National Jeweler Network

Market Developments

Rocks On: Pearls, fit for a new generation

By Brecken Branstrator

July 29, 2014

Jewelry using colored pearls or pearls with unique shapes or designs, such as this ring from Yoko London, are becoming increasingly popular with consumers today, who are looking for a new way to wear their pearls.

Click through the slideshow to see 16 pieces of pearl jewelry.

New York--These days, pearls are no longer just for your grandmother’s strand.

As designers and brands begin to incorporate the gemstones into new designs and focus on a higher quality, pearls are picking up steam with consumers of all ages who are finding their way back to the stones and discovering new ways to wear them.

“The American market is really starting to wake up,” said Michael Hakimian, CEO of pearl jewelry brand Yoko London. “It’s rapidly becoming our best market.”

While a wide gap exists between the prices of natural and cultured pearls, both types are being snapped up at the high end of the market, cultured because of their prevalence and lower price point, and natural because of their rarity and uniqueness.

Bonhams, for one, has noted the prices paid for natural pearls at auction increasing over the past few years, with a few sales even setting records.

In April, a pair of natural pearl and diamond earrings sold for $493, 875, double their original estimate. That same month, a single 11.5 mm natural pearl mounted in a ring sold for $50,996, which was 10 times its highest estimate.

High-quality natural pearls are setting records at auction in part because of their rarity, as the supply in the market wanes. Good examples of natural pearls, based on their size, uniform shape, luster and blemish-free skin, aren’t appearing as often as they used to, Bonhams said.

The auction house also is attributing part of the recent boom to the celebrity factor, with actress Sarah Jessica Parker and The Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, plus singer Katy Perry and actress Angelina Jolie, seen wearing pearls recently.

Middleton, who has a strong influence on the fashion world, especially is known for her ability to create classic and modern looks, giving consumers ideas on how to incorporate pearl jewelry into their outfits today.

“We’re seeing a huge revival in pearls from a whole range of women,” said Susan Abeles, director of U.S. jewelry at Bonhams in New York. “People are looking for ways to incorporate something elegant and classic into their wardrobe, so we do see it as a blossoming trend.”

She notes that the popularity of natural saltwater pearls especially has grown over the past three years, adding that the interest comes as a reflection of the economy.

“People these days are investing in fine art, which could be a piece of fine jewelry even, including at the high end of pearls.”

The battle of supply versus demand
As the recent recession went into full swing, many pearl suppliers pulled back, decreasing production to accommodate the changing economic tide. At the same time, demand was starting its rise.

“When the price of gold went up, people had to look at more reasonably priced things, and pearls fit right in,” said Russell Shor, senior industry analyst at the Gemological Institute of America.

Though prices for pearls have been relatively consistent over the past few years, they are slowly trending upward will continue to increase as demand picks up.

There also are fewer low-quality pearls on the market these days, Shor said, which adds to the health of the market. 

Even as there are fewer low-quality goods entering the market, many note that there also is a smaller supply of higher-quality pearls due to those aforementioned smaller production numbers.

Mikimoto America COO Meyer Hoffman said they’re seeing a shortage in high-quality pearls when it comes to Akoya and South Sea varieties, as well as a greater limit to available sizes.

Since it takes a few years for production of pearls to pick back up and hit the market, squeezing the supply in the meantime, Hakimian told National Jeweler, “What’s important here is the long term. The vital part of this business is keeping relationships with your suppliers and satisfying demand from your customers.”

The traditional players of the pearling industry continue to supply the market, including China, Australia, Indonesia and Tahiti. But the GIA is also working with the Bahrain Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Bahrain Economic Development Board to develop the country’s Gemstone and Pearl Testing Laboratory (GPTLB) into a leading research center for natural pearls.

The project aims to protect and expand Bahrain’s pearl industry, which once was one of the most important parts of the country’s economy but lost ground at the discovery of oil and the development of cultured pearls, by increasing capacity, research, expertise and technology at the GPTLB, as well as identifying further opportunities for growth.

Color, unique shapes pick up the pace
As American consumers are finding their way back to pearl jewelry and younger crowds are trying to find new ways to wear pearls in their everyday lives, certain shapes and designs are leading the surge.

“We’re in an age where people want something more individualistic looking,” Shor said, adding that though round shapes “remain king” in the pearl market, baroque pearls and even ribbed pearls are gaining in popularity. 

Colored pearls also gaining popularity among consumers, from violet to green and peach as well as all the hues in between. They can be found in cocktail rings, as stud earrings, or in the ever-popular long strand necklaces but with a gradient color pattern, a modern twist.

“American consumers are responding well to colored pearls,” Hakimian said. “They’re not looking to buy the same thing as everyone else.”

Mikimoto’s Hoffman also noted that conch pearls are gaining in popularity, albeit slowly because of their rarity in both quantity and color--many of them tend to be somewhere along the light pink/coral spectrum, but can also come in yellow, brown and white--as well as melo pearls, which range from orange to light brown.

Despite the fact that these types of pearls are high in price, Hoffman notes that those price tags, in fact, make the jewelry easier to sell for them.

“The rarer and the more expensive it is, the easier it is to sell. That top 1 percent has a lot of discretionary income and is looking for something rare and unique to spend it on.”

Mikimoto also has been introducing higher price points for that type of clientele by selectively adding colored gemstones to some of its pearl jewelry pieces, using stones such as morganite with South Sea pearls and gold.

Building for the future
Pearls are specially positioned in the industry in that they, unlike the majority of resources used to create jewelry, have the ability to be re-generated. Because of the cultured pearl industry’s ability to initiate new growth, sustainability has long been a part of the business. 

Yet this issue has come back to the forefront as more industry groups talk about the importance of preserving the environment and ensuring pearl farms are positioned for the long term.

At CIBJO’s recent Sustainable Pearls Forum, President Gaetano Cavalieri emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to achieve sustainability in the cultured pearl sector, focusing on economic, environmental and social responsibility.

“The essential importance of economic sustainability must be appreciated by the business community, which needs to be prepared to take a long-term approach, sometimes at the expense of short-term profit,” he said, adding that government regulators must also do their part to protect the country’s environment while allowing the economy to function.

The environmental part is important not only for obvious reasons that involve caring for the earth and the resources used but also has a direct line to consumers. Today’s buyers, especially those who are members of the Millennial generation, increasingly are concerned with knowing the origin of the products they buy and the footprint of the companies from which they are buying.

Though consumers still are in the early stages of understanding the business behind pearls and the environmental impact, they are “slowly asking the right questions,” Hoffman said.

Making sustainability an important part of the industry would help consumers understand that when they buy pearl jewelry, they are supporting businesses that care for the planet’s long-term health rather than exploit its resources. That’s why it’s good that so many conversations and research and development projects are popping up to figure out the best way to care and treat the pearls.

“In its simplest form, sustainability really means taking the best care of the environment,” Shor said. “And since pearling is directly related to the health of the environment around (the pearls), the ecosystem could collapse if they’re not taken care of.”