Black Beauty Pearl


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Lareef A. Samad B.Sc. (Hons)

Origin of Name

The "Black Beauty" is a natural black pearl belonging to the American Pearl Company of Camden, Tennessee, founded by John Latendresse, the father of American cultured fresh water pearls. The pearl is believed to have originated in South America, possibly in Ecuador or Venezuela, two of the historic pearl fishing grounds in the region. The pearl is an excellent example of a large, well formed, high-domed button-shaped black pearl, with overtones of a rainbow of colors such as green, yellow, violet etc. commonly referred to as "peacock" or "rainbow" in the classification of black pearls. Peacock or Rainbow black pearls are the most sought-after of black pearls and the most valuable. Thus the name "Black Beauty" seems to reflect the rare combination of color, orient, iridescence, size and shape of a unique pearl, whose extraordinary qualities make it a famous pearl in the world.


The Black Beauty Pearl

The Black Beauty Pearl

© Smithsonian Institution, photo by Chip Clark



Characteristics of the Black Beauty Pearl

The pearl is a high-domed, button-shaped pearl, with dimensions of 10.05 x 8.75 mm, and having a weight of 6.53 carats, equivalent to 26.12 grains. The natural black color with a blend of rainbow colored overtones, known as "peacock" is perhaps the finest ever seen. The natural black color of the pearl is actually the body color of the pearl, caused by a black melanin pigment secreted by special glandular cells in the mantle, during the formation of the nacre. The pigment combines with the protein component of the nacre known as conchiolin. The aragonite platelets which are transparent calcium carbonate crystals, remain colorless, through which the color of the pigment shows through. The overtone of rainbow colors is actually caused by the interference of light passing through the alternative layers of aragonite and conchiolin of the thick nacre, and so is the orient and iridescence of the pearl. The blend of rainbow colors with the black body-color of the pearl is known as "peacock"  or "rainbow" in the pearl trade, and today is the most sought-after color among the cultured black pearls of Tahiti. The fact that the "Black Beauty" is a natural black pearl having the most sought-after color combination as overtones, enhances its value and uniqueness as a famous natural pearl in the world. The table below gives the different combinations of body color and overtones, and special names used for the combination, in the classification of cultured black Tahitian pearls.

Combination of body color and overtones in black Tahitian pearls


Basic body color Overtone Combination

Special name

1 gray yellow yellowish-gray Champagne
2 black purple purplish-black Cherry
3 black blue bluish-black Lavender
4 pale gray - pale gray Moon Gray
5 black green greenish-black Peacock-green or black-green
6 black rainbow of colors - Peacock or Rainbow
7 black reddish-purple - Aubergine or Egg plant
8 gray purple purple-gray Pigeon Gray
9 gray green greenish-gray Pistachio
10 gray - gray Silver
11 black gold golden-black Tahitian Gold

History of the "Black Beauty" Pearl

The "Black Beauty" is believed to have originated in South America, possibly in the historic pearl fishing grounds of Venezuela or Ecuador. It is not known exactly when the black pearl was discovered, but a study of the history of pearl fishing  in both countries, the habitat in which the pearl oysters are found, and the species of pearl oysters found in these habitats, might give an indication as to the probable origin of the pearl


Discovery of pearls in Venezuela

Native Indians used pearls for ornamental purposes and decorating their temples

Even before the discovery of the New World by Columbus in the 15th century, the native Indians had known about pearls, and collected them from the mollusks, which they opened for food at times of necessity. They might also have sought these pearls for ornamental purposes as well as decorating their temples. Yet, the native Indians did not regard pearls as valuable possessions, pricing them extravagantly as it was done in the old world, particularly in the west. The native Indians readily bartered their pearls in exchange for worthless items like ceramic plates, buttons, needles, scissors, knives etc.

