Carved pearls. Pearls set with a sparkling brilliant diamond. Gemstone-enucleated pearls carved exposing a flash of color beneath the nacre of the pearl. To some, these products are extreme, an outrageous affront to the elegance of fine cultured pearls. Chi Huynh, creative force behind Galatea: Jewelry by Artist and the designer behind these pearls calls it, "a good start." Because for Chi, pushing the envelope--whether that envelope contains pearls or gems or another precious element--is what creativity is all about.
Galatea's carved pearl collection is a case in point. Take a strand of Tahitian carved pearls in your hand and you'll see how the surface carving changes everything. The smoothed, polished designs reflect light beautifully, exposing the colors and depth of the pearl's nacre like never before.
Carved pearls have long been a part of the Galatea repertoire, represented in single pearls long before they became available as entire strands. And t he first Galatea carved pearl came about entirely by accident. Chi had chipped a pearl he was preparing for a diamond setting and, not wanting to waste an otherwise perfect pearl, got out some tools and went to work. The rest, as they say, is history.
Each of the original Galatea carved Tahitian pearls, all part of the Diamond in a Pearl™ Collection, were small works of art, meticulously hand-carved by Chi and one or two highly trained bench jewelers. Each pearl was christened with a name that resonated like poetry: "Rhythm of Life," "Raven Wings," "Wind." The trade press applauded as did many pearl lovers. Others were not so pleased, equating the rupture of a pearl's lustrous nacre with heresy.
But if acceptance can be measured by accolades, then Galatea carved pearls have received more than a modicum of success. In 2011, Huynh's interchangeable carved pearl Queen Bead Collection was introduced, winning the Cultured Pearl Association of America's International Design Competition "Visionary Award" for, "redefining the iconic pearl strand and shifting the perception of cultured pearls for today's buyer."
Acceptance can also be gauged by those who have embraced these somewhat different gems. Earlier this summer, Galatea entered into an agreement with Tahiti Rava Rava Pearl, one of Tahiti's largest pearl wholesalers, to distribute Galatea carved pearls in Asia and Europe. The agreement included the creation of a second Galatea pearl carving factory in Vietnam, where all production takes place today. The Galatea/TRRP venture has also produced a Hong Kong office: Galatea Pearl Hong Kong, which serves as an international wholesale distribution center. As Galatea increases its relationships with pearl growers around the world, the company has introduced the sale of traditional pearl strands, including Tahitian, white and golden South Sea and Akoya varieties. A 2012 Galatea catalog, "The Pearl Collections," features over 100 individual strands.
The Galatea: Jewelry by Artist tale is the proverbial American success story. A refugee from war-torn Vietnam, Chi came to the United States at the age of 12. His father, a local jeweler in a small village 200 miles south of Saigon, had been imprisoned by the newly formed Communist government. The entire family would eventually come to the golden hills of Southern California over the better part of a decade, though the transition was not always an easy one. Not able to speak a word of English, Chi communicated with his new American school friends by drawing pictures. After high school, he took college courses and started to work as a bench jeweler for local retailers in Southern California. But at night, the entrepreneurial spirit prevailed: Chi would carve waxes by hand and sell them for an average price of $15 a piece. "I didn't have the money for gold," he recalls, "and wax is cheap." It's not unusual for some of these retailers to find Chi at trade shows, letting him know that his designs are still in use.
Today, the company's U.S. base of operations is located in San Dimas, a small town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Much of the company's early growth can be attributed to its most popular jewelry line, Diamond in a Pearl. The collection, which includes over 200 unique designs, is based on one special piece of pearl jewelry Chi created for his future wife, Linh. Appropriately called, "The Gift of Love," Diamond in a Pearl has resonated with jewelry lovers around the world who identify with the story of the oyster's pain and the beautiful pearl that is produced from it--a metaphor, Ch has said, for life itself.
Creating such a special pearl for widespread distribution was not an easy task. This seemingly simple idea only became suitable for manufacture after much experimentation. Chi needed to create special tools to allow a pearl to be drilled and readied for its signature diamond center. With each Diamond in a Pearl, a 14k gold tube and setting is inserted into a carefully drilled the pearl. Today, it is still one of the company's most popular pearl jewelry styles.
Pearl carving, although still done completely by hand, has also come a long way since Chi sat over his jewelry bench, carefully applying drill to nacre. Today, the company's factories--located just outside the small village where he grew up--produces thousands of carved pearls each month. Each factory worker is trained in the pearl carving methods Chi perfected over years of trial and error. The rural area, where poor farmers have scratched at the soil for centuries to grow rice and vegetables, has economically benefitted from the establishment of Galatea's factories. Workers receive better-than-average wages and American-style hours, working conditions and benefits.
Galatea is also involved in farming the black South Sea pearls in the South China Sea. In 2007, Galatea was granted a 100-year lease for a small island located approximately 35 miles off the coast of Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The island holds a small pearling house and staff quarters. TRRP is currently overseeing the production there as well as production of one of the company's most important products, the gemstone-enucleated Galatea Pearl, which is currently farmed in Tahiti.
The Galatea Pearl received a U.S. Patent in 2006. Simply put, the oyster is enucleated with a gemstone, R.C. turquoise or simulated red coral bead, and the resultant pearl is carved to reveal the color beneath its surface. Today, Galatea Pearls are grown only in Tahiti in Pinctada margaritifera oysters, although the company has also grown the pearl successfully in Pinctada maxima (white South Sea) oysters. Today, the company is focusing on Galatea Pearl production in Tahiti where crops can be more easily managed.
Worldwide, Galatea employs over 120 designers, jewelers and pearl carvers--as well as a U.S.-based sales and marketing force. Galatea manufactures both in the U.S. and Vietnam and sells to approximately 1,400 retail jewelers throughout the United States.
Galatea: Jewelry by Artist
#1: Galatea's Carved Pearls are examined for quality assurance.
#2: Entrance to Galatea factory in Vietnam.
#3: Chi opened his factory in the same village where he grew up as a boy.
#4. The patented Galatea Pearl.
#5. Galatea has a 100 lease on an island off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea. Though a small operation, the luster of the black South Sea pearls farmed here are exceptionally lustrous.
#6. In 2012, Galatea joined forces with Tahiti Rava Rava Pearl to distribute the company's carved pearls throughout Asia and Europe. Pictured here (from left to right): Teraiareva Frogier, TRRP; Chi Huynh, Galatea: Jewelry by Artist; Tamatoa Chenne, Pearls of Paradise; Philippe Chenne, TRRP. Photographed at Galatea's pearl carving factory in Soc Trang, Vietnam.
#7. A pearl house at the farm in Vietnam.
#8. Galatea's "Pearl Seasons" necklace features a range of Tahitian pearls in colors that Chi hand selected.
#9. Sorting carved peach freshwater pearls for Queen Bead designs.
#10. Sorting pearls for Queen Beads.
#11. A Tahitian carved "Queen III" necklace features multiple designs.
#12: A strand of Tahitian Queen Beads form the "Queen" necklace, winning the CPAA International Design Competition's "Visionary" Award in 2012.
#13. A close-up of Tahitian carved pearl Queen Beads: Playful and ready to be arranged in so many different ways.