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The moment Douglas McLaurin unwrapped a parcel of his pearls for me, I was sold. The bright, unusual colors were absolutely captivating: unlike anything I’d ever seen. Just when you think you think you’ve seen everything in pearls, they surprise you. Most people have never heard of these pearls due to their rarity and extremely limited production, but once upon a time, they were among the most sought-after gems in the world. They are Sea of Cortez pearls – the ones most have never heard of.



Natural dark pearls from the Gulf of California struck Spanish Conquistadors like a thunderbolt. For more than three centuries, these pearls were Baja’s most valuable exports to Europe – eclipsing both silver and gold. But overfishing nearly led to the extinction of the rainbow lip – the shell responsible for these gems. 


For decades, many attempts were made to revive the pearl industry with modern pearliculture techniques, but none were wholly successful until Douglas McLaurin’s farm, Perlas del Mar de Cortez, began operations in the early 1990s.


Sea of Cortez pearls are often referred to as black pearls that aren’t really black, but shades of pale to dark gray with a palette of unusual and unique overtones such as violet, lime green, sky blue, pale to intense rose, purple and even red. 


The Sea of Cortez peal farm


Douglas McLaurin's Sea of Cortez


The pearls can be positively identified when exposed to long-wave UV fluorescence. They glow with a light rosy pink to blood red fluorescence. As Douglas says, “Ours are the only dark pearls that fluoresce (glow) differently under long-wave UV light – white pearls fluoresce blue-green, while Tahitian pearls do not fluoresce at all. Cortez pearls fluoresce from a light pink color for very light pearls, to a deep, blood-red for the darkest pearls. It’s like having a 100% natural, built-in identification method.”


Sea of Cortez pearl under UV lighting

Adding to these pearls’ reputation among pearl enthusiasts is their above-average nacre thickness and the farm’s zero-tolerance policy for color and luster treatments. Douglas says, “We oppose all forms of treatments: no bleaching, dyeing, polishing … nada, zero, zilch, nothing should be done to our pearls. Either they are beautiful in their own right, or they’re not worth considering.” He imposes a strict 0.8 mm minimum nacre thickness standard on all pearls released for sale, similar to that of Tahitian pearls, and most of the pearls exceed that by two to four millimeters. But what truly causes these pearls to stand apart are their colors – unique to the pearl world.


Rainbow gradient on Sea of Cortez pearl

The farm produces mabé and whole, bead-nucleated cultured pearls using the Pteria sterna, or rainbow-lipped pearl oyster. His prized mabé pearls are extremely limited in production – only 2-4,000 mabé pearls are produced each year. The list of authorized dealers in the United States is likewise limited: Columbia Gem House in Washington,, and most recently, which began offering a limited collection of whole and mabé pearl pendants and earrings just this year.


Sea of Cortez mabe perhaps the rarest in the world


The year 2000 marked his first commercial harvest of whole pearls, so they are relative newcomers to the cultured pearl market. The annual production of the farm is limited, producing fewer than 4,000 pearls. The small harvest size means that coveted items such as full-matched necklaces are difficult to come by and command premium prices. Douglas claims, “If we match them by color, creating a gem quality necklace might take 15-20 years, maybe even 30 years for colors like red or blue. If we just match them by size, shape, luster and quality and make them multi-colored strands, then we’re talking four to five years.”


Bacochibampo Pearl Necklace

When asked to describe his favorite aspect of pearls, Douglas’ enthusiasm is evident. “For me, it’s orient – especially when it’s truly outspoken. The usual description for orient is ‘the delicate play of colors that is seen around the pearl.’ That’s simply too bland for me. I like it when pearls are caught in it, flaring in emerald green or in a vivid violet and the pearl seems like a rainbow. This is heaven.”


I couldn’t agree more – I am in love with his pearls already.


To read my full interview with Douglas McLaurin, visit the blog.




Ashley McNamara, CEO of Ashley has been working in the jewellery industry for over 14 years and is a GIA graduate wh​o has extensive experience grading and appraising cultured pearls.

You can contact her at or through her blog.



