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By  , Wednesday, August 02, 2006

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.


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