Third Voyage of Columbus - 1498 to 1500

Third Voyage of Columbus - 1498 to 1500

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Islands of Margarita, Cubagua and Coche off the coast of Venezuela discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498

Islands of Margarita, Cubagua and Coche off the coast of Venezuela discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498

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Coastline of Cubagua where sailors from Columbus' ship first landed and discovered pearls

Coastline of Cubagua where sailors from Columbus' ship first landed and discovered pearls

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Christopher Columbus discovers pearls in Venezuela in 1498

The occurrence of pearls in the New World was discovered for the first time in Venezuela, in 1498 by Christopher Columbus, on his third voyage to the New World. Columbus first reached the Island of Cubagua, off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, which he later called the "Island of Pearls" and observed a boatload of native fisherman, fishing off the coast of the Island. Inquisitive about the fisherman's activities, Columbus sent one of his own boats with sailors to find out. The sailors followed the boat and reached the shore where the native Indians had landed. As the sailors approached the boat to have a look at their catch, a sailor saw a woman with a string of pearls around her neck. He carried a dish of Malaga with him which he exchanged for some strings of pearls, white and large. Delighted with their transaction, the sailors returned to the ship. Columbus was surprised to see such large pearls, and ordered more of his sailors to go ashore with items like needles, scissors, knives, buttons, and other utility items, to be bartered for pearls. The sailors returned with more than 48 ounces of pearls of assorted sizes, with many good quality pearls among them. Columbus was overwhelmed with what he had seen, and said to his sailors, "We are in the richest country of the world. Let us give thanks to the Lord."

1519 Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastino del Piombo

1519 Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastino del Piombo

Columbus is brought back to Spain as a prisoner for failure to report his discovery to the king

Columbus then left the island, and approached the land where large crowds had gathered on the shore; men, women and children who had come to witness a rare sight, a large sailing craft, the type of which they had never seen before, with strange people on board. Some of the native Indians visited the ships and were welcomed aboard, and were amazed by the dress, swords and beards of the Spaniards, as well as the cannon, tackle and arms of the ship. Most of the Indians wore pearls on their necks and wrists, and when Columbus asked them where they found them, they pointed towards the coast and the islands. Having made his sensational discovery, Columbus sailed across the coastline of Venezuela, as far as Cape Vela, and then to Santo Domingo. Columbus made the grave mistake of not informing his king immediately about the discovery of the pearls, and by the time he decided to write to the king, the news had already reached Castile about the discovery. This earned the wrath of the king who ordered that Columbus be arrested and brought as a prisoner to Spain.


More expeditions are sent to Venezuela in search of pearls. Establishment of the first Spanish town in the New World, called New Cadiz, on the island of Cubagua

Pedro Alonso Nino, Spanish explorer who headed the second expedition to Venezuela

Pedro Alonso Nino, Spanish explorer who headed the second expedition to Venezuela

Following the discovery of pearls in Venezuela in 1498 by Christopher Columbus, a second expedition was sent by the king in 1499, headed by Pedro Alonso Nino, and 33 other sailors, some of whom had accompanied Columbus on the previous voyage. After a successful expedition, Nino returned to Galicia with 96 pounds of pearls, which included many fine, round and lustrous ones of about 5 and 6 carats or more. Nino also suffered the same fate as Columbus, being accused by his sailors of stealing pearls and cheating the king. However, the expedition has gone down in history as the first financially profitable voyage to the New World.

Island of Cubagua indicating the location of the ruins of the early 16th-century city of New Cadiz

Island of Cubagua indicating the location of the ruins of the early 16th-century city of New Cadiz

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Ruins of the former city of New Cadiz

Ruins of the former city of New Cadiz

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After the success of this expedition, the Cubagua pearl fishery attained great fame, and more expeditions by the Spanish followed, most of them sailing from Hispaniola or Haiti, just 900 miles away. Initially, the pearl fishery had problems due to the difficulty in finding local divers as a result of the cruelty and harsh treatment meted out to them. The problem was relieved in 1508, by transporting large numbers of Indian divers from the islands of Lucayan or Bahamas who were experts in the field. This led to the establishment of the first Spanish town in the New World in 1515, called New Cadiz, on the Venezuelan island of Cubagua, by the Governor of Hispaniola, Diego Columbus, son of the discoverer, which served as a center for harvesting pearl oysters and collecting pearls. However, fresh water and other requirements needed for the settlers had to be brought either from the mainland, twenty miles away, or from Margarita Island, three miles northwards.

Diego Columbus, Governor of Hispaniola and son of Christopher Columbus

Diego Columbus, Governor of Hispaniola and son of Christopher Columbus

Discovery of more pearl beds off the Pacific coast of Panama and the Gulf of California, in Mexico.

