The Return of the American Pearl
Three Feisty Farmers Take on the Japanese
By C. Richard Fassler
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:
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.
CULTURING THE AMERICAN PEARL
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.
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.
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.
Word 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,
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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!"
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!"
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.
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!"
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.
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
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."
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.
We 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
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.
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.
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).
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
Cross 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.
a pearl in each mussel. We've sold 25,000 of these to a wholesaler.
They're going like hotcakes."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A FARM IN HAWAII
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.
HAWAII CULTURED PEARL, INC.
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.
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.
THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
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.
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
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
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
AND ARTICLES OF INTEREST
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
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
Reilley, B. August, 1990. American pearls: prospects & problems. Jeweler's
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
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