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Wedding and festive seasons have begun in India and jewelers here are once again gearing up to meet the demand which they expect to grow this year after a couple of slump years in the recent past. Will they do better than last year’s ‘Dark Diwali’ with jewellery sales about 30% down?


Providing figures of the second quarter of 2014, the World Gold Council (WGC) says, “Global demand for gold has slumped in the second quarter of 2014 because jewellery purchases decreased. The gold demand was about 16% down in comparison with the same period in 2013 and 10.2% lower than the first quarter of 2014.”


“Besides the last two quarters of 2013, this was the lowest level of demand since the end of 2009. The main reason was that jewellery sales fell 30% compared with the same period in 2013. Second quarter is in India is considered “traditionally to be a quieter quarter for jewellery” but during last two quarter, demand this year is likely to pick-up,’ WGC said.


Country Manager India, Platinum Guild International Ms. Vaishali Banerjee is quite hopeful about platinum jewellery demand during festive and wedding seasons. She says, “As per the Retail Trade Barometer conducted earlier this year, retailers are bullish about platinum in 2014 and have estimated a 35% growth. Though the industry is hoping for a good season, but thus far the overall jewellery market is quite subdued and we will need to see how the season unfolds.”


Platinum is a symbolic piece of jewellery bought at key milestone occasions in the consumer’s life. From our past experience we have seen that no matter how subdued the consumer sentiment is precious moments are always celebrated. And some of these moments will belong to platinum. So we are certain that the coming season will see a growth in platinum sales,” she adds.

Indian jewelers gearing up for festive season

Indian jewelers gearing up for festive season


The Jewellers Association of Ahmedabad (JAA) is also gearing up to encourage jewellery lovers to buy more jewellery this season. The Association has organized a ‘Swarna Mahotsav’ (Gold Festival) during October this season after a gap of ten years. JAA president Mr. Shantibhai Patel says,

"We are quite worried due to the prevailing market conditions but we are still hopeful that the jewellery demand would increase during Diwali festive period. Keeping in mind international markets, we have also planned to give discounts and special gifts on shopping of a specific amount to our customers."


The Jewellers Association of Ahmedabad (JAA) is also gearing up to encourage jewellery lovers to buy more jewellery this season. The Association has organized a ‘Swarna Mahotsav’ (Gold Festival) during October this season after a gap of ten years. JAA president Mr. Shantibhai Patel says,

"We are quite worried due to the prevailing market conditions but we are still hopeful that the jewellery demand would increase during Diwali festive period. Keeping in mind international markets, we have also planned to give discounts and special gifts on shopping of a specific amount to our customers."


Director of one of India’s leading jewellers Popley Group, Mr. Rajiv Popley says,

“With the wedding and festival season on, the second half of the current calendar year is expected to boost jewellery demand further. Buyers prefer investments in gold during the festivity which is also very auspicious. With the onset of Ganesh Chaturthi buyers are on shopping spree and this sentiment continues till auspicious occasion of Diwali as festival shopping picks up with pace. This year we expect gold demand to be higher than last year by around 15%. Orders have already started to pick up and advanced orders have been placed for gold jewellery for delivery during auspicious occasion.”


Talking about the trends this season, Mr. Popley says, 

“Demand for gold and diamond jewellery and other gold products is expected be quite robust during the ongoing festival and wedding season as consumers who have deferred purchases for a while are stepping up buying. Buyers are looking for investment in plain gold jewellery, which is the trend this season.”


So wedding and festive seasons have rekindled hopes of Indian jewellers and this year they are expecting to at least wipe out the losses they had made last year.



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Blue diamonds are among the rarest of gems. Those that have the proper color, clarity, cut and size are considered to be extraordinary. I took a look at a very special piece.


There have been a few recent finds of blue diamonds the past few years but they remain an extremely uncommon occurrence. Suzette Gomes, CEO of Cora International, assures me that the “Blue Moon” diamond is one such stone that deserves all the accolades that comes with a diamond that appears “once in a blue moon.” The diamond will make its first and likely only public appearance at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in an exhibition from September 13 – January 6.


