The once ubiquitous strand of round white pearls is being replaced with designs featuring an ever burgeoning array of shapes, colours and sizes.
2009 has been another big year for pearl jewellery sales in Australia as demand for the jewel from the deep continues to grow – at all price points.
Local pearl jewellery retailers and wholesalers are united in their belief that the recent evolution of pearl jewellery design from predominantly conservative strands of round white pearls to an array of exciting designs featuring pearls of all shapes, colours and sizes is the main reason behind the resurging interest.
One of the many designers contributing to the pearl jewellery revolution is Alesso Boschi, the head designer at Autore (the Australian South Sea pearl and pearl jewellery company) who was named Italian Jewellery Designer of the Year at this year’s UK Jewellery Awards.
Boschi’s bespoke jewellery collection that so impressed the judges included gem-encrusted sea creature brooches and a ring inspired by an erupting volcano – each piece centred around a “magnificent, hand-selected South Sea pearl”.
Speaking shortly after Boschi’s win, Autore CEO Rosario said it was wonderful for the company to receive international recognition and “have further opportunities to bring our South Sea pearl designs to the attention of the world”.
Autore entrusted the design of the Group’s branded South Sea pearl jewellery collections to Boschi, a young and visionary Italian-born jewellery designer, three years ago.
Autore said he had been looking for a designer with unbridled talent and personality “to put passion and personality into every aspect of our work with pearls and to push the boundaries of pearl jewellery design”.
“We wanted a designer to embody the tale of the pearl’s journey from the ocean to the red carpet,” he said.
Autore’s success at the UK Jewellery Awards and this year’s Baselworld, Vicenzaoro and Hong Kong trade fairs confirms that Autore’s aim to push the “boundaries of pearl jewellery design” is paying off.
However, the company is not the only one investing time and energy into reinventing pearl jewellery.
Colleen Hartnell from Pearl Emphasis is the Australasian distributor of Silver Seasons, Christina Garcia and Yvel pearl jewellery.
With wholesale prices for individual jewellery items typically ranging from $49 to $100,000, all three brands pride themselves on their innovative designs – especially Yvel.
“Yvel is famous for its use of pearls that go beyond the typical round white gem,” says Hartnell. “The aesthetic philosophy of the brand treats pearls as material for art. This creative artistic approach shines through all Yvel’s collections.”
She says the brand clearly demonstrates the fact that “pearl jewellery has obviously moved on from the traditional strand of white pearls to more exciting abstract designs”.
“In the past pearls have been considered conservative and classic rather than sexy and sensuous but the old image is changing now as new designs are much more natural and free-flowing.
“The designs are very artistic – they are not so contrived – and they’re attracting a much younger client than the traditional pearl buyer.”
However, despite her company’s embrace of such fashion forward designs, Hartnell is the first to agree that there will always be a place for a “simple strand of pearls” in a woman’s wardrobe.
“If you look at female diplomats and other women in power you can see that they wear pearls in the same way men wear ties – a classic string of pearls is almost like an endorsement of what it is to be “well-dressed”.
Hartnell says Pearl Emphasis’s jewellery sales have been going “very well” in the last 12 months in the New Zealand market and that the company will soon be officially launching onto the Australian market.
“I believe that our excellent pearl jewellery sales are largely due to the fact we have the best products at the best price,” she says.
Arthur Pike, the managing director of Cashelle Jewellery Co, is another jewellery wholesaler enjoying the resurging interest in pearls.
His company’s Freshwater pearl jewellery collection ranges from simple round, drop and button-shaped earrings and pendants to “stacks and stacks” of pearl strands – many with a contemporary twist.
“We sell basic 6, 7 and 8mm pearl strand necklaces and bracelets as well pearl strands with special features such as silver chain tassels on some of the pearls or little silver balls between them”.
Pike has been selling Freshwater pearl jewellery for around 20 years but says sales have “gone through the roof” in the last six to 12 months.
Apart from new more fashion-driven pearl jewellery designs, Pike attributes much of the success of his collection’s sales to the quality and affordability of today’s freshwater pearls.
“When we first began selling Freshwater pearls there were only ‘rice’ and ‘potato’ pearls available on the market but the Chinese have perfected their techniques so that we now have access to fantastic quality round pearls up to 13-14 mm in size or drop-shaped pearls up to 10-12mm in size.”
He believes the quality of such pearls is so high that “it’s hard for the untrained eye to detect the difference between a Freshwater pearl and a really good Akoya although the price difference is huge”.
For example, he says, a 40cm string of 8mm Akoya pearls wholesale for around $400 while the same sized string of freshwater pearls wholesale for around $120-$150.
Joe Kahane, the managing director of K & A Jewellery, is also currently selling “a lot of Freshwater and South Sea pearl jewellery” in contemporary designs.
Kahane says he started selling pearls in “a serious way” about five years when he saw the emergence of pearls’ popularity all around the world.
