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