Pearls harvested from the Venezuelan coast were relatively small, having an average weight of 2-5 carats. However, what was lacking in size, was compensated in quantity, as pearls were harvested in the largest quantities of any location in the New World, so much so,  that the northeastern coast of Venezuela, came to be known as the "Pearl Coast." Other locations where pearls were discovered by the Spanish, a decade or two after the discovery of the Venezuelan pearls, were around the islands off the Pacific coast of Panama, and in the Gulf of California in Mexico. The Spanish also developed programs to harvest pearls from these newly discovered sites, but quantities discovered from the Venezuelan coast exceeded that of the other sites. In 1527, pearl production reached a maximum, and 1,380 kg of pearls were harvested in Venezuela. It has been estimated that between 1513 to 1530, at least 118 million pearls were harvested near Cubagua Island. Seville, Spain became the center of the pearl market, for pearls originating in the New World. Other pearl markets in Europe were Amberes also in Spain, Venice in Italy, and Lisbon in Portugal.


Depletion of the pearl oyster resources of Venezuela and Colombia and the closure of the pearl harvesting industry

Intensive harvesting of the pearl oyster resources off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Colombia, stimulated by strong market demand during this period, resulted in the great depletion of the resources, so much so by the mid-17th century, barely 150 years after pearls were first discovered, pearl harvesting as an industry, which for a number of years, represented the greatest single industry of the European people in the American continent, totally ceased. Some of the reasons attributed for the closure of the industry were :-

1) The rapid depletion of resources due to the abandonment of conventional methods of harvesting using divers and instead using mechanical devices such as rakes and drags, to scrape up everything from the ocean floor, destroying the habitat of pearl oysters.

2) Decrease in demand for natural pearls, brought about by the skilful manufacture of imitations at Venice and elsewhere in Southern Europe.

3) The development of mining resources such as gold and silver in Mexico and Peru, in the early 17th century, that attracted the Spaniards away from pearling to mining.

4) The long years of cruelty and oppression had converted the surviving Indians of the region into deadly foes, who terrified the remaining settlers to abandon their enterprise. 


Revival of the pearl harvesting industry in the early 20th century

After the independence of Colombia and Venezuela from Spanish rule, in 1823 and 1829 respectively, the pearl industry could not be revived in spite of the natural restoration of the reefs, after being left undisturbed for almost 150 years, following their abandonment in the mid-17th century, due to frequent changes in government regulations and the imposition of heavy taxes. However, after 1895 the government of Venezuela had granted concessions to individuals and companies for the exploitation of defined areas for limited periods, taking a 10% royalty on the turnover of the enterprise. The government reserved the right to examine the books, and to intervene if necessary at any phase of the enterprise. Besides the traditional method of diving for pearls, the only mechanical method that was allowed was the use of dredges, that does not remove all oysters from the reef, and instead help spread the oysters, enlarging the reef.


The species of pearl oyster around which pearling in Venezuela and Colombia was based

The species of pearl oyster around which the pearl industry of Venezuela and Colombia was based, was Pinctada imbricata, known as the Atlantic pearl oyster, whose distribution ranged beyond the Caribbean Sea as far north as North Carolina and south to Brazil. The pearl beds around which the industry was built, was situated off the coasts of Venezuela and northeastern Columbia. In Venezuela the harvesting of pearl oysters was mainly centered around the three off shore islands of Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche, around 12-18 km off its northern Caribbean coast. In Colombia, the pearl fishery was situated 1,000 km west of the Venezuelan fishery, off the Guajira Peninsula, close to the Venezuelan border.

Shell of Pinctada imbricata

Shell of Pinctada imbricata - Atlantic pearl oyster

Pinctada Imbricata - Classification

Kingdom - Animalia

Phylum   - Mollusca

Classs    - Bivalvia

Order     - Pterioida

Family    - Pteriidae

Genus    - Pinctada

Species  - imbricata

Alternative species names - martensii, fucata, radiata

Common name - Atlantic pearl oyster

                    - Gulf pearl oyster

                    - Akoya pearl oyster


Four species of Pinctada - imbricata, fucata, martensii and radiata have the same genetic profile, and actually belong to the same species

Pinctada imbricata (Atlantic pearl oyster), Pinctada fucata (Akoya pearl oyster), Pinctada martensii (Akoya-gai), and Pinctada radiata (Gulf pearl oyster) were previously classified as different species, based on slight differences in morphological (external) as well as anatomical (internal) characteristics. However, recent genetic research conducted by Masaoka and Kobayashi in 2005, on the these species has shown, that they possess the same genetic profile, and therefore belong to the same species, in spite of their slight variations. 

