Aquaculture Magazine

The Return of the American Pearl
Three Feisty Farmers Take on the Japanese

By C. Richard Fassler

The pearl. Mysterious. Exotic. The gem that adorned the crowns of kings and queens and circled the necks of the rich and famous came from the great pearl centers of Bahrein, Bombay, Rangoon, Madagascar, Maracaibo, Tahiti, Little Rock. "Little Rock? I don't believe it! I thought all pearls came from overseas, and cultured pearls come mainly from Japan!" That was the response of a friend of mine when I told him I was writing this article... and he was in the jewelry business. During the course of my research, I found few people had ever heard of pearls from the United States, yet:

"Pearls were found in numerous lakes and rivers in Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Mississippi and Wisconsin. The names Sugar Apple, Rock Wisconsin and Mississippi River became famous for the pearls which had been found in their waters... In Arkansas it was said that every river contained pearls. Black River was by far the richest." (Taburiaux,1986). Even today, many Americans need only take an hour's drive from home to discover a truly American gem. Of course, one must locate a fairly large lake or river, dive to a depth of perhaps 90 feet, sift through a foot of mud in nearly invisible water for 7-pound mussels, and then discard thousands of shells before finding a pearl-but it can be done. Aquaculturing pearls may be easier.


pearlshell.gifThere are four pearl operations in the United States: The American Pearl Company, headed by John Latendresse, is based in Camden, Tennessee, and has farms in Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana; the American Shell Company whose Chief Executive is Jim Peach, is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, and has a farm in Big Sandy, Tennessee; Cross Pacific Pearls, whose top man is Paul Cross, has offices in Nevada City, California and a farm in Marysville, California; Hawaii Cultured Pearls is owned by a corporation that includes former Hawaii Governor George Ariyoshi and a Japanese partner, and has a facility at Keahole Point on the Big Island in Hawaii. The first three farms are in commercial production of freshwater pearls in lakes, using a variety of mussels. The Hawaii company is experimenting with the culture of saltwater pearls in oysters on land.

In early September, I became the first person to visit all three freshwater pearl farms. Despite the fact that they are all using the same animal and many of the same techniques, and the market for their production is enormous, there is little goodwill among them and they have not cooperated with each other in the sharing of information. All three welcomed me to their facilities and provided a splendid tour, although-with the exception of Cross--many areas were strictly off limits.

In a previous article (AQUACULTURE MAGAZINE September/October, 1991), I pointed out that numerous opportunities exist for the aquaculturing of pearls because of the disintegration of the long-held Japanese monopoly. Indeed, several business publications have recently trumpeted the new American challenge to the Japanese that will result in a local product supplanting the import. This possibility exists, to be sure, but it quickly became apparent to me that if we are to "beat" the Japanese, it will take a team effort. Before considering our players, let's take a quick look at the origins of the American pearl.


It is said that the first American pearl was discovered by a cobbler named David Howell in 1857 in New Jersey. Howell collected a number of mussels from the banks of the Notch Brook River near Paterson. He then prepared his favorite mussel dish which came with a most welcome surprise. He bit down on a 26-gram pearl which he later found out would have been worth some $25,000 had it not been damaged by the cooking and his teeth marks.

mussel.gifWord spread quickly and soon a "Pearl Rush" was on. The next substantial gem out of Notch Brook waters was sold to Tiffany's for $1,500. When the day arrived when not a single mollusk was left, prospectors turned West. Oddly enough, many discoveries were made by the children of farmers who used the gems as marbles. Indeed, the Wisconsin rush was started when a salesman visiting Prairie du Chein noticed a group of children playing with some strange colored balls. Upon further investigation, he learned that they had been purchased from a local grocery Store where they were stocked in several barrels. He returned to his job in New York with a few samples. His boss recognized the freshwater pearls and ordered him to buy all the "marbles" he could find. The news spread, and shortly thereafter millions of pearls were being found throughout the state (Taburiaux, 1986).

However, America's promising pearl industry was virtually dead by the end of the century. Whole families, searching for pearls from Connecticut to Florida, and west to the Mississippi, overexploited the mussel resource. The industrialization of America, with accompanying pollution, decimated entire populations in many waters. Moreover, most pearls were slightly irregular in shape, whereas the world pearl market preferred perfect spheres. Pearl discoveries became rare, and did not offer such lucrative rewards (Taburiaux, 1986).

