Not a chap among you knows the value of a given piece of pearl. That's how I can help you. I'll undertake to value without any fee for any of you chaps and my valuation stands as an offer too. If none of the big bosses will give you more bring it back to me and I'll pay the fee all right.
Louis Kornitzer, 1900
In addition to black pearls, the sultry
waters of the South Pacific also produce
white pearls. Three species of pearl oyster
are found in southern Pacific waters. The most important of these, the Pinctada maxima, is the largest of the pearl oysters. Three subspecies or varieties of Pinctada maxima are the white lip, silver lip, and the yellow or golden lip oysters. [The largest known pearl produced by the Pinctada maxima oyster is 24mm in diameter.] These three siblings produce pearls that range from a white to silver white through yellow to a distinct golden hue.
|Fine white South Sea pearls from Australia. Note the misty luster and slight pinkish overtone on some of the pearls.
South Sea pearls should not be confused with the Japanese akoya pearls, which are a product of the Pinctada fucata (martensii) oyster called akoya-gai in Japanese. Both these pearls have a white body color. The Japanese oyster rarely produces pearls over 9mm. In fact, 9mm is a very large akoya pearl. The maxima regularly grows pearls over 15mm and, if left to its own devices, will produce pearls as large as 20mm.
Pinctada maxima is found throughout the southwest Pacific from the Ryukyu Islands to the Arafura Sea, along a band running within twenty degrees of latitude north and south of the equator. Until the current decade, the vast majority of white cultured South Sea pearls were produced off Australia’s northern coast. Recently farms in the Philippines and Indonesia have begun to produce pearls from Pinctada maxima, more specifically the golden lip variety. These pearls occur in various tones of yellow through golden.
Body color The body color of a white South Sea pearl should be white. Pearls, like faceted stones, will sometimes show a secondary or modifying hue. Some of these secondary hues are more desirable than others. Green, for example, is something of a negative factor; even a slight tint of greenish hue to the otherwise white body color will lower the value of the pearl. Gray is a double-edged hue. If it is dull, it is a negative. If it is bright it is called silver and adds measurably to the pearl’s appeal.
Simpatico South Sea pearls, as we have seen, are not all white, though white is the most sought after and thus the most expensive. This is because the white body color is simpatico with skin tones typical of northern Europeans. People of the developed world simply have more money to spend on pearls; hence demand is greatest for these colors. The pearl itself occurs in white to golden, passing through various tones of yellow along the way. The actual body color has little to do with quality; simpatico is really a measure of compatibility. All other factors being equal, the subtle nuances of hue found in the South Sea pearl are of equal beauty.
Luster and orient: white South Sea pearls Luster and orient are the two most important criteria to be used when evaluating the beauty of a pearl. The white variety of South Sea pearl rarely exhibits more than a bit of orient; that is, an overtone of contrasting chromatic color such as that displayed by the finer black South Sea pearls.
Occasionally a fine white pearl displays a bit of pink. The overall luster of these pearls is somewhat softer than that of pearls produced in colder waters. Soft luster coupled with translucency can result in a pearl with a soft misty surface appearance that suggests a lake-bred early morning fog. Thus if one were to apply the luster test described in the discussion on pearl connoisseurship in Chapter 5, the most that could be said is that the luster of the South Sea pearl is, at best, a “good” luster. The misty surface does impart a sense of life to the pearl’s skin which lends the South Sea pearl an ephemeral sort of beauty found in no other variety.
Luster and orient: golden South Sea pearls The golden South Sea pearl produced by the golden lip variety of Pinctada maxima shares the softer luster of the South Sea varieties, but will exhibit a distinct orient or overtone. In fact, in finer pearls, the yellow to golden color is part orient and part body color (see the section on connoisseurship in pearls. It can best be described as a golden glow that seems to cling somewhat tenuously to the pearl’s skin and to follow it when the pearl is rotated. In the finest gems, it emanates from the skin and appears to hover over the surface of the pearl.
|A fine strand of South Sea pearls with the signature soft misty luster. Pearls cul
tured in colder waters such as the ubiquitous Japanese akoya will normally exhibit
a harder, brighter luster.
Size South Sea pearls are, speaking generally, the largest of
all pearls. This is a result of
two factors: the size of the mollusk
itself and the rate of nacre accumulation. Nacre accumulates up to ten
times faster in the warm waters of
the southern Pacific than it does
off the coast of Japan. The shell-
fish, due to its large size, can accept large nuclear implants; coupled
with nacre accumulation, this results in very large
round pearls. The larger the pearl the rarer it is
and the higher the price that will be asked for it.
Large mollusks can accept either a large number of small spherical implants or a very small number of larger diameters. It takes at least thirty months to produce a fine South Sea pearl. Since larger pearls command much higher prices, the grower’s usual strategy is to produce a smaller quantity of larger pearls. With the increasing production of South Sea pearls, both black and white, this situation has begun to change. Growers are beginning to address market demand for smaller pearls. Prices for South Sea round pearls begin at 10mm. South Sea pearls under 10mm are very difficult to find and pearls under 9mm hardly exist at all. Prices increase at a reasonable percentage rate to 14mm. Pearls over 14mm increase at somewhat larger percentages. At 16mm prices become negotiable, because at these sizes, rarity becomes an increasingly important factor in the value equation. The spread of pearl culturing throughout its growing region is bound to affect prices. Although Australia has dominated the market for several decades, emerging industries in Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam, and the Philippines are beginning to erode Australia’s market dominance. The prognosis for the short term is, therefore, a continuing softening of prices for these fine southern beauties.