Pearl Industry: An Introduction


In 2019, the global jewellery industry is estimated to be worth about USD 230 billion whilst it’s growth rate was estimated to be about 3.7%. The Asia Pacific is a key market as it has the highest growth globally then. Collectively, the US and Europe however remained it’s highest spenders. The leading jewellery individual markets are China, USA, India, Japan and Russia. The growth can be largely attributable to the internet that helped increase the awareness, demand and ease of purchasing  jewellery especially amongst the young and millennials who are the biggest spenders on clothing and jewellery.

We are told that pearls are formed when the proverbial sand gets into the oyster and initiates the reaction that eventually produced the pearl. This is only half of the story as any other irritants such as a dead sea worm will do the job equally well. So when it settles in the oyster, the irritated oyster does the only thing possible; try to live with it by reducing the irritation by coating it with nacre.  Over time, the act of layering the nacre upon the dead visitor forms the pearl whose beauty is just unimaginable.

Pearls therefore will naturally take on the characteristics of the oysters in which they grew. The Pinctada fucata produces small and creamy coloured pearls and is amongst the smallest of the pearl producing oysters. They are interchangeably - and sometimes annoyingly and confusingly -  known as Akoya pearls due to the distinction of it being the first pearl to be cultivated in the 1920s in Akoya Japan. Then you have the opposite; the glistening black pearl; the Pinctada margaritifera.  A little known fact about this genus is that it is a protandrous hermaphrodite which to me and you means that it begins life as a male and later changes into a female. Nature’s gender bender some might say. And at the opposite end of the girth scale, far away from the diminutive Akoyas, we have the many hued South Sea pearls of the Pinctada maxima genus; the world’s largest pearl oyster which can grow to the size of a dinner plate. Pinctada Maxima comes with two different colour varieties: the silver and gold lipped oysters.

The three main producing regions are: - the white Japanese Akoya pearls.
- the black, gold, and white South Sea pearls mainly from Tahiti, Australia and Indonesia 
- freshwater pearls from China. 

South Sea pearls are generally the largest due to their thick covering of nacre which not only contribute to their (bigger) size but also optically gives them the deep luster and making them mechanically less likely to discolour or degenerate. They are generally 3 to 20 times more expensive than Akoya pearls.  Whilst the Akoya and the South Sea pearls are seawater pearls, Chinese pearls are primarily if not exclusively freshwater pearls. China leads the world in the production of freshwater pearls. It supplies about 99.9 percent of the world’s freshwater pearls; about 1,500 tons annually. By comparison, the worldwide saltwater production is only 60 tons. Freshwater pearls are small, oddly-shaped,and coloured. Chinese pearls are generally perceived as mass produced, high-yield and of low-value.

The practice of inducing oysters to produce pearls is not a 20th century invention that we are made to believe but goes back more than a thousand years ago. It was only in 1905 that the process  was mastered by a near-broke noodle vendor who rose to become known as the English-suited-and-bowl-hatted Pearl King. His rag to riches story is one of the more amusing anecdotes in the annals of pearls and the stuff of Hollywood movies. Mikimoto Kokichi. Legend has it that our enterprising Mikimoto San was not the only one working on cultured pearls at the time when he started for he relied a bit too much on techniques developed concurrently by two other fellow Japanese, who as it turned out appeared have taken their idea from another, now forgotten, toiler. Nevertheless, credit must be given to Mikimoto San who perfected and made the process his own and crucially, who persuaded the rest of the world to accept it.

Japanese Pearling Industry

The Japanese purportedly controlled the pearl industry. In the past, pearls grown outside of Japan were seeded by only Japanese technicians and processed in Japanese farms.They were sold at prices set by the Japanese Government. Kobe is renowned for its pearls and is where about 350 pearl-related companies are located.  In 2008, it was responsible for 62.4 percent of Japan's pearl exports consisting mostly of white Akoya pearls. Okinawa was at one time the only place in Japan (and the world) where black pearls were cultured. A bit of trivia; Okinawa means “rope in the open sea”; an apt description for a strand of pearls. 