The American freshwater pearl was, of course, a "natural" pearl, formed when an unwelcome intruder, such as a bit of shell or a parasite, invaded the mantle of a mollusk. The pearl was formed when the shellfish covered the object with a layer of nacre. Today's pearl buyer associates pearls with a round shape, but in fact, there were very few perfectly round pearls. Most were elongated.

As we have seen (AQUACULTURE MAGAZINE, September/October, 1991), the world's supply of natural pearls (both freshwater and saltwater) was reaching the point of exhaustion, and if it were not for the invention of the "cultured" pearl by three Japanese researchers, there would be no pearl industry today, and the value of a natural pearl necklace would be astronomical.

By 1920, the Japanese, led by Kokichi Mikimoto, had succeeded in inserting a bead into a variety of mollusks. The bead, or "nucleus," proved to be an ideal substitute for the shell piece or parasite. As an added bonus: because a perfectly round bead could be introduced, the likelihood of producing a round pearl through culturing was much greater than sorting through thousands of oysters to discover the rare round specimen.

The perfect bead was produced from the American mussel, the same mussel that was so avidly sought for freshwater pearls, and the Japanese discovery came only a few decades after Americans had relinquished their search. U.S. mussel species, with such colorful names as pig toe, washboard, ebony, elephant ear, pistol grip and heel-splitter, took on a renewed importance: destined not to hold a pearl, but to become the center of pearls grown throughout the world. Just when it appeared that the critter was headed for a well-deserved rest, one American discovered a resource, and that man was John Latendresse.


I drove from Chicago to Camden, Tennessee to meet John R. Latendresse, Chief Executive Officer of the American Pearl Co., Tennessee Shell Co. and American Pearl Creations. Camden, in the central Kentucky Lakes part of the state, is just large enough to support a McDonalds. Latendresse (pronounced " LaTAHNdresse") greeted me at his office. He is a short, stock man with glasses, who wears his black hair slicked back and looks much younger than 65. Over the years he has become known as a "tough guy," with the reputation of a person who hasn't spent much time smiling.

He is a legend in the American pearl business. Like many American legends, he came from humble origins, overcame great obstacles, bathed himself in controversy and emerged at the top of his field.

Latendresse was born in South Dakota, left home at the age of 13 and lied about his age so that he could join the Marines at 15. After 38 months in the South Pacific during the War, he returned to Reno, Nevada where he worked as a cashier in a casino. The less successful at the table hocked their pearls, and it was up to him to determine their value. This experience let to a career in jewelry, traveling up and down the Mississippi buying gems from pearl harvesters and selling them to brokers. Today, he claims that his collection of natural pearls is the largest in the world. A necklace of extremely rare, round American naturals could sell for as much as $100,000 (Forbes, 1990).

While gathering his pearl collection, Latendresse stumbled onto the pearl harvester's major activity: selling mussel shells to brokers who, in turn, sent them to Japan for buttons and -- more importantly -- pearl nuclei. He then took on a Japanese partner to help maintain a strong relationship with Japanese pearl companies, and out-hustled the family farms that had dominated the shell-gathering business. He also married a Japanese girl, Chessy, who had learned the art of pearl culturing. And there was another asset, Chessy's mother had once worked at the National Pearl Laboratory.

By the mid-1960's, Latendresse was shipping mussel shells to Japan by the ton, supplying 70% of their nucleus needs. He then decided to get into the pearl farming business himself. In 1963, he started an experimental pearl farm near Camden, using Japanese technology. But the operation was not successful. According to Latendresse: "I wasted my time and money on Japanese techniques, when we should have been using our own. I realized we were working with different kinds of animals from the Japanese. Today roughly 90% of our technology is our own. The only thing related to the Japanese now is the net and basket techniques for grow-out."

