As the Biwa production in Japan diminished, China filled the vacuum. China had all the resources that Japan lacked: a huge land mass; countless available lakes, rivers, and irrigation ditches; a limitless and pliable work force that earned less than a dollar a day; and an almost desperate need for hard currency. Although China had no history in pearling, in 1968, it started culturing freshwater pearls. Very soon it startled the gem world with prodigious amounts of ridiculously inexpensive pearls. Unfortunately China did not have the know-how and the experience that Japan had and hence the quality of its pearls was poor.
Consequently China did see mass production of pearls but of an inferior quality. This phase in the 1970s and 1980s which was termed as the First Chinese Pearl Wave did not leave a good impression on the minds of the consumer. Thus China's reputation as a producer among the public remained trivial. Tiny odd shaped pearls also called rice pearls were to be found all over the place. Also called "Rice Krispies," the oddly shaped material with a crinkly surface dyed any number of "pop" colors could in no way compete with the best from Lake Biwa. The Second Wave between 1984 and 1991 was not a monumental leap but was an important evolutionary step.
China learned fast and well, mastering techniques and producing better shapes and colors. Buying expertise from Japan and the U.S., the Chinese continued experimenting and improving. One major problem with freshwater cultured pearls is that it suffers from stereotypes.
Most people, when they hear "freshwater pearls" think of what we in the trade call "rice krispie" pearls: rice shaped wrinkled crappy pearls that sell for about a buck a strand. These inexpensive pearls were produced by the container load in China in the eighties. The market was flooded with them. Department stores sold twists of twenty strands, they had their fashion moment and then they went out of style and the market died.
The farmers in China were forced to change their strategy. Instead of producing tons of cheap pearls, some farms switched to a different freshwater mussel and started to leave pearls in the water longer. They also discovered that they could grind cheap reject pearls into round nuclei and put them back into the mussels to grow into bigger, more round premium sizes. The Chinese thus had advanced towards producing more quality pearls. The result of all this effort was that beginning just two or three years ago, China started to produce a whole new range of qualities: 6 to 8mm white freshwater pearls that look just like Akoya pearls (although they are more often off round and don't have top luster); 6 to 9mm fancy colored pearls, round to off round, in lavenders, pinks, and peaches; and a few rare large round strands in mixed fancy colors that are similar in size and feeling to mixed color Tahitian strands. The bulk of production of Chinese freshwater pearls is still commercial quality pearls that mimic commercial quality Akoya pearls at half the price.
But the new qualities and colors from China are indication of better things to come. Although today's freshwater pearl production is overwhelmingly from China, The Biwa pearls are not forgotten. People still talk about the quality of the Biwa pearls produced in Lake Biwa in Japan. Production of the Biwa pearls has stopped basically due to pollution but the name even today is synonymous with a high quality freshwater pearl.
Of course this may be unfair to other producers who are producing high quality pearls.
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