Category Archives: Pearlescencery

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Harvesting South Sea Pearls: Working on a pearl farm in Indonesia

What do you say when a pearl company asks if you want to help with harvesting south sea pearls on their farm in Indonesia? You say ‘yes please’ and ‘when?’ and immediately buy plane tickets. Well, Betty Sue King and I did, anyway. Let me take you with us on an amazing adventure where we worked hard and learned so much (…and were wet a lot of the time).

taxi to airport

The adventure starts

Our adventure started very early in the morning with a taxi ride to Hong Kong airport to fly to Jakarta and then Manado airports in Indonesia. The next day we set off to the farm itself, on an island to the north of Sulawesi. A car ride through twisty country roads where, if a dog, piglet or human felt like walking in the middle of the road or have a bit of a sleep in the sun, well, the car went round them. As a UK driver I was …. arghhhhh…but it all seemed to work out somehow. Then, after a short wait, a tiny wooden boat appeared which was to be our ride to the farm. Again, thoughts of health and safety were quickly squashed. Everyone local seemed perfectly happy with the boat so..

Happily the sea was smooth and the trip uneventful, as Betty Sue and I pinched ourselves. We’d been excited about this trip for months and now, here we were. Our eyes strained for our first glimpse of the farm as we skirted numerous small islands, all covered in dense green lush trees and with the occasional village on the shore. Finally we were there.

pearl farm

Our first glimpse of the farm

(How to scramble off the boat with some semblance of dignity and along the dock – slippery and wet, without falling back into the sea?) (especially the short section which was just three planks)

three planks of doom

Three planks of slippery doom. By the end of our stay I had enough confidence to gulp quietly to myself then stride confidently along them

Our host, Dev, shows us round, from one end of the farm to the other – there’s a hatchery, the harvest has started, there are baskets, floats,nets piled everywhere, men being purposeful at their tasks, and finally we are shown the first pearls harvested, that very day.

harvest south sea pearls

The first day’s pearl harvest. Note the tags in each basket which show who nucleated the oysters and other details of their history. Note also me remembering my reporter roots and writing it all down!

The farm has four technicians who split grafting duties – two from Japan, who are the farm manager Hiroshi and his deputy Kudo and two local girls still being trained (who will have a worldwide transferable skill)

The main problem with training, indeed with any innovation or change in technique, in grafting with south sea pearls is that the time between carrying out the operation and the harvest, when you find out if the idea is good or the technique is sound is 18 month. Every technician takes copious notes of what they have done all the time, but it is a long time to wait..

This farm is doing a lot right though, because the survival rate from graft to harvest is 80%. Grafting is done when the oysters are around 7-8cm in size and around 10 months old.

First thing on our first full day on the farm we visited the hatchery. The farm raises its own baby oysters from eggs and sperm.  They’re cared for and cosseted in a controlled environment with great food and no predators. Even at microscopic size they are recognisable as oysters – you can’t see anything when they are few days old except with a microscope.

baby oysters

Here’s the little baby oysters, just a few days old, only visible under magnification

 

oyster hatchery

The hatchery tanks. farm manager Hiroshi to the right

oyster hatchery

The water looks quite clear but there are many thousands of tiny little baby oysters happily swimming around

baby oyster food

breakfast and dinner for hungry growing baby oysters

Baby oysters start their life in the ocean attached to these plaited ropes, tucked safely in rectangular cages like squared off lobster pots.

spat

The plaited ropes for the little spats.

 

After visiting the hatchery we were put right to work. Out over the sea is a rectangular room where the harvest is done. The skiffs bring the baskets with the oysters right to the door, the oysters are removed from the baskets and the oysters opened. Then the flesh is scraped off into a bowl (yes, harvesting is brutal, there is no way around this) and when the bowl is full..that is where Betty Sue and I came in. Twice a day the whole room is washed down and cleaned.

We were placed at a small table with three bowls. One full of oyster bodies, one for pearls and one for the harvested bodies.

pearl harvest

Getting started with learning how to harvest the pearls.

A brief lesson in where and how to look and feel for the pearls and we were away.

pearl inside oyster

With this oyster not only is the pearl within easy to feel but it is visible.

At first we were, of course, hopelessly slow. I was concerned that I would miss a precious pearl – some oysters manage to discard their nucleus even after they are x-rayed. But practice made much nearer to perfect, especially encouraged when I found a series of tiny keishi, some no bigger than 1mm. Most of the keishi are in or right by the pearl sac and simply pop out at the same time, but some are hidden in the body of the oyster or around its mantle. These are, to all intents wild or natural pearls, even though CIBJO says they are cultured. (mostly I suspect because it would be next to impossible to verify provenance successfully and credibly)

gold south sea

A beautiful gold drop

It’s not a bit glamorous. Your feet are wet the whole time as the floor is continuously washed down and the oyster goo gets everywhere (however we both noticed it had a wonderful effect on the skin on our hands – beautifully smoothed and not wrinkled) Some pearls are easy to find, while others hide away deep in the body.

Neither of us could resist studying each and every pearl as it appeared in our hand, and I noticed that even the fastest and most experienced harvesters also looked carefully at each pearl before dropping it into the bowl to be quickly washed and then whisked off to be cleaned and sorted. There were pearls of all shapes and sizes, rounds, near rounds and drops, circles, deep and pale golds, champagne pearls and whites, up to 12mm and down to 1mm. I would have been very happy to bring every single one home with me. Each one was beautiful.

south sea pearls

Random scoop from the harvest bowl. Every single one beautiful

Pile of opened shells, and a bowl of oysters about to be delivered to our table. It took quite a bit of strength and some incredibly fierce knives to open the shells.