In 1981, he tried again, but failed because of an excess of iron which emulsified the calcium in the water and made it impossible to raise mussels. He now considers water quality to be the key determinate in establishing a successful pearl farm. Before settling on his present site near Camden, and four other sites (two in Tennessee, one in Louisiana and one in Texas), he scoured the country. "We looked at 500 bodies of water in the U.S. and found only seven that were suitable. There are more than 20 water quality factors to consider," he said. In judging a site, Latendresse looks for an embayment with an adjacent livestock--not row crop--operation. The offal running into the water will provide a sufficient algal bloom to feed his mussels. To avoid future water quality problems, he now has on staff a limnologist, a malacologist and a veterinarian--his son. He claims that his mortality rate after the insertion of the nucleus is only 3.9%, compared with 40% to 60% in Japan. He will not reveal the Secret of this low rate, but hints that the use of antibiotics and the space he leaves between mussel baskets have much to do with it.

Latendresse's production strategy is similar to his competitors: grow the pearl that is easiest to grow, the kechi and the mabe, and then advance to the most difficult, the round. The kechi and mabe, needless to say, bring only a fraction of the price of the round. The kechi is formed by inserting pieces of the mantle of one mollusk into the gonad of another. The result will be small (less than 7 mm) odd- shaped pearls, but the beauty of this technique is that no nucleus is required and as many as 20 pearls may be produced. When a nucleus is used and the result is odd- shaped and larger than 7 mm, the pearl is called "baroque." Mabe pearls are grown extensively by American Pearl and the other freshwater pearl companies because they are relatively easy to implant. A semi-spherical core (plastic in the case of Cross and Peach, and mother-of-pearl in the case of Latendresse) is attached under the mantle. As with rounds, this, too, will be covered in nacre, resulting in a half pearl. Depending on quality, the mabe can be expensive, but will usually sell for much less than a round.

Latendresse likes to think of himself as a "pearl designer." During the mollusk's 3-year grow-out period, he claims he can produce rounds, kechis, baroques and mabes from the same mussel. By creating nuclei in various shapes, he can produce the shape he desires: coins, crosses or wings, for example. He drove me a short distance to Kentucky Lake, one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S., covering 2,380 miles of shoreline. He has a lease from the Tennessee Valley Authority ~VA) for a section of water. To one side, a large sign with red letters warned: "Biological Experiment, Underwater Obstructions." To the other, an armed guard watched us from a houseboat. There were no indications that a pearl could be found within 1000 miles. There were several hundred PVC pipes, each 40-feet long, lying parallel in rows, covering 9 acres. The pipes support nets which can hold up to a dozen mussels. By placing the nets 3 feet apart--unlike the Japanese who leave only afoot of space between them--the nacre grows twice as fast. Latendresse farms many mussel species, but likes to use Megalonaias nervosa, the "washboard," and Fusconaia ebena, the "ebony."

He told me that there were thousands of mussels hanging from the pipes. Each mussel contained 7 to 9 nuclei which he manufactured and which his 25 implantors had carefully placed in each animal. Many of these mollusks had been in the water for three years, which he feels is sufficient time to cover a 10 mm bead with at least 2 mm of nacre to produce a 12 mm round pearl. But the vast majority of the crop would be mabes, which he calls "domes." Another of his Tennessee farms, also on Kentucky Lake, is reported to have 27 acres and 2 million mollusks (his competitors doubt the existence of this farm). He will sell the majority of these pearls through his own jewelry manufacturing business, also in Camden.

Latendresse pointed out that American pearls exhibit more colors than Japanese pearls--from silver-white to pink and lavender. He accuses the Japanese of producing dyed pearls with thin nacre layers. By placing the nucleus in exactly. the right place in the mussel, he can increase the amount of nacre. He recently blasted the Japanese in a national jewelry publication:

"The pearls that come out of Japanese oysters in Hamagge look horrible. If they don't process them by bleaching and dyeing, very few would be saleable." He then added: "Quality and shape are our difference. We can produce a luster they can't." (Reilley, 1990). Latendresse said that 1990 sales for his entire operation were $17 million, with pearls accounting for $2.5 million of this. Of the $2.5 million, the bulk of production was sold here, much of it to Japanese exporters. The company, which has 80 workers, turned a profit for the first time in 1990. Mabe pearls, which wholesale for $40 to $300, account for 90% of sales. I asked to see his bead implanting Operation. He politely refused. The techniques used are "very proprietary." We returned instead to his office, a nondescript red brick building attached to a long yellow warehouse. Once again, there was no way to tell that this business had anything to do with pearls. A sign saying "Tennessee Shell Company" indicated Latendresse's main business: the buying of mussel shells for export to Japan. There were no secrets here; mountains of mussel shells were separated according to species and quality.

