Cultured by Luxury Jeweler, Black Pearls Became Chic

We publish courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

Author: Stephen Miller

Gemological impresario Salvador Assael elevated black pearls from curiosities to luxury jewels.

Mr. Assael, who died April 1 at age 88, moved easily in society circles, where he cut an elegant figure, praising the beauty of his pearls while bestowing small samples on lucky hostesses.

Although he dealt in all sorts of luxury jewelry, Mr. Assael was sometimes called “The Pearl King” for his near-monopoly on gumball-size black pearls he cultured on a private atoll on the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia.

“He created a market for them from zero to a well-known global desirable product, and that’s pretty rare,” said Thomas Moses, an executive at the Gemological Institute of America.

Black pearls—more of a dark green-grey according to some—are produced by black-lipped oysters native to the South Seas. They commanded premium prices: In 1992, an Assael string of 23 South Sea pearls in the range of 16-20 millimeters sold for $2.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

When Mr. Assael’s pearls first appeared in a window display at Harry Winston in New York in the mid-1970s, they caused a sensation.

Pearls were always white, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy pearls,” said Stephen Bloom, author of “Tears of Mermaids,” about the global pearl trade. “The black pearl is saucy and naughty. It’s got this sense of pungent sexuality.”

But it formerly had been a rarity, hardly a jewel at all—and most black pearls were dyed, not natural. Only after Mr. Assael lobbied for it did the gemological institute produce a certification standard that buyers of high-price jewelry could depend on. Soon Mr. Assael was advertising them in fashion magazines with the slogan “A new gem is born.”

“Mr. Winston put them in his Fifth Avenue window with an outrageous price tag,” he said in a press release. “Mr. Winston sold them all!” Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany soon boarded the black-pearl bandwagon, and Mr. Assael made a fortune.

Mr. Assael was born into a family of Sephardic Jews who fled Italy prior to World War II to settle in Cuba, where they set up shop in the family jewelry business. After the revolution, they relocated to New York.

Mr. Assael’s father sold Swiss watches to American soldiers, and was left with a huge inventory at the end of the war. Salvador Assael took the watches to Japan, where he bartered them for pearls, then set himself up in the pearl-importing business. He became a big buyer of South Sea pearls that came in a of rainbow hues, including silver and pink and green.

He dabbled in other jewels as well and once paid $3 million for a pair of uncut Burmese rubies.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Assael teamed with a French businessman to start his pearl-farming business.

“You make money by being a producer, because when you produce you control the market,” Mr. Assael told Forbes in 1995. He founded what is said to be the only Sephardic synagogue in the South Seas at Papeete, Tahiti.

Mr. Assael’s competitors sometimes complained (mostly anonymously) of his aggressive business practices, but his famous customers appreciated his rare jewelry. Mr. Assael’s office walls were festooned with signed photos of him with presidents going back to Richard Nixon and other politicians, as well as socialites like Evelyn Lauder and Brooke Astor. Also on the wall was Elizabeth Taylor—who the never-shy Mr. Assael claimed had named her signature Black Pearls perfume after his preeminent product.




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