I never got used to feeling one of these shrimps in the oyster bowl. The shrimps live in and around the oyster nets and every so often one would be in the bowl. I couldn’t help squealing like a baby when I felt it wriggle against my fingers, much to everyone’s amusement. I must have very sensitively tuned scaredy dangerous shrimp reflexes is all I can say

shrimp

Oyster with accompanying shrimp

The adductor muscle – the meat of the oyster – is collected at the end of the day from all the oysters and is sold on as meat. We had some several times at the farm – delicious and you couldn’t really get fresher!

meat

Last task of the day is collecting the delicious adductor muscle meat

Very little is wasted. The shells go for mother of pearl or are polished and sold.

shells six months

These little shells are about six months old

 

unpolished shell

Unpolished shell from the inside. This is a white shell

unpolished shell

Unpolished shell from the outside

gold polished

This shell has lots of gold. Polished

white

This shell is all white

Remember that the colour of the shell is no guide to the colour of the pearl though. The colour of the pearl is solely dependent on the colour genetically coded into the donor mantle tissue. To grow each pearl a nucleus is inserted into the gonad of the oyster when it has grown large enough. Between 18 and 20months at this farm.

nucleus beads

6mm nucleus beads ready for grafting

It is a delicate operation. The nucleus bead and tiny sliver of mantle tissue need to be placed just exactly so, so that they are not rejected and the graft tissue does not die (a few un-nacred nucleus came out where the tissue had died).  A couple of weeks later all the oysters will be x-rayed to check that the insert has been successful. Any where the oyster has managed to reject the nucleus (and who can blame them really?) will be rested and re-nucleated in due course). Pearls tend to grow larger in gold shells and smaller in white shells, although this is not a fixed and absolute rule.This farm uses a 6mm bead for nucleating. While the farm has tried second grafts they have found that they are not very effective against the extra time needed for harvesting so usually make only one harvest.

When they are little babies the oysters live on plaited ropes in protective baskets. Then they graduate to individual spaces on hanging flat pouch baskets – first eight then six to a basket.

you can see the two sizes of flat pouch baskets for the grafted oysters, six on the left and eight on the right.

The baskets are covered with nets to protect the oysters. The nets are changed every three months when all the encrustations are removed. Betty Sue and I went out in the skiff to help with this the day after the end of the harvest. We held the clean new bags open for the farm workers to slide the baskets in. Even though it was only 9am and I had applied factor 40 when the sun came out I could feel my skin starting to burn – factor 50 applied.  Kudo was so worried about my anglo-saxon winter white skin he came and got us after about an hour. I wanted to stay out but he was right.

oyster body

clear view of actual oyster body. The gonads, where the pearl is, is bottom right.

Both male and female oysters are grown.  Theoretically male oysters grow larger and better pearls because the female oysters have eggs in the gonad taking up space. At one time the eggs would be removed but that left a void and the nucleus often moved. We never noticed that gender made a big difference to the pearl. Certainly size of oyster was not related to size of pearl. sometimes the biggest oysters produced small pearls, and the smaller oysters produced big ones.

sex oysters

Female on the left, male to the right

At the farm the pearls are simply washed in rotating barrels to remove the oyster goo, then sorted and put into lots for auction. I have brought back a few pearls which I can guarantee have had no treatment whatsoever apart from this brief wash

barrel

These barrels fit onto a rotating spindle. As you can see..water and another barrel with a pinch of soap is all the treatment they get

I picked out these keishi for myself

south sea keishi

south sea keishi

and these few pearls will be available in due course. For those pearl lovers who want pearls with no treatments – I can guarantee that these have had nothing apart from a quick wash to remove oyster goo.

Gold south sea pearls guaranteed untreated

Gold south sea pearls. guaranteed untreated

During sorting careful note is made of who nucleated which batch and when in an attempt to work out successes and failures

nucleation

one lot of nucleation from one day. Plenty of rounds but a real mix of colours and sizes

One example of this careful tracking . Betty Sue and I were given the honour of harvesting a special lot of oysters which had been grafted with akoya pearls as an experiment. Sadly the pearls were largely unremarkable and mostly not as high quality as the regularly nucleated ones. There was some discussion about trying freshwater pearls.

The harvest lasted three days. We spent most of the time in the harvesting room, but were also allowed out on the boats to see the baskets hauled up for harvest and then to help put new nets on the baskets once the harvest was over. During the three days 15,636 pearls were harvested, with an average size of 11mm (excluding keishi from the calculation)

Huge and lifelong thanks to Devchand Chodhry, Hiroshi Imaizumi and Shigekazu Kudo and all the staff on the farm for their patience as I blundered around trying to join in everything and, I am sure, getting in the way of their skilled work.

 

Hong Kong, spring 2018

Prices for round Edison pearls have dropped massively – they are now about a third of what they were last year, due mostly to over-production, coupled with a slowing of demand.  Oddly the price of Edison drops has gone up. At the same time I picked up more rumours and some confirmation that very dark Edisons are indeed prone to colour fading.

edison, pearls, round, natural colour

Natural colour Edison round pearls size 11-12mm

This has been going around for about six months now and I was told that some Edisons have faded by firstly a seller and then by someone within Grace Pearl. This is happening possibly, I was told, because Grace are pushing the processing and treating the pearls too quickly and heavily, which is damaging their colour durability.

big natural colour edison pearls

Bigger colour metallic round Edison pearls 14-15mm.
Nice!

It may well be, however, that they are learning and backing off on these treatments and durability will therefore improve. Time will tell. Only the natural dark purple shades are apparently involved, not the pale ones, or whites, or ripples. Anyhow, I matched up some pairs of nice big natural colour rounds and some really clean round whites.

White 11-12mm round metallic Edison pearls

White 11-12mm round metallic Edison pearls

So..what else was a good find this time? How about this stunning strand of 9mm to 10.6 multicoloured metallic Tahitian pearls?

multicoloured tahitian pearl strand

This is a gorgeous strand of multicoloured Tahitians

Then I was browsing through some multicoloured akoyas (very nice) when I spotted a couple of white strands in with the natural coloured ones. ‘oh’ says the seller, ‘they shouldn’t be in there’..then he looks at the label and ‘oh, yes they should: they are natural colour whites’.

