Pearl King Salvador Assael passes away

Salvador Assael with Tahitian pearl producer Robert Wan.  ? Louie Psihoyos/CORBIS

Assael International loses man who bought Tahitian pearls to the US.

Legendary American pearl house Assael International has reported the loss of Salvador J. Assael, who passed away on April 1 after a brief illness.

Assael, who was 89 when he died last week, has a long history in the pearl business, having fled Italy with his family in 1938, first moving to Paris, then to Portugal, and eventually to Cuba.

A World War II veteran, Assael participated in the famed Battle of the Bulge, and won a Purple Heart from the U.S. government.

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In 1972, he took over the family pearl business and founded Assael International, which became a leading force in the pearl market. In 1973, he began producing Tahitian Black pearls for the US market, earning Assael the moniker of "pearl king" of the South Seas.

It is said that Assael got into the pearl business having observed from his father – a Swiss watch trader – that the Japanese were desperate for watches but had no cash. As a result, Assael bartered for pearls in exchange for the watches.

Assael made his fortune over several decades, dealing with Japanese and Australian pearls. In the early ’70s a friend urged him to consider the atolls of the South Pacific, where very few had tried cultivating the black-lipped oysters that thrive on the coral reefs there, and – at that time – no one thought that pearls of any colour but white would be marketable.

Not deterred, Assael took his chance on the oysters and with his first crop of Tahitian pearls he flew to New York with several strands, where he landed a deal with Harry Winston, who exclusively took the Assael Tahitian pearls. Meanwhile, Assael created a storm of publicity with full-page magazine ads proclaiming "A new gem is born."

In June 1998 he became a Chevalier of the Order of Tahiti Nui, and was a founding member of the South Sea Pearl Consortium. Assael is survived by his wife, Christina Lang Assael, and children, Sophia, Robert, and Arlette.

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