In Biology, "species" is one of the basic units of biological classification, and taxonomic rank. A species is defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Similarity of DNA and morphological characteristics are seen among members of the same species; however the presence of specific locally adapted traits, may further subdivide species into subspecies. Using this definition of species as a guideline, it is seen that interbreeding and production of fertile offspring takes place not only between members of each of the four "species" of Pinctada, listed above, but also between a member of one species and another. In fact  Japanese researchers had crossbred all the four "species" and produced fertile offspring, in their attempts to develop hybrids most suited for Akoya pearl culture. Thus according to the above definition,  the notion that imbricata, fucata, martensii and radiata are separate species is not tenable, as they can freely crossbreed and produce fertile offspring. Pinctada fucata/martensii/radiata/imbricata is known as a "species complex." It is believed that this complex constitutes a cosmopolitan, globally-distributed species, characterized by substantial intraspecific variation over its range. Pearls derived from members of this "species complex" in Japan are known as Akoya pearls, and thus the complex is referred to as the Akoya pearl oyster.

The four components of the "species complex" have specific locally adapted traits, besides their common traits, that led them to be classified as different species. Thus, the four components of the "species complex" could actually be considered as sub-species of a cosmopolitan species with a global range.

Thus the Atlantic pearl oyster, Pinctada imbricata, the two Indo-Pacific pearl oysters, Pinctada fucata and Pinctada martensii, and the Gulf pearl oyster Pinctada radiata, belong to the same species in spite of their widely separated habitats. This enabled the introduction of Pinctada imbricata into Japanese waters, to recoup the perliculture industry of Japan after the mass scale deaths of Pinctada martensii in the mid-1990s.

Pinctada species of significant commercial value

Out of the large number of pearl oyster species in the Genus Pinctada, under the family Pteriidae, which have the potential of producing pearls, only around five species have been identified that have great commercial value, and are used in Perliculture today. The table below gives the natural distribution of these oyster species and the type of pearls produced by them. The sizes and color of the pearls produced depends on the average size attained by the mollusk species, and the natural color of the nacre inside the shell.


Pinctada species of commercial value and their distribution


Pinctada species Common name Distribution

Type of pearls produced

1 Pinctada radiata Gulf-pearl oyster Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Mannar Silvery white, cream, and light pink pearls; also occasionally yellow, brown, and violet
2 Pinctada margaritifera Black-lip oyster Persian Gulf, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, Myanmar, Baja California Black South Sea pearls or Tahitian pearls
3 Pinctada maxima White-lip oyster, Gold-lip oyster  Myanmar, Philippines, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti White and Golden South Sea pearls
4 Pinctada fucata (martensii, imbricata) Akoya pearl oyster, Atlantic pearl oyster Japan, China, Korea Venezuela, Colombia, Bermuda, Persian Gulf, Australia Mohar oriental pearls, Akoya cultured pearls
5 Pinctada albina Smaller Australian oyster or Shark Bay pearl oyster Australia, Philippines, China, Vietnam, Korea, Micronesia Yellow and small pearls

Species used for culturing blister pearls


Characteristics of Pinctada imbricata

Being a bivalve Pinctada imbricata is bilaterally symmetrical, and has a two-valved shell which is dorsally hinged. The shell has a notch in the right valve. The shell is ovate, with a straight hinge line and has an interior nacreous or pearl layer. The shell is thin and brittle and therefore has no economic value as mother-of-pearl, as the shell of other pearl oysters like Pinctada margaritifera (Black-lip oyster). This explains the large mounds of dead pearl oyster shells dumped on the coastline of Venezuela during the height of the pearl industry in that country, formed by discarding of  pearl shells after the oysters were searched for pearls. The color of the shell can vary from white to brown or tan, with several dark brown lines radiating from the dorsal hinge. The oyster attaches by byssal fibers to the substrate. The left valve is more concave than the right, and it has a byssal opening, for the byssal fibers. The valves can have a maximum length of 7 cm.


