Summary
I had a recent phone call with pearl expert Jim Grahl to talk about the esoteric world of natural pearls. A major player in bringing cultured Tahitian pearls to the American public, he switched gears and become a prominent authority on natural pearls. Read about the difficulties and delights of working with natural pearls and learn why pearl education is so essential.
Reading time: 8 min

Sometimes a simple design will best highlight a pearl’s natural beauty. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

Becoming a Natural Pearl Expert

How did you get your start with pearls?

Oh my God, this goes all the way back to the 60s! I was party to a meeting with Gump’s and Mikimoto. Robert Wan was there too. This was before he started culturing Tahitian pearls, just anticipating the possibility of it. It was just one of those fortuitous things. I was young and had no sense of the scale of the meeting at the time.

Then, in the late 70s, Tahitian pearls really started. They turned to the only American designer they were aware of. Within a few years, Tahitian pearls really took off.

So much has changed since then. I’ve learned so much.

Tahitian pearls jewelry design for Robert Wan

Jim Grahl designed this special set of Tahitian pearl jewelry for Robert Wan to display in his Hawaii store. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

I wouldn’t have guessed that you got your start with Tahitian pearls!

Well, it’s really, when you know nothing about pearls and then you see Tahitian pearls, you’re stunned. Their colors are really amazing, and at the time they were brand new to the market. With the research and development of these pearls, they really got popular.

There was a lot going on in those years. Growers were still experimenting with cultivation in Tahiti. I got a healthy, in-depth education into the process as they were innovating.

How did you pivot from cultured pearls into natural pearls?

Natural pearls are entirely different. Early on, I didn’t deal in natural pearls at all. There’s a small market for them, so there’s little income. If it doesn’t generate income, it’s not a design priority.

I really started in the mid-2000s. There was a meeting with Dr. Tom Stern, who was a philanthropist in the Philippines. He did surgery in some of the remote areas of the Philippines and was actually crowned Prince of Sulu. One of the things he was responsible for was the natural pearl industry and finding a market for natural pearls.

We’re both water guys, both into long distance swimming, and really share a love of the water. So, we hit it off, and with natural pearls, it’s like a whole new world opened up.

There are still people who dive for pearls in the Philippines, who find natural pearls in the Sulu Sea. It’s really something.

With pearls, every day is an education. It’s an ongoing thing. There’s always new innovation, exploration, and for me there’s always joy. Natural pearls are something I’m really passionate about.

This natural pink pearl is one-of-a-kind. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

Finding and Vetting Natural Pearls

What do you look for in a natural pearl?

Whether it’s natural or cultured, it’s really the same qualities. You look at the luster, color, shape. Size is important, too. But it’s different for natural pearls, they usually aren’t so big. Pearls from the Pinctada mollusks can have some size, though.

Then, for natural pearls, there’s vetting. What labs have looked at it? What tests did they do, and how do you know you can trust their expertise? I always go for a minimum of two lab reports. Labs can make mistakes. It’s happened before. There were a lot of projects early on where we relied on one report. Then we cut the pearl in half and there was a bead nucleus inside.

Oh no! So, how do you find actual natural pearls?

Most of the natural pearls on the market today come from estates. It’s not that new pearls aren’t available, it’s just different from cultured. There are only a handful.

You can spend months looking. People around the world know that natural pearls are rare and expensive. Vendors can sell a pearl as natural, but if buyers don’t have an x-ray machine, they won’t know what’s inside.

But natural pearls are available if you look. Most of it is pre-Mikimoto era pieces of jewelry with historical documentation. The documentation is important. If there’s a paper trail that reaches back before Mikimoto started culturing pearls, then you can be sure they’re natural.

birthing charm

This birthing charm features a natural pearl. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

After so many years, has the quality of these antique natural pearls diminished?

They usually look great! Back before cultured pearls, pearl jewelry was hugely expensive. People were buying a luxury item and treated their pearls well.

Before the turn of the 20th century, pearls were worth more per carat than diamonds. They were an item for the ultra-rich. In the mid to late 1800s, a piece of pearl jewelry could go for about $15,000. In today’s money, that would be about $2-3 million.

So people would really take care of their pearls, and they’re usually still in good shape.

Pearls in Jewelry Design

You seem to use pearls in a lot of your custom jewelry pieces. What draws you to designing with pearls?

Well, for one thing, it’s fun! You’re working, for the most part, with a sphere. It’s always interesting to think about how you’re gonna take a ball and focus on it. In the end, it’s about adding value for the end user. How do you make this sphere into something more beautiful and more valuable?

And another thing is that there’s a perfect pearl for any budget. I do some jewelry with natural pearls, of course, but I mostly use cultured pearls. With the pearls coming out of China nowadays, you can get a cheap pearl. Getting to this point has taken over a century, but it’s really amazing.

And whether you have a cheap or expensive pearl, you have something beautiful.

golden pearls jewelry set

This set of golden pearl jewelry accentuates the round shape. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

Do you have any advice for people starting out in the pearl business?

As far as jewelry design, it’s really about working with a sphere. It’s an interesting exploration, and there’s no wrong way to do it. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

But it also serves you well if the end user understands that this is an organic gem. Especially for natural pearls. Understanding that it’s fragile, a lot like opal. A century ago, people understood that these are fragile gems and really took care of them.

Now, we have cultured pearls, and they’re replaceable. If they get damaged, you can get another. There are tons of pearls made every year.

Natural pearls are completely different. There’s no replacing them. They’re unique. Their shape, color, luster, origin — there’s a whole host of reasons why duplication isn’t possible. Trying to find just a pair of natural pearls for earrings can put the cost in the millions. So making sure the end user understands how unique natural pearls are is really essential.

Pearl Education and the Natural Pearl Society

Getting back to the essence of the question. The best advice I can give is to read. Get educated. Most people in the design world don’t have a background in pearls, and it’s so important to understand them. Reading about the background and history of pearling is fascinating and really helps you understand their value.

A few years back, I started the Natural Pearl Society, Societe des Perles Finas, to try to improve natural pearl education. We really want to expand on it. All the auction houses support it, too. They want a more educated public. Today, cultured pearls are the norm, while naturals are anomalies. So, we want to increase exposure for natural pearls. There’s lots of contemporary information that needs to be clarified and put out there.

A natural pearl is really an item that has to be represented in a certain way to get the most out of it. It’s beautiful, of course, but you have to understand its rarity to really respect its value. Since cultured pearls came on the scene, the recognized value of natural pearls has diminished.

natural pearl - pearl expert

The Natural Pearl Society aims to increase education and awareness of natural pearls like this one. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.

Pearls That Amaze a Pearl Expert

Have there been any pearls that have completely taken your breath away?

[Laughing] I actually have to go with a trite, cheesy response here. It happens so often. Any fine natural pearl does that. Some amazing cultured pearls do, too.

Right now, I’m working with a really amazing specimen. It’s big, 35 carats. I’m working with a lab to date it. It’s a few thousand years old but still in good shape. It’s really been well-kept.

For an old pearl, it’s really beautiful in its way. It’s baroque, but the luster is beautiful and intact. For such an old pearl to keep its beauty is rare.

When it comes to pearls, there’s beauty, there’s rarity, and, really, there’s a sense of appreciation for something in nature.

Somewhere in the ocean, there’s a little mollusk creating something beautiful.

frosty

Not every pearl is perfectly round. “Frosty” was a natural design for this unusual double pearl. © J. Grahl Design. Used with permission.