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Mabe Pearl

From afar and even pretty close up, most people would swear these pearls were fully globular glories for which their owners shelled out a whole lot of money.

But they don't know the half of it.

Mabes, also known as blister pearls, look like lusciously large Akoya and South Sea pearls, but, in reality, are half the size and very often one-tenth the price. Given the lengths some producers go to grow the best of the breed, one might wonder how they can cost so little.

Yet, sad to say, they would cost far less if the loud contingent of pearl purists who feel they should be called a composite rather than a cultured pearl had their way. Years ago, CIBJO in Europe tried to pacify both sides in this rancorous nomenclature dispute by passing a rule that required mabes to be called "composite cultured pearls." Like all such cut-the-baby-in-two compromises, the rule is rarely, if ever, heeded and has no counterpart in any U.S. trade dictum or guideline. Here mabes are considered full-fledged cultured pearls and it is doubtful dealers would ever have things any other way.

Nor, in our opinion, need things be any other way provided consumers are given a full explanation of the unique post-harvesting process to which these cultured pearls owe their existence. Unlike other cultured pearls that pretty much come from the shell in final form, this type of pearl bears no resemblance to its eventual self when removed from the oyster. Indeed, the only remnant of its original self that remains is its nacre, which is stripped from the nucleus on which it grew and attached to a totally new inner body.

Because a mabe is the product of an elaborate skin graft, purists think its name should somehow acknowledge this fact. "You're taking what is, in essence, a nacre pelt and giving it a new nucleus made out of some filler," says one dealer who refuses to sell mabes because he says they are "one step removed from imitation." But his brethren argue that because a mabe's most important part, its nacre, is intact, original, and unadulterated, this pearl can be called cultured despite new scaffolding. Besides, they add, the new housing—nowadays usually a ceramic one—is a big improvement over the old.

Here's the mabe story in full. You decide if they're full-fledged cultured pearls or not.

MIKIMOTO'S MABES

The first successful cultured pearls, grown by Kokichi Mikimoto at the tail end of the 19th century, were forerunners of the modern mabe. They were grown by cementing a nucleus to the inside mother-of-pearl lined surface of an oyster shell, allowing depositions of nacre to form around it, removing the resulting blister pearl, grounding off its uncoated base, and replacing it with a new mother-of-pearl backing. Eventually, it became a norm of finishing this cultured blister pearl to remove the original bead nucleus and fill the nacre hollow with a new bead made of a different substance. Later, when Mikimoto developed his fully-rounded cultured pearl, Japanese pearl farmers pretty much ignored the half-shell variety.

Indeed, veteran cultured pearl specialists like Raymond Mastoloni in New York recall that mabes only began to become a market fixture in the 1950s. "Back then, mabes were practically the only way you could buy very large pearls," he says. "Now we have South Sea pearls to fill that need. Yet mabes still provide big looks for little money, which gives them an important market niche."

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Mabe Pearl