My hand shot out and grabbed them instantly. Natural white akoyas…natural white are so rare and hard to find. They haven’t been bleached and they haven’t been pinked. They are naturally white. These are 7mm, round and metallic. Little beauties

natural white akoya

Natural white 7mm metallic strands. I grabbed the only two in town

I have fallen in love, apparently, with any and all natural white pearls. This little lot of natural white freshwater rounds of different sizes literally fell onto my foot in a wholesaler’s office where there were all sorts of interesting odds of pearls tucked away under the big sorting table. So of course I had to have it

Natural white round pearls

Natural white round pearls, all different sizes

And were there any pairs?

Yes!

Then this lot of freeform baroques caught my eye. Incredibly metallic. natural white again

Natural white nuggets

Natural white nuggets

 

The rarest freshwater pearls are…

…natural white freshwater pearls, all nacre. And now I have a totally stunning necklace of these very special pearls.

I had spent the day at my favourite suppliers, head down and matching up all manner of pearls. Intermittently throughout the day the owner of the company, Michael Sze, sat opposite me, making up necklaces from loose undrilled pearls. I watched him as I took a break from matching pearls (you have to look up sometimes otherwise your eyes will fall out)

Michael worked his way through a bag of smaller bead nucleated smooth ripples, then a bag of large pale ripples (he liked that long endless necklace so much he had it drilled and knotted up immediately – you can see the knotting start to finish, including a huge tangle – in a video in the main P video listings. The knotting method is completely different to how we do it, but then I think there are as many different methods as there are knotters)

Finally, as I was thinking of finishing for the day, he brought out a small bag of maybe 500 or so white pearls…natural white pearls and started sorting them. My tired eyes went on stalks. These were simply beautiful pearls.

I started to camera phone video his selection of the choicest of these choice pearls and before I knew it I had fallen in love. Me – the queen of the bigger the better and natural coloured pearls.

 

By the time he was arranging them as a necklace I was buying them.

 

 

white natural colours, white freshwater pearls, michael sze

The finished necklace. 21 inches of beauty

Even my daughter, who isn’t remotely into pearls (!) commented ‘oh that is so beautiful, you can see the quality’

Why is it called the Romana necklace? Because it was bought with the proceeds from the sale of my 1973 Mini Clubman car ROM 308M…As a Dr Who fan, that was immediately Romanadvoratrelundar.

Updated October 2017

I made up the necklace finally

natural white freshwater pearl necklace

I’m in love..don’t want to take them off.

I’m so in love with these pearls still!

Hong Kong Gem Show, September 2017

There are times when I wish with all my exhausted being that Hong Kong was a bit nearer…sort of like the Isle of Man really. But it is probably just as well that it isn’t, because if I could just pop to the wholesalers every few days Pearlescence would probably be bankrupt within the week. It’s so easy to buy pearls. You just say ‘yes’ and hand over money.

We had a great time. Hard work for many hours but there were pearls. There were friends and there was round the world food. Hong Kong takes its food very seriously. There are a myriad of great places to eat, with examples of every cuisine within a few streets where ever you are. We had Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese (of course) and Nepalese.

So, what about those pearls. Quality is advancing by the month, but at the same time production is down and prices are consequently up. Throw in the drop in value of the £ against the USA $ and the Hong Kong $ and I have brought back a stash of stunning metallic pearls in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the sadness is that prices must creep upward. When I first went to Hong Kong the HK$ exchange rate was 14HK$ to the £. Now it is 10.

 

Highlights from the trip.

1…Finding out that love of pearls does not necessarily fade with years

watching the President of the Hong Kong Pearl Association, Michael Sze, putting strands together from bags of loose pearls and clearly enjoying himself. Michael’s company is probably the supplier of the best quality freshwater pearls (no, not Grace) and he’s been in the pearl business well over 20 years but was still clearly enjoying himself putting strands together to take to the show which started in a couple of days. I spend a couple of days there, sitting opposite him for much of the second day as he made strands..watching and learning.

Qne special necklace made by Michael will be getting a blog entry all of its own

 

2 Huge Tahitians are coming soon

Catching up with Hisano Shepherd, of little h, and her strand of (souffle though they are not souffle) Tahitian pearls.

hisano shepherd souffle tahitians

Hisano Shepherd and her strand of not-souffle Tahitian pearls

These Tahitian pearls look like freshwater souffles and are as big and as lustrous but the growing method to force the rapid growth and large size and different. Hisano and husband Jeremy Shepherd found this strand in Tahiti when there recently. There were a few loose similar pearls on sale at the show from one seller, but the prices were very high. Betty Sue King has taken a few to be assessed and investigated by the GIA.

Selling these enormous pearls has only been possible in the last few months since the legal requirement of a certain depth of nacre over the nucleus for export has been abandoned. These pearls would fail and not be exportable as they have no solid nucleus. I’ve seen similar growing efforts with south sea pearls, although weirdly, some of them also have a regular nucleus. Farmers are clearly experimenting. These will be exciting pearls, and indications are that once they start appearing in numbers in the market the prices will be affordable.

3 Freshwater Souffles

If you love freshwater souffle pearls stock up now as they are not being grown, at least in any numbers. Indeed the wholesaler who was the major supplier did not have any. But big beaded pearls and smaller beaded pearls are as common as all nacre freshwaters now

4 what is that noise?

The first show I went to had this clatter clatter shake noise echoing round the hall occasionally. I didn’t work out what it was. It was only at my second show I managed to catch noise and action together. Pearls being sieved. Pearls are sieved to sort them into sizes. The noise is distinctive and now, when you get to attend the Hong Kong show you’ll know exactly what it is first time!

sieving pearls

sieving pearls

 

There are lots more short videos available on the Pearlescence Facebook page – here

South Sea surprise

Occasionally we have to trim back an irregular top on a drop pearl so a finding will set better.
I was filing a pointy tip off a blue south sea pearl today when the nacre ran out and i could see what looked like compressed peat inside.

