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Retail Jeweller UK Jewellery Awards 2023 – Finalist

Latest update on the akoya & freshwater market

Miranda Inspecting Pairs of Cultured Akoya Pearls on Recent Buying Trip

Market update – Akoya & Freshwater Cultured Pearls

The Raw Pearls ethos is all about giving our retailers the tools they need to make their pearl businesses work for them. Sell-through rates are critical and those depend in part on a good knowledge of the product. A report by the British Pearl Association found that only 20% of staff in store could explain the factors affecting a pearl’s value. We want better for our customers and this has led to the recent launch of Pearl Academy by Raw Pearls, a series of online training videos and accompanying notes on pearls for the trade. As part of that commitment to our retailers, here we share our thoughts on the current pearl market.

Continued growth of bead-nucleated cultured freshwater pearls

Traditionally, freshwater pearls were cultured by inserting a piece of flesh from another mussel to cause the mussel to produce nacre. They did not bead-nucleate the mussel as for example the Japanese did with the akoya oyster.

Bead Nucleated Freshwater Pearls

Today however, bead-nucleated cultured freshwater pearls are far from new to market and this year we see vastly increased numbers of the 10mm+ ‘Edison-style’ pearl. As these pearls are bead-nucleated they can take the same time to grow as smaller size pearls with no nucleus and can sell for more.

This year we also see what the Chinese refer to as ‘Chinese akoya’ – by this they mean smaller sized bead-nucleated freshwater pearls. This term is technically inaccurate since these pearls are neither cultured in an akoya oyster, nor in seawater, however they are indeed bead-nucleated smaller size cultured pearls. Last year we saw some of these in 7 or 8mm sizes, this year we’ve seen them in almost all sizes from 4mm up.

Cultured River Pearls Ready for Sorting

Production of these smaller bead-nucleated freshwater pearls is still in it’s infancy and no one yet knows the optimum culturing techniques. Some farmers are experimenting with 14 bead nuclei per mussel, some with 20 or 30. Time will tell what yields the best results. Currently there is very little good quality and only around 20% is very round. As trialling continues we may start to see more small sizes with better, rounder shape.

Around 2 years ago we reported that about 30% of all freshwater pearls were bead-nucleated, now we think it may be as high as 50%.

Market dynamics and price

We find prices fairly flat in most sizes this year versus last. Due to the higher quantities of the larger ‘Edison-style’ nucleated cultured freshwater pearl now available, some suggest prices have dropped slightly in sizes above 11mm. Overall however, the local Chinese market have huge demand for the higher-qualities in all sizes, meaning that prices at the top end of the market can be higher.

Cultured Akoya Pearl Srands

Cultured Akoya Pearl Srands

Lower production in akoya drives prices up

In the akoya market demand remains high, particularly in the Chinese market. Production is fairly good and prices fairly stable in the 8 and 9mm sizes. In the other sizes, prices are up at least 20% (more in the better qualities) with production lower and demand high. Production in sizes 6mm and under is lower because farmers can make more profit in the larger sizes upon sale. Even the processing (cleaning, sorting, drilling etc) is more expensive, it takes double the processing to make a strand of 4mm versus 8mm pearls.

Farms are often passed down through generations as the cost to start from scratch is high, and the process takes time to learn. We talked to a pearl farmer who started work with his father, he’s now 75 and his son isn’t involved; the lack of a guaranteed income and hard work involved, sadly, make the business a less attractive prospect.