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Akoya Cultured Pearl

If cultured pearls are as synonymous with Japan as diamonds are South Africa, thatís as much General Douglas MacArthurís doing as Mikimotoís. In 1946, when he was supreme commander of the Allied forces in Asia and Japanís economy was on the ropes, MacArthur decided to help that countryís rebounding pearl industry by loading up U.S. military exchanges with tons of necklaces so that servicemen could buy them as gifts and souvenirs for loved ones. As a result, the high-luster snowy-white and pink-white pearl that is Japanís forte became the popular ideal for this gem in post-war America.

It still is. Understandably so. But it may not be for too much longer. Japanís pearl farming industry is struggling to maintain production levels.

In 1997, a mysterious malady akin to a virus for pearl oysters struck many of Japanís pearl farms, killing off at least 50 percent of the countryís nucleated oyster stock. Although the oyster pestilence has recently begun to abate, the conditions that set the stage for this catastrophe persist. Factories and fisheries continue to dump tons of fungicides and other toxic chemicals into waters to help fish species that are staples of the Japanese diet ward off parasites and disease. Unless the problems causing this oyster plague are fully addressed, the future of pearl farming in Japan is endangered.

SILK AND SATIN

It is hard to imagine jewelry stores without Japanese cultured pearls since they have been the standard bearers of pearl beauty for the last several generations. When shopping for this gem, evaluate their overall quality on the basis of four factors:

First, look for high luster, or surface brilliance. To understand the difference between high- and low-luster pearls, think of what happens to a smooth pebble when you place it in water. Suddenly, it takes on a highly reflective sheen. The best of Japanís Akoya pearls have a shining, silken, almost liquid luster. The worst look dull and chalky. To some extent, high luster is an indicator of nacre thicknessóat least in saltwater pearls (freshwater pearls are usually nucleated with small pieces of tissue only and are all-nacre). When buying saltwater pearls, it is important to ask about their nacre coatings since pearl-growing times have shortened over the years.

In Mikimotoís time (he died in 1954), Japanese pearls were grown for three to four years to ensure substantial nacre accumulation. This was necessary because Japanese waters were colder than those of other pearl-culturing areas and nacre grew at slower speed. Today, pearl growing times in Japan are generally around one to two years in far more crowded and often polluted waters.

Nacre thickness is a sensitive subject in the pearl trade. Pearl dealers will tell you that modern oyster-care methods promote speedier nacre growth than in Mikimotoís time and so compensate for shorter growing times. This can be trueóbut only on farms where waters are clean, oysters are healthy, and their populations kept sensible.

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Akoya Cultured Pearl