Curious..of course.. I poked around inside.

There was fibrous peat like stuff brown

White waxy stuff in lumps.

Flakes of thin plastic like cling film

Flakes of plastic with fibres that looks like medical dressing tape


What was any of that doing inside a pearl?
Is this some sort of an attempt at a souffle south sea pearl?

Not expecting any of this stuff inside a pearl

I’ll take the pearl and its contents to Hong Kong with me and ask around, see if anyone has a clue

Bangkok pearl factory

Head of Amsterdam Pearls Cees Van Oije invited me to visit Bangkok and to go around a sea pearls processing factory in the city.

This was a much bigger operation than the one I visited last year in China. It processed Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian pearls. Nevertheless the processes were just about identical. Pearls came in, were cleaned, sorted, drilled or not drilled, strung, graded and readied for the wholesale market.

akoya pearls

Minutely tiny natural colours akoyas. It’s hard to see but some of these tiny tiny pearls were vivid blue

tiny akoya

Imagine having to sort and assemble these tiny pearls into strands. Phew!

pwearls

More tiny pearls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

north window

Sorting pearls using natural light from a north facing window

pearl drill

State of the art pearl drill. The cups are controlled by foot pedal and adjust to the correct pressure, both sides drill at once and when the cups release the pearl drops down a chute into a bowl

rows of graders

Pearls are made into strands using grooved boards and bamboo tweezers in front of a north facing window. The workday at the factory starts early to make the most of the north light

 

tahitian pearls

Tahitian pearls waiting to be sorted and graded

White South Sea pearls

White South Sea pearls

 

 

Hong Kong Spring. First Pearls

Some of the roundish south sea pearls- various golds, greys and whites

This is a combined entry for the first two days here in Hong Kong at the spring jewellery show as this is the first chance I have had to write anything. It’s been busy since I arrived on Tuesday morning and went straight from Hong Kong airport to the show at nearby Asia World Expo centre .

I’ve spent the time finding some very special pearls..mostly some gorgeous south sea blues, golds and yes, some greens. I haven’t even tried to make pairs yet, just gone through bags and bags and bags of pearls to find those few I want to bring to you, as well as work with myself. One of the exciting side effects of being here is that my design brain wakes up and I find ideas popping up..(sometimes in what is the middle of the night here, but daytime in my head still) Of these ideas more in due course as they blossom.

white baroque south sea

I love this little fella! Large baroque white south sea pearl with blue googly eyes

 

The £ is sickly here…only three years ago one GBP bought $14.5HK and $1.60 USD. Now when I changed my money last night the best I could find was $9.56.HK and the USD is at 1.22. So prices will have to rise.

Breaking today’s HKD rate is 9.53. It just gets worse)

Anyway.here are some photos of the pearls!

 

two south sea strands

I’m dashing off now for day three. captions etc later!

Poke pearls

When I’m not up to my elbows in pearls I try to catch pokemon. When I was in Hong Kong I was struck (although not literally of course!) by how some pearls resemble pokemon. I came up with the idea of Poke pearls.

Huge Tahtian poke pearl

Huge Tahtian poke pearl

I spent several hours on the last day of the show delving around the show to find the quirkiest of the tahitian and south sea pearls. They made me smile. They are not serious grown up pearls, they are silly and fun pearls, but if you are a pokemon trainer..maybe you’ll enjoy too. I hope so!

We’ve given them their own section on the website

http://www.pearlescence.co.uk/index.php/cPath/293

blue south sea pearl

Blue south sea little figure poke pearl

blue south sea pearl

Little dancing blue south sea poke pearl

Sustainable pearls, ethical pearls.

I’ve had several enquiries recently about sustainable pearls and/or ethical pearls. (the terms seem to be used interchangeably). The standard pearl industry answer is that it is impossible to supply sustainable pearls or ethical pearls because pearls from many sources get mixed together indistinguishably in their journey between farm and wearer.

Most pearl farms are sustainable and ethical because they are often staffed by family, or with a small local staff which helps the local economy and in any case pearl farms have to be environmentally pretty sound because all molluscs are ready to die off at the least excuse – too hot, too cold, too salty, too brackish, too freshwater (sea pearl farms can be wiped out by a series of thunderstorms inland diluting the saline environment near a delta for example). They are all like Goldilocks, everything must be just right. Then they can reject the graft, get infected, get choked by weeds so they starve.

But most pearls on sale travel from farm to pearl factory to wholesaler to importer to local wholesaler to retailer. At Pearlescence we cut out a couple of those stages as we usually buy pearls which travel farm to factory to wholesaler to us. For most sea pearls – gold, blue and white south seas, Tahitian and Akoya this is true, and for all freshwater pearls.

But, on the plane on the way to Hong Kong I had plenty of time to think (oh how I wish Hong Kong was a bit nearer!) and realised that I know enough sea pearl farmers and farms individually to cover most types of salt water pearls (yes to Tahitian, Sea of Cortez and Vietnamese Akoya) . Freshwater pearls were going to be the problem, simply because they invariably go from farm to pearl factory where the harvests from many farms is mixed, graded, blended, treated and turned into wholesale-ready product.

