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Pearl Plenty in Tucson
Pearl Scene

Every year for the past decade, author Fred Ward has led what he calls a "pearl walk" through miles of aisles at the Tucson gem show, held every February. This year's walk was the largest and longest yet—a tribute to Tucson's premier importance in the pearl world.

Ward is both flattered and flustered by the turnout. "So many people wanted to participate that we were more of a mob than an assembly," he says. "Next year, I want the walk to be smaller and more orderly."

Given the sheer magnitude and magnificence of Tucson's pearl plenty, that may be impossibly wishful thinking. If nothing else, the show is a relentless reminder that the industry has entered a second golden age of pearl culturing. And Ward's walks provide a much-needed tutorial in the new pearl plentitude.

Tucson 2006 began and ended with new pearl marvels, especially from China, where freshwater growers have equaled—and, to many, surpassed—the greatest feats and triumphs of Japan's Lake Biwa farms in their heyday decades ago. I was particularly impressed with the thick, lustrous, silvery coin pearls so reminiscent of those that once came from Japan. My admiration only increased when I learned that these Biwa throwbacks are an essential prelude pearl to growing what are called petal, or second growth, pearls in the same mollusk bodies used to grow coins. Apparently, self-generating cells trigger new pearls when the shells are put back in the water. These baroque pearls, on display in giddy profusion at San Francisco-based Sea Hunt Pearls, have proven to be one of the hottest new products from China.

The unexpected popularity of petal pearls may be the reason for development of a new breed of baroque called, for now, "fireball pearls." These are pearl-nucleated pearls with golden-orange body color and high-definition iridescence. Hanks of these pearls on display at Pacific Pearls, Laytonville, California, caused such a commotion that owner Fuji Voll had to keep them in his booth to show curiosity seekers—even though he had sold them the first day of the show.

Of course, the Chinese have made equally great strides in perfecting the round bead-free freshwater cultured pearl in sizes up to 11mm. Betty Sue King of King's Ransom, Sausalito, California, showed me a collection of Chinese fancy color pearls that rivaled the best colors I have seen from Tahiti. One aubergine pearl in particular set a new pinnacle for color subtlety in terms of purple. Chinese goldens suggested coming competition with the South Seas.

Chinese pearls weren't the only new standouts at the show. Indonesia is trying to offset the now chronic shortages of fine 7 to 9mm akoya pearls. Strands shown us by Adachi America, Los Angeles, had remarkable luster and superb color. I also saw ample evidence that Philippine farms have mastered the art and science of growing golden pearls.

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necklace by  Mastoloni
Long necklaces, like this multicolor strand by Mastoloni, are a fashion favorite, (800) 347-3275.
freshwater pearl by King's Ransom
freshwater pearl by King's Ransom
freshwater pearl by King's Ransom
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Baggins pearl bracelet
An innovative new collection of Tahitian cultured pearls combined with Tahitian mother-of-pearl in bracelets and necklaces starting at $100 retail from Baggins, (877) 33-PEARL.