Sunday, August 17, 2008



Over 75 years ago, Japanese innovator Kokichi Mikimoto shovelled 720 000 pearls into a burning furnace. His actions reverberated around the world and across time itself. By showing his willingness to destroy so many pearls, he made a commitment to sell only the very best and to destroy the rest. To this day, Japanese pearls demand and receive a premium. As a result, many try to pass off their pearls as Japanese, even though they may come from elsewhere. Now two scientists from Germany have developed a method to determine the birthplace of pearls.

Pearls have long held the imagination of people around the world.© Shutterstock
Pearls have long held the imagination of people around the world.
© Shutterstock
Pearls: their beautiful translucent nature has captivated the hearts and minds of people for centuries. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, pearls had to be hunted by expert divers. These divers would free dive up to 40 meters below the water's surface and gather pearl oysters from the ocean floor. It wasn’t until two Japanese entrepreneurs were able to apply the pearl culturing technique an Australian scientist that pearls were able to be farmed.

Since then, Japan has been the heart of pearl farming, producing some of the world's finest round cultured pearls. More recently however, China has managed to outstrip Japan in terms of pearl production, but not in terms of price. Japanese pearls still cost up to ten times more than their competitors' across the sea of Okhotsk. As a result, some sellers have been trying to masquerade Chinese sweet-water cultured pearls as Japanese.

This poses a big problem for both consumers and scientists, because even experts find it difficult to distinguish between the two with the naked eye. That’s why two scientists from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz Germany have devoted the past two years to coming up with a solution to this problem. What they were able to develop was a trace-element analysis technique which is able to determine a pearl's place of origin.

The two scientists in question, Ursula Wehrmeister, a gemmologist, and Dorrit Jacob, a geochemist, initially suspected that the Chinese manufacturing process consisted of high-production volumes accompanied by high levels of stress for the animals used in the cultivation process. According to Ursula Wehrmeister, Chinese farmers implant up to 60 cores into one oyster — a form of biological mass production. The stress caused by such mass production would result in a number of unusable or misshapen pearls, which would not be able to be processed by jewellers.

The problem of vaterite would also become more common. The scientists from Mainz found that Chinese pearls contain more vaterite, not only within the pearls, but also on the outside, where the substance forms a matt surface with white spots, rendering the pearls unsuitable for sale.

The scientists were therefore able to use a process known as laser ablation ICP mass spectrometry, to determine whether pearls contain vaterite, as well as determine whether certain sapphires have been subsequently treated. Specifically, a UV laser is used to cut a microscopically small sample, roughly an eighth the diameter of a human hair. This micro-sample is then rinsed into the analysis device with the aid of an inert gas and the content of trace elements. Based on the outcome of this process, the birthplace of a pearl is able to be determined.

This technique according to Dorrit Jacob, is also applicable to gems other than pearls. 'The large number of especially orange- and blue-coloured sapphires currently on the market cannot all be natural. This means that sapphires with a less marked coloration, which would normally not be marketable, have been coloured more brightly with beryllium,' he said.

With such a wide potential for this technique's application, consumers can begin to rest assured that they are getting what they pay for.

Pearl passion


by Sandra Low

A pearl wholesaler who gets first choice of the finest pearls is inspired to do more than supply.

WHEN it comes to pearls, few know these luminous, fascinating organic gems better than Rene Hodel.

The Swiss CEO and founder of a luxury pearl brand, Hodel HK Ltd, has spent almost three decades in the industry, first as a wholesaler before expanding his business to designing collections that bear his name.

Hodel, 54, was in Kuala Lumpur recently with his Hong Kong-born wife, Linda, 48, who supervises their design team, to launch the brand’s Spring-Summer 2008 collection.

A model wearing the most prestigious line for Hodel Pearls, which is the St Moritz where only one of a kind pearls or precious stones or diamonds are used.

The couple met in Hong Kong over 25 years and have been inseparable since, their relationship cemented by their shared passion for pearls.

They have been married for almost 24 years and they have two teenage sons, Andrew, 19, and Adrian, 17.

“I was captured by the beauty of pearls over 20 years ago and I am still very much so till today. I think what keeps both Linda and me in the business all these years is our unceasing love for pearls,” Rene says.

He was initially a behind-the-scenes pearl wholesaler but his company has evolved from a traditional wholeselling into that of an international luxury pearl manufacturer with its own in-house designs.

“We still supply wholesalers all over the world with pearls that we buy in bulk from pearl producing countries. Our company does business in Europe, United States, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Dubai,” he says.

Hodel’s Tears of God collection consists of South Sea Pearl earrings set with Keshi pearls and diamonds.