(This blog post will also dispel the myth put about by some freshwater pearl seller that they buy pearls direct from the farm and their stock is full of strands)

As the flight progressed I remembered that I know one family with its own small factory. The result was that before I left a 1 kilo scoop of pearls had been taken from a lot of pearls as they came into the factory, before any treatment, mixing, sorting or anything was done to them. Nothing done except a quick wash.

pearls from one pearl farm

The bag of pearls, just as they came from the farm to the factory, before any processing

The more I look at them the more fascinating this snapshot of the production from one Chinese pearl farm is. The colour is predominantly a pale peach, with degrees up to pretty orange. Most of the pearls are elliptical or potato, with lots of buttons too. Sizes range from a couple of mm to about 12mm with around 7mm to 8mm being the average. Most pearls have a decent surface, although some have rings. But it is the quality of the lustre which is most intriguing. Most of the lustre is around A+ or AA. There are quite a few pearls with no lustre at all, completely flat and dull,while maybe a hundred have enough lustre and colour for me to buy them. There’s even a single white tiny rosebud/granulated pearl!

bad pearls

Here are the bad pearls – you can see the ugly black deposits, the lack of lustre, and general yuckness

 

 

 

 

The bad pearls really are dire – as the photo shows. Some of them look like teeth which have been left to the mercy of a really incompetent dentist, who has made merry with old fashioned amalgam, which others are completely without any lustre, just chalk. There’s one of these which is nearly all completely dull but with an intensely metallic tip.

Anyway, we are going to attempt a few pairings and see if we can make some single farm source stud and dangle earrings out of the better pearls.

We also brought back some of the crushed walnut shell used to buff the pearls so I intend to try doing that to see how the average pearls and the good already pearls are improved. The buffing is allowed (maeshori) as it is no different to buffing up your fingernails to put a shine on them

What this experiment shows mostly is that pearl factories work; the good quality pearls which Pearlescence offers really are the top 0.5% (or less) of any general pearl harvest, and that you can find single farm sustainable pearls if you have the contacts!

 

 

September Hong Kong reflections and musings…

I think that this was one of my all time favourite trips to Hong Kong. It was so humid that breathing felt a bit like sucking air through a sponge at times, and too much air con made my sinuses very angry, but in terms of pearls and pearl friends, perfect.

Prices were generally stable, with some silliness, especially from one company which made it very clear you can slap any old price on an item but it is only the item’s value when someone will pay it. $40k for a muddy purple strand of Edisons which weren’t even well matched? Those high priced strands weren’t even super-special. Very nice yes, rich colour, pretty clean and shiny but special…no. Grace has cut prices on a lot of stock this time around – a lot of the good colour ripple strands were really cut in price from around $1k (too high) to down to $300 which is what everyone else charges for comparable. Grace had trays and trays of the ear-wax dyed ‘gold south seas’ too- which were not selling much
There were no strands of the distinctive raspberry purples like the ones I treated myself to 18 months ago. That really does seem to have been a one-off colour from that harvest (smug mode)

There’s nothing new on the horizon, such as bead nucleated or souffles (very rare now though selling to India!) on the horizon. (although one wholesaler had just sold his entire stock of 20kg of souffles just before I arrived. That’s a lot of light big pearls
Prices are volatile: top quality prices are up while medium are down
Best seller for most sellers is high quality white rounds
Singles prices are very high
There are very few large size dyed black or natural colour singles around
Tahitian and south sea prices are falling, for less than top quality.
Funnily enough there is hardly any dyed coloured stock to be found. Any that is has probably been hanging around for years.

Day 7. Days of lustre – Final day at AWE

My final day.  I had an idea overnight so off to AWE (Asia World Expo, the huge exhibition facility near to the airport on Lantau Island, about 30 minutes from Kowloon) to find the pearls I needed – handy to have the idea before I go home rather than after, which would be what I usually manage.

So I was on a mission. First off I managed to find some new clasps by accident though.

new clasps

new clasps

These little sparkles have a post which fits right into the drill hole of the last pearl and fasten and open with a push/twist. A bonus is that once you have the ends fitted to a necklace you can change the ball to suit your whim, and they can be worn clasp out, as a feature bead.  I’ll be interested to see how they go, and also need to figure out how to finish the knotted silk without a loop to go around..that’s one to keep me awake.

Long time friend Nerida Harris,  director of Australian pearl super company Pearl Perfection had only just arrived after back to back trade shows, so we grabbed a quick coffee before she shot off list in hand. Nerida took me under her expert wing when I came here to Hong Kong for the first time. We found one of the first lots of ripple strands buried under lots of other pearls on the Grace pearl stand and split them three each. We gasped at the beauty and colour of these totally new pearls.

But on to the pearls I wanted. Without giving away my idea just yet I needed to look for some specific pearls. Not common or usual at the show, but when I found a stand with a couple of bags of them, oh the bliss of sitting down and going though them all to find just the ones which fitted the brief.

I thought I was done after that and was vaguely thinking ‘if I spend any more time here I’ll just spend’ and ‘lunch sounds nice’ when I made the mistake of showing my little collection to pearl total goddess Betty Sue King, who has forgotten more about pearls than most people ever learn and whose eye is trusted the world over. She loved the pearls so back to the stand we went and spent nearly two hours going through the whole lot again.

Sitting trawling through bags of pearls with someone as fabulous and nice as Betty Sue is a lovely, unstressed way to finish an amazing time in Hong Kong. Here we are, up to our elbows in pearls. What could be better?

Betty Sue King

Me and Betty Sue King

Goodbye Hong Kong

Lustre day 6..Blue, blue and blue

Another lustrous day. First off we had a private viewing of some fabulous Riketea Tahitian pearls, Beautiful lustre and colour. Plus south seas; gold, white and blue.I think I could have very happily bought every single pearl. There were strands and single pearls, including some huge blue south sea pearls

blue baroque south sea pearls

Huge blue south sea baroque pearls, up to 18mm

Riketea Tahitian pearl strands

Rketea Tahitian pearl strands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One interesting snippit of information was the variation in nacre deposition between apparently identical Vietnamese akoya pearls on the same farm and growing side by side (there are only three akoya pearl farms in Vietnam)

Akoya pearl growth rates

Both pearls grow on the same tiny nucleus in the same conditions on the same farm, nucleated at the same time and harvested at the same time.

