Soufflé Pearls: Some things I bet you didn’t know

One of the most popular types of pearl that we’ve been bringing in over the past year have been those lightweight, hollowed out pearls popularly known as soufflé. The name, coined by friend and fellow pearl expert Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls, conjures up the image of the namesake puffy French desert.

Colorful Souffle Pearls

But what is a soufflé pearl? Is it the product of brilliant pearl farmer innovation or something else?

The name soufflé comes from the French verb souffler, which in English translates to blow or to inflate. Although this may not have factored in to the coining of the term, it’s actually even more accurate than most could have ever guessed.

Soufflé pearls are grown by inserting a substance into an existing pearl sac that looks much like some sort of earthen material – it sort of looks like mud. When the pearls are harvested, they are drilled, cleaned and voilà – a lightweight, hollow pearl.

two-toned souffle pearls

A few two-toned pearls

But guess what? That was not the original intention.

The earthen material that is inserted into the existing pearl sac – a nacre-producing pouch inside a freshwater mussel from which a pearl was already harvested – is inserted to “souffler” the pearl sac. The material, which starts out dry, soaks up the surrounding moisture and begins to expand. As the material expands, the pearl sac also expands. The pearl sac continues to deposit nacre over this now-much-larger nucleus – the birth of a soufflé pearl.

giant souffle pearls

Soufflé pearls tend to be grow quite large

After harvesting this pearl, the farmer now has a mussel with a pearl sac much larger than usual. In this pearl sac he is then able to place a large bead – the pearl sac must be large enough to envelope the entire bead – and grow a large, bead-nucleated pearl. Those large, bead-nucleated pearls go by names such as giant fireballs, ripples, Ming Pearls and Edisons.

In China, pearls are sold by weight, so some of the earliest soufflé pearls were harvested as quickly as possible to mostly be discarded, although some have made the way into the uber-low-end market (check out this disturbing image). When the pearls were cleaned out, they lost the value. Or so they thought! The soufflé pearls that were left in the shells long enough to attain a thick coating of nacre exhibit some of the strongest, most iridescent colors we’ve ever seen in freshwater pearls and now command a premium in the wholesale trade.

colorful souffle pearls

More colorful soufflé pearls

One of the most common questions I hear about soufflé pearls is whether or not they are durable – they are hollow so some worry that if the pearls are dropped, they might break. To answer that question, we cut a large, 34 mm soufflé pearl in half this week. The nacre thickness (pictured below) is more than 2 mm in the thinnest areas and more than 4 mm in the thickest – thicker than the nacre found on almost any beaded pearl produced today. It would take one part hammer and two parts intention to smash one of these beauties.

33 mm souffle pearl sawn in half

A giant, 34 mm soufflé pearl sawn in half

My Favorite Finds from Hong Kong March Trip

Metallic Souffle Pearls

It’s been over a week since we came back from Hong Kong but pearls are still trickling in. We were very focused on replenishing low-stock items and started the show looking for Tahitians on day one, Akoya strands on day two and freshwater pearls on day three.

Here are just a few of my favorite finds!

On day one while I was “supposed” to be looking for Tahitian loose rounds, this small lot of Golden South Sea keshi pearls caught my eye.  A Japanese vendor had an assortment of keshi pearls and this was the smallest lot he had.  We purchased a small lot of white South Sea keshi pearls at the last show and these keshi pearls were even smaller. I used the white South Sea keshi for a ring for my little h collection and I will be adding these golden beauties to the line as well.

Golden South Sea keshi pearls

On day two we stopped by our freshwater pearl friend’s booth just to say ‘Hi’ before searching for Akoya pearls but we ended up staying for a bit because our friend had set aside some metallic strands for us. As Lynsey and I started looking through the lot to check the quality, we came across these strands that matched my special ring.  It was very unexpected and I can’t wait to make something special with them.
Metallic freshwater pearl strands that matched my special ring

In our hunt for Akoya, we decided to visit our friends who are Japanese, but operate an Akoya pearl farm in Vietnam. Back in September, we bought almost all of his extra-special loose baroque pearls. I knew that he was hesitant to sell the pearls because he wasn’t planning on making them anymore. I felt a little bad and decided to make two pearls into pendants for his daughters and gave them to him at the show. He was also really excited to hear that so many people had expressed interest in his pearls after my September Show blog post.