Life cycle of Pinctada imbricata

Pinctada imbricata is a protantric hermaphrodite; i.e. the bivalve is bisexual, but during its development it behaves first as a male, and later in life as a female. Thus the younger and smaller oysters are males and the older and bigger oysters are females. In a given population the ratio of males to females is approximately 1 : 1. The gonads surround the digestive diverticulum. Males and females release sperms and eggs into the surrounding water, where fertilization takes place. The free swimming larvae formed after fertilization take 20-25 days to grow into spats that settled on the reef. Reproduction takes place throughout the year, but setting of juveniles is heaviest from June to December when water temperatures are the highest. The larvae that are about to set, also known as spats, attach with their byssus to hard substrates such as rocks, coral reefs, other pearl oysters, and molluscan shells and barnacles. The oysters retain this attachment with byssal threads, throughout their lives, unless they are torn free by unforeseen circumstances such the activities of fisherman or violent storm actions.

Growth of all stages of the oysters, whether embryos, juveniles or adults, are affected by three important environmental factors. They are 1) water temperatures 2) availability of nutrients  and 3) salinity. In the relatively shallow waters surrounding the islands of Margarita, Cubagua and Coche, during the period from December to February, strong easterly winds cause upwellings that brings nutrient-rich water from the depths of the ocean to the shallow seas. Water temperatures that were around 26-28 °C during summer, falls by 2-3°C during this period; and the salinity also increases by about 2 ppt to 36 ppt (parts per thousand). The combine effect of these changes during this period, results in a large increase of the phytoplankton population, which is the main source of food for fishes (sardines) and pearl oysters. The oysters grow rapidly during this period, and in mature oysters the gonads grow rapidly in anticipation of spawning. The natural predators that can feed on the pearl oyster spats are certain species of gastropods and crabs, and the spiny lobster. Oysters that escape from their natural enemies grew to adult oysters within about 12 months.


Can Pinctada imbricata be the source of the "Black Beauty pearl" ?

Historical records of the pearl fishery in Venezuela in the 16th century show that the average size of the pearls harvested from this region weighed between 2 to 5 carats, and there were three main color grades of pearls harvested: white, yellow and pink. Besides this large quantities of seed pearls were also harvested. Cultured Akoya pearls produced  by Pinctada fucata martensii, are also generally white or cream colored, with overtones of rose, silver or cream. Thus it seems to be highly unlikely that the "Black Beauty Pearl" with its overtones of rainbow colors, would have originated in the common species of pearl oyster found  in Venezuela, Pinctada imbricata.

However George Frederick Kunz in his book "The Book Of The Pearl" identifies the  pearl oyster species found on the coast of Venezuela as Margaritifera radiata (Pinctada radiata), which according to him is closely related to the Ceylon species found in the "Gulf of Mannar." "The pearl-oyster (Margaritifera radiata) secured on the coast of Venezuela is closely related to the Ceylon species. It averages slightly larger in size, and there is a much greater range in coloration. The pearls are of good quality. In color they range from white to bronze, and occasionally a so-called black one is found. The total output is valued locally at about 1,750,000 francs ($350,000) per year. Most of them are sold in Paris.

If Pinctada imbricata/radiata was not the source of the "Black Beauty Pearl" theoretically the most probable source would be the black-lip oyster. Pinctada margaritifera, the source of black Tahitian pearls, which are known to produce black/gray pearls with rainbow overtones. However, the occurrence of Pinctada margaritifera in the Atlantic coastline of north or south America or the Caribbean coasts  have not been documented. Pinctada margaritifera is actually an Indo-Pacific species occurring in the coastlines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.


Ecuador the other possible source of the "Black Beauty Pearl"

Ecuador a country situated on the equator with a Pacific coastline

It is said that the "Black Beauty Pearl" originated in South America, in the pearl fishing grounds of Venezuela or Ecuador. The possibility of Venezuela being the source of this unique black pearl have been examined in detail in the foregoing account. Ecuador, a country situated on the equator, from which it derives its name, has a coastline on the Pacific, and is bordered by Colombia on the north, and Peru on the east and south. The country also includes the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, situated about 965 km west of the mainland, famous as the place of birth of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Map of Ecuador

Map of Ecuador

Source - CIA, The World Fact Book

Exploitation of pearl resources brought greater returns to the Spanish than gold and silver

Ecuador has not been famous as its northern neighbor Columbia, and its northeastern neighbor Venezuela, in the field of pearl fisheries; two countries in South America, which became internationally renowned for their pearl harvesting industry, after the discovery of the New World by Columbus, in the 15th century. The exploitation of pearl resources, off the shores of Colombia and Venezuela, and later Panama and Gulf of California, brought greater returns to the Spanish colonialists, than gold and silver, in the 16th century. However these resources were exhausted within a short period of time due to over exploitation.