As we talked, divers with mussels for sale drove into the parking lot and started negotiating with a buyer. Latendresse pays between $.50 and $5 a pound, with the larger shells getting the higher prices. He ships two 22-ton containers of shell each working day, or roughly 45% of the 11,000 tons of shells exported from the U.S. annually. The mussels first go through a steamer, and then a tumbler to knock out the meat, which is used for animal feeds. The shells are then dried and packed in burlap bags for shipment, with each bag holding 200 pounds of shell. We reached the C.E.O.'s office through a maze of doors -security is an important concern here. His walls were covered with photos of his family and various celebrities, many offering praise for his faithfulness to the Republican party. He is preparing three of his children to take over the business. He doesn't think they'll have much trouble with Peach or Cross.

Latendresse views Jim Peach, his one-time protege and neighbor 30 miles up the road, as little competition. The famous feud between the two men has been going on for 18 years. He likewise thinks little of Cross's chances. "One of my people saw his operation a few months ago- -he didn't know it. From what I can tell about his location, he's going to have a tough time."

He would rather discuss the Japanese who scold him for claiming to make better freshwater pearls. Latendresse likes to tell the story, recently published in Forbes magazine, about the time he was in Japan and was admonished by his hosts for attempting to produce their national treasure. He says he replied: "Well, sir, Henry Ford is part of our history, and is certainly part of America's past. Look at Toyota, Nissan--just what have you people done to Ford's idea?"

A few years ago, he told National Jeweler magazine that he will possess 12%-15 % of the Japanese market for cultured pearls and price them out of the freshwater pearl business (Berenblatt, 1988). He plans to expand operations, opening up a major jewelry manufacturing facility near Nashville next year, and continuing to look for new farming sites. Does he have any doubts about taking on die Japanese or expanding the market for American pearls? Latendresse leaned across his desk. "I wouldn't have directed my children into the pearl business if! didn't think there was a future in it!"


Several months back while researching this article, I was speaking on the telephone to Jim Peach, age 47, Chief Executive of American Shell Company and U.S. Pearl Co. of Knoxville, Tennessee. I could hear a phone ringing in the background. He excused himself to answer it. "What?!" It can't be. Where? Do whatever you can. I'll be there as soon as possible!"

He ended our conversation quickly. Later I discovered that heavy rains had dislodged a beaver dam and unleashed a torrent of water. Peach's Kentucky Lake farm, a collection of PVC pipes similar to the Latendresse facility, had caught a wave, come loose from its moorings and was heading 'vest. Fortunately, Manager Jeff McKee was able to retrieve the farm with no mussels lost. This is a risky business. The Peach operation is located a half-hour from Camden at Big Sandy. One takes a series of winding roads to a fishing resort, owned by Peach. Once again, there were no signs to indicate the presence of pearls. McKee met Inc at the resort restaurant where we sat in a wooden booth in the back. Few people came by as it was off-season, and business was sparse. A hound dog pup, groggy from the heat, wandered over and flopped at my feet.

That the farm looks remarkably like Latendresse's is no coincidence. Latendresse took Peach into the business while he was still a teenager. In 1963 Peach went off to college (who paid the tuition is a highly sensitive subject between the two men) and after graduation, joined Tennessee Shell as Office Manager. He moved up to Vice President and then left the company in 1973 because of "irreconcilable differences." Succeeding years have been stormy, to say the least, with lawsuits, frequent hostility and bitter accusations. McKee, who is also a minister and leads a flock of Born Again Christian workers at the farm, confessed that at first he thought I was working for "Johnny." "He tried to sneak an 'electrician' in here once to spy on our implanting operation. You never can tell what he's up to!"

American Shell is based in Knoxville. Like its competitor, Tennessee Shell, a major part of the company's business consists of buying shells and exporting them to Japan. Company sales totaled $25 million in 1990, 75% of that coining from shell sales to Japan and only a fraction coming from pearls. Peach started farming pearls in Tennessee in 1981, then moved his farm to Texas. He left Texas and established the Big Sandy facility in 1985 after obtaining a lease from the TVA for a farm on Kentucky Lake.