Rene started his pearl journey in his mid-20s with a jewellery company in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thanks to his acute business sense, he was sent to Hong Kong to run the company’s pearl department. From there, he was sent to a pearl farm on Iki island near Fukuoka, Japan, to learn the trade from the shell up, and then on to Kobe, the heart of the pearl trade. Under his guidance, the Hong Kong operations blossomed.

In 1986, after leaving the company that he had worked hard to develop, he approached Schoeffel, the largest pearl company in Europe, and offered to set up a Hong Kong office.

He established Schoeffel HK Ltd which grew to be one of the leading pearl trading houses in Asia, with offices in Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur.

In 2005 Rene decided to up the ante again by buying out Schoeffel and the company was renamed Hodel.

Rene explains that they have separated their merchandises into the Classic Collection and the Hodel Collection. The Classic Collection is where loose pearls, pearl strands and simple designed collections are sold to any interested buyer, while the Hodel Collection comprises their own signature designs which are sold only to their brand carriers around the world.

While Hodel is fast becoming label synonymous with fine pearls and designs, the wholeselling part of its business is on its last legs.

Rene explains why: “Hong Kong today is the pearl centre where importers, manufacturers, traders and retailers meet to buy at auctions. The traditional wholesale function of supplying to these people is slowly diminishing as everyone is trying to buy direct. It is an unstoppable process.”

A singular white South Sea pearl sits prettily on top of a cross ring studded with diamonds.

Unlike pearl manufacturers who come up with designs and then place the pearls within the designs, Linda says Hodel creates “designs around the pearls”.

“We match the stones according to the shapes and colours of the pearls. Our aim is to bring out the best in our pearls, to extract their character and present them as jewellery pieces with flair and a personality.

Linda works closely with an in-house Swiss chief designer, Vanessa Martinelli, whose work carries a strong Italian influence.

“I have always loved art and I have an eye for beautiful things. With pearls, they are each uniquely shaped with lines and curves that are exquisite,” adds Linda.

According to Rene, pearl lovers are those who truly appreciate their unique beauty.

“You buy pearl jewellery for the love of it. Because unlike, say, diamonds, if you want to return it to the seller, you will never get the price that you paid,” he cautions.

The Hodels buy their pearls, ranging from South Sea to Tahitian to freshwater, from Australia, Indonesia, Tahiti, China and the Philippines.

Rene explains that 99% of the pearls today are cultured and natural pearls, while very rare, may not actually be of good quality.

He bemoans the fact that although the production of pearls has increased greatly over the years, it is, unfortunately, at the expense of quality.

Owner of Hodel Pearls HK Ltd, Rene Hodel, with his wife, Linda Hodel, who is the chief designer.

“The more oysters are produced in one square metre of water, the more pollution occurs, so subsequently, the quality diminishes,” he sighs.

If anyone thinks that selling pearls is an unexciting and relatively safe job, the Hodels will tell you otherwise.

Rene tells the story of how he wanted to buy the harvest of an Australian pearl farmer some years back but was rejected because the farmer had another potential buyer. Three weeks later, the farmer came to Hong Kong offering Rene the pearls (after the sale with the potential buyer fell through).

“I declined because we were so disappointed by his refusal earlier. He got annoyed and started throwing chairs around and beating me up!” Rene recalls.

He recovered well enough to remain in the business and with no regrets.

After all, the Hodels feel the world is still their oyster with a lot of potential, including the Malaysian market which is quite receptive to new trends and ideas.

All it takes to generate greater interest is make available more information and awareness of the types of pearls in the market. that’s what the Hodels aim to do. That and fabulous designs.

The Hodel Collection is available at DeGem jewellers; prices start from RM5,000.

Friday, August 15, 2008

U.S. economy slams pearl sales for Man Sang


August 15, 2008

New York—Man Sang Holdings Inc., a purchaser and processor of Chinese cultured and freshwater pearls, saw its pearl sales slip 18.7 percent in the first quarter, mostly the result of weakness in the U.S. economy.

According to a release from Man Sang, pearl sales decreased from about $12.89 million for the three months ended June 30, 2007, to about $10.48 million for the three months ended June 30, 2008.

The decrease in net sales for pearls, the release states, was "primarily due to a decrease in market demand in the United States due to a relative weakness of the United States economy."

The earnings show that net sales in the U.S. market declined 46.4 percent in the first quarter, dropping from about $4.36 million to about $2.34 million.

Because of the drop in U.S. sales, Man Sang altered its sales strategy going forward and plans to focus on the European market, where "stronger market conditions...have mitigated the effects of weak market conditions in the United States."

The company expects pearl sales to increase in Europe over the next three months and, thereby, help the company maintain steady growth, the release states.

"Our pearl operations are geographically diverse, and we believe we are well-positioned to react to fluctuating global market conditions. We therefore expect to maintain steady growth in our pearl operations, the release states.