I love pearls. It's not just because of my own name but because of their beauty and the long history behind them.  We should be thankful for the early pioneers in pearl culturing who made pearls affordable today.

The innovation continues especially in China where over 90% of the world's freshwater pearls come from.  Chinese pearl farmers have worked hard at producing ever larger pearls over the last couple of decades - with sizes well over 20 mm rivaling that of South Sea (saltwater) pearls.

In the last 2-3 years, they have introduced huge baroque pearls with gorgeous luster but are extremely light because they are hollow. It's easy to understand why they are called after that light French dish.  More difficult to fathom is why pearl types are named after food! Potato and rice pearls are a couple of examples.

Souffle Pearl Necklace (Picture from Pacific Pearls)
How did they manage to do that?  They simply use an earthen pellet or nucleus instead of a regular bead nucleus to start the pearl.  These nuclei are inserted into the pearl sacs left behind after pearls are removed.  Contrary to popular belief, the mollusks are not killed but are repeatedly used to grow pearls.  The older ones used for making souffle pearls display nacre of beautiful iridescent hues.

After harvesting, the souffle pearls are drilled and the resulting muddy and stinky slurry is removed. Not a fun task for the people who have to do this!

It is not easy to get hold of souffle pearls as the supply is limited. Expect to pay 4-5 times more in price by weight compared to bead nucleated ones. Fuji Voll of Pacific Pearls told me, "Time will tell to what degree hollow pearls can stand up to frequent use."  As these pearls are hollow, the inside will be exposed to air and chemicals.  Fuji adds, "The effect of chemicals such as those in cosmetics are generally overstated, since they are the scapegoat for bleach damage which by convention is not disclosed.  However, it would surprise me if the intrusion of such chemicals into the inside of the pearl layer had no effect on the pearls' appearance, or even structural integrity, over time."

If you have time to watch this 14 minute video called Pearl Talks (at the Hong Kong International Gem Show), you'll learn a bit more about the Chinese pearl industry.  The group of men in it are CEOs of pearl jewelry companies in the US on a buying trip to China last year.

Thanks Jeremy Shepherd (Pearl Paradise) for tipping me off about this video.  See the links below for his amazing photos of his trip to the South Sea pearl farms and Kevin Canning's (Pearls of Joy) photos of Chinese pearl farms. 

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM