Pearls – The Birthstone of June – Part 8

Timeline of Pearl Production

Mitsubishi commenced pearl culture with the South Sea pearl oyster in 1916, as soon as the technology patent was commercialized. By 1931 this project was showing signs of success, but was upset by the death of Tatsuhei Mise. Although the project was recommenced after Tatsuhei’s death, the project was discontinued at the beginning of WWII before significant productions of pearls were achieved.

After WWII, new south sea pearl projects were commenced in the early 1950s at Kuri Bay and Port Essington in Australia, and Burma. Japanese companies were involved in all projects using technicians from the original Mitsubishi South Sea pre-war projects. Kuri Bay is now the location of one of the largest and most well-known pearl farms owned by Paspaley, the biggest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

In 2010, China overtook Japan in akoya pearl production. Japan has all but ceased its production of akoya pearls smaller than 8 mm. Japan maintains its status as a pearl processing center, however, and imports the majority of Chinese akoya pearl production. These pearls are then processed (often simply matched and sorted), relabeled as product of Japan, and exported.

In the past two decades, cultured pearls have been produced using larger oysters in the south Pacific and Indian Ocean. The largest pearl oyster is the Pinctada maxima, which is roughly the size of a dinner plate. South Sea pearls are characterized by their large size and warm luster. Sizes up to 14 mm in diameter are not uncommon. In 2013, Indonesia Pearl supplied 43 percent of South Sea Pearls international market. The other significant producers are Australia, Philippines, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Freshwater Pearl Farming

In 1914, pearl farmers began growing cultured freshwater pearls using the pearl mussels native to Lake Biwa. This lake, the largest and most ancient in Japan, lies near the city of Kyoto. The extensive and successful use of the Biwa Pearl Mussel is reflected in the name Biwa pearls, a phrase which was at one time nearly synonymous with freshwater pearls in general. Since the time of peak production in 1971, when Biwa pearl farmers produced six tons of cultured pearls, pollution has caused the virtual extinction of the industry. Japanese pearl farmers recently cultured a hybrid pearl mussel – a cross between Biwa Pearl Mussels and a closely related species from China, Hyriopsis cumingi, in Lake Kasumigaura. This industry has also nearly ceased production, due to pollution. Currently, the Belpearl company based out of Kobe, Japan continues to purchase the remaining Kasumiga-ura pearls.

Japanese pearl producers also invested in producing cultured pearls with freshwater mussels in the region of Shanghai, China. China has since become the world’s largest producer of freshwater pearls, producing more than 1,500 metric tons per year (in addition to metric measurements, Japanese units of measurement such as the kan and momme are sometimes encountered in the pearl industry).

Led by pearl pioneer John Latendresse and his wife Chessy, the United States began farming cultured freshwater pearls in the mid-1960s. National Geographic magazine introduced the American cultured pearl as a commercial product in their August 1985 issue. The Tennessee pearl farm has emerged as a tourist destination in recent years, but commercial production of freshwater pearls has ceased.

Momme Weight

For many cultured pearl dealers and wholesalers, the preferred weight measure used for loose pearls and pearl strands is the momme. Momme is a weight measure used by the Japanese for centuries. Today, momme weight is still the standard unit of measure used by most pearl dealers to communicate with pearl producers and wholesalers. One momme corresponds to 1/1000 kan. Reluctant to give up tradition, the Japanese government formalized the kan measure in 1891 as being exactly 3.75 kilograms or 8.28 pounds. Hence, 1 momme = 3.75 grams or 3750 milligrams.

In the United States, during the 19th and 20th centuries, through trade with Japan in silk cloth the momme became a unit indicating the quality of silk cloth.

Though millimeter size range is typically the first factor in determining a cultured pearl necklace’s value, the momme weight of pearl necklace will allow the buyer to quickly determine if the necklace is properly proportioned. This is especially true when comparing the larger south sea and Tahitian pearl necklaces.

More information about Pearls in Part 9 of this series!

(Information from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)