A pearl losing its shine

Written by BV Mahalakshmi | Updated: May 20 2014, 03:09am hrs
A small pearl shop-owner at the magnificent Charminar, a landmark monument of the old city of Hyderabad, has been selling pearls for the last 40 years. Khan sahib, a pan-chewing, typical Hyderabadi of around 60 years of age, says he has been selling different kinds of pearls of various shapes and sizes. There were days, two decades ago, when he used to get a profit of R50 a month, which gradually increased to R150 per month. However, after 1990s, his business started going downstream. He realised that the City of Pearls, Hyderabad, had started losing its sheen and market momentum, thanks to the advent of Chinese pearls, which could either be cultured or fake.

Hyderabad pearls have had a very long history with the erstwhile Nizams of Hyderabad patronising pearl trade. Once upon a time, Chandanpet, just outside Hyderabad, was popularly known for its expertise in the delicate art of pearl drilling. Around 200 years ago, the trade flourished in the city. Dealers from Persia used to come here to trade and made good money. The city got its name from this trade as the volume of business was huge. Later, the market started to concentrate at other places across the country.

The once famous Hyderabad pearls, patronised by the Nizams for over 200 years, are losing lustre and sheen. It is very expensive to procure natural pearls. So there is a shift for cheaper ones due to affordability, says a leading jeweller from the city. Pearls from Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Burma, Venezuela and Tahiti are also coming to the market. Incidentally, pearls from Basra (Iraq) were in huge demand and the city was once a leading producer of natural pearls. But, after the war, production stopped, as most of the oysters died due to excess oil exploration.

Another interesting reason seems to be about the ongoing shift in the customers preference and the evolving fashion trends which has seen many traders and jewellers change the preferences to precious stones instead of pearls. Says Satish Agarwal, MD, Kundan Jewellers and Exporters, There is a change in the fashion, and trends have shrunk the market both in terms of quantity and value over the years. In the last 10 years, sales have decreased by 5%. In fact, it is a gradual falling decade of pearls, he says with regret.

Over the last 5 to 10 years, prices of pearls have seen a downfall by 10-20% even while the demand has also fallen by 5%, Agarwal says. The reason is obvious that the availability of pearls is not at all restricted to Hyderabad. Though Hyderabad never produced pearls, the trade was well patronised. However, pearls are now available pan-India, he says. Thanks to imports from China, which seem to have flooded every jewellery shop.

There is no resale value for pearls, and it is also a one-time buy for a pearl strand, unlike gold or silver jewellery. And this comes at a price. For instance, a strand of South Sea pearls costs between R30,000 and R3 lakh. So this is more or less a one-time buy, rather than a gold jewellery which can be exchanged too. Good quality Tahiti black pearls are available for R50,000 to R1 lakh per strand. This used to be three times more five years ago, jewellers say. Diminishing demand for pearls has forced many jewellers to change their loyalty to other precious stones or platinum jewellery, says another city-based jeweller.

China has been the worlds biggest pearl producer for two decades, flooding the world market with small and cheap pearls. While lot of imports are happening for cultured pearls from Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Tahiti, Venezuela, the demand for South Sea pearls has improved. As Agarwal points out, freshwater pearl farms in east-central China are reported to be producing white pearls that cost a fraction of the saltwater variety. South Sea pearls, which are sourced from the South China Sea, are also readily available and fall in the expensive range because of their large size and sheen. Tahitian pearls cost more than others.

With poor demand and supply of pearls, Hyderabad is no longer called the City of Pearls, with the volumes having shrunk to just a few tonnes. The Hyderabad market has bid adieu to those truly black pearls which were the most beautiful pearls in the world and Hyderabad is a poorer city today for it.