Cultured Pearls - The American Story
In 1954, John R. Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee. It specialized in exporting mussels from the rivers and lakes of North America to the Japanese (the only market at the time). At the height of the business in the 1970’s, the company shipped 23 tons of mussels to Japan to make the nuclei for cultured pearls. In 1991, he sold the Tennessee Shell Company to a group of investors so he could concentrate on his passion - Pearl Farming. Today, the shell company exports our domestic mussels to Japan, China, Tahiti and Australia.
Then in 1961, Mr. Latendresse founded the American Pearl Company®, Inc. At that time, it specialized in natural pearls and imported cultured pearls from Japan and China. In 1963, John Latendresse was challenged by a group of Japanese pearl exporters. The conversation was that the finest cultured pearls in the world came from Japan. He was told he could not grow pearls in the murky waters of Tennessee. As John would later remark, "It is not the pristine clear blue waters of Tahiti with half naked women diving for pearls rather its the muddy rivers of Tennessee, a little bit less romantic, but maybe more intriguing." Little did they know how determined he would be to succeed in this project. After testing over 300 bodies of water, ironically the local river was very suitable for pearl farming and it was less than 20 miles from his home. It was the only convenience in his 20 years of research and development. The first few years were spent trying to attempt the Japanese techniques on American mussels which were not effective. Latendresse and his wife, Chessy, developed new techniques after studying the anatomy of the domestic mollusks. Chessy became the lead technician and taught each new technician the secrets of pearl culture. After spending over 5 million dollars and 20 years in the making, in 1983 the first marketable pearls were harvested, but it was not until 1985 that the company succeeded in cultivating on a large scale the beautiful American cultured pearls. In August 1985 the company was featured in the National Geographic Magazine which delivered to the world the news of the newest addition to the cultured pearl market.
The culturing technique at American Pearl is similar to others in that all pearl farmers generally use the same technique with their own variations. Live mollusks are harvested by contracted divers. These soon-to-be "mothers" of cultured pearls are cared for and brought to the operation facility. There, a skilled technician cuts a pearl sac and inserts a mother-of-pearl bead nucleus and graft of mantle tissue to seed the cultured pearl. After the operation, the mollusks are placed in the post op tank for monitoring. Soon, they are taken in nets to the pearl farm on the Tennessee River to be tied and suspended from PVC pipes-not bamboo as used in Asia. There are many variables in pearl production. A perfect technician making the perfect incision will, with perfect weather, produce the perfect pearl, but if the insertion is .5mm off it will change the shape and quality of the pearl. American Pearl is not necessarily concerned with exact shapes and therefore they have been successful at marketing their pearls which have been fondly called the cultured pearl with a twist-Beyond Baroque™
American cultured pearl varieties include the Domé Pearl® (cultured blister pearls), the Fancishape cultured pearl™ (unique coin, rectangular, triangular, cabochon, marquise, teardrops and navette shapes), and the "Lagniappe cultured pearl" which is a byproduct of the culturing process, if these had been grown in saltwater they would be called keshi cultured pearls. For example, we implant two bead nuclei and at harvest time the mollusk reveals four pearls. The two with the obvious shape of the nuclei are the intended fancishape cultured pearls and the other two are "Lagniappe cultured pearls", a little something extra from our pearl farming experience. The Domé Pearls® are grown for 18 months to 2 years, the Fancishapes™ are grown for 3 to 5 years and the Lagniappes are harvested at the time of the other shapes. (The three year cultivation period allows for at least 1 mm of nacre coating over the mother-of-pearl bead nucleus. John Latendresse knew that the future held the technology to process all pearls and so he decided not to process his precious American cultured pearls. And, today the American Pearl Company® is one of a hand full of farms that does not process their cultured pearls. The colors and luster are all as nature has intended them to be.
Why not culture the round shape?
For several years, the farms cultured round pearls and they looked like the Japanese cultured pearls. Mr. Latendresse wanted the Tennessee cultured pearls to be unique. He wanted to make history with new shapes and new technologies – the American cultured pearl would forever reshape the look of pearls worldwide. It was not necessary to continue cultivating the rounds as we developed a good following with our fancishapes.
American cultured pearls are natural in color. The main color is silvery-white body color with highlights of blue, green, fuchsia and golden. To add spice to the mix, also available are cultured blister pearls (Domé Pearls®) in deep lavender colors from a very special mollusk called the Pink Heelsplitter. And, as in every harvest, less than 2% of the crop is blue or golden in body color which is a result of mollusk condition, water quality and other variables.
American cultured pearls are available in a variety of sizes from the 1-2mm seed size and larger up to 30 mm long "Lagniappe cultured pearls", the 10-15 mm coin shape, to the 10-30+mm navette shapes. One of their company slogans is "These is NOT your mother's pearls," indicating to buyers that these are a new category of pearl. No other farm in the world offers the following traits in conjunction with each other: They do not process or enhance their harvests; Their shapes are unusual; and they offer "fair trade pearls". Fair Trade Pearls is defined by their commitment to environmental protection, fair labor practices, health and safety standards, and the insurance that the domestically grown, American cultured pearls, are never bleached, dyed or enhanced.
As for quality, John Latendresse set his standards high. The three to five year cultivation period ensures the nacre thickness and with a little luck, the surface of the pearls is smooth, lustrous and brilliant with a play of color much like a rainbow reflection. Of course, commercial quality is available and affordable.
American pearls are available loose to make into jewelry or already set in 14 karat yellow or white gold designs. The inventory is large and very unique. Prices range from $50 to $5,000 US dollars. Of course, the natural pearls are rare and command high prices sometimes over $50,000 US for one pearl.
John Latendresse has been called the father of the American cultured pearl and is even referred to by the industry as the Picasso of pearls because of the distinct shapes of his cultured pearls. He and the family could travel and identify his cultured pearls based on the shape alone. His intention was to produce a high quality product with style and distinction from his domestic waters and before his death in the summer of 2000 his vision was complete. The pearl farm has been sold to a company, which promotes it as a tourist destination and museum. It grows American cultured pearls but in limited harvests.
Gina, Renée and Chessy Latendresse continue the legacy and operate the American Pearl Company®, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee offering a variety of American pearls both natural and cultured as well as imported cultured pearls from Tahiti, Japan and China. Their specialty includes the American cultured pearls, imported cultured pearls and a variety of natural pearls from around the world including but not limited to Melo pearls, Conch pearls from the Caribbean, Abalone pearls from Baja California, Mano-de-lèon scallop pearls from the Lion's Paw scallop, and Quahog pearls from the East coast of the US.
Notes: Natural Pearls are available from freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers and from the Ocean’s saltwaters.
Cultured Pearls are available from freshwater lakes and rivers and from the Ocean’s saltwaters.
Keshi cultured pearls are a variety of cultured pearl from saltwater mollusks as defined by CIBJO in April 2009.
Lagniappe is a cultured pearl formed as a by product from the domestic pearl farm; the freshwater equivalent of keshi cultured pearls.
American Pearl Company®, Inc.
2120 Crestmoor Road, Suite 2004
Nashville, Tennessee, 37215-2613, USA