Evidence for the existence of an ancient pearl fishery in Ecuador that served the Incas

In Ecuador, even though large scale pearl fisheries did not exist during this period, evidence of the existence of a pearl fishery in this region several centuries ago had been found. Such evidence had been gathered by Dr. H. M. Saville, of the American Museum of Natural History. According to William E. Curtis, the traveler and writer, a pearl fishery existed on the coast of Ecuador, at the little town known as Manta, in the Province of Manabi. Pearls were said to have been more abundant in Manta than in the Panama Bay. It is also believed that Manta was the source of the splendid pearls obtained by the Incas, which the Spaniards later found in the palaces and temples of Peru. However, the pearl fishing grounds of Manta was later abandoned due to the invasion of a voracious species of fish known as "El Manti," which eliminated the pearl oysters as well as the oyster-bearing submerged  reefs. It is from 'El Manti" the town subsequently derived its name Manta.

Shell of Pinctada margaritifera - Pacific pearl oyster

Shell of Pinctada margaritifera - Pacific pearl oyster

The source of the "Black Beauty" was actually Ecuador and not Venezuela ?

The coasts of Ecuador in recent times had supported a pearl fishery of minor importance from time to time. However, unlike the Venezuelan coast which is part of the Caribbean Sea, arising from the Atlantic Ocean, where the black-lip oyster doest not exist, the Ecuadorian coastline is part of the Pacific, the natural home of the black-lip oyster. Thus it was quite possible that the "Black Beauty Pearl" originated from the black-lip oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, that was once found in the waters of the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. The body color, overtones and orient of this unique black pearl, undoubtedly supports this viewpoint. Thus the distribution and range of the different pearl oyster species, seem to support the view that the source of the "Black Beauty Pearl" is actually Ecuador and not Venezuela.

Pinctada margaritifera in its natural environment in the Pacific Ocean around the islands of Hawaii

Pinctada margaritifera in its natural environment in the Pacific Ocean around the islands of Hawaii


American Pearl Company - the present owners of the "Black Beauty Pearl"

American Pearl Company founded by John Latendresse in 1961

The present owners of the "Black Beauty Pearl" is the American Pearl Company, founded by John Latendresse, the "father of American cultured fresh water pearls," in 1961, in Camden, Tennessee. In 1991, the company expanded to Nashville, Tennessee. After John Latendresse's death in the year 2000, the company is being managed by his wife Chessy, son J.K. and daughters Gina and Renee, who continue to maintain and uphold the legacy of the American cultured pearl pioneer.

Gina Latendresse - Daughter of John Latendresse and President of American Pearl Company, Nashville, Tennessee

Gina Latendresse - Daughter of John Latendresse and President of American Pearl Company, Nashville, Tennessee

Photo Courtesy - Imperial-Deltah

The company specializes in both natural and cultured pearls from the United States

The American Pearl Company specializes in both natural and cultured pearls from the United States. The company maintains a sizeable inventory of rare natural pearls, collected over a long period of almost 50 years, from the rivers and lakes of America. The collection of natural pearls owned by the company is believed to be largest collection in the world, which also includes the "Black Beauty Pearl" the subject of this webpage. The freshwater cultured pearls offered by the company is the result of almost 30 years of continuous research and development  undertaken by the company, that refined the culturing techniques introduced from Asia. The native American river mussels have responded well to the culturing techniques, producing beautiful cultured pearls of superior quality, given a minimum period of 3-5 years for their growth in monitored waters.