“I saw a lot of pearl jewellery at international trade fairs and realised that interest in pearls hadn’t waned – if anything it was stronger than ever.
“Traditional pearl necklaces have always been displayed in jewellery shop windows but at the same time I also saw local shop displays were incorporating pearls in more jewellery lines with gold and silver.”
Inspired by what he saw overseas and in Australia, Kahane began including more pearls in his company’s jewellery designs – with great success.
“I sell gold, diamond, gemstone and pearl jewellery but pearl jewellery is now my number one line,” he says
“Currently there is across-the-board demand for pearl jewellery as there is a style and pricepoint for almost every one.”
Kahane is confidant that the “across the board” demand for pearl jewellery will continue to grow even stronger – “I am actually in the process of designing new lines of pearl jewellery now,” he says.
Meanwhile Jill Nash, the managing director of Nash Pearls (wholesaler of black, white and gold South Sea pearls) and Lust Pearls (wholesaler of the Lust collection of diamond-encrusted pearl jewellery), says that although her sales have been “average” this year she is expecting sales to climb in the coming months as consumer confidence returns.
Recognising a need for fresh new designs in pearl jewellery, Nash launched Lust Pearls’ collection of jewellery featuring black, white and champagne South Sea pearls encrusted with white or coloured diamonds and 18 carat gold onto the market six years ago.
Nash says the pearl jewellery collection has been popular with consumers as it is a totally different concept to other pearl jewellery.
“Consumers are always looking fro new jewellery designs,” she says.
Similarly, Dean Finch from Princess Pearls who has recorded a 25 percent increase in pearl sales in the last 12 months is confident that the public’s passion for pearls will continue into 2010.
A wholesaler of Freshwater, Akoya and Tahitian pearls as well as South Sea Mabe, his strongest seller at the moment is his Nature’s Charm selection of 12mm Freshwater pearls drilled to fit most charm bracelets.
“In spite of all the economic trouble our jewellery sales have been strong. The fall in the Australian dollar has had minimal effect on Chinese cultured pearls due to their low price point.
“Ten years ago pearls were regarded as a three-year cyclical product and probably only represented less than one percent of all jewellery sales. With the quality improvements in Chinese freshwater pearls sales now account for around three percent of jewellery sales.”
David Norman, the managing director of Aquarian Pearls, is also enjoying the resurging interest in pearl jewellery with his stock of white, black and gold South Sea pearls.
“We concentrate all our efforts on what we know best which is supplying the trade with the best and most interesting loose pearls and pearl strands that we can source,” he explains.
“Wherever possible we have specialised in better quality goods with cleaner skins and the highest lustre and excellent matching.”
He says that Australia’s market has grown and changed dramatically in the last 10 years and is likely to continue doing so.
“The emergence onto the retail jewellery market of the leading Australian pearl cultivators like Autore and Paspaley has raised the profile of pearls nationwide and overseas,” he says.
“Furthermore, due to the increased availability through larger overseas pearl producers, there has been great growth in the availability and demand for Tahitian black pearl jewellery, Philippine gold pearl jewellery and Indonesian cream, white and gold pearl jewellery.”
Norman believes that pearl sales will grow more robustly in the next 12 months – especially the demand for “better quality high lustre white, black and golden pearls”.
“Some farmers have cut their productions of pearls being seeded this year to enable the market to absorb current and future stocks more comfortably,” he says.
“Pearl farming has a two-year cycle so many within the pearl business are predicting that this will most likely lead to a shortage of pearls in a couple of years time.”
Rudi Zingg from Devino Pearls, which stocks South Sea, Tahitian and Akoya pearls and pearl jewellery, also believes that pearl sales are set to continue upwards in 2010.
“With the exception of Akoya pearls, pearls have become more readily available at lower prices and have therefore become more affordable to the general public,” he explains.
“With Tahitian pearls, production almost doubled from 2000 to 2009 while white South Sea Pearl production almost quadrupled in the same period. This put enormous (downward) pressure on prices.
“With the competitiveness and relative low profit margins in diamonds, pearls will benefit from a come-back with many retailers.”
Zingg concludes that the “very attractive value of pearls” has helped “to create good fashion lines with a high quality finish at very affordable prices”.
He says such innovative designs have attracted younger customers to pearl jewellery – a welcome development for the whole industry.
At the counter
Wholesalers general optimism about pearl jewellery’s current popularity reign is largely echoed by retailers.
For example, Morrie Rubenstein, the owner of David East Jewellers in Doncaster, which sells South Sea, Akoya and Freshwater pearl jewellery ranging from $45 earrings to $12,000 strands, says his pearl sales in the last two to three years have “definitely gone up as a proportion of total jewellery sales”.
He says the store, established for over 30 years, used to “just sell strands of white Akoya pearls with a maximum size of around 7mm” but today is selling all sorts of pearl jewellery pieces with “pearls up to 12mm in size”.
