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Why did pearls suddenly become so popular?

November 21,2023

In the past two years,  Pearl  has become popular on Chinese social media in unexpected ways.

It is the highlight of fashion blogger OOTD, and also the first choice accessory for the rich and noble people in Tiktok retro videos.

You can often see it when you look at the daily clothes of little red book girls this summer.

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Someone folded it with a plain gold bracelet, and the sparkling white beads and gold bracelet swayed back and forth on their slender wrists; Some people play with minimalist commuting styles, wearing a few millimeters bead chain around their necks and a small pearl earring on their ears.

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Throughout history, as an ancient organic gemstone, Pearls have held a place in women's jewelry boxes, but rarely become the protagonist - unlike diamonds, they can be bound to love fables for life, and unlike gold, they have long-lasting circulating value beyond decoration. However, in recent years, with the diversification of industry products, pearls with both preservation and fashion attributes have gradually become popular. Although not comparable to gold and diamonds, the popularity of pearls is increasing in the jewelry market dominated by young people.

The popularity of organic gemstones in 2020 is known as the first year of live streaming e-commerce. In this year, in addition to popular products such as beauty and clothing, some seemingly niche categories have also entered the fast lane of development, with organic gemstones and pearls being one of them. The first wave of popularity began with opening clams and picking pearls in the live broadcast room. You must remember that at a certain time, short video platforms were filled with a large number of clam opening videos. Those anchors sat in front of the camera, in the midst of passionate commentary, prying open clam shells, sometimes obtaining shiny and shiny round pearls, and sometimes slightly flawed ones. Regardless of the quality of the product, in the early stages of live streaming e-commerce, this kind of live streaming clam with a similar gaming experience did indeed ignite the Zhuji pearl industry from an unexpected perspective. Taking this as an opportunity, the fashion attributes of freshwater pearls have gradually become apparent. In addition to live streaming, the frequency of pearls appearing as jewelry has also increased.

According to reports, in 2020, benefiting from live streaming sales, the trading volume of East China International Jewelry City reached 750 tons, and the overall online trading volume increased by 50% year-on-year. By 2022, the popularity of pearls will continue unabated. Data shows that in 2021, there were over 190W notes related to pearls on Xiaohongshu. By 2022, there were over 3.6 million notes related to pearls and over 380000 products related to pearls on Xiaohongshu. This wave of popularity has even attracted many local jewelry brands to invest in pearl jewelry design. Previously, there were many production enterprises in the Chinese pearl industry, but there was a lack of well-known pearl brands. Most of them were scattered pearls, string pearls, or small enterprises mainly focused on jewelry designers and studios. However, in recent years, many local jewelry brands, including Chow Tai Fook, Chow Sheng sheng, and others, have successively launched pearl jewelry, including the birth of popular items.

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Price increases while production decreases.

This is another trend that pearl enthusiasts have had the clearest sense of body in the past two years, besides becoming popular. According to CCTV Finance and Economics, since 2018, the purchase price of pearls has been increasing year by year, and many jewelry deep processing enterprises are increasing their prices for acquisitions. Among them, the purchase price of pearls has increased by about 30% year-on-year. However, contrary to the rising prices, the national pearl production has shown a decreasing trend year by year. According to data from the Zhejiang Pearl Industry Association, the national (freshwater) pearl production in 2019 was 1.2 million kilograms, which decreased to 1 million kilograms by 2020 and 800000 kilograms by 2021. A pearl enthusiast said that when I bought pearls last year, I thought they were expensive, but I didn't expect them to be even more expensive this year. In fact, it's not just freshwater pearls, this wave of price increases has even affected shell pearls and plastic pearls. A handmade hairpin woman who is engaged in the production of Hanfu accessories said that since last year, the price of pearls has increased, causing many hairpin women to turn to low-cost imitation pearls. The reason for the phenomenon of rising prices and decreasing production is mainly due to the serious water pollution caused by non-standard pearl farming in the past few years.

