Like Babe Ruth, a fine pitcher who switched to playing outfield and became a far greater hitter, John Latendresse is a master of both mound and plate in his chosen field: pearls. Undoubtedly America’s most famous natural pearl dealer of the latter part of this century, he may wind up being even better known as a pearl culturer by the beginning of the next. No one has dubbed him this yet, but Latendresse stands a good chance of becoming this country’s Kokichi Mikimoto (the father of Japan’s pearl culturing industry).
Don’t get the wrong idea. Being the Mikimoto of America is like being a welterweight rather than a heavyweight champion. Mikimoto, who once controlled Japan’s cultured pearl industry the way De Beers still does diamonds, launched his farms in the early part of this century long before industrial pollution had taken its toll on the country’s waters. Well after World War II, Japan still had large expanses of pristine coastal waters suitable for saltwater pearl farming. Latendresse, who only began experiments with pearl culturing in 1963, has had to contend with America’s greatly despoiled waterways. Of the 500 rivers and lakes he has investigated as pearl farm sites, only seven passed muster.
Nevertheless, Latendresse is earning enough from his two freshwater farms (both on Tennessee’s Lake Kentucky, the world’s second largest man-made water body) to have sold last year (for a rumored $10 million) the lucrative shell-gathering operation he started in 1954 to a firm whose identity he won’t reveal. The sale of Tennessee Shell Co., Camden, Tenn., the world’s biggest single supplier of cultured pearl bead-nucleus material, marked Latendresse’s nervy commitment to pearl culturing without the safety net of other enterprises. While his American Pearl Co. will continue to buy and sell the natural pearls for which he is best known, Latendresse is himself focusing almost exclusively on the development of a viable U.S. pearl culturing industry.
Is his faith justified? Latendresse’s competitor, former protegé James Peach, American Shell Co., Knoxville, Tenn., says the odds are against him—and anyone else who pursues this dream. But Latendresse is betting the farm that he will succeed.
Pearling is as old and illustrious an American pastime as singing Stephen Foster tunes or playing the game invented by Abner Doubleday. A century ago, in fact, it was nearly as common to shuck mussels found in any of several hundred rivers and lakes in the search for pearls as it was to throw a sphere of cowhide and string around a meadow or warble “Swanee River” by a campfire. Unlike their Japanese counterparts who have spent their entire lives at pearl farming, John Latendresse, 65, and James Peach, 47, are remainders and reminders of a time when pearl foraging was as widespread a living as fur trapping. (However, to support latter-day pearl foraging, both men had to build prosperous shell-gathering businesses that between them supply Japan with at least 80% of the bead-nucleus material essential for the nemesis of the natural pearl: cutting.)
For a natural pearl devotee like Latendresse to become so single-minded about pearl culturing is as momentous as a nomad moving to a city. Never forget that the way of the pearl forager is the way of the wanderer (a life for which Latendresse, who left home at 13, was perfectly suited) and that the way of the pearl farmer is the way of the settler. Latendresse, whose Japanese wife Chessy is well versed in culturing, has a daughter in the business with him and a veterinarian son who helps with research. “I want to leave behind something for my family,” Latendresse says. And that means more than the natural pearl dealer’s list of contacts in small Southern water towns who may still dive for or collect pearls.
But even if he wanted to continue the wandering ways he learned when he entered the pearl business in 1951, Latendresse would have little choice today but to stay put and grow pearls. According to Gordon Austin, a gem expert at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, less than 10% of the several million dollars in revenue derived from domestic pearl production last year came from pearl foraging. The rest came from farming. And at least 75% of it from Latendresse’s two Tennessee farms—of the Latendresse launches farms planned for Texas and Louisiana, the ratio of cultured to natural pearls will widen further, leaving Latendresse even more the kingpin among domestic pearl growers. As things stand, he is set to harvest 1.5 million nucleated mussels.
Keeping Them on the Farm
American freshwater pearl farming, explains aquaculturist Richard Fassler, in the November/December 1991 issue of Aquaculture magazine, involves implanting various mussels (the preferred of which are the washboard and ebony) with one, two or three pearl-provokers, usually a year apart. Easiest to grow are pearls that require insertion only of mantle (tissue responsible for shell and pearl formation). Next easiest are what are called dome pearls (known in Japan as mabe or blister pearls) that form as protuberances on the inside of the mussel shell and are composed, under their nacre, of mother-of-pearl semi-spherical cores. Latendresse and Peach have been very successful at growing tissue and blister pearls.
But only Latendresse seems to have discovered the way to grow baroque shapes in meaningful numbers without high mussel mortality rates (he claims his is 3.9% as opposed to 50% to 60% in Japan because his animals are cared for with antibiotics and then housed in baskets which are not crowded together as they are in Japan). Although he keeps mum about his methods, Latendresse admits that using tranquilizers during nucleation allows him to insert up to seven mussel-shell nucleii fashioned, by his latest count, into 19 different shapes- the most common of which are bars, drops, pears, coins, navettes, marquises and cabochons.
Contrary to popular opinion, rounds can be grown in American mussels. But since these call for disproportionate care relative to other shapes (Latendresse grows his nucleated pearls for three summers, allowing, on average, a nacre buildup of 1.2mm) and growing techniques for rounds are still in the refining stage, Latendresse is sticking with baroques. “It isn’t necessary yet to produce large numbers of rounds because the other shapes have met with such acceptance,” he says.
One reason for the success is the fact that U.S. cultured pearls make up for their lack of symmetry with luster and orient (iridescence) far beyond that found in Japanese akoya or South Sea cultured pearls. As further compensation, many boast rose and lavender colors that owe nothing, Latendresse claims, to dyes and chemicals (the case elsewhere, he says). Possibly the greatest appeal factors of home- grown cultured pearls are not aesthetic “National pride plays a big role in demand for American cultured pearls,” says Latendresse. So does price, which as of mid-1992 was between $1 and $15 per carat.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The American cultured pearls shown in the header image are courtesy of American Pearl Co., Camden, Tenn.