Peter Hansen of pearl supplier Nash Pearls is decidedly candid when asked about recent industry market shifts and the resulting impact on retailers selling pearl jewellery.
“In Australia there has been a complete rationalisation of the production side of things,” he says. “With Australian South Sea pearl production now tightly controlled by the big producers, most pearls are sold directly into the international market via Japan or Hong Kong and then brought back to Australia to meet domestic demand. Therefore, pricing is set at an international level either in Yen or USD, which also impacts domestic pricing.”
Hansen states that the pearl supply available to local jewellery retailers and suppliers is limited, owing to the fact that the “big producers” have vertically integrated with high-end retail outlets both in Australia and overseas.
It’s not just the South Sea pearl industry that has experienced significant changes in the market. Hansen explains improved quality of freshwater pearls and subsequent massive production levels in China has resulted in confusion regarding the difference between saltwater and freshwater pearls. He also cautions that one mustn’t forget about the other “big, unspoken elephant in the room” – post-harvest treatments.
“Traditionally the Japanese have always treated Akoya pearls in order to get the sameness and to remove surface blemishes and colours for strand making,” Hansen explains. “With so many more third-world producers producing large volumes of commercial grade stock, there’s been increasing pressure to convert these to higher grades to fill gaps in supply.”
There is general consensus among suppliers that consumers still hold a special place for pearl jewellery. Some believe this special place is expanding, which is why it’s important to be across such issues.
The cultured pearl is not without its vulnerabilities, a fact that undeniably adds to the gem’s association with all things rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
“Pearl farming is no different to any form of farming and is subject to Mother Nature’s influence on weather conditions as well as oyster health and husbandry issues that can arise,” explains Allure South Sea Pearls managing director Lindsay Youd. “Seeding an oyster doesn’t guarantee a perfect pearl when it is harvested two years later, and therefore there are always supply and demand issues that affect the availability and the price of cultured pearls.”
Allure South Sea Pearls is a supplier of South Sea pearl jewellery, and Youd says the value of white South Sea pearls has increased in the vicinity of 20 per cent over the past 12 months due to stronger worldwide demand and lower levels of production in Australia.
Nevertheless, he states that retailers are surprised to learn that South Sea pearl jewellery exists in a range of price-points: “A simple 18-carat pearl pendant is available for a few hundred dollars or we can offer a spectacular necklace for a few hundred thousand dollars.”
Brad Remmer, director of Cairns-based retail store Regency Jewellers, has been selling pearls for about 20 years. He notes that consumers are beginning to show an increased willingness to invest in South Sea pearl strands and jewellery.
“Gold pearls are becoming more popular,” he adds, “and freshwater pearl quality is improving with some examples rivalling South Sea for quality and price.”
Take a fresh look
The South Sea cultured pearl is highly-prized for its quality and undoubtedly offers a unique selling proposition (USP) for local jewellers given its ties to Australia – one of the world’s major South Sea pearl producers. Recent developments in freshwater pearl farming, however, have opened a new chapter in this gem’s narrative.
“I think the biggest misconception is retailers believing that freshwater pearls do not offer a quality product or can be classified as fine jewellery,” Pearl Perfection founder Nerida Harris says. “We ask retailers to look at the stunning nucleated freshwater pearls that are now available – grown using a clam shell bead implant in the same way as South Sea and Akoya pearls – to touch and feel the product and to have the confidence to put the big prices on the pieces.”
Harris sources freshwater pearls from China for her pieces, a practice she says is becoming very popular. “China accounts for well over 95 per cent of all commercially-sold freshwater pearls; it is their industry. The very top Chinese producers are spending enormous funds on research and development, hence the gorgeous freshwater pearls we are seeing today.”
When it comes to popular trends, Harris says the stand out for 2015 is definitely “the rose gold look”, with pieces set in 9-carat rose gold or pieces that are rose gold-plated selling well.
Similarly, Ikecho Pearls director and designer Erica Madsen points to the increasing popularity of gold jewellery as a noteworthy trend in the past year.
“We’ve seen a resurgence of gold jewellery both in fashion generally and in demand from our customers, in particular rose and yellow gold,” she says, adding that bold, statement pieces incorporating large pearls have become even more popular than they were 12 months ago.
Rather than focus on one pearl type, Madsen, who founded her business in 1999, has decided to specialise in a number of different varieties: “To provide the very best service to our customers we feel we need to carry all types of pearls.
“Broome and Australian Mabe pearls offer an opportunity for us to provide a unique Australian product to the market and we’ve expanded our scope into golden South Sea pearls, natural black Tahitian, Japanese Akoya pearls and
While a large number of local suppliers source pearls from Australian and international producers, there are others that have taken farming into their own hands.
Broken Bay Pearls (BBP), which specialises in the production of Akoya pearls, is one example. Founded in 2003, the business operates a 10-hectare farm located in Broken Bay, NSW. BBP sales manager Melissa Clift explains that Akoya oysters (Pinctada imbricata) are native to the east coast of Australia and that, unlike most Akoya pearls heralding from Asia, all BBP produce is 100 per cent natural in colour. This means no bleach, dye or other chemicals.
“Nearly all Asian Akoya pearls are bleached and dyed to achieve uniformity and disguise thin nacre layers,” Clift says, adding, “Our customers value a locally-grown product with high-quality lustre and nacre. They also value the sustainability of our operations and we use totally local labour.”
Pia Boschetti is another who believes most consumers prefer an Australian-grown product where possible. Boschetti, the self-proclaimed “girl who grows the pearl”, not only operates two-store retail business Latitude Gallery but also runs a pearl farm situated at the Abrolhos Islands, some 60 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.
“At our pearl farm we grow the black-lipped oyster pearl, specialising in the Australian natural pink pearl, which is a point of difference from products produced in Tahiti and the Cook Islands,” she explains.
When asked what advice she would give jewellery retailers considering a range of pearl jewellery, Boschetti says, “Trust your source; the question we get most often is, ‘How do we know where the pearl comes from and what type?’”
Hansen has similar sentiments: “We specialise in the higher quality range of South Sea pearls. People want great value for money, that what they see is what they get; they want full disclosure on any treatment processes and want to know where the pearls come from.”
A lack of education regarding the somewhat complex nature of pearls has traditionally been one of the barriers when it comes to retailers selling more pearl jewellery; however, suppliers are making a concerted effort to ensure stockists are armed with the knowledge required to land additional sales.
It seems anything goes when it comes to extra support: from in-store staff training and after-hours educational events for retailers and consumers to comprehensive information published on websites, blogs and social media.
Clift says BBP even offers stockists a tour of the farm with a detailed explanation of the production cycle.
Pearl has many redeeming qualities but perhaps Hansen best sums up the gem’s finest USP over other gemstones when he says, “Being the only gem that is produced by a living creature, pearl is truly unique and very special.”
Surely this in itself is enough to elevate pearl alongside other highly-sought precious gemstones.