DISTRIBUTION OF POLYNESIAN BLACK PEARLS
Currently culturing in Polynesia is carried out on privately owned pearl farms like the Rosenthals’ or on pearl cooperatives. While there are many farms that produce less than 200 pearls annually, 24 farms have an annual production of over 5,000 cultured pearls. The farms tend to be more successful than the cooperatives because of the financial resources with which they are backed.
The cooperatives were established in 1971 by the Fisheries with loans from the Societe de Credit d Oceanie (SOCREDO) so that each atoll would have its own pearl-culturing industry. In 1988, there were approximately 40 cooperatives with 1,145 members. These cooperatives were reorganized in 1989 into 157 smaller family groups in an effort to improve production [M. Coeroli, pers. comm., 1989).
The cultured pearls are sold either through private sales or auctions. Most of the material produced on the farms is sold privately to pearl wholesalers and major jewelry companies. However, approximately 40% of the total production each year is sold at auction. Auctions are usually held once a year, in October. They are coordinated by EVAAM and GIE Poe Rava Nui, the two government agencies that oversee the pearl-culturing cooperatives (M. Coeroli, pers. comm,, 19891. These pearl auctions give the cooperatives the opportunity to help repay their government loans. They have also been important in making the international public and jewelry community more aware of Polynesian cultured black pearls.
The auctions are held in private, by invitation only, in Papeete, Tahiti. At the 1988 auction, 107 participants (co-ops and independent farms) presented their goods to an invited audience. The pearls were divided into lots of different pearl sizes and quantities. After examining the various pearls in a lot, buyers make specific offers for the particular lots in which they are interested. At the 1988 sale, approximately 70 lots were offered, with total sales exceeding $2 million (almost 10 times the total amount exported the first year the auction was held, 1981). In addition, 515 kg of “lzeshi” pearls, a by-product of culturing (figure 21), were sold (Cazassus, 1989).
In 1984, the principal buyers at auction were:
- Japanese, 30%;
- U.S., 30%; and
- Swiss, 30%; with
- France and other countries, 10%.
- By 1988, the market was such that 84% of the production sold at auction went to Japanese buyers, with the remainder sold primarily to Tahitian jewelers [Cazassus, 1989).
It is important to remember that natural-color cultured black pearls have been commercially available for less than 20 years. Production has risen rapidly during this period (table 1)) yet it appears that demand still exceeds supply. In Japan, in particular, demand increased sharply in the second half of 1988 and continues to rise [Chun, 1989)
The great popularity of black pearls today can be directly attributed to the marketing efforts of two large companies, Assael International and Golay Buchel Inc. ‘almost single-handedly popularized the natural color Tahitian black pearl” (Federman, 1987). In the 1960s, he worked with Jean-Claude Brouillet, owner of the S. Marutea Atoll, to develop a viable black-pearl culturing operation. Eventually, they produced as many as 22,000 cultured pearls per harvest. Backed by this production, in the early pearls directly to the jewelry industry, bypassing the traditional Japanese distribution system. Not only did he and Brouillet promote their pearls to tourists throughout French Polynesia, but they also wrote articles, placed advertisements in magazines around the world, and convinced major companies such as Harry Winston and Van Cleef and Arpels to include black cultured pearls in their inventories of fine jewels (figure 22).
Today, Assael continues to be a major force in the marketing of blaclz cultured pearls, along with other distributors
such as Golay Buchel, who plays the prominent role in the important Japanese market (A. Goetz, pers. comm., 1989).
Another key factor in raising the public’s awareness of black pearls has been the jewelry auctions held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In 1969, a three-row strand of 141 blaclz pearls sold for $168,000. Ever since, single pearls or pearl necklaces have been a routine item in the “magnificent jewelry” auctions. In October 1988, a double strand of blaclz and gray cultured pearls sold at Sotheby’s New York for $649,000 (figure 23). The threestrand necklace in figure 1 sold for $880,000 at Christie’s October 24, 1989, auction in New York.
Pearls are marketed in Tahiti through different jewelry stores, some owned by the pearl producers themselves. For example, the Tahiti Pearl Center and Museum in Papeete is owned by Robert Wan, currently the largest producer of blaclz cultured pearls. The museum not only sells pearl jewelry, but also educates through videos, photos, and displays. Most hotels display pearls and pearl jewelry, thus exposing travelers to the gem.
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