You can see how tiny the nucleus is -0.9mm- and in only eight months there is enough nacre to keep everyone very happy indeed. The pearls are 8mm and 7.4mm

Only Vietnamese farms seem to produce the really strong blue akoya, although they were scarce except in the baroque singes which I selected on the first day of the show. There were strands of grey with a blue cast but none of the startlingly royal blues which are possible occasionally.

Speaking of blue pearls, here is one of the Riketea atoll strands, every one a true  blue tahitian pearl, rather than green with a blue cast. Quite lovely.And large 10mm to 13mm with metallic lustre.

Blue tahitian pearl strandBlue tahitian pearl strand

Blue tahitian pearl strand

In the afternoon I went right across the huge Asia World Expo site to the other end to the hall with tools, and had a bit of a Tim Taylor interlude.

There were 3d printers printing gold items, laser cutters as well as machines for making the wax forms for lost wax casting.and the basic tools for silversmiths, which probably haven’t changed for centuries. Indeed probably one of the superb craftsmen from millennia ago in Egypt would not only recognise most tools but be able to pick them up and set to work with them.

I treated myself to a proper set of ring measures and a ring measure stick. I’ve only been wanting them for 20 years so it was probably time without being profligate

Finally I went to catch up with Andrew, the boss of the world class polishing cloth company Town Talk. It’s one of those silly things that we are based only about 25 miles apart but have to travel to Hong Kong to talk!

Town Talk Polish Cloths. Made in Lancashire

Town Talk Polish Cloths. Made in Lancashire

 

 

 

 

Lustre Day 5..Few pearls…much work

Looking at today’s spoils…it seems a very small lot, for a day’s quite intense work.  There are some stone set clasps which caught my eye because they have posts which go into the drill hole of a full drilled pearl rather than rings for silk plus French wire. So they will need experimentation.  They could be the next big thing in opening and closing…but only if the adhesive adheres. I suspect that there is quite a stress on the glue fixing when the clasp is undone. But they look very pretty

Next I spent some time finding a very few decent 11-12mm black buttons. It;s hard to find black pearls still. There are smaller ones, but trying to match the larger ones for shape, colour, lustre and size……I also waded through smaller {9-10mm} natural colour buttons. Even from a huge bag I only found one pair which satisfied my criteria.I did get some of the singles though, because they had stunning lustre.

Finally I was spotted by the lady who used to look after me at one tahitian wholesaler, who told me she had now moved to another firm. We did some catching up and I looked at the pearl stock. I got a pair of lovely white Paspaley south sea drops from Australia, some gold round south sea pairs and some fun single tahitians, including a couple of what we decided are polemon pearls – aka pokepearls.

pok

 

 

Lustre Day 4..first day of show

A wonderful first day out at the Asia World Expo gem fair, though the humidity (95% and more) is so sapping that I crawled to my room and individual aircon ridiculously early. So today’s blog will be a bit light on photos simply because at times it was hard to think through the soggy.

At these shows my first stop is now always the lovely ladies of the small company which produces akoya pearls from their one farm in Vietnam. They are always so welcoming and patient that it makes a lovely start to the day.

The first thing I want to look at are the little packets of their baroque pearls. Tiny packets of super metallic bue, pink, green and grey. Each one unique and surely an inspiration for any designers

vietnamese baroque pearls

Such amazing little gems

It is such fun sorting through the packets, marvelling at the rich colours and incredible lustre of these tiny gem pearls. Which one will excite a designer? There was a deep and rich royal blue one which I picked while it was still in the packet, scrabbling round in the tiny envelope to grasp it, it was so striking. And there was a lovely little drop too. You can tell that the colour is strong in these pearls because you can still see it clearly in the photo, in spite of the efforts of the fluorescent lights to wash out any trace of blue.

Next up the ladies showed me their few strands of natural colour akoya pearls. The strand I selected stood out, luminous metallic lustre and such beausiful colours.

The two darkest pearls are deep blue and deep green.

I also got some strands of tiny baroques, multicoloured. These pearls come from one farm in Vietnam. They are very ethically and sustainably produced

natural colour vietnamese akoya pearls

Believe it or not these are all natural colour akoya pearls natural colour akoya pearls

 

vietnamese akoya pearls

Tiny Vietnamese akoya pearls, natural colours of greys, pinks,boues, greens. Metallic

It doesn’t take long to write about it, but selecting these strands, chatting and settling such vital stuff as the price take well over an hour.

Next stop is always the main findings company. All the findings they currently have in stock are laid out in small packets and I’m soon rifling through hundreds of different clasps, earrings, and all sorts of silver. the table top is very wide so to reach the ones at the back I debated climbing right up there..but in the end just stretched. Not sure how that looked from the back!. Trying to work out what will be needed for our various couture and ready to wear lines, new ideas and one offs for customers, as well as for other designer makers is a bit of an exercise!. But having grabbed a good selection I know I can call back for a second browse..probably to buy the same new designs all over again.  There is a lot of silver with very subtly inlaid CZ for just a little sparkle

There’s more black – anodised – silver than I expected: and less rose gold vermeil.

Finally – it’s now gone 2pm – I spend the rest of the time at one of the tahitian and south sea suppliers. One white SS and one gold SS strand and then a poke around in their lot bags for the surprise pairs and singles which will make great jewellery – including a matched pair of 15mm gold south sea buttons.One is very slighty darker than the other, but with a head in between the it certainly won’t be noticeable t9 any but a pearl expert. Result!

Tired. Back to Kowloon, food and back to room to write this. G’night

Lustre day 3

Tahitians are getting in on the act. More lustre. More colour. After sifting through nine lots of Tahitians of all shapes, sizes and colours, I, try the tenth and last, and it yields all the pearls I want, including some spectaular silver body and pink eye pearl pairs for studs, some more blues and a couple of huge drops.

blue tahitian pearls

Truely blue Tahitian pearls

The blues of these blues hasn’t really come through in this photo but they are a lovely royal blue and will look stupendous with the paler blues I got yesterday. I think I am building a necklace. No more of those pink ones though..

