Thoroughly modern pearls: Long live the queen

© Written by Rachael Taylor for Facets

It has been a liberating few years for pearls, as the subaqueous gems have clawed their way out of grandma’s jewellery box and back onto the necks of the young and the fashionable.

The first real transformative phase of the pearl’s recovery was the discovery that it had more uses than as simply one amongst many in a string, or stranded alone on an ear lobe. Historically, pearls were used in fantastical creations, decorating the clothes and hair of only the most wealthy, not to mention the crowns of royalty. They had many decorative uses, but as the mass market emerged, we all wanted the same thing: a string of identical white pearls with a set of matching studs.

This demand was answered with a flood of cultured pearls, opening up the once exclusive Queen of Gems to the people. And once everyone had their fill, suddenly pearls seemed a bit too overexposed, passé even, and so emerged the association with great aunts and twin sets.

But when a few years ago pearls started popping up on the catwalks once again, it was declared open season for the world’s designers to start incorporating this fallen gem into designs that appeal to today’s shoppers.

CMJ supplier Euro Pearls has been in the pearl business since 1973 and in 2013 its luxury offshoot Yoko London took part in the Pearls exhibition at the V&A Museum in London. This opportunity, plus fashion’s keen interest in pearls, convinced Yoko London chief executive Michael Hakimian that he should take advantage of this moment in the spotlight to focus on turning Yoko into a brand name. “Like any businessman, you react to success and recognition, and to market conditions offering you a favourable demand,” he says.

TRENDSETTING DESIGN

Yoko London prides itself on sourcing some of the world’s most exquisite pearls, but also sets itself the challenge of pushing the boundaries of pearl jewellery design. Its most trendsetting designs of late include a range of ombré jewels featuring pearls that slowly graduate from one colour into another, paying homage to the dip-dye hairstyles still very much in vogue, and its newest creation, a line of luxury pearl ear cuffs.

“The next generation is coming in and they are as passionate as we are,” says Hakimian. “To create something that hasn’t been created before, excite someone who has everything. That’s the brief. We are overflowing at the moment with new ideas and new ways of wearing pearls.”

And there are many more CMJ suppliers getting in on the act, setting pearls in trend-led designs.

Sarah Ho chose to work with South Sea pearls when creating one of its exclusive Sarah Ho Couture collections, Origami Noir.  The jewellery collection sets one large white South Sea pearl at its centre, erupting out of a black diamond pavé origami-like shape, with four smaller pearls on each corner. The brand has also used pink pearls as accents on its popular Florabella silver jewellery collection.

Shaun Leane was most certainly one of the earliest designers to spot the fashion credentials of pearls. When collaborating with Alexander McQueen for the fashion house’s S/S 2001 catwalk show he created a huge branch-like neck- and shoulder-piece for the models that was studded with clusters of dark Tahitian pearls. Leane, who is currently working on new one-off pieces commemorating his work with Alexander McQueen to coincide with the opening of the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A Museum in March, has continued to work with pearls. Some of his more recent tough-luxe collections, including Cherry Blossom, Silver Branch and Blackthorn, use pink, peacock and white freshwater pearls while a ring from the Tribal Deco collection stars a mother-of-pearl cabochon.

There will always be a market for a simple string of pearls – it’s a jewellery box classic – but the market is opening up in terms of alternative designs. We’ve seen pearls used on the end of ear spikes, mixed with chainmail, submerged in crackled gold; and we’ll see a whole lot more as a younger generation of designers fall prey to the lustre, and their imaginations run wild.

RISING PRICES

Design-led pieces tend use less pearls than a traditional string, something that can come in handy when pearl prices are skyrocketing as they are now.

Natural disasters and high demand from Asia has bumped up prices across the board. According to analysts working with trade exhibition BaselWorld, some South Sea pearl suppliers have reported hikes of as much as 40% in the past three years.

Rising pearl costs are something that CMJ supplier Jersey Pearl knows all too much about. “We’ve really felt it, as essentially the majority of all freshwater pearls on the market are grown in China,” says Jersey Pearl wholesale manager Martin Beesley. “The demand for freshwater pearls has been huge, but unfortunately there are lots of people out there who are happy to accept a lower quality of pearl. Because demand is so high, the farms don’t have to put in the work to create high-quality pearls, so the perfect pearls we guarantee are becoming rarer, and so the cost prices have increased really dramatically.”

Veronika Kucher-Heyd, founder of CMJ supplier Sakura Pearl, says her team has had to work harder in the past 12 months to source good-quality pearls for non-exorbitant prices. She believes that as well as increased demand from Asian shoppers with deep pockets, changes to the Chinese farms have affected prices.

“Many of the pearl farmers have changed their business from pearl farming to real estate,” she says. “It takes a very long time for a pearl to grow and be harvested, whereas building apartments on that farmland brings much more money within a shorter time.”

Kucher-Heyd believes that pollution is also having a major influence on prices. She says that the Chinese government is now starting to kick out pearl farmers from rented waters in order to cleanse the areas. “Basically, there are less pearls on the market so the price goes up,” she surmises.

