Earlier this year 2020, I traveled to Narita, Japan to learn how South Sea Pearls are polished. Read on to find out how South Sea Pearls are processed from the Pearl Farm to the shiny glossy pearls that we see. Learn more about what South Sea Pearls are here.
*Disclaimer, non of the pearls are dyed. All colours are natural and have only been polished to improve its shape and lustre.
Before I start, I would like to thank my god-father, whom I call Ojisan, for taking care of me and teaching me the ropes. South Sea Pearl polishing comes in different techniques and steps and I am so thankful that Ojisan taught me everything from from scratch. Also, for picking me up at the airport to taking me around to see tourist sights, thank you for everything.
Some backstory, I first knew Ojisan through a friend Ikuo-san, who later arranged the South Sea Pearl Farming visit in Bali Indonesia. I usually hang out with this group during exhibitions for Izakaya nights with a few other Pearl dealers. Times I look forward to.
Landing In Narita, Japan - An Experience by Jayne
Thank you Ojisan and Miu-chan (toy poodle) from picking me up at the airport. I took a flight from Bangkok Thailand as I had to do a 10 hrs transit there for some calibrated coloured gemstones. Had an exhilarating Motorbike Moments (My very first time on a bike) driving up the Bangkok roads at peak hours with an industry friend before heading to the airport to catch the 12.30am flight to Narita, Japan.
Before work started, we went for a little temple visit at Shinsoji Temple, a temple for business owners to pray for good luck and fortune. I had the most amazing unagi hitsumabushi (eel rice) and shirako tempura (whale testicles in egg batter) there. Very well fed before having to slog it out at polishing South Sea Pearls.
Stage 1: Start with a Bag of South Sea Pearls
Ojisan usually acquires his South Sea Pearls through auctions. He will then polish it himself and export it to various countries based on the quality grade and requirements. His pearls range from 8mm to 16mm and comes in grades A to F, based on the amount of blemishes (little dents) on the South Sea Pearl surface. Available in stock are White, Golden and Yellow South Sea Pearls, in round, drop and baroque shape.
I do not know if this entire polishing process is used for other pearl types - Akoya Pearls and Freshwater Pearls because those pearls have different properties and do have some additional treatments added. However, here is what Japanese South Sea Pearl dealers do.
We first start with a bag of irregular shaped, muddy bag of South Sea Pearls. In the picture, you can see the layers of nacre of the pearl peeling coming off, exposing the round inner bead. Through polishing, these will be removed till the pearl is smooth.
*Interesting Fact - Shimi Pearls
This bag of pearls is labelled Shimi, this means that the pearls have a black hue in them. Ever wondered why some white pearls appear more greyish, or some golden pearls appear a little more greenish than others?
This is because when the round shell bead in inserted into the oyster, it is similar to placing implants or fillers in our bodies... Hence at times, the oyster might develop an 'infection' and it will coat the shell bead with a black protective layer - something like a scab when we injure ourselves in a fall. Only later on will the oyster coat the South Sea Pearl with beautiful layers of nacre. But as the inner base in now black, the translucent nacre layers are not able to fully cover it, hence the South Sea Pearl will still appear greyish. Learn more about what South Sea Pearls are here.
Stage 2: Sifting for the Right Size
We use a pearl sift to separate the South Sea Pearls into the sizes that went want to polish. In here we are sifting for South Sea Pearls 8mm in diameter.
Some of the pearls here are really hideous looking. In a batch of South Sea Pearls like this, it comes in all sorts of grades, and out of 100 that come out of the polishing process, only 1-2 are usable.
The rest would just be sold to certain markets that sell extremely cheap low quality necklace strands and some of them would be sold to recycling factories. The recycling factories will strip the South Sea Pearl of its nacre to obtain the shell bead.
In these cases, an ugly South Sea Pearl has less value than the shell bead that it contains. These beads are then sold to South Sea Pearl Farmers to restart the nucleating, pearl producing process.
Stage 3: The First Polish
Here we see Ojisan turning on the polishing machine. This machine will smooth out the pearl surface. Its a muddy stinky process. On the right is the amount of 8mm South Sea Pearls that will be polished. See below on how little the final yield is.
After a good polish with the mud mixture, we then give it a rinse. We can see how the golden colour is starting to show in these South Sea Pearls. This is me rinsing the South Sea Pearls (bad ones have already been picked out) in the middle of winter, in shorts, t-shirt and sandals in the middle of the farmlands.
Stage 4: Tumbling
After rinsing, we place it back into mud, this time in a tumbling machine. This will polish the South Sea Pearls and give it that lustre that we want.
Here are the results after. Look how different they have become now. On my hand is the original before polishing.
Stage 5: Detergent Washing
We then spin the pearls with detergent until it thoroughly removes all the dirt and mud stuck to the surface of the pearls. And we are done!
Look how incredibly shiny and golden these South Sea Pearls are. Of course they are not of consistent quality in this stage, hence we got to dry them first before sorting.
Some of these South Sea Pearls may have to go through another round of the polishing process if their surface did not turn out satisfactory.
The only problem with going through another round is that the South Sea Pearl will reduce in diameter size and the polishing process removes some of the layers of surface nacre.
Nevertheless checking is important.
Stage 6: Sorting
Here you can see the bags of South Sea Pearls that we have to sort. The first thing we do when we sort pearls is by the diameter sizes. As previously mention, the polishing process might alter the sizes of the South Sea Pearls. Next, we sort them by colours - Golden, Yellow-Golden, Yellow and White. From here on, we then sort by the Grade - which is the amount of surface spots on the South Sea Pearls.
Stage 7: Additional Hand Polish
For some South Sea Pearls that have a potential of selling at a high price, we might give them an additional hand polish. These are usually large pearls, 14mm and above.
And we are ready to export!
Here are the South Sea Pearls that tuned out well enough. Not a huge amount but these ones are gorgeous. And that is a picture of Miu-chan taking her afternoon naps on bags of South Sea Pearls. What a fortunate girl, she has the most expensive pillow ever.
In our inventory, we have the following selections;
White South Sea Pearls: Pink sheen + without black Shimi + less cream colour
Yellow South Sea Pearls: Rich golden + without green Shimi + less brown colour
If you are in Singapore and would like any South Sea Pearls, we do have ready stock of South Sea Pearls Golden and White colour from size 8mm to 15mm. Sizes beyond 15mm would have to be sourced. We usually have first picks of the South Sea Pearls, meaning that we usually handpick the best quality ones with amazing lustre, before other dealers get to even take a look at the South Sea Pearls.