Gomes said what separates this diamond from so many of its peers are its color saturation and shade, its clarity and its size. The Gemological Institute of America has given the 12-carat cushion-cut gem a color grading of “fancy vivid” with an “internally flawless” clarity grading.

Blue Moon

The Blue Moon. | Photo credit: Cora International/Tino Hammid


In addition, its color was further tested under ultraviolet light by the Smithsonian Institution under the supervision of Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection. The trace element Boron within the carbon structure of the stone is responsible for the color of a blue diamond. Boron also produces unique phosphorescence red glow under ultraviolet light.


The test on the Blue Moon produced an orangey-red glow for 20 seconds, longer than most blue diamonds, showing that the blue is true and saturated throughout the stone with no other colors—such as grey, which is common for blue diamonds, Gomes said.


“That for us was a big thing because it gives you the purity of the diamond,” Gomes said on the other side of a desk with the Blue Moon between us inside Cora’s office in New York. “Other blues also glow phosphor red but it doesn’t last as long.”


Another thing that makes this diamond interesting is that it was a recent discovery. The Blue Moon was produced from a 29.62-carat rough diamond unearthed at the Cullinan mine in South Africa in January. The mine is known for producing the most blue diamonds in the world but these gems still only account for 0.1 percent of its total diamond output, Gomes said.


Cora acquired the rough for approximately $26 million in February and finished the piece three weeks ago.


The fact that the origin of the diamond is known makes this special as well, Gomes said.


“A lot of time with diamonds you don’t know what the origin is,”

she said.

“Someone has a one-carat vivid blue that their grandmother had and nobody knows where it comes from.”


Gomes refuses to discuss its value and will not compare it to other stones. The largest known fancy vivid, flawless diamond (one grade over the IF clarity grade the Blue Moon received) is a pear-shaped, 13.22-carat stone purchased by Harry Winston for $23.8 million at Christie’s Geneva in April. Renamed the “Winston Blue,” the nearly

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,800-per-carat price paid is a world record for a blue diamond.



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I recently went to my local hardware store to buy the supplies I need to replace a torn widow screen. With the tools, materials and screen cut to order I expected to pay around $25. I shop at this store almost weekly. They are the last locally owned and operated hardware store in my town and I try to support my neighbours. I expect to pay a bit more but I enjoy the personal attention that only a small local business can provide. Big box stores can’t compete with that level of service...or so I thought.


On my way into the store I received a warm, friendly welcome from the cashiers. I walked past four salesmen as they were huddled together swapping stories and telling jokes. I waited at the service counter as they continued their conversation. I decided to time how long it would take for one of them to notice me. After about four and a half minutes, another customer approached the group requesting service. A salesman led him to the service counter to take care of him. Finally noticing me, I was told that I would be helped once he finished with the other customer’s rather long and complex order.


So I left and went to the only other option, the dreaded big box store. As soon as I walked in a nice young lady greeted me and asked what I needed. She escorted me to the proper location asking me questions the whole time: What size screen? Do you need tools and supplies? Is it hot outside today? When we got to the screen department she handed me a pre-packaged kit with everything I needed including enough screen to do the repair 2 more times. I was back in my car in less than five minutes for a total price of $8.95!


What does this have to do with jewellery? The answer is everything! Local independent jewellers in the U.S. must compete with low prices at Costco and Sam’s Club for bridal jewellery. Walmart dominates the low-end fashion market. Blue Nile and other large online retailers are virtual big boxes. And they all want your customer.

Big box-1, local retailer-0

Don't forget the basics


The only way for a small local store to survive in a world of big box pricing and shop-at-home convenience is with exceptional, over the top service that exceeds the customer’s expectations. This needs to be directed at every person that walks through the door. You cannot afford to lose even one customer to the rising tides of mass-markets and big boxes, especially now that some of them are starting to understand the power of a good customer experience.


