Mother Nature Fights Back

New York Times, December 10, 2010

In 1937, Louis Kornitzer, a prominent London gem merchant, published “The Pearl Trader,” a passionate treatise on the natural pearl set against the backdrop of a brave new world in pearling.

Three decades earlier, Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker in Toba, Japan, had perfected a method to culture pearls, the process by which a bead or piece of mantle tissue is implanted inside the fleshy part of a mollusk, forcing the creature to secrete an iridescent substance called nacre that forms a pearl.

Until Mr. Mikimoto’s discovery made the organic gems available to the masses, pearls were accessories to aristocratic living. They have played a role in the lives of some of history’s greatest jewelry aficionados, from Cleopatra — who, according to legend, dissolved a pearl in vinegar to win a bet against Marc Anthony — to the watchmaker Louis Cartier. And they found some of their greatest expressions in the palaces of Indian maharajahs, who festooned ropes of the silvery gems across tunics, ornamental belts, carpets and canopies.

In “The Pearl Trader,” Mr. Kornitzer decried a future in which cultured pearls, which he called “cuckoo pearls,” ruled the marketplace. “I cannot see how mankind would be the gainer if fine pearls were as plentiful as blackberries and as cheap,” he wrote.

Today, Mr. Kornitzer’s words ring with prescience. “In Hong Kong, you literally see sacks of pearls and people sitting on top of them,” said Kenneth Scarratt, managing director of the Gemological Institute of America’s Southeast Asia division.

From 1999 to 2009, the combined production of South Sea cultured pearls — the large, white-to-golden gems of the silver-lipped Pinctada maxima oyster, native to Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines — and of black pearls from the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster, farmed in French Polynesia, increased to 25 metric tons from 8.7 metric tons, according to Russell Shor, a senior industry analyst at the Gemological Institute of America.

Dwarfing that figure, however, is the volume of freshwater pearls cultured in China, which totaled 1,200 metric tons in 2009, Mr. Shor said.

Faced with the ubiquity of these so-called common pearls, which can sell for as little as $20 a strand, connoisseurs are turning their backs. As a result, demand for natural pearls is on the rise.

“It was a small market until five years ago,” said Paul Fisher, a London dealer whose great-great-grandfather began trading in natural pearls in Vienna in 1850. “The big buyers became the Indians, and they want Basra pearls.”

Prized for their incomparable luster, Basra, or “Oriental,” pearls from the Gulf are almost exclusively sourced today from “old inventory and old families,” Mr. Fisher said.

Collectors are willing to pay hefty premiums for such rare gems. On Oct. 20 at Christie’s New York, a Tiffany & Co. necklace featuring 69 graduated natural pearls sold for $434,500, more than seven times the $60,000 presale estimate.

“It goes to show the appreciation buyers have for things that are no longer produced,” said Rahul Kadakia, Christie’s head of jewelry for the Americas of the sale in April 2007 of a suite of natural pearls owned by the Maharajah of Baroda that fetched $7.1 million.

Gem dealers in the Gulf hope the market’s newfound mania for natural pearls will usher in a commercial renaissance for their historical trading hub.

“The growing economies and spending power of India, China and the Middle East — all cultures with historical and mythological connections to natural pearls — will continue to greatly influence market demand,” said Khaled al-Sayegh, chairman of the Pearl Revival Committee, a six-year-old organization based in Abu Dhabi and dedicated to making the Gulf “once again the center of the pearl universe.”

Only a handful of contemporary designers insist on using natural pearls, but they are noteworthy.

In Paris, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, known as JAR, is one. A pair of his natural pearl, ruby, diamond, silver and gold ear clips goes on the block at a two-day Christie’s Paris sale starting Dec. 13, for an estimated €80,000, or $105,000.

Viren Bhagat, a jeweler based in Mumbai who channels Mogul-era style in one-off designs sought by collectors, is another. “You see a strand of cultured pearls and they all look so perfect,” Mr. Bhagat said. “Natural pearls have a much quieter luster, which is really appealing.”