Raw Pearls owner Jonathan Raw on changes in the pearl market.

By Jonathan Raw

Finding good quality oyster pearls has been something of an increasing problem since the beginning of the 1990s. However, we noted on our most recent trip just how critical the situation has become.


Pearl farmers have in the recent past had large amounts of their oyster production destroyed by storms. Oyster pearl production takes place offshore and so is more exposed to the likes of tsunamis.

The farmers have to breed the oysters before they can be used in the culturing process and so there is a significant investment made before there is any likelihood of a return. Now farmers have to contend with global warming, meaning the temperature of the water might not be conducive to pearl production and as a result many farmers have reduced production.

The difficulties in production mean the quantity and quality of the harvest has been low, and what has been produced is very expensive. Prices are at an all-time high, and quality at an all-time low, and this at a time when UK consumers are particularly price conscious. Gone are the days when the oyster pearl was the benchmark of quality.

In the 1980s the Chinese cornered the market in producing very poor quality, low value, rice-shaped freshwater pearls. The effect was to make the gem available to the mass market but this high volume production damaged the gem’s once exclusive image. The freshwater pearl became synonymous with cheap and poor quality products.

In recent years a revolution has occurred and the freshwater pearl production techniques have improved out of all recognition. What our buyers are accessing now is an exciting range of high-quality pearls that can have a good round shape, even colour and fine unmarked skins. Moreover, most freshwater pearls do not have a nucleus and are therefore comprised of solid nacre, making them highly lustrous. These mussels, cultured in freshwater rivers or lakes, are more protected from the environmental factors affecting the exposed oyster production and are providing a more reliable crop.

With the fashion in pearls being for a larger, more lavish look, the mussel is able to meet that trend by producing a very saleable larger pearl, something the oyster simply cannot do. Interestingly we are also seeing some mussels being inserted with nuclei to produce unique shapes or larger pearl sizes.

We feel it is vital to rebrand the once derided freshwater pearl. We are today selecting a very different, high quality, desirable product, and we call these pearls river pearls.

Whether you buy South Sea, Tahitian, akoya or river pearl, there will always be a better, more desirable part of the crop and a worse, less saleable part – such is the nature of pearl production. What is key, is that you buy your stock from a knowledgeable supplier who has access to the cream of the crop – no matter which mollusc.


This guest column was taken from the July issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. If you work within the British jewellery industry and would like to write a column for the magazine then email the editor at rachael.taylor@itp.com with an outline of your idea.