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Chinese Freshwater Pearls
Mass and Class

Karl Marx, the father of Communism, was fond of saying, “Quantity kills quality.” Nowhere has that pronouncement proved more true than in the lake district of Communist China where an estimated 1,200 farms grow freshwater pearls. Now there is mounting evidence to suggest that many of the entrepreneurs involved in pearl growing are starting to realize the wisdom of Comrade Karl’s dictum.

The creme de la creme natural color pearls from Marc Freeman shown here. This strand alternates peach-colored Chinese freshwater cultured pearls with ultra-rare and expensive South Sea golden cultured pearls.

After you get over spectrum shock, note the roundness of these Chinese pearls, their plump sizes and lustrous glow. Then listen carefully as we report that sizes for these natural-hue round Chinese freshwater pearls are soon expected to hit 15 millimeters. That gives Chinese pearls girth matched only by Australia.

True, such pearls represent less than 1 percent of China’s overall production. But when you have at least 1,000 tons of material to comb through annually, splendors are no longer needles in a haystack. They are promising, if not yet common, occurrences. One thing for sure, China no longer hides its lights under its bushels. They are clearly shining through.

RAINBOWS WITH ATTITUDE

The Chinese freshwater pearl has become an entrenched alternative to the Japanese akoya pearl—annual production of which, estimates Golay Buchel, “has evened out at 25 tons.” That’s less than half the tonnage harvested in 2001. Worse, high-quality Japanese pearls seem even more scarce, relative to overall production, than the Chinese freshwater variety.

Just ask pearl specialists like retailer Eve Alfille in Evanston, Illinois. She is still outraged by the peeling that plagued two 9 to 10 millimeter strands of Japanese akoya pearls she bought recently for $3,000 each. “I found Chinese 10 to 11 millimeter freshwater strands for $800 each that are just as lovely and will prove far more lasting,” she says.

As Chinese pearls become abundant in larger sizes, many fear they may become as much a threat to the South Sea pearl. But this is doubtful. Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are not besieged with the quality problems of Japan. China isn't taking away sales from Japan because its pearls are less expensive look-alikes. It is taking away sales because the Japanese pearl does not inspire the confidence it once did.

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Chinese freshwater cultured pearls