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Pearls & the Pandemic: American Dealers Weigh In on How COVID-19 Is Affecting Business

New York City. Feb. 4, 2021. Anil Maloo rarely sells pearl jewelry direct to consumers (his business is wholesale), but he’s using his ecommerce capabilities to inspire retailers to set up their own, especially during COVID-19 times.

“Shoppers want to look online and then come to stores,” explains the owner of Baggins Pearls. “Retailers have to have an online presence because this pandemic is not over. Without online sales, they’re missing out.”

For sure, the pandemic has altered quite a few realities for American merchants. For example, without trade shows like the American Gem Trade Association’s GemFair Tucson and Las Vegas or any shows in Hong Kong, an international destination for pearl shoppers, stateside pearl dealers and jewelry makers are scrambling to find new ways to see pearls and then show goods to clients. Photos and videos are good tools, but they can never replace the sight, touch, and feel of live inventory inspections; the few virtual auctions that have happened were a gamble for both buyers and sellers, leading to disappointments on both ends.

“I can’t tell from a picture how good the pearls are,” says Sonny Sethi, CEO, TARA Pearls.

Problems & Opportunities

Because of the lack of shows, U.S. pearl sellers are largely relying on established relationships with farmers to ship goods to offices for private scrutiny. It’s a move that’s working out okay for many, including TARA, Imperial Pearl, Baggins, Mastoloni, and Hanadama, but it’s not ideal for those who sell specialty goods like Eliko Pearl. Its business DNA is selling unusual items like blue akoya strands and Maki-e or mosaic pearls, items that mainly are snapped up by founder Aziz Basalely on monthly buying trips to Asia. Those haven’t happened for upwards of a year. Another downside during the pandemic? Longer shipping times.

TARA Inventory Blowout Sale 40% Off Wholesale Prices for the Trade

“What used to take three days now takes a week,” says Maloo.

At farms themselves, production is mixed. Logistics—including a lack of technicians to seed oysters and difficulty getting supplies to remote islands—amidst the pandemic have slowed down harvests. Results include higher prices for what is available to sell. “The situation created by the pandemic has exaggerated decreased production of very fine gem-quality pearls, causing price increases,” says Christina Lang Assael, president and CEO of Assael.

A universal issue for dealers is sharing new collections with retailers once new stock is obtained. Again, because of the absence of trade fairs, merchants are left to sell via images, video, and shipping. “It’s very difficult to meet with our customers and share our newest collections,” observes Ray Mastoloni, co-owner, Mastoloni Pearls.

A silver lining in this international debacle? A need for cash has inspired farmers to offer up special purchase opportunities on top-quality pearls stashed away for a rainy day, a move from which Assael has benefited. “Some farmers are pulling rare pearls out of their safes, offering them at below-market prices for speedy transactions.”

Eliko Pearl has specialty pearls of all types, including Maki-e mosaic pearls, faceted pearls, and blue akoyas.

Pearl Availability & Prices

Because of limited virtual auctions—which don’t pull in the same amount of revenue as live ones—all varieties of high-quality pearls are tough to get.

In Tahitian pearls, prices of 8–10 mm are soft and represent a good value. Larger goods have become scarce and prices have climbed upwards of 30 percent. “Tahitians that are 12 mm and up in dark colors are nonexistent in the marketplace,” says Basalely.

In white South Sea, prices have increased as much as 40 percent. According to Michel Tarna, director of Hanadama Pearls, fewer auctions and buying events make available goods “that much more rare and valuable.”

Basalely agrees. “There are no bargains or deals in white South Seas.”

Meanwhile, Maloo sees a bright spot in the South Sea arena: golden pearls. “They’re a good value,” he says, despite limited Indonesian auctions.

Akoya pearls may represent the best purchase opportunities today, with dealers citing steady supply and demand—a fact supported by a recent poll of members of the Cultured Pearl Association of America, a large number of whom reveal strong akoya sales and interest among buyers.

Basalely notes a steady supply and demand for 7 mm akoyas, though good deals are to be had on 8–9.5 mm sizes. “Prices are soft,” he says. “I’m paying 25 percent less than I would have three years ago.” Assael, too, recognizes their value and feels that prices can only increase. “Their wearability alone makes them a great purchase,” she says.

A Pearl Moment

Supply and sourcing issues aside, there’s no doubt that pearls are still having a fashionable moment. From the myriad power pearls worn by recently elected U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to the fashion industry’s ongoing love affair with them as accessories, pearls remain a fixture in the press.

Both classic and fashion-forward styles have been selling. Assael notes an increase in requests for strands, while TARA’s Sethi has observed sales of basics of top quality. “At Christmas, people were buying finer goods,” he says.

Baggins virtually owns the market for fashion-forward baby akoya jewels thanks to a Vietnamese pearl farmer in the family. And given Maloo’s affinity for making layerable styles, prices of his inventory remain accessible and appealing.

Regardless of style, a common suggestion among interviewees is to buy the best quality you can. “Top-quality pearls are always a good bet, especially when there is market volatility,” adds Tarna.

Kathy Grenier recognizes the sage advice. The vice president of business development for Imperial Pearl has been fielding retailer calls for custom jobs during the pandemic as well as help sprucing up clients’ family pearl heirlooms.

“I think people are seeing pearls in the news and remembering, ‘Hey, I have pearls and haven’t worn them in years.’”

Natural-color blue akoya strands start at $750 triple keystone, Eliko Pearl; email mail@elikopearl.com for purchase

Natural-color blue akoya strands start at $750 triple keystone, Eliko Pearl; email mail@elikopearl.com for purchase

Earrings in 18k yellow gold with 7.5-8 mm Akoya pearls and 0.35 ct. t.w. diamonds, $1,900; email bagginsinc@sbcglobal.net at Baggins for purchase

Earrings in 18k yellow gold with 7.5-8 mm Akoya pearls and 0.35 ct. t.w. diamonds, $1,900; email bagginsinc@sbcglobal.net at Baggins for purchase

Floating pearl cocktail ring in 18k yellow gold with a 13–13.5 mm white South Sea pearl and 0.26 ct. t.w. diamonds, $4,400; email dan@mastoloni.com at Mastoloni for purchase

Floating pearl cocktail ring in 18k yellow gold with a 13–13.5 mm white South Sea pearl and 0.26 ct. t.w. diamonds, $4,400; email dan@mastoloni.com at Mastoloni for purchase

Editor’s Note: This author works part time for the
Cultured Pearl Association of America.

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