Those Tahitians were pure serendipity in one way though as I had no intention of getting any such at this particular seller’s. Once again i got stuck after planning just a couple of hours in that office. Many pearls, including some minute white keishi, probably 3mm, which will make some very pretty delicate bracelets, I think, matched with 7mm petal keishi discy lumps which will be drilled for stud earrings. That’s definitely the sort of drilling where you don’t actually dare look as you drill

 

 

Lustre Day 2

Day 2 was a very shiny day. Metallic all the way. Had intended to go to this wholesaler and that one and maybe call in at another too. In the end I was at the first place all day. He lured me with shiny things.

Gorgeous tahitians. every possible colour

Gorgeous tahitians. every possible colour

First up was a large bag of mixed Tahitians. Probably a couple of thousand in the bag. After going through the I think I selected some gorgeous silver grey and pink ones, some blues and a pair of silver and pink rounds for studs which already have a home lined up – 12mm and up.

The grey and pink ones are mostly pink. Really unusual.

I decided to go with the trend and get some of these really pretty,feminine and delicate graduated strands in natural colours and all whites. I’m not looking forward to stringing the tiny tinies.

So feminine

So feminine

Then I remembered I did have a  list so next up were 7mm white drop pairs – one card matched of super metallic..and I mean super metallic ..pairs. Then on to 9mm drops. another card and pick out the rare long thin drops and finally pair them too. The lustre on these pearls really was spectacular.

Going though the white drops, I could not help

 

Huge box of metalic drops

Huge box of metallic drops

but reflect that I was rejecting – as not metallic enough -pearls which would have been remarkable ten years, or even five years ago, as not shiny enough. the pairs selected are really super metallic. Dazzling. I wondered where the quality goes from super-metallic shiny, white, great drop shape and clean surface. You can see the large box and guesstimate how many pearls are in it, full to the brim. All metallic. Just some with the matched overtones and degree of lustre, shape and size.

Next to where I was being dazzled by the whites was a long time member of staff at this office. With interruptions he spent the whole day sorting and pairing 5mm round white pearls from a pile of many thousands.

September Hong Kong Show..oh the lustre. Day 1

The senior man at my favourite wholesalers here in Hong Kong has me totally sussed as a real pearl junkie. His – very successful – technique is to wander past me, with some amazing new pearls in his hand, letting me catch just a glimpse, like allowing a dog to catch just a whiff of a steak.

So I’m sitting there. feeling a  bit disoriented, long flight, not much sleep . check in to hotel and straight out to get the pearls, and I’m looking for some huge perfect white buttons. when he comes over with this hank of five strands of the most amazing – that is most amazing- huge natural coloured rounds. One strand in particular has all metallic lustre and I can already hear it’s siren sussuration..’I’m so pretty..take me home with you, take me home. I love you…take me home’ I’m resisting so hard. This trip is all about specimen singles and pairs. It’s going to be sitting in offices going through thousands of pearls for those double double shiny elusive few which you can only source in person.

Within seconds this one strand especially is talking to me, and I’m cooing back at it and stroking it.

Love at first sight

Love at first sight

still in love

still in love

Now there have been a lot of natural colour bead nucleated pearls around in the last year or so, most of them with very washed out colour, as if they had been bleached in the sun. There were the very rare spectacular deep plum strands a few years ago, but none even of those in spite of the clamour for them at the last couple of trips. Deep rich coloured bead nucleated pearls were not happening. Then these five strands. All deep rich colour and with lustre from very very good to metallic. From talking with other buyers last night it seems as if each wholesaler has managed to source just a few strands.

With its friends

With its friends

So far I have resisted…sort of. That one strand is tucked away in a drawer. Oh I am so weak.

But what would  you do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news of pearls from an afternoon of rather jet laggy selecting (HK is seven hours ahead. The plane I travelled on had recently played host in the cargo hold in the tail to 12 horses, two elephants and one £1m+ car…though not at the same time. The flight attendant allowed me a peak into the hold. Just packages and webbing and all remarkably scruffy, with a faint wiff of horse still lingering)

Lustre is simply getting better and better. Wholesalers are taking to labelling stock AAAA when they have a bag full of metallics. Supplies are good and prices stable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural white freshwater pearls are here

Here they are, the natural white freshwater pearls which I found last month in Hong Kong.  Shown to me almost as an aside ‘we have these natural colour white and grey pearls just arrived’

Wow…really? Natural greys and whites? Show me. There was a bag with about 50 strands, ranging from white to delicate lilac or pale grey. Off round and with good to metallic lustre I picked out the 12 best and here they are

Natural colours white, lilac and grey rounds

Natural colours white, lilac and grey rounds

The colours are incredibly subtle and delicate but the lilac especially is so pretty.

It was only when I got back here and unpacked that I realised that I had picked out about five pairs of half drilled buttons for earrings as well – from the ordinary big lot of natural colour pearls.

Now these have not been to a lab for confirmation but I have no reason to doubt that they are indeed natural colour pearls.

We’ve made up the pick of the strands into two necklaces –

Natural pale pale lilac round pearl

Natural pale pale lilac round pearls, such a delicate colour

Natural white pearls

Natural white pearls, no bleaching. The white is to the grey end of the spectrum as against the usual creamy white of bleached pearls

Hong Kong 2016: Day 8: pearl factory!

Last September one of my favourite pearl wholesale companies, a family company, had invited me to visit their pearl factory in mainland China. Today is the day that happened!. I had had to get a visa to enter China and early on the Sunday morning Co Co and I set off on the first leg, getting the MTR to Schenzen, the city which sits on the Pearl river (apt!) and which is the border between the mainland and China proper and the special area of Hong Kong. Over the border and we found our car to go north, first to see the coastal Guandong resort town of Shanwei and then into really rural inland China to near Taoezen and to the family compound and pearl factory.

gate

ornamental gateway

This factory takes pearls from many parts of China (incidentally never believe anyone who claims to buy ordinary freshwater pearls direct from a farm. farms do not process pearls.)