Innovative research to produce cultured pearls of novel shapes

The secret of the beauty of American freshwater cultured pearls, lies in the time given for the growth of the pearl, which is 3-5 years, sufficient for the pearl to build up a thick layer of nacre, that is responsible for the high quality, rich luster and breathtaking orient of the cultured pearl. Besides the traditional shapes produced by natural pearls, such as round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque and ringed, innovative research carried out by John Latendresse, produced cultured pearls of novel shapes, which he called "fancishapes" such as marquise, teardrop, bar, navette, cabochon, triangle and coin. The technique lies in the implanting of beads of desired shapes carved from the shell of an American mussel within the soft tissue of the mussel. The greatest advantage of using American freshwater mussels in the culturing process, is the great size of the mussels, that enables multi-nucleation with a variety of shapes of beads, producing bountiful harvests of pearls.


Profile of John Latendresse - Father of American cultured freshwater pearls

Early life and exposure to jewelry valuation

John Latendresse who was born in South Dakota, left home at the age of 13 and joined the Marines by lying about his age which he claimed was 15. During World War II he spent 38 months in the South Pacific, and then returned to Reno, Nevada, where he worked as a cashier in a casino. It was during this period that John Latendressse was exposed to jewels and jewelry, that included pearl jewelry, which he had to learn to value, when members of the high society who were in attendance, and less successful at the table, sometimes pawned their jewelry to try their luck further. The experience he gathered in the appraisal of jewelry, while serving as a cashier, gave him the incentive to pursue a career in jewelry.


Purchasing of pearls along the Mississippi

For a start John Latendresse began purchasing pearls, by traveling up and down the Mississippi buying gems from pearl harvesters and fisherman, and then selling them to brokers. It was during one of these pearl buying trips that he met accidentally Morris Hanauer, the owner of the American Gem and Pearl Company, who had driven down from New York with his wife, also buying pearls along the river, who became his mentor, and guided him in his chosen field.


Formation of the Tennessee Shell Company

While buying pearls along the Mississippi River, John Latendresse's attention was diverted towards the major activity of mussel harvesters, buying and selling mussel shells to brokers, who in turn exported them to Germany and Japan as raw material for the button manufacturing industry, and as handles on eating utensils, but more importantly to create pearl nuclei that formed the core of most cultured pearls. In 1954, John Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company, and took on a Japanese partner to establish a strong relationship with Japanese pearl companies, and within a short period was able to dominate the shell gathering business. His company soon became the world's primary supplier of mussel shells, for the cultured pearl industry. He then married a Japanese girl Chessy, and both his wife and mother-in-law became an asset for the expansion of his pearl business. While Chessy  had learnt the art of pearl culturing, her mother had once worked at the National Pearl Laboratory. Around the mid-1960s, John Latendresse, was the main supplier of mussel shells to Japan, supplying almost 70% of their pearl nucleus needs.


John Latendresse experiments with freshwater pearl farming. Sets up first successful farm in Camden, Tennessee.

With the expertise and technical know-how gathered by him while in Japan supplemented by the experience of his wife and mother-in-law, John Latendresse decided to try his hand at the pearl farming business himself. In 1963, he started an experimental farm near Camden, applying Japanese technology, but the experiment failed, probably because the animals used were American freshwater mussels. He tried again in 1981, but failed, this time due to the quality of the water, which had excess of iron that emulsified the calcium in the water and made it impossible to raise mussels. Thus it became clear that water quality was a key factor in establishing a successful pearl farm. He then toured the United States looking for suitable bodies of water, where he could establish his farm. After studying almost 500 bodies of water in the United States, he found only seven were suitable. He set up his first successful freshwater pearl oyster farm in Camden, Tennessee in 1983. Subsequently, he set up two additional farms on the shores of the  Kentucky Lake, one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S. covering 2,380 miles of shoreline, where he established two farms in two small sections of the lake, having taken a lease from the Tennessee Valley Authority. He also set up farms in Louisiana and Texas.

