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Expert advice: How to choose sustainable pearl jewellery

The world’s your oyster when choosing pearls, says Mary Sanderson, but looking for lustre and eco-friendly credentials is the key...

Having spent decades hiding in dusty jewellery boxes, pearls have made a comeback: modern jewellers are dangling them from shoulder-swiping earrings and using them like solitaires as a single pearl on a ring.

Unlike other jewels, pearls are created from a living animal: an oyster on the ocean floor. The cleaner their environment the healthier the pearl produced, and their lustre (their unique iridescence) is their USP. So, where do you go to find the finest pearls from the cleanest waters?

Most jewellers use cultured pearls in their collections – these are real pearls made with human intervention, a pioneering technique invented by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893. There are three major types of saltwater cultured pearls: Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea pearls, and between them they account for five per cent of global pearl sales. The other 95 per cent are freshwater pearls produced mainly in China. Natural (non-cultured) pearls are incredibly scarce, hence their stratospheric price tag: only one in every 10,000 oysters produces a natural pearl.

“Fine cultured pearls are what you are looking for and for these you want to head straight to the experts,” says Chrissie Douglas, founder of Coleman Douglas Pearls. Douglas has designed pearl jewellery for rock stars and royalty. When asked about sustainability, she agrees that “pearls are very susceptible to pollution, hence many of the pearl farmers are active environmentalists. We have long-standing relationships with our suppliers and can verify they operate in an environmentally friendly way.”

Another jeweller with eco-friendly credentials is Tiffany & Co, where chief sustainability officer Anisa Kamadoli Costa is the brains behind the Tiffany & Co Foundation and its sustainability campaign. The company is putting programmes in place to ensure responsible mining and to preserve coral reefs. Since its launch in 2000, the foundation has invested $10 million in organisations working to preserve healthy marine ecosystems. Costa believes “there are reasons to be optimistic, if the global community stand together to address the challenges of climate change.”

No pearl hunt is complete without a visit to Mikimoto, the Japanese jeweller renowned for its craftsmanship and high-jewellery collections – and for its Akoya pearl. Farmed in Mikimoto’s fisheries in Japan, the Akoya is slightly smaller – averaging 7mm in diameter – than a South Sea pearl, which ranges from eight to 18mm. But it makes up for its size in lustre. Ahead of the game, Mikimoto introduced a ground-breaking pearl harvesting policy in 2009, ensuring zero waste emissions.

Also making waves in the international market is the family-run eco-jeweller Kamoka Pearl, which farms Tahitian pearls in Ahe Atoll lagoon, 300 miles north of Tahiti. Tahitian pearls come from the black-lip oyster, hence their black hue. Kamoka has farmed sustainably for generations but put itself firmly on the map when its co-founder, Josh Humbert, discovered a new way to clean oysters organically, banning high-powered hoses that impacted on the health of the lagoon. Humbert now speaks at international sustainability forums worldwide.

So what to look out for when buying pearls? Colour, size and lustre are key. Fake pearls are flawless, real pearls are gritty, but with no certificate for cultured pearls in existence, the task of confirming a pearl’s provenance is tricky. Dr Laurent Cartier from Sustainable Pearls, a research project based at the University of Vermont and founded by the Tiffany Foundation, suggests the future is “traceable pearls” – only then we will truly be able to delve deep.

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