He told us that he is just now starting implantation for a new crop of natural blue baroque Akoyas and that it would be another two years before he would be able harvest them again.  The baroques he had at this show were from a selection that he had locked in a safe for a number of years to prove that the color would not change. Jeremy decided to purchase everything he had left.

Natural color baroque akoya pearls from Vietnam

Day three was all about freshwater pearls. Lynsey looked for metallic strands and Jeremy and I went through the buy list of our standard items. While I was sorting 6.5-7 mm freshwater strands Jeremy left the booth. He always says, “I’ll be right back” but that usually turns into half an hour (at least) or more. He cannot walk across the show without bumping into someone. Whether it’s our friends Kevin and Alana from Pearls of Joy, or vendors who we used to work with, everyone wants to talk to Jeremy.

An hour or so went by when he came back and when I was just about to nag him for not “working”, he surprised me with this interesting pearl. He went over to Grace Pearl’s booth to compare some pricing and found this Edison drop pearl. It was set in a 14K white gold bale and sold as finished jewelry but since the color was so unique, Jeremy bought it anyway.

I decided to remove the white gold bale and refresh the look with our Adore pendant in rose gold.

Jeremy and I get to look for fun pearls usually on the last day of the show. This is when we can concentrate on looking for wish list pearls and something different for our promotional events.

Here are some yummy fireballs:

Besides the regular Fireballs, we also found coin nucleated versions.

We had some special requests for small size soufflés that can be made into rings. Out of two containers full of smaller size soufflés, these are the smallest special ones I was able to find. These petite soufflés are 11-15 mm.

Since we had a little more time than usual, we matched some white fireball strands and small souffle strands from for-sale-as-loose pearl lots.

We’re excited to start designing with these wonderful pearls!

Working with Metallic Soufflé Pearls for Black Friday

Natural color, metallic soufflé pearls with green and rose tones

There is a particular freshwater pearl producer and processor with whom Jeremy has developed a special relationship. This is the same producer responsible for the line of inception pearls, faceted pearls, and of course soufflé pearls.

In 2010, during a visit to China, the producer showed off some pearls that he thought were interesting, but he no longer planned to grow them. They were pearls nucleated with an earthen material that was removed after the pearls were drilled. The problem was, pearls are typically sold by weight, and these hollow pearls were a lot lighter than they appeared.

Hisano holding 3.4 kilos of metallic soufflé pearlsJeremy immediately recognized the pearls from the previous year’s Tucson Gem Show. Pearler Jack Lynch had debuted these hollow pearls and coined the term “Soufflé.” A few Google searches later he was able to show the producer that these pearls were making waves and he should focus on producing more.

Just a few months later, the producer exhibited at the Hong Kong Jewelry Fair and featured (nearly exclusively) soufflé pearls. The response was tremendous, both from buyers and the trade press. Soufflé pearls are now his primary business.

Just last month he harvested a fresh crop of these special pearls and offered to send us what he considered the finest pieces of his production. Last week we received approximately 3.4 kilos of metallic, natural color and natural luster soufflé pearls. We decided we had enough time to use some of them for Black Friday!

Soufflé pearls are much more difficult to work with than typical pearls. Each pearl has to be drilled and everything in side of it removed prior to being set. We’ve come up with a few tricks (thanks Marianne from Pearl-Guide!) to speed up the process, but it is still time consuming. We are still hoping to have at least 50 pieces to add to our big sale on Friday.

Now on to the eye candy!

Metallic loose Soufflé pearls with greens and pinks

Metallic loose Soufflé pearls with greens and pinks

Free form baroque metallic Soufflés

Free form baroque metallic Soufflé Pearls

Soufflés with metallic sea foam colors

Soufflés with metallic colors that remind me of sea foam

Orient so intense it looks almost like burnt orange from some angles

Orient so intense it looks almost like burnt orange from some angles

Silver, gray with blue tones

Soufflés with silver, gray and blue tones

A soufflé pearl pendant that will be featured on Black Friday

A soufflé pearl pendant that will be featured on Black Friday

Another soufflé pearl pendant that will be featured on Black Friday

Another pendant that will be featured on Black Friday – freshwater aren’t supposed to be this color!

I also matched a total of five “super strands,” but we’ll probably send those back to Asia to drill, so they won’t be ready for quite some time. Here is a sneak peek of one of them though.

