South Sea pearls, classified mainly by their principle color tones of white or gold, are the most valuable pearls in today’s market, due both to their extremely large size and their comparable scarcity. Produced by the silver/golden lipped oyster (Pinctada maxima), and cultured in warm South Sea locations in Australia, Indonesia, the Phillippines and other Southeast Asian countries, South Sea pearls quite often have extremely thick nacre of 2-6mm which produces extremely high luster and sharp reflections. It’s no surprise that South Sea pearls are usually the most treasured possessions of pearl collectors.
South Sea pearl hunting dates back to the 1870s off the coast of Broome in Western Australia with the discovery of the Pinctada Maxima oyster, the pearls of which are known as “Broome pearls”. South Sea pearl cultivation techniques were initiated by pioneers, Sukeo and Masayo Fujita, in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, Australians established their first pearl cultivation farm at “Kuri Bay”. Today Australia is still the largest producer of South Sea pearls, and nearly 60% of the world’s South Sea cultured pearls are from the Broome region.
The Philippines is also one of the earliest places where South Sea pearl cultivation took place. The largest pearl farms are in the Samal Island archipelago in the southeastern region of the Philippines, in addition to the Sulu Sea's Northern Palawan region of Southern Tagalog around Lamud Island.
The main regions of Indonesia’s South Sea pearl farms are Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, and the Irian Jaya in West Papua province.
South Sea pearl production today
Pearls hosted by the Pinctada maxima can easily grow as large as 14mm. Like Tahitian pearls, the qualified adult oyster is implanted with a mantle tissue from a donor oyster along with a nucleation bead. With a breeding time of between 2-4 years, some of the oysters can be re-nucleated to generate larger South Sea pearls. The color of the host oyster will, to a large extent, determine cultured pearl colors. Australian South Sea pearls in the Broome region are harvested during the months of January to March.
South Sea Pearl Quality Factors
Compared to other oysters, the living environment required for the production of South Sea oysters (Pinctada maxima) is the most challenging to contend with. While the Tahitian oyster can be raised in lagoons, this species can only be found in a rare number of deep ocean habitats or grown in hatcheries, where adequate water depth and good quality plankton to feed on is a must. Further, storms, strong waves and pollutants can much more easily affect production. All of these challenges combine to make South Sea Pearls much more scarce and this increases their value.
South Sea Pearl Colours
The sliver and golden colors of South Sea pearls are mainly determined by the host Pinctada Maxima silver-lipped or golden-lipped oysters and classified as such. However, in reality, South Sea pearls feature a wide spectrum of mixed colors: white/off-white/silver/cream or golden/yellow/yellowish orange, along with overtones combining various colors.
The natural golden colors of South Sea pearls are quite unique, making them more valuable. The intensity of the golden color is a particularly important evaluating factor for golden South Sea pearls; the more intense, the more valuable. Currently, most Australian pearls are white or silver-white, while Indonesian and Philippines pearls tend to be more golden or creamy in color.
South Sea Pearl Size and Nacre
South Sea pearls are by far the largest amongst all types of cultured pearls and is one significant feature which renders it unique. The general size range is between 10mm to 15mm, with some reaching even to 20mm.
As the process that makes a pearl larger is a gradual depositing of multiple coatings of nacre, South Sea pearls will naturally have very thick nacre; anywhere from 2-6mm. This thick nacre not only makes South Sea pearls extremely durable, it also contributes to such deep luster and sheen, that most South Sea pearls are not post-treated in any way after harvest.