Since the success of China's freshwater nuclear-free pearl farming experiment in 1958, a new era of China's pearl farming industry has begun. At that time, this freshwater pearl farming technology, which focused on producing multiple pearls per mother shell and had a higher pearl formation rate, once met 90% of the global demand for pearls. However, China's pearl industry, which is mainly focused on exports, inevitably falls into a vortex of high production and low prices. Data shows that China's freshwater pearl production accounts for over 90% of the global total, but sales only account for about 8% of the global pearl industry's total sales. For a long time, China's pearl aquaculture industry has pursued a strategy of small profits but high sales, which has led early aquaculture companies to mostly adopt extensive development and high-density farming methods. In this farming mode, fishermen heavily feed fertilizers, which achieves higher economic benefits but also leads to serious water pollution. In order to avoid the expansion of pollution and prevent the pearl aquaculture industry from drying up and fishing, many major breeding provinces have introduced prohibition regulations since 2016. Among them, the scale of pearl aquaculture in Zhuji, Zhejiang decreases by 20% every year, from over 1 million mu in 2017 to over 400000 mu in 2021; After the introduction of documents in Hubei Province, the number of breeding farms decreased from over 200000 mu during the peak period to over 40000 mu, with an area reduction of nearly 80%.

The reduction in production has led to a continuous increase in wholesale prices of freshwater pearls, and with the support of live streaming e-commerce, pearls have ushered in a golden period of development. Of course, some analysts have pointed out that in addition to the imbalance between supply and demand caused by the decline in  pearl production, the increase in various designs and wearing scenarios in recent years has also made pearl prices increasingly firm.

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Branding still has a long way to go

but even if China's freshwater pearls catch the fast train of e-commerce live streaming, there is still a long way to go before achieving branding. Currently, the pearl craze in the Chinese market can be divided into two categories: one is the jewelry craze, and the other is the jewelry craze. Among them, jewelry consumption is mostly domestic freshwater pearls, and although the prices have increased in recent years, they are only for decoration. However, national jewelry consumption mostly tends to purchase Akoya pearls from Japan and Australian white pearls from the South Pacific Ocean. The difference between these two types of consumption is very obvious. Consumers generally believe that the former is equivalent to luxury jewelry brands such as Swarovski, mostly existing for matching purposes, while the latter is jewelry with circulation value. Based on this concept, the prices of domestic freshwater pearls are also vastly different from those of imported seawater pearls.

According to UN comtrade data, the average export unit price of Chinese pearl products is $30-80 per kilogram, while the export unit price of Japanese pearl products is $5000-17000 per kilogram, indicating a significant difference. In addition to pricing, from a brand perspective, Japanese Akoya pearls are also far superior to domestic freshwater pearls. As is well known, pearls, as organic gemstones, are not easy to preserve, so their market circulation value is weaker than ordinary gemstones. In order to maintain a stable price system, Akoya Pearl in Japan has a specialized industry association to adjust prices, and also has patent authorization to control the production scale to ensure the scarcity of jewelry. So, even if freshwater pearls are high-quality and affordable, consumers are more inclined to purchase Akoya. In addition, although the domestic freshwater pearl production is high, it is rarely used for jewelry demand. According to data from the China Jewelry Industry Development Report, the United States is currently the world's largest pearl consumption market, with over 50% of Japan's annual pearl production exported to the United States. Although China is also a major country in the pearl industry, it is mainly used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes of pearl powder. Currently, the per capita jewelry consumption in the United States is $1337, while in Japan it is $1562, while in China it is only $142. Based on this, freshwater pearls have not yet emerged as a strong pearl brand, while Japan has emerged with high value-added brands such as Mikimoto and Tasaki. Among them, Mikimoto is positioned as the king of pearls and has a reputation for luxury.

Most of its customers are high-end shopping malls. According to a research report by Huachuang Securities, as of January 9, 2022, Mikimoto has 117 stores worldwide, including 79 in Japan and 38 overseas, covering locations such as Bangkok, London, New York, Hong Kong and Macau, Beijing, and Shanghai. And its commercial districts in China are also top luxury shopping malls in first tier cities, from Nanjing Deji, Shanghai Henglong to Beijing SKP and then to Shenzhen Bay MIXC, where it is both rich and expensive. In contrast, domestic pearls that are striving for branding development are struggling to survive. Qianzu Pearl, a registered brand under Yamashita Lake, sold nearly 80000 pearl jewelry in 2006, earning a revenue of 10 million yuan. However, the subsequent decline was weak, and pearl revenue continued to decline year after year; Ruan Shi Pearl, founded in 1988, has a more established brand among domestic pearls and is priced at the mid to high-end end. However, the Tmall flagship store has only 120000 followers.

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