Until the late 1990s, China was expected to be the successor to Japan for production of saltwater cultured pearls. But that hasn’t happened. Nor is it likely to. China’s ocean pearls were never the equal of Japan’s.
Yet today China has eclipsed every other pearl producer in terms of quantity - harvesting hundreds of tons of pearls a year. You heard right: hundreds of tons. The second leading producer is estimated to produce only 20 tons of material. That’s a vast difference in quantity.
How did China achieve such commanding dominance.
It perfected a way to grow pearls in snails instead of oysters using its thousands of inland rivers, streams and lakes. True, it has long grown freshwater pearls in abundance. But never before have they had the roundness and luster of its new-crop pearls.
What’s more, these pearls are all-nacre, using only mantle tissue from a donor mollusk to spark nacre production. The cavity where the pearl grows acts to keep the pearl rounded so a bead nucleus is not needed.
But that’s not all. Chinese miracle-grow freshwater pearls are now readily available in sizes up to 10mm - with larger sizes on the way. And you can buy them in blush-on pink, Advil-orange as well as white. (Other colors such as black and blue are artificial and not recommended.) More recently, China has been producing impressive thick coin-shaped silver pearls that remind dealers of the legendary freshwater pearls once produced at Japan’s Lake Biwa.
Even with harvests in China down respectively to 600 tons in 2003, the world is swimming in freshwater cultured pearls - and prices reflect it.
Sure, this figure is much more down to earth than the production peak of 2,000 tons reached in the late 1990s. But, say dealers, it's like downgrading a hurricane from Type 5 to Type 2. It's still a vicious storm.
Let's put the numbers in perspective.
When Japan's pearl production crested in 1966, it was no more than 250 tons. And today output in Japan is one-tenth that total, 25 tons - with much of it suspected to have been grown in China's dwindling saltwater farms. So China has considerable reining in to do.
Nevertheless, the plunge in production suggests Chinese freshwater pearl culturing is finally answering to market fundamentals, if not willing discipline. So many entrepreneurs rushed into culturing a decade ago that the ensuing glut drove prices to unprofitable lows. Now rumor has it that many bankrupt farms are being bought up by larger Hong Kong-based companies which are more sensitive to nuances of supply and demand.
At the same time, there is a new emphasis on quality as well as quantity.
Chinese farmers have steadily raised pearl sizes from an average of around
6-7 mm five years ago to 8-10 mm nowadays. And many pearls rival South Sea pearls in size, often reaching diameters of 12 mm, with the added plus that Chinese freshwater pearls are all-nacre.
That's not all.
Pearl dealers showing at the Las Vegas Show in June had glorious displays of silvery coin and button pearls from China that were reminiscent of the most beautiful specimens from Japan's legendary Lake Biwa in its heyday several decades ago.
In their defense, Chinese farmers tell outsiders not to be alarmed by the production figures. They insist that 90% of the pearls go for medicines and other byproducts instead of jewelry. That's a lot of powder. Nevertheless, it has long been true that in Asia a calcium-rich pearl a day (preferably ground up) keeps the doctor away.