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South Sea Cultured Pearl

The once small league of South Sea pearl farms is growing so fast one is tempted to think that growers have adopted an expansion system similar to that in American sports. Suddenly, pearl farms seem to have cropped up in every lagoon throughout the region. Here, thank goodness, the analogy between sports and pearl farming ends. For while expanding the number of teams in, say, baseball, has weakened the quality of the game, expanding the number of South Sea pearl farms has strengthened the quality of what since the 1960s has been the swankiest organic gem.

Keep your fingers crossed, however, Ordinarily, the rapid increase in pearl production has been the kiss of death for pearl quality. Just look at what happened to Japanese Akoya cultured pearls during the 1980s when an emphasis on quantity led to shorter growing times, overcrowding of waters and thinner nacre on many pearls produced.

Mainly because the South Seas, unlike Japan, have plenty of room for growth, no decline in quality—outside of Burma, the birthplace and former showcase of the South Sea cultured pearl industry—has plagued the rapidly increasing production of pearls there. At present, scores of farms are operating in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. More are on the way.

The expansion is not speculative but, instead, a response to mushrooming global demand for 10mm-plus cultured pearls. With the traditional Akoya pearl only able to grow up to 10mm, the world must depend on the South Seas to meet insatiable demand for larger pearls.

What is astonishing about consumer craving for South Sea pearls is that only a decade or so ago, these pearls were virtual unknowns to all but a handful of Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive elite. So even if the market’s growth were of the trickle-down variety, it would still have a long way to go before reaching saturation.

BURMA'S LOSS, AUSTRALIA'S GAIN

Until recently, it was assumed that South Sea pearls were for society’s upper crust. These pearls accounted for, at most, 2 percent of world production and the best and biggest of them—rosy-glow 15mm and 15mm pearls with a subtle silky patina—commanded close to a quarter of a million dollars a strand. Nearly all of these connoisseur pearls came from Burma, now Myanmar, the socialist garrison state in southeast Asia that expelled its Japanese pearl-culturing technicians in 1965 and watched its supremacy in South Sea pearls slowly fade to a distant memory.

Ironically, Burma’s debacle proved a blessing in disguise for the pearl market as several countries have vied to fill the vacuum in top-trade South Sea pearls left by Burma’s decline. One of them, Australia, has been producing crops that seriously rival Burma’s, both in beauty and bulk—and surpass them in size with pearls up to 19mm. Seeing that a newcomer can seriously challenge Burma for aesthetic leadership, entrepreneurs in other countries have sought to produce high-quality pearls, too. The end result: an explosive rise in South Sea pearl production.

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South Sea Cultured Pearl