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An Atelier Leseine pendant with a round Tahitian black pearl held within a white gold-palladium with diamond pav and accompanied by a 17-inch chain

Pearl jewellery

modern fashion
By Anthony DeMarco

has room for classic looks and

An Atelier Leseine ring with a round Tahitian black pearl in a white gold and diamond cage set with diamond pave

earls are perhaps the most complex category of product in the jewellery industry. They are grown from live oysters, which make them prone to the same dangers that threaten any agricultural product (such as disease, hostile weather and overproduction), no matter how well the operation is managed. The sales and distribution system (as with much of the jewellery industry) is complex and inefficient. Pearls have many different origins, shapes and a range of quality variations that are difficult to judge with the naked eye. This makes it very confusing not only to consumers, but to many retailers. Finally, for some people, they lack a modern appeal. All of this makes pearl jewellery difficult to sell in the US. In fact, in the hierarchy of jewellery products being sold by most US retailers, pearls are likely at the bottom. Its a tough sell right now, said Chi Huynh, owner of Galatea, a Californiabased designer of pearls and pearl jewellery. Retailers do not have the money to stock the inventory of items that are not fast sellers. Strands of pearls are not the kind of item flying out the door every day and because of that, they dont carry it. It makes the market soft. Quality pearls were once rare and precious and carried a significant price tag even after they were successfully cultured. Perhaps this is why they have been worn so conservatively over the years and perhaps why a classic string of white pearls is associated as a look for mature women.


September 2013


Below: A round Tahitian black pearl sits inside an 18-karat white gold-palladium polyhedron cage replete with diamond pave by Atelier Leseine. Left: Tahitian black pearl earrings in 18-karat white gold-palladium with diamond pave by Atelier Leseine

Not your grandmothers pearls But things are changing rapidly. Today, pearls are in great abundance and come in every style, shape and colour imaginable. More recently, jewellery designers have been extremely creative in designing high-fashion jewellery pieces using these dynamic pearl varieties. Times have changed and these are no longer your grandmothers pearls, said Jack Lynch of San Francisco-based Sea Hunt Pearls, which specialises in freshwater pearls. Todays pearls are bigger, longer, more varied in size, shape and colour, and attract a much broader audience than ever. Freshwater pearls have really helped bring a modern and high fashion look to what was a symbol of conservatism. The variety of colours, shapes and sizes have made women collectors of pearls. Once a woman would have been satisfied with a single strand of pearls in the jewellery box, now that is just the starting point. Lynch said the variety of pearls has created a way for women to accessorise their look and for designers to be extremely creative. Big is the look in pearls today, he said. Layering pearl necklaces is a hot look, from multiples of varying sizes and lengths of all white pearls to mixing colours and shapes. Also popular is a single and unique pearl worn simply or designed into a one-of-a kind-piece. Fashion offers the opportunity for everyone to find their own look and there is the right pearl to help people achieve their look.

Lynch would find lots of agreement with retailers like Ginger Clarke of Clarkes Jewelers in Shreveport, La. I think pearls are classic and wonderful for every occasion and at any age, said Clarke, whose store specialises in Mikimoto. I think this will be a pearl fall because people will return to layering with pearl jewellery. Clarke said matching classic pearl strands or pearl stud earrings with gold chains or black and silver gold pieces provides many options to modernise a traditional look. You dont have to wear pearl studs with a pearl necklace, she said. One of the most exciting Mikimoto pieces I have goes from white to black pearls. I know I will sell that immediately. Sales for pearls at Clarkes Jewelers start at around $200 and the average sale is around $2,000. Outside of freshwater pearls, Lynch also views other trends in the pearl industry. Tahitian pearls with strong colours remain popular. Supply of good quality has become challenging in many areas of the pearl market and this is especially true with Tahitian pearls. A return of cultured Akoya pearls. Todays young sophisticate is dressing up. Hipster men are wearing suits and women are doing conservative with an edge and pearls are the perfect symbol to put in the mix. Cathy Fleck of Occasions Fine Jewelry in Midland, Texas, said pearls are not her biggest sellers at her store, which specialises in diamonds. However, she sells a variety of pearls led by Honora freshwater pearl items in several colours. The inventory also includes strands of Tahitians, Akoyas and one set of South Sea pearls. Her average sale runs a little over $200. I seem to do better with a moderate to budget price point, but I have had some in higher price ranges, Fleck said. I see a strong trend towards strands again for all ages. She also said that she does not see pearls as strictly a traditional purchase. Ive noticed that we have a few clients that want a finer, classic strand. However, many are just looking for style or fashion, she said. I have had little resistance with Honoras higher-end freshwater pearls in the classic strands. Im still old school enough that its hard for me to see the prices on a plain, AAA strand of freshwaters, but Ill admit they are beautiful and hard pressed to distinguish them apart from a less expensive Akoya.


