The owner of a wholesale pearl operation in Tokyo travels to Japanese pearl farming regions and learns how the pandemic has affected operations.
Unlike numerous farm operations around the globe, most Japanese akoya pearl farms haven’t been affected health-wise by the coronavirus pandemic. Many akoya pearl farms are located in the countryside near my hometown of Shima-city Mie, a region in the mid-southern portion of Japan on the Pacific Ocean. Covid-19 cases in Shima-city in 2020 were close to zero, according to reports released in 2021. This meant that our seeding and production were not affected. Everyone has just been wearing masks. I heard the story is the same in other pearl-producing regions, such as Ehime and Nagasaki.
We all know, though, that the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the world market. The export business, for example, has always been highly dependent on Hong Kong, where as much as 80% of all pearl business occurred. Since Hong Kong jewelry shows were canceled last year and both in-person transactions and products were limited, the exporting of pearls was severely damaged.
Pearl harvests in Japan were delayed. They usually start in November—auctions take place from December to February—but pearl farmer associations canceled all auctions from December 2020 to the end of February 2021. Also, online auctions have been difficult for both buyers and sellers because inspecting akoya goods through images and videos has obvious challenges. I know some farmers of white and black South Sea pearls have introduced online auctions, but who can check 3–4 mm akoya pearls online?
Auctions were postponed for two reasons. First, considering the market situation, the consumption of pearls dropped because of diminished 2020 business. Second, after the government declared a state of emergency in January, farmer associations followed the guidelines, avoiding domestic travel and mass gatherings. Ultimately, some farmers harvested pearls in December 2020, and some did so in January 2021.
On March 14, the auctions finally began as the state of emergency was eased in many cities in Japan.
Another challenge that some farmers reported in 2019 is oyster mortality, especially among baby oysters. In 2020, as summer landed, some mortality was reported again. This might cause some shortages of oysters for grafting.
The cause of this mortality is still unknown. One hypothesis is global warming. We believe that global climate change is affecting the worldwide pearl industry. We would like to hear if there are any such phenomena in other regions.
Oddly enough, water that is “too clean” has been an issue. The local government and pearl farmers have been struggling to clean up seawater, but as it became cleaner, it caused a shortage of food for oysters. Farmers and local governments are making some attempts to enrich the water, including recreating tidal lands lost to expanding civilization and modernization.
Another concern is higher water temperatures. To combat this issue, farmers have been adjusting their cultivation methods to adapt to the new conditions. This will affect future supply of akoya pearls, especially larger sizes, which has been healthy in recent years. I suspect those days will be over soon, though, and supplies of larger akoyas will be much less for a few years. Twenty years ago, akoya farmers overcame high mortality issues, and I believe they will conquer this situation again.
A more specific outlook for 2021 is tough to predict. Last year, 12,397 kg of akoya pearls were sold through auctions. This number is for all of Japan. Since auctions just resumed for this year, we don’t yet how the numbers look.
Many akoya pearl farms are located in the countryside near Shima-city Mie, a region in the mid-southern portion of Japan on the Pacific Ocean.
Japanese pearl harvesting
Akoya pearl oysters