McKee explained that the farm occupies only one-fourth of its potential size. There are 300 PVC pipes, but the company will add 900 more by February. He uses the same mussel suspension method as Latendresse, with 10 to 12 mollusks in each cage. His four implantors place 2 to 4 beads in each mussel, with nuclei at 12 mm to make a 15 mm pearl. Most of the crop is mabes, or "Pearles" --Peach's version of mabes -- which he feels is the simplest to culture. He has attempted to produce round pearls, but considers it to be "virtually impossible" because of the physiology of the mussel, which differs from saltwater oysters. In a later conversation with Peach by telephone, he explained to me that the Japanese were unsuccessful at producing round freshwater pearls in Lake Biwa, the center of the country's freshwater pearl industry. "Why expend time and effort to produce rounds when you can go to the sea and do it consistently? " he said. Unlike Latendresse, Peach does not make his own beads, but buys them from Japan. Once again, the implanting lab, situated on a house boat near shore, was off-limits.

Peach is rapidly expanding his 9 jewelry operations and has opened one of this country's largest jewelry stores-- actually a store and a museum. His wholesale jewelry company, Factory Jewelers, has a 14,000-foot showroom that features a wide range of gems including, of course, pearls, many of which will come from his farm. He is not as bullish on American pearls as Latendresse. He feels that Tennessee will develop into a source of good quality pearls, but not in a quantity to compete with Japan or China. "Raising pearls could be very important to the United States, and very important to Tennessee," he said, "But comparing our future production to Japan's is like comparing a grain of sand to a mountain." Peach's major worry is the zebra mussel which is prolific and moving south from the Great Lakes. They attach themselves to other mollusks, smothering them. Besides, they feed on the same things as the "good mollusks."

"There's no way to stop them. They could be here in 10 years. We would have to spend a tremendous amount of time cleaning them off our mussels. We may want to think about relocating our most valuable species to a place like China." In the short term, however, he is optimistic, predicting that he will be profitable by 1993.


mollusk.gifWe drove a short distance to the fanning operation. I could see a number of large, blue buoys floating on very still waters. Cross explained that his mussels (primarily Megalonaias gigantea, Quadrula quadrula, Potamilus alatus and several others) are gathered in Tennessee and shipped live cross-country by refrigerated container truck. One truck can transport 100,000 mussels.

At the farm, they first go into a holding pond for two weeks, and then a team of 7 nucleators goes to work. To date, this team has implanted 547,200 beads in 144,000 mussels, of which 86% were mabes and 14% were rounds. The plan is to eventually reverse this mix with 80% spherical and 20% mabe, because of the greater value of rounds. The production target is 480,000 to 800,000 mabes annually.

After nucleation, the mussels are individually enclosed in a webbed polyurethane compartment and then brought to the long, narrow lake a mile-and-a-half long. There, ten-foot sections of racks are suspended 3 to 5 feet below the surface of the water from a nylon mesh grid supported by floating buoys anchored to the banks of the lake. Each rack has an identifying number which allows technicians to monitor progress and record mussels entering or being removed from the water. In order to keep the mussels well-fed, an adjacent pond is continually fertilized with manure and emptied into the lake several times a day. The first harvest takes places after 18 months. Cross emphasized that the water is cold and clean, and completely free of harmful chemicals. This point was driven home when he took me for a ride on the lake. To my amazement, 10-pound Brown trout swam by in schools.


We returned to the bead shop, the present profit center of this business. As pearl farming has expanded throughout the world, the price of beads has skyrocketed, particularly for large beads. Last year, one jewelry trade publication pointed to a "300% increase in nuclei prices in the past 12 months," necessitating an auction in Japan because "nuclei are in such demand and so scarce." (Jewelry News Asia, 1990).


Twenty workers cut, sliced, tumbled and polished the stacks of shells outside. At the end of the line, a white "marble" emerged. The most valuable are the large, pure white beads, suitable for the large Australian Pinctada maxima. The next valuable are smaller, with some brown coloration, which could find themselves in the center of Pinctada margaritifera from Tahiti. Prices average $3,200 a kilo, with the top-of-the-line nuclei fetching up to $14,000 a kilo. Cross held up a solid white bead, perhaps 17 mm in size. "The Australians will pay $500 for this beauty," he said. He then picked up a small, white sack marked "Nucleus" and "USA". He asked me what I thought this was worth, and before I could answer: "$36,000 for 3 kilos of our best product."