My local hardware store lost a customer of sixteen years by not meeting my expectations. The big box beat them on every count with friendly helpful service, speed of transaction, and a low price. Don’t let this happen to you. The most precious gems that you can have are good customers but you need to work hard to keep them. To be one of the surviving small jewellers you’ll have to be one of the best at customer service.



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     Freshwater pearls have reinvented themselves yet again. No longer confined to the low-end status of ‘Rice Krispie’ pearls, these pearls appeal to a wide audience that gets bigger by the day.


     Whether they are looking for a traditional white pearl necklace, or a designer piece featuring splashes of color, jewelry stores catering to customers of all stripes will benefit from reserving a spot on their shelves for these beautiful pearls.




Freshwater Pearls in Shell .jpg 

* Freshwater pearls are farmed in China, usually in man-made freshwater lakes and ponds. Growth times average two to seven years.

* Other freshwater pearl mussels, such as the Japanese Hyriopsis schlegeli has been used co farm pearls in China since the 1990s. The cumingi and schlegeli mussels have been crossbred to create hybrid pearl-bearing mussels that are responsible for many of the highest quality pearls grown today.

* A freshwater mussel can be nucleated to 12 to 16 times on each side of its valve, potentially growing up to 32 pears per shell. Modern farmers limit the number of grafts to enhance the quality and size of the pearls.  

* Freshwater pearls are usually ‘tissue-nucleated’. This means that only a small square piece of donor mantle tissue is used as the nucleus, which produces a solid-nacre pearl (no bead).

* More recently, pearl farmers have been using beads to grow freshwater pearls in similar fashion to their saltwater cousins. Beaded freshwater pearls are typically much larger than tissue-nucleated, and are known as fireballs, Ming and Edison pearls.




     Freshwater once had a reputation of being small, wrinkled and blemished. These early pearls were known as ‘Rice Krispie’ pearls, and they dominated freshwater pearl production from the 1970s throughout the 1980s. Modern culturing technology and the introduction of the H. cumingi pearl shell to replace the native Cristaria plicata has improved these pearls’ shapes by leaps and bounds. Today gem quality freshwater pearls can mimic fine saltwater pearls in shape and luster.


Perfect Round Freshwater Pearl

* Perfectly round, tissue-nucleated freshwater pearls are rare because unlike saltwater, the pearls have no bead nucleus.

* Perfectly round pearls represent less than 0.0025% of each yearly pearl harvest.

* Pearls that feature slight variations from a true round shape account for about 3% of each years’ harvest.



Off Round Freshwater-Pearls.jpg

* These pearls are noticeably off-round when viewed from a distance of 12-inches or less, but will appear round to the eye for the casual observer.

* This category also includes ‘potato’ pearls which have uneven, rounded shapes as well as multiple circles lining the body of the pearl. 



Baroque Pearl Diversity

* Smooth ovals and drop-shaped pearls represent less than 10-20% of each yearly harvest.

* Symmetrical drop-shapes have a romantic appeal for many pearl lovers. The graceful shape makes for incredible pendant and earring sets that are sure to move quickly.



Baroque Freshwater Pearls

* Baroque pearls include coin-shapes, buttons, bars and other fancy shapes along with free-form asymmetrical pearls.

* Baroque freshwater pearls can be tissue or bead-nucleated. Shapes such as coin pearls are nucleated with disc-shaped nuclei.




     Freshwater pearls are available in a variety of natural colors such as pink/peach, lavender and white. Many other colors such as navy blue, emerald green and magenta are available, but these hues are the result of color-treatments.


White Freshwater Pearls

* White is the most popular color, as it most closely resembles the saltwater akoya pearl.

* White pearls feature traditional overtones of rosé, cream and silver.

* Display white pearls on neutral-colored backgrounds like white, tan or light grey for best results.



Pink Freshwater Pearls* Common pink pearl overtones are gold, green and rose.

* The pink and peach hues are natural colors that will never fade or discolor over the years as long as the pearls are cared for correctly.



Lavender Freshwater Pearls* Common lavender pearl overtones are aquamarine, green, gold and rose.

* Like pink pearls, the purple hues of lavender freshwater pearls are completely natural, and will never fade or discolor over time if cared for properly.

