The History of Pearls in China
The delicate beauty of pearls has fascinated mankind since the dawn of time. Both primitive tribes and advanced civilizations have cherished the aesthetically pure shape of the pearl representing a special appreciation of art. From early in the history of mankind, the pearl has been a treasure-a symbol of wealth, power, and prestige as well as an object of devotion and respect.
The oldest Chinese history book, the Shui ging, mentions "strings of not completely round pearls" that were given to the great emperor Yu in the third millennium BC. Thus natural firewater or saltwater pearls were collected and used a long time ago in China. The Chinese are considered today as the inventors of the cultured pearl.
Regular small production of started as early as the 12th century. But Chinese ancient pearl cultivating techniques had never made pearl industry reach a height, and then came to a full stop at the end of 1900s. This marked by the disappearance of saltwater pearl-producing oysters in Hepu, Guangxi, China.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very wealthy. Inspired by Chinese ancient pearl cultivating techniques, the Japanese discovered the secret of pearl culturing and created the heart of modern pearl culturing technology: inserting a piece of oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of the mantle tissue) with the nucleus of a shell or piece of metal into the oyster's body.
The mantle causes the tissue to form a pearl sack. The sack will then secrete nacre to coat the nucleus and create a pearl. Since 1916 pearl culturing technology has been successfully developed in Japan and shared worldwide. Eventually, cultured seawater pearls and cultured freshwater pearls became mass-produced. This makes pearl jewelry affordable and available to virtually anyone in the world.
A Culture of Freshwater Pearls in China
China started culturing freshwater pearls in 1968. It had all the resources that Japan lacked: a huge land mass; countless available lakes, rivers, and irrigation ditches; a limitless low-cost work force; and an almost desperate need for hard currency. Chinese production of freshwater pearls very soon startled the gem world. But China's reputation as a producer among the public remained trivial because Chinese freshwater pearls were call "Rice Pearls" for their odd shape and low quality, which did not leave a good impression on the minds of the consumer.
As the Biwa production in Japan diminished, China filled the vacuum. World's freshwater pearl production is overwhelmingly from China. But Chinese freshwater pearls could in no way compete with the best from Lake Biwa by 1980s. Another reason is, there is still no brand name of Chinese freshwater pearls on international pearl market. Fortunately, the bulk production of Chinese freshwater pearls is going steadily beyond that of commercial quality since then. The new qualities and colors from China are indication of better things to come. Chinese are striving to build brand name internationally for their pearls.
Akoya Pearls in China
It was nearly 45 years ago that the first Akoya pearl was harvested in China more than 50 years after the Japanese. The first Chinese pearls were harvested in the Guanxi province, in the city of Behai. This city is still today a well-known Akoya pearl center. By the 1960s the Chinese farmers were experimenting with oyster hatcheries, and pearl farms were beginning to appear in cities along the coast of Guanxi, Hainan and Zhejiang.
Just the same as freshwater pearls, Chinese Akoya pearl production came across setback because of severe pollution and decrease of culturing time during 70s-80s. By 1995, although the production jumped up, the quality was not very high and could not create a brand name yet. Today, the pearl is without a doubt a treasure valued far beyond its worth as an object of fashion.
The Prospect of China's Pearls
Currently, there is a great change for freshwater pearls and Akoya pearls in China. The shine and luster are a testament to the new skills and methods adapted by the Chinese. Big, near-round and round freshwater pearls come out with a variety of colors and overtones; lustrous Akoya pearls are of much thicker nacre. Moreover, Chinese pearl jewelers have had an aware that it is urgent to create international brand names for their pearl jewelry products. Today we see a much brighter future for the China pearls.