Little h. unique pearl jewelry

Judging the Annual International Pearl Design Competition of the Cultured Pearl Association of America

Judging the Annual International Pearl Design Competition of the Cultured Pearl Association of America

NEW YORK. Last Wednesday, I took part in what has become an eight-year-old annual tradition among pearl enthusiasts, the International Pearl Design Competition from the Cultured Pearl Association of America.

It was my third or fourth time serving as a judge, and as usual, it was super fun. My dear friend and fellow pearl fan, Kathy Grenier, the marketing director of the CPAA and vice president of business development for Imperial Pearl, usually enlists me to participate since she knows that I share her passion for pearls. Something about that luster draws us to the organic gems, and their backstories are the best in all of jewelry: beautiful pearls grow in typically pristine ocean and lake environments around the world, and the pearl industry offers employment to myriad individuals who treasure the environment as much as the farm owners. As Jacque Christophe Branellec, a principal at Jewelmer, told me several years ago when I visited his farms in the Philippines, “The pearl farm could not operate without a healthy community and environment.”

Pearl shot from

Pearl shot from


Pearls have a long and storied history worldwide as a beloved gem among ruling classes, a status that has ebbed and flowed over centuries. In the U.S., pearls hit their stride after World War II when American soldiers returned home from war with Japan with akoya strands in hand for loved ones. Those bland white strands went on to both champion and sully the pearls’ image stateside for decades. Today, after years of growing innovations and investment by farmers, pearls are anything but boring, but that is an ideology espoused only by in-the-know pearl disciples. For sure, pearls are a niche product within jewelry that elicit strong feelings of either adoration or intense meh—there’s truly no in between.

The CPAA’s annual contest serves to inspire both sides—hard-core fans and belittlers alike—through creative designs where the pearl is center stage. And we’re not talking the boring white strand; pearls of all types are celebrated here, from coins to baroques to carved pearls and more. Like the wedding ring category, it takes big inventiveness to create memorable pearl designs.

Judges included myself; designer and past winner Brenda Smith; designer Deirdre Featherstone; Jean Francois Bibet, workshop director of production for Cartier in the U.S.; and fellow journalists Severine Ferrari of and Cheryl Kremkow of

Judges for the 2017-2018 CPAA design contest, from left: Cheryl Kremkow; Brenda Smith; Kathy Grenier; Deirdre Featherstone; yours truly; and Severine Ferrari

Judges for the 2017-2018 CPAA International Pearl Design Competition, from left: Cheryl Kremkow; Brenda Smith; Kathy Grenier; Deirdre Featherstone; yours truly; and Severine Ferrari


As usual, there were a lot of entries—134 to be exact—from all over the world. According to Bo Perry, who organizes the contest for CPAA, entries come from dozens of countries (19 this year) in the form of sketches, CAD-CAM drawings, or photos if pieces are already made (they needn’t be for this contest). Winners are typically asked to make pieces for display at future trade fairs. Judges consider entries based on uniqueness of design, wearability (Will it be comfortable to wear?), salability (Will somebody want to buy it?), and perceived comfort of wear and/or aesthetic upon completion (not always easy to estimate).

To judge more efficiently, we paired up with a person whose skills complement our own. My partner? Deirdre, a thoughtful, laidback, motorcycle-riding master platinum-smith with long blond locks who makes dreamy one-of-a-kinds for a devoted clientele and who would never be mistaken for a minimalist (hint: she wears a lot of what she makes). Deirdre is also known for her design chops, having won 10 American Gem Trade Association Spectrum Awards (a tony and high-profile design contest run by a trade group that represents ethical and high-end American colored stone dealers) in just four years.

Sitting side by side, judges pore through hundreds of pages of designs (entrants can submit up to five views per piece) to narrow down selections to a minimum of 20. Being a seasoned jewelry market editor—which means looking at lots of jewelry every day—I only selected about 26 pieces. To me, this small lot represented the most remarkable or uncommon designs submitted. Deirdre and I talked about the merits of possible construction and aesthetics (she loves bold animal motifs, but I’m less of a fan because they limit the appeal of pieces to specific tastes), and while we agreed on many selections, our final choices were not identical. After each judge’s list was complete, Bo placed all the images of selected items on a long table and handed us criteria for category selections. This is where all the opinions in the room collided, and the judging process got trickier! But compared to years past, this process went much more quickly because so many of the judges agreed with each other about certain pieces from the start.

We debated for about an hour and a half on winning designs across nine categories, including fashion, fantasy, bridal, and more. During discussions, the finer points of finishing are noted (according to Deirdre, the use of French wires in earrings “means that the person doesn’t understand finishing”), as is the pretty factor—is the piece good looking? Granted, this is a hugely subjective term, but it’s still talked about since the pearl-loving public will scrutinize our picks. In the end, we chose the nine styles that we could best agree on across the different categories, selecting a top President’s Trophy piece by a unanimous vote.

At the time, Bo and Kathy weren’t sure if the winning pieces would be manufactured due to myriad reasons within the organization, so we’ll have to stay tuned for word on that. As for the winning pieces and their makers, they have not yet been announced. Again, stay tuned.

Jennifer Heebner LLC

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