Mention pearls and many think of older women from privileged society at cotillions wearing white pearls with their dainty black dresses and large brim hats. That’s the typical stereotype. That is until one meets Eddie Bakhash of American Pearl. Eddie is the CEO of American Pearl and has become arguably the world’s biggest pearl evangelizer. Say the name of his brand, and eyebrows rise in circles of high society. They are now the new-old aspirational item. If he has his way, bling will become a thing of the past, replaced by pearls. I once told a jewelry designer that her pearls would be featured alongside American Pearl in a photo shoot for Papierdoll and she quickly pulled out her best pieces. It seems as if everyone knew about the pearl phenomena but me, not anymore. I sat with Eddie on a warm August afternoon and discussed pearls, gifts and his wife’s brush with Oprah.
So tell us about the American Pearl company.
American Pearl is a wholesale company that started in 1950 selling to stores across America, when Charlie Bakhash started to import pearls from Japan and bring them to the United States where before, people did not have access to pearls. And recently, with the advent of the internet, about nine or ten years ago we set up American Pearl.com which is the cyber space face of our wholesale operation.
What did Charlie do in Japan?
Charlie lived in Japan for a very long time, he had been there over 20 years, he’s fluent in the language and he made contacts with different pearl farmers and pearl processors to bring them to consumers in the United States.
Walk me through the pearl importing process, how do we get from Japan to beautiful pieces around our necks?
Japan culturally respects pearls and pearls have shown themselves throughout history in every civilization and culture imaginable. For some reason, pearls have mythical and religious tones to them. It was in that first cycle of discovery someone found a pearl, looked at it and they tried to get another one and the gem was given a name and it was something that people sought.
So a pearl is a gem?
It is a gem. It is the only gem that originates from a living organism.
How long does it take for the organism to create a pearl or series?
Unfortunately, every pearl represents a deceased oyster so it can take 3 years to get a pearl of size 10 millimeter on a necklace; and every pearl that’s produced isn’t perfectly round or perfectly clean like the one you see there (gestures to necklace pictured above). Usually they’re off shape or baroque or irregular or spotted or low luster; so to get something that is perfectly round, perfectly clean is a true rarity and to have full necklaces done you’re talking hundreds of years of waiting time by the farmer for the oysters just to have the collection of pearls on that necklace.
Are there social issues, protests etc, regarding the conditions of the oysters on these farms? Do you have PETA knocking down your door?
No, no, just karma, I think I am coming back as an oyster in my next life. **laughs**
What’s an average day for Eddie Bakhash?
Wake up in the morning, visit the wholesale showroom, respond to customer inquiries through emails, check for new orders, contact the overseas farmers, figure out what people created from our website, everything is customizable on the American Pearl website.
Tell me about the different types of pearls and how they are categorized.
When you reference pearls, you reference them by their geography, the waters they’re in whether fresh water, salt water, the shape the color. So you’ll say ‘Black Tahitian Baroque South Sea’ necklace. When you think of Pearls white is classic, black is exotic or high fashion, and gold is rare.
Pearls are very classic and target a different type of customer. How do you go about getting a younger audience?
Like I was saying before, pearls have shown themselves through history. Because of that, there’s not that much we have to do to promote pearls. Women want pearls for their wedding day. Women want to wear pearls everyday. They really have their place in fashion and style. What we do on our website at American Pearl.com is very educational. We have gift giving guides and make recommendations based on products and sizes and qualities. Most guys that purchase pearls or jewelry as a gift really don’t know what they’re doing, or if they do know what they’re doing, sometimes they run out of ideas.
How does one get a pearl appraised?
There are appraisers out there and as long as they don’t work for a jewelry store, you can expect an honest impartial answer.
Why is that?
Because a jewelry store that receives a pearl or other gem product from another vendor to have it appraised sometimes they’ll knock it. They do this in the hopes that the consumer will feel that the quality isn’t what it’s supposed to be and then they’ll have the chance to resell it to them at the quality that it should be. There are just a couple of really reputable gemological institutes in New York City that will grade and appraise the product. But unfortunately, to really grade and appraise pearls you need an expert, a market maker, because it’s such a niche specialty.
I’ve noticed you’re also in the diamond business as well. What’s the difference?
Between the two gems? Basically, pearls are an unnoticed gem, they are very special but they haven’t really been utilized by the consumer as they could be. Diamonds are overused. People purchase diamonds for engagement rings for earring studs for all these different occasions. So pearls are a refreshing way for women to really enjoy jewelry.
Are there any celebrities that you would love to see your pearls on?
Yeah, Oprah Winfrey (laughs). My wife was actually in the same room with her and had the catalog with her but never gave it to her. A week later they had a pearl expert on the show.
When you met your wife did she know you were this great pearl entrepreneur?
Have you ever gotten her pearls as a gift?
Always. She loves them.
Do you recommend that for a guy courting someone?
Absolutely, it’s the greatest gift in the world, because the gift of pearls are a reflection of thought culture, research; if you go to the MET and you see a painting from a different time, she’s not going to be wearing a diamond, she’s going to be wearing an elegant strand of pearls. It’s a very cultural, organic, natural purchase.
Who designs the pearls?
They are very classical strands so the designs stay the same, on occasion, we may use an external designer to create something.
(at this point, Eddie reverts back to an earlier question I asked regarding the length of time it takes to get the pearls together even before the design phase, in total he states that it can take up to six years to get one pearl from an oyster which led to the next question)
Comparatively, would you say pearls are more valuable than diamonds?
Without question they’re more valuable, they’re rarer. Diamonds are a controlled gem. There are enough high polished quality diamonds such that everyone in the world can have one, pearls are not like that. Because each year a new harvest is produced and depending on size and quality of that harvest, different prices are provided in the marketplace.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Everything about it is hard. Having the best pearls in the world, having the best website on pearls, having the best descriptions. I would say the hardest part of the job; the internet and the web is an incredible medium to communicate and reach out to consumers. A webpage is just a bunch of words with links to other pages; as time goes by, more and more media video, pictures, flash all sorts of new media are coming together that can help explain pearls and show them better.
On the Web:
All images courtesy of American Pearl