Pearl jewellery suppliers have no control over such pricing factors, they are subject to the whims of the global market, which is something Beesley says Jersey Pearl always tries to communicate to retailers and end consumers when delivering the news of price hikes.

To try and combat rising prices, the manufacturer has focused on creating design-led pieces around a single pearl. This has led to the very popular Joli line of leather bracelets with a single freshwater pearl, which is being extended for spring with new pastel colourways.

But when it comes to the strings of pearls that Jersey Pearl is famous for, their hands are tied. “The classic strings have gone up, even in the last year – 30% or 40%,” says Beesley. “So that’s been a real challenge for us to make sure we do what we set out to do, which is to be honestly priced and provide people with what they are paying for.”

While the middle market is facing tough times, albeit creatively, there still exists a parallel universe of brands catering for jewellery shoppers who care little for penny counting. And it is in this arena that the really exciting pearl developments are to be found.

PEARL EVOLUTION

As well as exciting its customers with avant-garde designs, Yoko London also scours the globe for the most unusual pearls it can find, and it is turning up some extraordinary new colours at the 13 farms it works with.

A particular passion of Hakimian’s right now is light grey pearls with a blueish tone and he makes sure that his suppliers know when he likes something. “We have collected several hundred of these and now every farmer knows that we want every strange coloured pearl that comes out of the ocean,” he says.

Another unusual colour of pearl that has gone down particularly well with his customers has been what he refers to as the Radiant Orchid, a highly iridescent pearl that shimmers with pink and deep purple hues. This beautiful shade of pearl is the result of cross breeding.

Hakimian, who helped fund the research needed to complete the programme, explains: “The species of mussels living in Lake Biwa and Lake Kasumiga in Japan were producing very highly radiant pink and purple freshwater pearls in very small sizes in the 1960s – lustrous, but very small. These lakes then started getting polluted and the creatures started dying and the production went down and down. Some scientists and biologists decided they could not allow this creature to become extinct, so took it to a clean lake in Japan.”

In order to create pearls big enough for use in some serious jewellery designs, the mussels were crossbred over 10 years and can now produce pearls up to 16mm.

“When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe how beautiful these pearls were; they have an intensive lustre,” says Hakimian, who says the Radiant Orchid pearls are the perfect answer for the collector who believes they already own every type of pearl. “Supply of these pearls is extremely limited as production is still from only one farm; nobody else has been able to catch up. I have no doubt that, as with anything else in life, other farmers will learn that such as a creature exists, but it will be at least another five to 10 years until then. This is the game.”

Cross breeding is something that we could well see more of in the future, although while pearl farmers are busy playing at genetics, mother nature is also throwing out a few surprises.

The colour of pearls is highly dependent on the water in which they are cultured, with white pearls associated with the South Seas while darker pearls traditionally hail from Tahiti. But global warming has led to rising sea temperatures, and as a result the colour rulebook is changing.

Hakimian has seen some of these quirks of nature first hand: “We are now finding that pearls we used to get from Tahiti and the Cook Islands, which used to create dark colours, now have greens and blues and greeny-yellow colours, and even what I refer to as cherry colour. The temperature of the water effects the way the oysters are reacting and they are producing pearls faster. A lot of new things are happening. Somehow nature seems to find its own way of coming up with something new.
We have always been suckers for odd colours, so we tell them we want anything that is strange and different to what everyone has.”

THE MARKET IN 2015

It is clear that the pearl has a lot more to offer and as we move forward into the future both nature and man’s interference will change the type of pearls we see coming onto the market. But what about the more immediate future – what will the next year hold for pearls?

“Unfortunately, we are expecting over the next 12 months for the cost price of pearls to increase by 10% to 15%,” says Beesley, adding that these figures have come directly from the pearl farms.

Although Beesley is acutely aware of the challenge that lies ahead in educating retailers about why prices are rising, and giving them enough training to pass a positive message on to shoppers, he is unperturbed about the general future of pearls. “There will definitely still be a place for pearls,” he says. “You can still afford to put a high-quality pearl on designer piece, although strings of really high-quality pearls are edging towards the top end of the market.”

Not everybody is worried about the rising prices, however. “From my point of view I would like the price of pearls to go up 20% every year,” says Hakimian. “I pay my farmers much more than anybody else. I want them to go after quality and excellence rather than quantity; the biggest oysters, a clean environment, give them space, lots of nutrition, clean the oysters so they can produce the finest pearls.”

In recent years, pearls have come such a long way towards reclaiming their crown as the Queen of Gems. And although prices are rising sharply, it is highly unlikely that the gems will ever see their fiscal heyday again when a single pearl earring was used by Roman general Vitellius to finance an entire military campaign.

But what today’s pearls lack in astronomical monetary value, they make up in creativity. New designs, new colours, new sources, new audience. The success story of pearls’ evolution is far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning.

This feature was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Facets, the membership magazine of The Company of Master Jewellers.

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