He says the main factor determining his customer’s choice in pearl jewellery is the price point.
“If someone enters the shop and says ‘I want to spend $300 on a pearl necklace’ it’s obvious that I have to show them a Freshwater pearl strand as you can’t get an Akoya or South Sea strand for anywhere near that sort of price,” he explains.
“Over the last 15 years the Chinese have really improved the quality of their Freshwater pearls – the lustre isn’t quite as good as the Akoya or South Sea pearls but they are getting better every year.”
In fact, he points out that at a recent valuers’ conference in Sydney the quality of the Freshwater pearls was “so amazing” that it was difficult to tell them apart from an Akoya.
“In the next two to three years we are going to see an enormous improvement in the quality of the Chinese Freshwater pearl.”
He says this improvement will inevitably lead to an increase in total pearl jewellery sales.
Similarly Kirsten Albrecht, the managing director of Kozminsky is enjoying exceptional pearl sales – but stresses that it is not unusual in her family’s 157-year-old Melbourne store.
Albrecht, a self-described pearl fanatic, says the business sells an “enormous amount” of pearls.
“Pearls are just a stayer for us – they never go out of fashion.”
However, today’s pearl jewellery pieces are vastly different to the designs the store sold
when Albrecht first moved into the family business.
“Thirty years ago we just sold strings of boring cultured pearls,” she laughs. “They were a standard gift for 21sts and young brides” and most women had two or three strings of Akoya pearls (short, matinee and/or opera length).
According to Albrecht, the launch of Broome’s South Pearls around 20 years ago changed all that.
“The growth of the whole South Sea pearl industry means that there are people who create wonderful and exciting things out of pearls that previously weren’t even done,” she says.
“We now have access to pearl necklaces, bracelets, earrings and ring designs that weren’t even imaginable 10 or 15 years ago.”
Today Kozminsky stocks “every sort of pearl” including Akoya and black, white and gold South Sea pearls.
“Diamonds are probably always going to be the biggest money spinner but in terms of actual sales per head we do an awful lot of pearls,” says Albrecht.
“I think one of the main reasons that pearls are so attractive to women is that some jewellery can look quite harsh while pearls often have a softening, or enhancing, effect on the face.”
She says the key to selling pearls is the same as that to selling any product at retail level –“passion and knowledge”.
“I love pearls and wear them all the time,” she enthuses. “I also know a lot about them.”
“Most customers don’t know much about pearls (despite the internet) but I need to be able to explain to a customer why one necklace costs $10,000 and another similar looking one costs $30,000.”
Wholesalers agree with Albrecht that passion and knowledge are the keys to success in selling pearls.
Jill Nash from Nash and Lust Pearls says “knowledge” is the key to retailing success with pearls.
“Retail staff should learn about the pearls that they are selling,” she says.
“Wearing pearl jewellery also helps sell it.”
Aquarian’s David Norman says clients who have “a strong commitment to pearls as a category and keep a comprehensive stock” do the most business.
“They (the best selling pearl retailers) all have at least one member of their retail team who is absolutely passionate about pearls and sells the most pearls.”
He also suggests that stocking pearls in a range of price points will “better support a customer’s experience of owning pearls within their budgets.
“This may lead to a single pendant or pair of earrings being suggested rather than a lesser quality strand in some cases,” he says.
Rudi Zingg from Devino agrees that retail sales staff need to be “well trained” in pearls so they can explain quality differences to customers.
He also believes that retailers wanting to increase pearl sales should choose pearls with good lustre and avoid low-grade and reject pearl items.
He says retailers should display a “reasonable assortment of pearl jewellery” such as ear-rings, strands, necklaces and pendants etc so that customers know what options are available.
Similarly, Colleen Hartnell from Pearl Emphasis suggests that retailers should “aim high in the quality stakes, train up the staff involved, and seek modern, sexy, youthful designer styles to compliment their holdings of strands”.
Finally, Princess Pearls’ Dean Finch concludes that retailers learn more about the product, keep away from low quality pearls and display the product like it is precious jewellery.
“Consumers go to markets if they want to look at pearl jewellery scattered on a flat surface.”
In regards to design trends, we’ll leave the last word to Autore which is rapidly establishing themselves as a trendsetter in pearl jewellery design – locally and internationally.
According to the company, the white South Sea pearl will retain its popularity but “delicate feminine hues, such as grey, silver, green and pink, which continue to be matched with champagne pink, light yellow or canary yellow diamonds” will also impress.
In regard to shape and form, Autore predicts an “increased demand for oversize pendants on longer chains with delicate and intricate detail and encrusted stones, chunky bracelets with charms and statement rings”.
However the company also strongly believes that the classic single strand necklace will continue to occupy a space in most women’s wardrobes.
“Classic strands are always an essential piece,” says the company, “though there is a tendency towards larger pearls.”