The pearls come in straight from the farm and are first rough sorted by shape and size, then cleaned up

size

When the pearls arrive they are roughly sorted by size and shape

Many of the pearls will then go to be bleached or dyed. This is done with the pearls in bottle/flasks under UV light and in a controlled temperature, in a cabinet a bit like a stack of rabbit hutches.

bleach bottles

Pearls sitting in bottles steeping in bleach solution

pearls in bottles

More pearls in bottles, a little further along the bleaching process

Buffing/polishing is a standard treatment. Pearls are tumbled in either corn husk chips or walnut shell chips to buff their surface. This only smooths out the surface, rather like buffing your fingernails

One of the pearl polishing machines, filled with walnut chippings.

One of the pearl polishing machines, filled with walnut chippings.

From here the pearls will go to be drilled. The factory had just had the latest in pearl drills installed. Oh I so want one.

pearl drill

The newest pearl drills. I want one

If you look closely you can see that the pearl is gripped centrally (operated by a foot pedal) in cups and then the two drills move together to drill the pearl from both sides simultaneously. This is how bulk professional pearl drills work. Two bits moving together. It also explains why sometimes there is a needle blocking burr inside a pearl. The two bits are slightly out of alignment.

With these new drills the drills are moved into to pearl by the lever in the left hand (at the top of the photo) and then the pearl is released from the cups and drops down the chute. Apparently these are so newly in that the operators are still occasionally drilling their fingers.

But what a superb bit of kit. I so want one!

After drilling the pearls move to the workbenches to be arranged and made into temporary strands

making into strands

After being processed (eg bleached or dyed) and drilling the pearls are arranged and made into temporary strands

main workroom

General view of the main workroom

wholesale pearls

Finished strands ready to go to wholesale

This was a wonderful and learning experience and I thank my Darline family friends for the opportunity. I also thank Co Co Choi for accompanying me – when she had only finished at the gem show late on the evening before

family

This is a family firm and every time I looked around another brother or nephew appeared

Hong Kong 2016: Day 7

(in the morning I was invited to take part in an open air chi gung t’ai chi class. It has been years since I did proper t’ai chi and after two hours I was delighted that I didn’t fall over once)

After lunch (dim sum yum) I headed to the second iteration of the show, mostly finished jewellery, on Hong Kong island iself, at the exhibition centre. I needed to pick up some findings for a friend and wanted to look at the display materials to see what is new and exciting and would make our pearls even more fabulous, but it was all really quite meh. Same old same old. That is clearly a box outside of which I will have to think.

 

Hong Kong 2016. Day 1

I wish Hong Kong was a bit nearer…..say instead of the Isle of Man. But it isn’t so here I am after a long pair of flights.

Jet lag ignored and first thing next morning i’m already stuck into selecting. First up are these 9mm AAA metallic rounds

white metallics

stunning white metallics. you can clearly see what I call the ‘fish eye’ look which shows how clear the lustre is. These all have a hint of rose

 

Next some delicious natural colour rounds. It’s such a treat to see really good natural colour single pearls available again. For the last couple of years they have been dull and pallid and I have mostly not bought. Now I am stocking again. These are the most ravishing pearls. Even the wholesale staff admire my selections. Either a great complement, or a great sales technique!

I took this photo half way through one bag of about 3k pearls. You can see which pearls I’ve selected in a group on their own. Probably twice that by the time I had done the bag. Then I double check (and wonder why I picked some) and finally pairs or super singles to buy.

multicoloured round freshwater pearls

Multicoloured pearls. To select I take about half a scoopful at al time and select out the most lustrous and colourful

Note that I’ve been using bamboo tweezers to pick up the pearls. Using bamboo tweezers is using a great pearl tool because they stop the heat from my fingers transferring to the pearl as I pick it up, which can instantly throw a cast of fine condensation over the pearl, hiding the lustre and colour just enough to make examination difficult to impossible (Also today they are more accurate picker-uppers than my jet lagged and therefore uncoordinated fingers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong: day 6

(I  gave myself the day off yesterday and spent a lovely day in the warm sunshine  being a person on holiday. (I expored Lantau island, which is remarkably underdeveloped, even though it has the busy airport. Most of the island is hilly and covered in lush undergrowth, with some great bendy driving roads. I went out to see the Tian Tan Buddha statue, (known colloquially as the Big Buddha) up a lung exploding 260 steps and took the cable car back down to sea level)

Back to the gem show today for some gold and white south sea pearls. I found both pairs and a mixed selection for a station necklace special order

Then i actually left the pearl hall  – yes really  – for the gemstone section.

Acres of diamonds from almost dust to huge single sparklers..plus fancy colours..as with the pearl section,

diamonds

trays and trays of sparkle

I suspect that  anyone who’s been to a local gemshow thinks the Hong Kong show is like one of those…with maybe a couple more stalls. Errrr. No no no. See the diamonds above. That is one part of one of maybe 50 such stands. An aircraft hanger sized hall filled just with diamonds .Some of them also have diamonds maybe 10mm round or more. Plus fancy blues greens champagne and yellow and black. In the next equally huge hall there were rubies of all sorts of shades from pink to nearly black.

rubies

Rubies of every possible shape, size, cut and colour

Seeing the ruby rough sparked an idea so i got some….then also some lovely little lumps of amethyst. Both classic purple and rose de france. These small lumps of raw stone are usually sold by kilo weight and random scoop but I managed to persuade the sellers to allow me to select – though they watched aghast as I went through a washing up bowl full of the ruby rough lumps to find two pieces which suited my idea

hong kong rough ruby

Rough ruby and amethyst

Here is just one of the displays of amethysts. I also got some amethyst lumps.

amethyst

Just part of one stand specialising in amethysts

Finally three little round faceted tanzanite to make a setting for the big blue pearl

That was enough for the day