

Voll is not alone in his excitement about these newcomers. Author-gemologist Elisabeth Strack sees them as proof of a new plateau in pearling. “You can see from the shapes, surface, and coloring that the pearls have been nucleated in the guts of the oyster rather than its mantle,” she says.

By inserting bead nuclei in the soft inner tissue rather than the mantle, which is closer to the outside of the shell, in-body nucleation produces pearls with deeper luster, highly nuanced colors, and mottled surfaces reminiscent of hammered gold. What’s more, in-body Chinese bead-nucleated pearls do not have the tadpole-like shapes common with mantle-nucleated pearls (which were aptly called “fireballs”). In-body pearls are more symmetrical, more spectacular, and pay tribute to the triumphs of Japanese freshwater pearl culturing. To pearl lovers, they invite overt comparison with “Kasumiga-type” pearls.

But don’t use the word “Kasumiga” in reference to Chinese pearls within earshot of Voll. Since the term is now a bona fide brand name for Japanese pearls, he uses only the broader term “freshwater” and takes offense at any reference to Chinese pearls as “Kasumiga-like.”

Classic Japanese freshwater pearls and their Chinese derivations are acquired tastes. So while pearl experts like Strack share Voll’s high technical opinion of these newcomers, they do not yet share his high aesthetic admiration for them. Asked if she finds them beautiful, Strack answers, “Let’s just say that I find them interesting.” Since it is doubtful that the Chinese have baroque pearls as an objective, this triumph of aquaculture is at best an intermediate step. Even so, Voll’s pearls predict a new era.

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