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South Sea Baroque Cultured Pearls
The Quest for Imperfection

Pearl farmers have spent decades decreasing the odds of growing non-round or, failing that, non-symmetrical pearls. Every year, harvests brim with round, oval, and drop shapes. Every year, crops contain fewer asymmetrical, baroque pearls.

Nowhere are the chances of producing baroque pearls slimmer than in Australia, where aquaculture comes ever closer to resembling a lean, mean agribusiness at sea. But there’s one thing the aquaculturists of Broome can’t control: taste. “It is human nature to desire the exception to the rule,” observes New York pearl dealer Alex Vock of ProVockative Gems. “People want what they know they can’t have.”

When it comes to cultured pearls, consumers are clamoring for baroques—the bigger, brighter, whiter, smoother, and more free-form, the better. And their quest for imperfection is clashing with the pearl farmer’s quest for perfection. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse ratio between supply and demand. “The imbalance,” says Vock, “has made baroques the healthiest sector of the pearl market.”

But here’s the rub. The imbalance can only become greater. To correct it, growers would have to do the unthinkable: sabotage crops. After all, baroques are failures of the increasingly scientific and successful art of pearl farming. Very often, in fact, when drilling a baroque pearl, a stench of decay escapes from it as a result of the buildup of gas pockets from decomposed matter. One dealer even jokes about keeping a bottle of Chanel Number 5 on hand when cleaning such pearls. For this reason, dealers can’t ask farmers to grow more baroques.

“The popularity of baroque pearls is based on a paradox,” explains Andre Asher of Albert Asher Pearls in New York, which has been stocking as many of these oddities as possible for some years. “Pearl culturing is designed to produce as many perfectly round pearls as possible. So you can’t expect farmers to grow more rejects—no matter how beautiful and desirable the best of them are. It’s like asking people to put square pegs in round holes.”

The trouble is that during the decades it took to minimize yields of off-shape pearls, large enough quantities of baroques were produced to create a robust market for these pearls. “Such a market runs counter to the grower’s chief objective, which is making a round pearl,” Asher notes.

It is this illogic that is driving the white-hot craze for South Sea baroque pearls.

SQUEEZE PLAY

If you look at an exceptional strand of baroque pearls, you will see a series of glorious affronts to scientific precision—pearls whose beauty is due purely to chance, to things going wrong and not right. Such pearls are marvelously misshapen, true delights of distortion. But these mistakes command shockingly high prices today.

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South Sea Baroque Cultured Pearls