Cross estimates the world market for beads at $250 million, which is totally dominated by the Japanese. He's out to undercut their prices by 20% and is running three 8- hour shifts of workers a day to catch up on their production. And he's not happy about their source of supply.

"Damn the Japanese! The greedy pigs! They rape and pillage to get the shells out of the American rivers. They're putting up money for export brokers. They want the big shells and the divers don't care if the mussels are undersized. They even take the broodstock. What's going to happen to the resource in 5 to 10 years?" Cross said that three years ago he approached the TVA with an offer to pay for a repropagation program, but this offer still hasn't been accepted. In the meantime while he waits for a reply, the shells still arrive, the bead plant hums, and he leaves next week for the South Pacific with one million dollars in nuclei in his suitcase.


Back in the quiet of his office, Cross showed me a stainless steel stand that is used to hold mollusks for implanting. He contacted a company that makes tools for brain surgery and developed an entire line of pearl nucleating equipment. Once again, the Japanese are the target. "We sell these stands for $275. The Japanese ones go for $500."


In order to decrease the high mortality rate of mussels after implantation, Cross has developed an antibiotic to coat the nucleus. He told me that tests in Tahiti have proven successful.


technique2.gifCross opened a green plastic container with a small mussel inside. The words "California Pearl" were written on the outside. After a bit of surgery on the gonad with a pocket knife, out popped a small kechi pearl.

"We guarantee a pearl in each mussel. We've sold 25,000 of these to a wholesaler. They're going like hotcakes."



Cross agrees with Peach that round pearls are difficult to produce. He, therefore, traveled to Tahiti last year to establish a cooperative program with a black pearl farm. He would supply nuclei in return for the farmer's training Cross' technicians in the art of implanting P. margaritifera. He was aware of the fact that Japanese are usually paid up to $1000 per day for this service, and no Americans had ever nucleated this oyster.

In what must have been one of the most bizarre episodes in history of U.S. aquaculture, four small-town girls from the Marysville area--one of whom had never been on an airplane before--flew 6000 miles to a remote atoll in the Tuamotu Islands where toilets were the outdoor variety, electricity was a sometime thing, and the diet was strictly fish, oysters and lobster. There, in a hut over a blue lagoon, with the guidance of Tahitian Jean Tapu, they implanted several thousand "black lips." One trainee, Tina Frigge, succeeded in nucleating 200 a day--only half of what the best Japanese could do, but a considerable accomplishment. Cross was encouraged.

So encouraged, in fact, that in January of this year he decided to try for a $3 million Agency for International Development (AID) contract for providing assistance to the Cook Islands' budding black pearl industry. He put together a proposal that had the support of Cook Island officials, including Prime Minister Geoff Henry, but because of confusion over where to send the proposal, missed the deadline and was disqualified. He later discovered that the contract was awarded to a company with no previous experience in pearl farming. "I guess the Cook Islanders will have to teach them what to do," he said.


I asked Cross about several dozen colored mabes that were lying on a counter. "Abalone pearls," he said. They were developed by Dr. Peter Fankboner at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He then showed me an article from a trade publication that praised the abalone mabe as a "higher-quality pearl" with "high lustre" and "unusual coloration." The authors concluded: "It is truly a gem for those who love the distinctive and dramatic."(National Jeweler, 1991).

Cross is offering California's 12 abalone farms and Hawaii's one abalone farm a deal which he hopes they can't refuse: he will implant his bead in the abalone for a small fee. After the harvest, six to eight months later, the farmer will get the meat and a share of the income from the gem. Cross will share the pearl income and sell the product on the jewelry market. No farms have signed up yet but interest in the venture has been strong.


Cross has identified a site on the island of Kauai in Hawaii for his next farm. One problem: getting approval from Hawaii's Board of Agriculture to bring a mussel species into the state. He sees this as a combination production farm, nucleating center and tourist attraction. To publicize the venture, he plans to nucleate a Giant clam with a melon-sized bead to produce "The World's Largest Pearl." As offbeat as this may sound, he has already imported several clams from the Marshall Islands and a display is in place at Sea Life Park on Oahu.