* Both pink and lavender Freshwater pearls can be a mauve or dusty rose hue that can be sorted into either color category.



Black Freshwater pearls

* Black Freshwater pearls can range in color from a dark blue to violet to charcoal grey and often feature intensely iridescent ‘peacock’ overtones.

Dye Color Treatment Effects




     Freshwater pearls are available in a versatile range of sizes from 1.0 mm to 12.0 mm and larger.

Freshwater Sizes vs Dime

* Freshwater pearls are measured in one and half millimeter increments.

* The most popular sizes are the 6.0-7.0 mm, the 7.0-8.0 mm and 8.0-9.0 mm ranges.

* Smaller sizes such as 5.0-6.0 mm are perfect for petite ladies or young girls as a ‘first pearls’ present.




     Luster is the most important factor in determining the value of a pearl. Freshwater pearls are known for their ‘satiny’ luster, which is softer and less intense than the saltwater akoya pearl. This is due to their solid nacre composition, as light must travel through solid crystalline material before being reflected and refracted back at the viewer.  

Excellent vs Good Luster

Excellent Pearl Luster

* Gem-quality freshwater pearls will exhibit luster that is almost as sharp as that of the saltwater akoya pearl.

Very Good Luster

* Pearls with ‘Very Good’ luster will display a high degree of reflectivity. You may not be able to distinguish specific facial features reflected in the surface of the pearls and reflected light sources will appear softly blurred around the edges.

Good Fair Luster

* Pearls with ‘Good’ or ‘Fair’ luster will reflect a reasonable amount of light, but reflected light sources will exhibit heavy blurring around the edges. Objects will be unrecognizable when viewing their reflections in the surface of the pearls. 

Metallic Luster

* Many off-round and baroque pearls will display better luster and orient than perfectly round pearls. This is because of the irregular placement of crystalline aragonite platelets, which cause light to reflect and refract at a higher intensity in some areas.




     Freshwater pearls present distinctive inclusions that you can use to determine whether a pearl is genuine.

     Blemishes are a natural occurrence - even if a pearl looks clean to the naked eye, the pearl will display some type of inclusion under magnification. Most small inclusions will not affect the pearl’s durability.

Chalky Spot Inclusion Fresh

* Chalky spots are dull white areas on the pearl’s surfaces.

* This type of blemish is usually visible when rotating the pearls closely in front of your eyes.  Chalky areas can be difficult to spot because the white inclusion blends well with the pearl’s body color.

Ridges Pearl Inclusion

Pit Inclusion




     I rely on the A- AAA grading scale to explain freshwater pearl grades to customers. This is the easiest grading system to understand, as each tier has specific benchmarks that must be met in order for a pearl to qualify for its grade.

     There is no universally agreed-upon grading system that all pearl vendors can use to determine a pearl’s grade. This can make it difficult to make good buying decisions because grading tiers haven’t been clearly defined. For an easy to understand visual guide on freshwater pearl grading, visit the Grading Guide.




Fireball Pearl Earrings

     The classic look and lower price points of freshwater pearls encourage customers to feel more at ease when purchasing pearls for the first time. It gives them room to experiment with new pearl types and jewelry designs. White freshwater pearls can be a budget-friendly alternative to the classic akoya pearl, and are an excellent opportunity to introduce your customers to the rainbow of colors that freshwater pearls offer.


     Freshwater pearls also represent the most cutting edge advances in modern pearliculture. New culturing techniques are evolving year to year, bringing brand new pearl shapes, colors and sizes to the market. This category includes ‘Fireball’ pearls, ‘Ripple’ pearls and ‘Metallic’ freshwater pearls among many other notable and beautiful innovations. The ever-expanding variety of freshwater pearls will provide you with new and exciting ideas to present to your customers year after year. Good luck! 



Ashley McNamara, CEO of Ashley has been working in the jewellery industry for over 14 years and is a GIA graduate wh​o has extensive experience grading and appraising cultured pearls.

You can contact her at or through her blog.



Please visit for more industry news and features.


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