Charlie Barron is a sixth generation Pearl trader and has travelled the world sourcing beautiful Pearls. He took the time to talk to us about his love for this extraordinary miracle of the ocean.
Hi Charlie, can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up in the Pearl business?
I knew that I wanted to go into the Pearl business since the age of nine. I went on a family holiday to see my Uncle and Australian relatives. While we were in Sydney, my family climbed the Sydney Harbour bridge. Being nine, I was too young to do that, so I went to my Uncle’s office. I spent the day in the sorting rooms and immediately fell in love with the stunning Pearls. I thought they the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I knew I wanted to see them every day for the rest of my life.
So how did you learn about Pearls?
As soon as I left school I went straight to “Pearl City” - Kobe, in Japan. Kobe is the main trade centre for Cultured Pearls. I was lucky enough to work for a man called Andy Muller who was my mentor and great teacher. Andy Muller is one of the most knowledgeable Pearl dealers in the world, and has written some of the most highly regarded books on Pearls, as well as being one of the largest pearl wholesalers. He specialises in Tahitian Pearls.
Andy Muller sent me on buying trips to Tahiti to the farms and on sales trips to Hong Kong. Working in Japan was one of the best times in my life, and Kobe will always hold a huge place in my heart. I then went to Australia to work for the largest South Sea Pearl farmer. This was amazing to finally be back in Australia as I had promised myself at age nine. I then went to the second largest Pearl farmer, grading the enormous harvests of this magnificent gem. Finally, I worked for my Uncle as a Pearl wholesaler in Sydney which was very special.
I then went to study Gemmology at the GIA (Gemmological Institute of America). Having finished at the GIA, I went to Amsterdam to work for The Asscher Diamond Company as a diamond cutter. I wanted to understand how jewellery was manufactured, so I went to Bangkok to work at the bench for a manufacturing company that make jewellery for shops in Bond Street, Place Vandome and 5th Avenue. I’ve always loved Pearls more than any other gem, and now I’m lucky enough to focus 100% on Pearls.
What do you think makes Pearls so special?
Pearls are one of the greatest treasures known to man and we are the luckiest people in the world as we get to handle and see them every day! They are one of the only gems used in jewellery that are exactly as they are found. We don’t cut Pearls, we don’t polish Pearls, we don’t heat Pearls. They a gift from Mother Nature. They are opaque but can in top quality almost appear to look transparent. Their iridescent orient and lustre are indescribably beautiful. The greatest treasure of the sea!
You said you are a sixth generation Pearl Trader, what is the oldest Pearl you have ever seen?
One of, if not, the most famous Pearl – La Peregrina. I was lucky enough to see it at Masterpiece London, but have never had the opportunity to hold it. It’s a huge 203 grains (17.9mm x 25.5mm) pear shaped Pearl, one of the finest Natural Pearls on Earth. It was found in the Gulf of Panama in the very early 1500s. So this is a 500 year old Pearl!
La Peregrina has incredible provenance. It was given by Phillip II of Spain to Queen Mary Tudor, owned by a huge number of European Royals and brought by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor. In 2011, La Peregrina was sold at Christie’s in New York for 11.3 million USD.
So do you have any tips for looking after Pearl jewellery?
Make sure you never spray perfume of hair spray on your Pearls. If you need to clean them use a soft cloth (dampen it if you need to), but never use any chemicals on your Pearls. The golden rule is – make sure they’re the last thing you put on in the morning and the first thing you take off at night. If you stick to this, you can’t go wrong.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of Cultured Pearl farming?
The process was discovered by Mikimoto in Japan. Mikimoto produced the first round Cultured Pearl in 1906. He experimented with every sort of nucleus you could imagine. Eventually, he discovered a very specific clam from the Mississippi River in the US, and crafted a rounded nucleus from the shell. This is inserted into the host Oyster. The Oyster then forms layers and layers of nacre around the seed.
Mikimoto’s Japanese Pearls were Akoya Pearls from the Pinctada Fucata (Akoya) Oyster and should be left to grow in the Oyster for a year. Australian South Sea Pearls should be left longer – two to three years.
That’s very specific! Why can’t they be left longer to grow bigger?
The round Pearl is the most valuable shape. So we leave the Pearls in the Oyster for as long as we can to build up as many layers of nacre as possible. But if we leave it too long we will lose the shape. So there is very much an optimum time period.
How does a Pearl get its colour?
I get asked this all the time! A Pearl gets its colour from the Oyster itself. The Oyster’s Mother of Pearl that lines the inside of the Oyster is exactly the same as the nacre that creates the Pearl.
Is there any visible difference between Cultured Pearls and Natural Pearls?
The visible difference is difficult to see. To be 100% certain you must have the Pearl tested by a Gemmological Lab such as SSEF or GIA where they use an X-ray Machine to see the nucleus inside.
Do you have any other Pearl stories you’d like to share before you go?
My favourite is that in the Philippines, some of the Pearl farmers go out at night and sing and play music to the Oysters to keep them happy and help them grow. And the Tahitians once believed that Pearls were formed from the tears of the moon Goddess that trickled down into the Oyster!