Back home in Hawaii. The landscape returned to green. I wanted to visit the Hawaii Cultured Pearl (HCP) facility at the State Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) on the Big Island, but a curtain of secrecy was closed in my face. George Ariyoshi, former Governor of Hawaii and Chief Executive Officer of the company, explained that the venture is still in the "R & D" phase and did not want to divulge any information. Business records, available to the public, indicate the directorship of HCP is a mixture of three local and two Japanese investors. One Japanese is reputed to own a pearl farm; the other is said to have a bead company.

The HCP facility is off-limits to visitors and even NELHA staff. What is known about the company is that they are raising saltwater oysters, probably the Japanese akoya (Pinctada fucata) and the black lip, in a land-based system. To date, most of their efforts appear to be focused on raising a suitable algae in tanks. If their system is successful, it will be--to my knowledge--the only land-based pearl culture system in the world.


Mikimoto handed the keys to the pearl treasure box to his fellow countrymen back in the 1920's, and they have held them ever since. By developing the technology, including the manufacture of the bead, the implanting of that bead, and the grow-out of the mollusk, they have controlled the world pearl market. For 70 years the word has been: "If you want to sell your product, you better talk to the Japanese about growing it." This situation, as we have seen, is changing dramatically.

The pearl farmer, whether Tahitian, Thai or American, now has the ability to grow pearls without Japanese assistance, hence he does not have to go through Japanese channels to sell product. Much of this is due to Cross, who plans to go head-to-head with the Japanese in all phases of pearl production, offering beads, equipment and even implant technology. "My primary goal," says Cross, "Is to take pearl sales away from the Japanese and I will do this by offering whatever assistance is necessary. American pearl farmers will never be able to out produce them, but we can capture their market." Peach and Latendresse agree -- Japanese production is too great. But instead of offering services to farmers around the world, they are going to concentrate on outselling the Japanese in the domestic market. Importantly, the American jewelry industry has been impressed with what they've seen so far. One professional jeweler, in an interview with Jewelers' Circular-Keystone, had this to say:

"It is a unique, central focus item that draws attention, that has good color and luster...Not only is it high-quality and affordable, but it's available in one-of-a-kind colors. With proper marketing, the future looks really good." (Nancy Hartshom, quoted by Reilley, 1990). Any chance that the three Americans could come together for a team effort? Two weeks after my visit, Cross offered an invitation to Peach and Latendresse to visit his farm to discuss areas of mutual cooperation. They accepted. This will hopefully lead to a Cross visit to Tennessee and further exchanges of information among the three men.


The author is grateful to John Latendresse, Jim Peach, Jeff McKee, Paul Cross and Karen Ludeman for their graciousness in allowing me to visit their farms. I would also like to thank Dona Dirlam of the Gemological Institute of America, Robert Todd of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, and the staff of the Aquaculture Development Program.


Bonanno, A. and A. Matlins. April 1991. Coming soon: cultured abalone pearls. National Jeweler. 2p.
Berenblatt, A. November 1,1988. "National Jeweler" tours Tennessee in search of cultured pearls. National Jeweler. 3pp.
Crider, B. May S, 1984. America 's first pearls are hatched in secret places. Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 1p.
Fankboner, P.1991. Pearl culture in abalone. INFOFISH International. April 1991. 4pp.
Gubernick, L August 6, 1990. Shell game. Forbes. 2pp.
Jewelry News Asia. May, 1990. More South Sea but prices rise. 3pp.
Latendresse, J. June 22, 1991. Freshwater cultured pearls. A speech at the International Gemological Symposium, Los Angeles, CA.
Lundstrom, M. November 1, 1987. Cultured pearls from catfish country. The Denver Post. 4pp.
Reilley, B. August, 1990. American pearls: prospects & problems. Jeweler's Circular-Keystone. 7pp.
Ward, F. August 1985 The Pearl. National Geo- graphic. 32pp.
Wood, L. April 1986. Tennessee pearls. Skin Diver. 3pp.
Taburiaux, J. 1986. Pearls, their origin, treatment and identification. Chilton Book Co., Radnor, PA. 247pp.
Today's Aquaculturist. vol. 2, No.1. Bringing new luster to shellfish aquaculture, Tennessee pearl growers challenge Japan. 2pp.


C. Richard Fassler the Economic Development Specialist with the State of Hawaii Aquaculture Development Program. He has been with the program for the past 14 years.


Southern California is pearl harvester's oyster

Entrepreneur Tosses Pearls at Jewel's Feet



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