A matched strand of metallic Soufflé pearls

 

A Custom Beauty

Every time Hisano and I head to Hong Kong we bring “the wish list.” We have items on the list that have remained there through multiple shows. But every time, we spend a lot of our time trying to find those extra special pieces.

One of our friends had seen a necklace a Mikimoto that she was hoping to duplicate, only better. The necklace was three rows of akoya strands, graduated in size from the center strand to the outer strand. These sorts of necklaces can be difficult to make. Hisano made something similar in 2.5-5.5 mm akoya pearls for our Tokyo wedding in 2012.

I thought this piece would look amazing if we were able to match three strands of white metallic, freshwater pearls. We are always looking for white metallics when we are in Asia, but they are so few and far between, finding three matching strands in graduating sizes would be a challenge.

Our first attempt was at the June show. While we did collect some white metallics, none of them matched the way we were hoping they would, so we shelved the idea until the September show.

Because we deal with so many processors, and sometimes we may only find one or two from a single company, we weren’t sure whether we would be able to make the piece after this show either until all the shipments had arrive to Los Angeles. When they did, I separated all the metallic whites and found these!

Metallic White Triple Strand Strand of Freshwater Pearls

The center strand was not quite as perfect round as the inner and outer strands, but the luster and color was nearly a spot-on match, and the three strands were perfectly size-graduated.

Today the strand was finished, and tomorrow it will be on its way!

Three-row metallic freshwater pearl necklace

A three-row necklace composed of metallic white freshwater pearls

September Hong Kong Jewelry Show Recap

Hisano and I finally returned from Hong Kong last week and have been busy sorting pearls as the the shipments come in. We spent a full eight days in Japan and Hong Kong filling the vault with new freshwater, Tahitian, South Sea, akoya and even Galatea carved pearls.

On the first night of the show, we met up with our friends from Pearl-Guide.com, who came from quite literally around the world to see the show. We hosted a dinner on Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was a great kick off for a successful week.

Our friends from Pearl-Guide.com’s discussion forum

The September show is the busiest one for us because we are stocking for the holidays, so we were selecting pearls from morning until evening, every day for the entire week. We were fortunate to find nearly everything that was on the Christmas “buy list,” and nearly everything that was on the pearl “wish list” for our friends who contacted us before we left (and those who contacted us while we were there)!

A usual, most of the excitement was in the freshwater pearl category, although we spent the majority of our time sorting and selecting Tahitian, South Sea and akoya pearls. That said, we did find a very small lot of something extraordinarily special from a Vietnamese pearl farm. The pearls were so special, they were really only for show. On the last day, however, the farmer agreed to sell them to us. Hisano is going to blog about the show soon, so she will be the one showing those beauties off, as well as the special Edison pearls she selected.

Hisano Selecting large Edison single pearls and pairs

Hisano matched a fireball strand for a special customer

Two of our friends had requested special strands; one a unique fireball necklace like the necklace Hisano matched at the June show, and another with very special Edison pearls. Hisano went through a large lot of fireball pearls with a greenish-copper coloration to remake one very special strand. I re-worked and matched the metallic, slightly drop-shaped Edison strand below with whopping 14-15 mm pearls. The size is actually quite special as the standard size in matched strands is 12-15 mm. What this actually means is that the entire strand is made up of center “hero” pearls. Most Edison strands only get one! This is going to become someone’s statement piece, no doubt.

A 14-15 mm, giant Edison metallic pearl strand

A 14-15 mm, giant Edison metallic pearl strand

The loot that I am probably most happy with was something I’ve been seeking for years, since the time we first made metallic round strands – uniform-color, perfectly round metallic strands.

When we arrived in Hong Kong, a good friend of mine and owner of the farm that gave us soufflé pearls called me to say he had something he really wanted me to see before the show got under way. He has always been our best source for metallic pearls, separating out everything he thought we would like. What he had matched this time blew me away. The strands are perfectly round, graduated and metallic, and of Freshadama grade. We selected 58 strands, including just a few mixed-color strands that were just too special to pass up. Our friends from Pearls of Joy selected a few as well, and between the two of us, we took everything he had made.

Uniform color, intensely metallic, perfectly round strands of freshadama grade

For those of you waiting to hear from us, we have nearly finished sorting through everything. If we haven’t reached out to you yet, we will soon!