Image: Le Vian
The pearl market was once fairly niche, with a handful of specialists catering to serious collectors, and the rest of the industry dipping into the oceans for accent gems as needed.
Now, pearls are a big business, and as demand continues its upward trajectory, that business has become — as jeweler Tasaki notes — “more and more competitive.”
The renewed interest has led to greater creativity within the sector. Among fashion-led shoppers, irregular shapes such as baroque, keshi and mabe pearls still continue to curry favor, especially when matched with yellow gold.
Designer Pacharee Sophie Rogers has chosen to work with mabe — or blister — pearls in her latest collection, Mabe Memoir. The founder of Swiss-Thai jewelry brand Pacharee is the daughter of gem specialist Gerald Vincent Rogers. “My father helped pioneer the farming of [these pearls],” she notes, making this “a very personal collection.”
Dapper on the daily
The market’s reacceptance of pearls as a go-to gem rather than a sartorially provocative choice means shoppers are now seeking out pearl jewelry for everyday wear, and houses are responding with more modest design cues.
“Currently, we are seeing a trend toward simple, clean lines,” says Jeremy Burbanks, wholesale director at jeweler Mikimoto. “Customers aren’t asking for overly elaborate styles. It has to be about the pearl.”
Michael Hakimian, chief executive of Yoko London, agrees. The brand’s best-selling lines are “contemporary, everyday collections,” including its Trend and Sleek designs with their smaller but high-quality akoya and freshwater pearls. “As we enter a post-lockdown era, we have found that the more wearable a design is, the more popular it will be,” he says. “Our customers want jewelry they can wear anytime, anywhere.” Pearl stud earrings are particularly popular.
Another rising trend as we move beyond the “not your granny’s pearls” trope is that men are also embracing them. A slew of influential male stars have been photographed wearing pearls —particularly short strands — and it cuts across genres. Rapper A$AP Rocky has used a pearl necklace to soften a hip-hop look, while singer Harry Styles has used one to add edge to his outfit. Pop icon Justin Bieber manages to pull off a surfer vibe with his.
“We are working on developing more pearls for men,” says Wilfredo Rosado, founder of W.Rosado. “We have seen a great deal of interest from men in our current Pearl ID collection [of pearls inlaid with diamond-set letters] and are playing with pearl colors, materials and scale. I think it is interesting to note the popularity of pearls in the men’s market, especially among a younger demographic.”
Mikimoto is also homing in on this market. It has collaborated with fashion house Comme des Garçons on pearl necklaces amped up with chains, spikes and safety pins for a punk twist, and has men modeling them in its black-and-white ad campaigns.
Beyond the pale
There has also been a revival of Tahitian pearls in jewelry. Some designers — including pearl specialist Ksenia Podnebesnaya — have linked the surge in interest to US Vice President Kamala Harris, whose enviable pearl collection includes a string of these black pearls.
In reaction to the uptick in demand, the Cultured Pearl Association of America (CPAA) has partnered with Los Angeles-based jewelry brand Suzanne Kalan to release a capsule collection pairing Tahitian pearls with the jeweler’s trademark baguette-cut diamonds and emeralds.
“In the last few years, there has definitely been a resurgence of black pearls in the market,” says the brand’s founder, Suzanne Kalandijian. “What I love most about Tahitians are the undertones that are captured in the different lights they’re seen in — blue, green, purple and pink. Tahitian pearls are also timeless, modern, classic, yet edgy and sexy.”
The government of French Polynesia helped facilitate this collection, but for those without diplomatic assistance, access can be tricky right now.
“Black pearls are particularly difficult to source at the moment. They simply don’t have the shells to produce the pearls,” says Rosado, who has noted an increase in requests for Tahitian specimens at W.Rosado. “This, of course, drives the price of the pearls up, which eventually affects the price of finished pieces.”
Prices for peacock-hued Tahitians — along with Tahitian bronze pearls and golden Filipino pearls — “have skyrocketed” due to increased interest from Chinese collectors, according to Podnebesnaya. She also believes the climate crisis is making exceptional examples harder to come by: “For about five years now, I have not seen large Tahitian pearls [of 18 to 20 millimeters] from new harvests. And that amazing iridescence, which we saw in the pearls of Tahiti 13 years ago, is now completely different. It seems to have faded.”
Disruptions of supply
Sourcing is, in fact, difficult across the board right now. Mikimoto’s Burbanks says the brand is struggling to source top-quality akoya and South Sea pearls in both the largest and the smallest sizes, as “farmers are concentrating now on sizes that maximize return rather than risking the time and potential failure that might occur in producing the bigger sizes.”
Yoko London also bemoans a lack of small Japanese akoya, and Hakimian shares that “all sizes of pink freshwater pearls are becoming increasingly difficult to source.”
Needless to say, the pandemic has impacted pearl farms. “The nucleation technicians couldn’t travel, so cultivation had to take a break for many,” says Peggy Grosz, senior vice president at pearl jeweler Assael. “The same is true of the people who travel to harvest pearls. Some were locked down away from the pearling locations, so harvesting was difficult. That, in combination with the demand for many types of pearls, has caused an increase in the prices of certain categories.”
After a century of largely uninterrupted cultured-pearl production, it seems the scarcity principle that engorged the prices of natural pearls is now inflating the cultured-pearl market. Prices for irregularly shaped goods, particularly baroque and keshi varieties, have increased of late as well, observes Pacharee’s Rogers. “They are really special pearls that have almost been forgotten,” she says, “and we are trying to bring them to life again.”