Of late, the Japanese pearl industry has been hurt by competition from Chinese freshwater pearls .They are fighting back by developing new kinds of jewellery and accessories at more attractive prices and venturing into non-traditional products and markets such as the pearl decorated cell phone covers and bags for the younger generation.

Chinese Pearls

China is the largest producer of cultured pearls in the world. It produces about 1,500  tonnes annually; nearly all of them freshwater pearls. Not surprisingly, the country has a long and rich history in pearls; the regions of Hepu and Behai for example had had active marine pearl fisheries as early as the Han dynasty and reports of pearl finds in rivers and lakes date back to the 4th millennium BC. Sadly though, Chinese cultured pearls have long been associated with mass production, low value and relatively low quality. Whereas seawater oysters can produce one or two cultured pearls at a time, freshwater mussels can produce up to 30 or even 50  pearls. This may help explain the abundance of freshwater cultured pearls and why they are also so much cheaper. The majority of freshwater mussels are cultivated in disused rice paddies converted to become artificial lakes. Manure and other animal waste are used to feed the algae; the food source of mollusks.

However, recent developments suggest that this is changing.  Of late, the very best (but few to start with) of China’s freshwater pearls dazzle in extraordinary shades of peach and apricot that rival the saltwater Akoya in roundness and luster. This is beginning to make competitors sit up and pay more attention when Chinese lookalikes cost as little as a tenth of the price of the others. Regretfully, treatments such as bleaching, dyeing and polishing are routinely but harmfully used to dress up most of their pearls.


Lack of Knowledge

Pearls have now become a commodity. This is because of the sheer volume of pearls in the market. They are no longer the limited, expensive and exquisite jewellery they were once. Most high-street jewellers therefore are not trained on the finer points about pearls. With very few exceptions, they will often regurgitate what (little) they know. They will tell - but not demonstrate - to the clients about the size, shape, colour, luster and the many different kinds of pearls available when most people  - themselves included - are unable to differentiate between natural and cultured pearls or cultured saltwater and freshwater pearls. 

Chinese Freshwater And Imitation Pearls Are Drowning The Market

Chinese lookalikes cost as little as a tenth of the price of others. This is made worse by how easy it is to produce imitation  pearls: all that is required is a bit of bleaching, dyeing and polishing to dress up run-of-the-mill and indifferent pearls and pass them on as naturally cultured pearls. What is even worse, this sets a precedent for others to imitate.

Lack of Environmental Consideration

When maximizing profit overtakes environmental consideration and when we forget that it is the environment and ecosystem that actually produce the pearls , the oyster - which is nature’s best alarm system for pollution - suffers. Irresponsible producers take the easy way out; find a new location and relocate when the current one is no longer productive. A case in point is Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake and once famous for its freshwater pearls. It has been damaged by pollution and is now left barren since the early 1990s.


This is largely due to new entrants producing mainly freshwater pearls which are cheaper and easier to produce. As such, the average prices for pearls, especially South Sea pearls have seen a fall since the mid-2000s.

Slow To React To Market Needs 

The industry has been slow to position traditional pearl pieces and designs to the liking of today’s more informal, mobile and casual lifestyles. The pearl strand and necklaces, which have historically been the industry’s mainstay, are fast becoming outdated and are being challenged by new bolder designs. Is the industry doomed? Will the true producers of natural pearls survive amidst all these challenges especially posed by cheap and fake pearls ? 

The solution is to learn from Swatch and make pearls a part of the everyday wardrobe. The diamond industry has figured this out by making diamonds a part of everyday living. They concentrated on a few key styles that women can wear when sweating it out in the gym or at business meetings or when wearing designer jeans on their night out or for all three occasions.  

The good news is that there are a few designers that are now mixing pearls with different gemstones, beads, metals and textures like suede and leathers. Given the varieties of shapes and colors pearls offer, designers are exploring, combining, contrasting and intermixing pearls to create totally new expressions to make pearls relevant and everyday wearable. The industry has to reinvent itself and get out of the present mindset and preoccupation and explore more daring and chic styles to complement the traditional and classical interpretations of pearls which it has always offered and that has passed it’s prime and relevance for the time being.


