After years spent growing on the pearl farm, akoya pearls are cleaned and broadly sorted by size, shape, color and luster. Japanese producers call these newly harvested pearls hama-age. There are typically three ways for a pearl farmer to bring hama-age to market: direct sales (the most common, relying on established relationships and agreements with manufacturers); through brokers (who sort by quality and pass along to multiple parties); and at a pearl auction.
The most important auctions for akoya pearls take place in the southern Japanese port city of Kobe. Almost a quarter of all Japanese akoya pearls pass through Kobe in one of several auctions held between December and February – the auction season. A pearl auction is most commonly organized by farmers’ cooperatives and attended by invited wholesalers and manufacturers, who then convert the raw pearls into beautiful pieces of jewelry.
Buyers enter large rooms lined with tables, upon which sit rows and rows of plastic tubs. Within the tubs are pearl lots (either hanks – bundles of temporary, unknotted pearl strands – or loose pearls) that weigh roughly 500 momme, or 4 pounds. Momme is the ancient Japanese unit of weight still used by the cultured pearl industry for weighing loose pearls. Each is labeled by size and quality. Some lots are sold as mixed, where a farmer sells different grades and qualities of undrilled and assorted pearls together. Fewer lots of matched pearls may also be available.
One 500-momme tub may hold about 5,000 cultured pearls 6mm in size, or 3,500 7mm pearls. The bigger the pearl, the fewer that make it into each lot. Buyers peruse the aisles of pearl lots, taking notes and deciding which are best for their use. Bids are then scribbled on pieces of paper and dropped into small boxes accompanying each lot. Bidding is highly competitive and secret in a closed-bid pearl auction. Japanese producers place high value on relationships, so while the highest bid above the floor price will most often win the lot, other considerations are made.
Having purchased their coveted lots, the pearls are then paired, matched, strung, clasped and mounted to form lustrous pieces of jewelry, like those in the Spey collection. Considering adding the classic akoya pearl to your wardrobe? The Spey akoya strand and stud earrings are very traditional choices. The Spey wave pendant pairs the lustrous akoya with the dark Tahitian pearl for a more modern twist on classic pearl jewelry.