Kentucky Lake formed by impounding Tennessee River

Kentucky Lake formed by impounding Tennessee River

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John Latendresse improves on the performance of Japanese pearl culturists

His company has around 80 dedicated workers, consisting of research scientists and technical staff, that also included a limnologist, a malacologist and a veterinarian. The company produces all types of pearls, such as keshi, mabe and whole pearls of different shapes and sizes. Latendresse, who calls himself a "pearl designer" also invented the innovative technique of culturing pearls of desired shapes, by implanting nuclei of appropriate shapes. Latendresse and his team of dedicated scientists and technicians, adopted Japanese technology in the culturing of pearls, but through extensive research modified the technology to suite local American conditions. They were also able to improve on the performance of the Japanese, such as reducing the mortality rate of implanted oysters from 40-60%  to only 3.9%, producing a greater variety of colors and shapes, increasing the thickness of the nacre by placing the nuclei in the right places, and giving more time for growth, and producing a better luster than Japanese  pearls. Most of his cultured pearls eventually reached the Japanese markets where his company has captured a substantial share of the market. When admonished by Japanese pearl culturists for attempting to produce their national treasure, John Latendresse replied, "Well Sir, Henry Ford is part of our history, and is certainly part of America's past. Look at Toyota, Nissan - just what have you people done to Ford's idea ?"


The indomitable determination of a scientist

The success story of freshwater pearl culturing in the United States is undoubtedly the story of the indomitable determination of a single motivated individual and scientist, John Robert Latendresse. His initial attempts at pearl culturing resulted in failure, after failure after failure. Whereas the average individual would have given up in despair after mounting failures, John Latendresse persisted with indomitable determination, and after 20 long years, experimenting in the labs, testing the shells, the water quality etc. and screening almost 500 bodies of water scattered across the United States, to select the best aquatic environment for the project, finally succeeded in 1983, after several million dollars had already been spent on the project. Subsequently other entrepreneurs also emulated  his example and set up freshwater pearl farms that turned out to be profitable ventures. Today, 31 different States have reported the production of freshwater pearls and shells, but the bulk of the shell and pearl production takes place in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana.

John Robert Latendresse died on July 23, 2000, at his home in Camden, Tennessee, at the age of 74. His wife Chessy, daughters Gina and Renee, and son J.K. have taken over the legacy left behind by him, and are determined to uphold and maintain it, while working towards the realization of their father's dream to make southeastern United States a pearl culturing center, from where pearl culturing was to be expanded throughout the country.


The Black Beauty Pearl displayed at the "Allure of Pearls" exhibition held at the Geology, Gems and Minerals Hall of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, between March 18 and September 5, 2005

The 6.53-carat, high-domed, button-shaped, Black Beauty Pearl with the much desired combination of body color and overtones, known as "peacock" or "rainbow" was given on loan by the American Pearl Company to the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, to be displayed at an exhibition known as the "Allure of Pearls" that was held in the second floor of the Geology, Gems and Minerals Hall, between March 18 and September 5, 2005. The exhibition that was co-sponsored by the Gemological Institute of America, Paspaley Pearl Pty. Ltd. and Iridesse Pearls, also featured among others such famous pearls as the La Peregrina, the Drexel Pearl, Queen Mary Conch Pearl Brooch, Survival Pearl, Paspaley Drop-shaped Pearls, Paspaley Pearl, the Pearl of Asia, the Pearl of Kuwait, the Hope Pearl and the Christopher Walling Abalone Pearl.


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Back to Famous Pearls


Related :-

1) Pearl of Asia

2) Hope Pearl

3) Imperial Hong Kong Pearl

4) Pearl of Kuwait


External Link :-

1) American Pearl Company


References :-

1) Pearl Fisheries of Venezuela - The Book of the Pearl, Kunz    
2) The Pearl Oyster - Paul Southgate and John Lucas  
3) History of the Atlantic Pearl Oyster, Pinctada imbricata, industry in Venezuela, and Colombia, with biological and ecological observations - Marine Fisheries Review, 2003, - Clyde L. McKenzie Jr., Luis Troccoli, Luis B. Leon
4) Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda - Atlantic Pearl Oyster (Pinctada imbricata) - by Erin Leonhardt and James B. Wood  
5) Ecuador - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
6) Species - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
7)Website of the American Pearl Company   
8) GIA : Events & Trade Shows - The Allure of Pearls, Smithsonian NMNH, Washington D.C. 
9) John Latendresse - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
10)The Return of the American Pearl - by C. Richard Fassler, Aquaculture Magazine, Sept-Oct 1991   
11) American Pear Pioneer John Latendresse Dies - Kymberly Zabawa, Loupe Online, GIA World News, August 8, 2000.  
12) US Pearl Cultivation - Tennessee & Mississippi River basin

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Dr Shihaan Larif
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