Now China is in what we can call its Third Pearl Wave. Starting in the 1990s, China surprised the market with products that are revolutionizing pearling. The shapes, luster, and colors of the new Chinese production often match original Biwa quality and sometime even surpass it; certainly the new orange and peach-colored pearls are unique. As testimony to China's achievement, their freshwater pearls are round enough and good enough to pass as Japanese akoya. China already sells round white pearls up to 7mm for perhaps a tenth the price of Japanese cultured saltwater pearls. Bleaching, dying, and polishing is usually done.
Except for the old Arabic practice of sun-bleaching in the Persian Gulf, naturals were practically never processed. Chinese pearls that are nearly white or mottled are usually bleached to make them whiter and more uniform. With the same methods perfected by the Japanese, the Chinese use a mild bleach, bright fluorescent lights, and heat.
They polish surfaces by tumbling pearls in pumice or similar substances. The idea, as always, is to facilitate matching pearls for strands. Many Chinese pearls used to be dyed in the 1980s to bright red, blue, lavender, yellow or even black. In response to contemporary preferences, they now offer a selection of subtle natural colors. The Chinese have also begun to nucleate some of their freshwater mussels with shell nuclei implants in both the creatures' bodies as well as in their mantles. Such practices, once perceived as "saltwater culturing techniques," are a new cultural revolution.
How will buyers react who had been told that cultured freshwater pearls were all-nacre products? Will they buy Chinese pearls if the roundest examples are nacre-coated shell beads instead? How will such new products be positioned in the market? Will anyone, including gem testing labs, be able to tell the difference between tissue-nucleated and bead-nucleated freshwater pearls? Those are serious new considerations. Even more disquieting is the second innovation. The Chinese are nucleating mussels with their own tissue-cultured freshwater pearls, which result in all-nacre round or almost round pearls. Aiming for an even higher percentage of rounds, the Chinese are even reshaping reject freshwater pearls into spheres, then nucleating mussels with them. When combined, those two nucleation innovations are astounding developments.
Once again the Chinese have radically altered freshwater culturing, making saltwater and freshwater techniques indistinguishable. They have also introduced a new type of culturing, nucleating with small tissue-nucleated pearls. Some of China's new pearls are all-nacre, some have nacre-coated nuclei, and all are unmarked. After one experimenter used small off-round naturals as nuclei, he sent the resulting freshwater pearls to a gem lab and received a report identifying them as "naturals." If pearl farmers can grow cultured pearls that test as naturals, the market may be in for a wild ride.
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