Chinese Fresh Water Cultured Pearls
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The first cultured freshwater pearls originated in Japan. Quite soon after their initial success with cultured saltwater pearls, Japanese pearl farmers experimented with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930s. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colors unseen in saltwater pearls. Almost instantly appealing, their lustre and luminescent depth rivaled naturals because they, too, were pearls throughout. The Lake Biwa freshwater pearl production (which supplied most of the world's freshwater pearls) continued to thrive until the late 1970‘s. Starting in the 1980‘s, there were warning signs as development pressed toward its shores. By 1984, Biwa's pearl farms were barely surviving, because of pollutants washing in from farms, resorts, and industries around the lake.
As Lake Biwa production diminished, China filled the vacuum. China had all the resources that Japan lacked:
First Chinese Cultured Pearl Production
Second Chinese Cultured Pearl Production Phase (1984-1991)
Third Chinese Cultured Pearl Production Phase (1991 – Present)
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, all are unmarked. After one experimente 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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