In its rawest and truest form, fashion is about conveying and informing others of our values, ambitions and about ourselves as a person in general.  Collectively over a period of time, fashion trends are narrations of who we are as a race or nation and what we are experiencing in the global context in terms of cultural, geopolitical and social undercurrent and events.  What is our response to these movements and moments ? Our answer to these questions is found in fashion.  What you wear tells a story. And stories have always been our communication tool and medium and plays a big part of how we function - and define ourselves - as humans. 

For the past few years, the narratives are mostly about Covid 19 and how we - especially the young, mobile millennials who are at the frontline due to their presence in social media which, in and by itself, is a key defining feature of the pandemic - react to this unprecedented event.


The restaurants are closed. Going on holiday abroad is out of the question. So where do we turn to to release the pent up frustration of being in lockdown ? The world turned to online shopping and jewellery in particular. Zoom meetings have  made waist up dressings the norm which puts jewellery, especially earrings and necklaces, in the spotlight or center screen if you will.

The Young And Beautiful

Generally, classical pearl jewelries and pieces are fast being looked down as pretentious by the millennials. They, however, will accept it but with a twist - as they normally do. In are the vibrant, bold, electric, make-you-stop-and-shake -your-head colours to project a personal playfulness statement about them. This, I was embarrassingly told by my daughter, is known as the dopamine setting. Mixing things up is the rage. Old rules and regulations are thrown out of the proverbial window. Our daughters and granddaughters are experimenting with plastics, ceramics and glass. Minimalism and asymmetry is the mission; neck mess is the vision.  


Working from home dictates that jewellery will have to be more comfortable and no longer feel strange and out of place being worn at home alone (!). Jewellery rather than clothes takes the centre screen literally. They will however have to truly and literally stand out and shine on screen to compensate for the sweatpants that we are wearing during the online meetings. Humans detect and recognise people far quicker physically than we do online. As such, online presence is much more difficult to achieve and needs a lot of effort to be as effective as offline presence but this is compensated by the fact that we just need to concentrate on a very small portion of ourselves i.e. our face, head and shoulders. 

However, it can be argued rightfully that being fully dressed as you would for a physical meeting gives you that security and confidence that we need or are used to especially for business meetings. Regardless, what others see when they look at you on their laptop screens represents the whole you and communicates who you are.

Out With The Classic and Norm

Pearls are now past their classic, prim-and-proper reputation. They are no longer imprisoned and defined by the common necklace. They now stand alone by their commanding selves surrounded and served by other jewelleries; they are glamorous, punk, or super fancy. Having a single pearl surrounded by diamonds set on an 18-karat gold in a  shell-shaped configuration was unimaginable a few years back . Chanel crafted a brooch of pearls in varying sizes, dangling from chains made of gold, glass, and crystals. Sophie Bille Brahe sourced two massive Baroque pearls and affixed them to smaller round ones crafted into daisies. These will definitely get your grandmother going.

Mismatched and baroque pearls are now used to produce jewellery. You now need not feel laboured or pressured to show you “belong” by wearing what you others want you to wear in order to belong or fit in. Fitting in is a distant memory. Perfect and smooth surfaces are out too. It is now all about a textured, liquified metal look. Some critics may say that it is akin to walking modern art.  Outraged?  That is the whole idea. 

The Environment

Studies showed that we are still very much concerned about the environment and sustainability which has now given birth to the trend of recycling and restyling of our old jewellery pieces. This is not necessarily bad for the industry as only the true and genuine jewellery can still be around to be relevant, restyled and refreshed. The fake imitation ones were probably broken or faded years ago.

Before we dread that the days of dressing up for the office every morning are all but gone forever, rest assured that it is not.  Humans will be humans regardless. We will again - if we have not done it already that is -  go back to dressing ourselves up, putting the make-up on and deciding which earnings to wear although we are just Zooming alone in the kitchen. Why ? Because clothes have always had such a huge psychological impact on how we feel and portray ourselves. It empowers us.

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