September 2013


Pearls as gems Nathalie Leseine, a French native who now divides her time between San Francisco and Tahiti, designs jewellery using black Tahitian pearls in delicate, architectural settings made of 18-karat white gold-palladium for her company Atelier Leseine. Her jewellery pieces run from $2,500 to $7,800. In addition, she sells individual black Tahitian pearls with hand-carved Polynesian motifs under another brand, Tahitian Designs. I spend time via email talking to potential clients and explaining to them the real value of a pearl and focusing on the fact that, yes, it is a gem, she said. The client who understands the pearl as a gem wants luxurious designs but also more creative designs. The classic designs of the past years are still appreciated by a certain clientele, lets say of a certain age. But there is a younger clientele that wants more contemporary, luxurious designs. Her clientele ranges from 35 to 50 years of age and are mostly from the US, China and France. One way of reintroducing the Tahitian pearl as a gem is to start creating more luxurious jewels made with them. Creativity and precious materials need to be present in the designs and only a top-quality pearl must be used.

Carved Tahitian pearls and sterling silver link chain from Galatea

Gems inside pearls When it comes to carving Tahitian pearls, one of the early innovators is Galatea. Chi Huynh started doing this in 2001 because he found it difficult to sell classic pearls in a traditional way. He said the pearl market was not changing so he decided to create a new market. We do carvings because its a special item and a designer product that is different than what the rest of the market is offering, Huynh said. It puts me in a whole different category. He produces hundreds of artistic jewellery pieces using all types of materials at all price points. Many of them look and perform like beads. His most popular item is a diamond inside a carved pearl. Recently he introduced gemstone-enucleated pearls, which exposes its colour beneath the nacre of the carved pearl. John Pimentel of Conch Jewelers in Key West, Fla. said about 33 percent of his business consists of pearl jewellery. He sells all types of pearls, including the Conch pearl, which are native to the Caribbean. The rarest of all the pearls, he said. His biggest seller by far for his tourist clientele is the Galatea diamond in a pearl. In fact, he sells more of this pearl than all the stores in the US combined. He said outside of what Galatea is doing, demand and trends have stayed pretty much the same. Its been pretty much 20 years and it all comes back, he said. Everything has its cycle. There has been one change recently. People are switching to silver settings due to the gold crisis, he said. They do get a surprise when they get a quote on a gold piece. Lets hope that changes. Back to the classics The varieties of pearls have never been greater. Designers have been pushing the boundaries of individual fashion and new uses for pearl jewellery. However, there will always be a place in the pearl market for a simple, elegant and classic look. It represents not only a higher margin for the retailer, but a quality that can be understood by anyone. Ginger Clarkes first experience with Mikimoto in the early 1980s was one she will never forget. This was the first time I was given the responsibility to make a decision of this importance within the family business, she said. I went in thinking they were not different than any other pearl. I quickly learned they were different. I saw the difference in the roundness and qualities of simple strands and studs. When Mikimoto introduced multicolour Tahitian strands I sold them immediately. Both the roundness of a Mikimoto pearl and the almost invisible knotting still sets it apart today. JNA


September 2013

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