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Faceted pearls, an innovation from diamond cutters

Faceting a Tahitian black pearl brings out the luster from inner layers of nacre.
Faceting a Tahitian black pearl brings out the luster from inner layers of nacre.
Gemologist Robin Coon

Innovative diamond cutters are now cutting, or faceting, pearls. While diamonds come out of the ground as unattractive roughs, their beauty is exposed by cutting and faceting.

The same cutting technology has been applied to pearls, attractive as they are, straight from the mollusks with a natural luster without faceting. So, why cut into or facet a pearl’s lustrous surface?

Japan’s Komatsu Cutting Factory was the first company in the world to cut pearls. The company was, and still is, in the business of cutting and faceting diamonds.

Seeking to extend their repertoire of starting materials and expand into pearl markets, Komatsu's skilled cutters developed methods for faceting pearls from their experience in faceting diamonds. Applying diamond cutting technology to pearls required adaptations.

A modified process
Because it is made of layers of organic material called nacre, a pearl presents new challenges for diamond cutters. Pearl cutting requires skill and precision so that the facets cut only slightly into the thin surface nacre layers. Cut pearls can have between 100 and 200 facets, all of which are smaller and more numerous than the facets of a cut diamond.

The material of pearl, the nacre, measures between 2 and 4.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness and is a much softer substance than diamond, which tops the hardness scale at 10. Therefore, the gemstone cutting technology used to facet diamonds must have been modified mightily to accommodate the softer substance of pearls.

Specialty pearls
The pearls selected for faceting must be high quality South Sea, Akoya, Tahitian black pearls or freshwater pearls. Such pearls must be perfectly round and have a thick layer of nacre.

Because only high quality pearls are selected for faceting and only skilled cutters can facet precisely, a faceted pearl may cost three or four times that of an uncut pearl. As such, inferior quality pearls cannot be enhanced by faceting. A poor quality pearl remains a poor quality pearl unsuitable for cutting.

The added beauty of faceting arises from exposing the inner layers of nacre existing within the pearl. The facets, when polished to a gleam, reflect light with the luster of inner layers like a glow from within. The reflectivity brought forth from the pearl by the gemstone cutter’s skill adds to the natural beauty of a pearl.

Marketing novelty, innovation in pearl jewelry design
Applying an existing process to a different material is how inventions or innovations emerge. Komatsu introduced the innovation of faceted pearls to the world, creating opportunity for novel design in precious pearl jewelry.

A cut pearl with 5- and 6-sided facets resembles a soccer ball. Komatsu cuts such facets on white pearls, applies colored enamel on some of the facets, and markets the pearls as “soccer pearls.”

Other faceting patterns yield pearls that resemble golf balls. Because golf balls have 300-500 holes, with an average of 336, a large white pearl can be cut with fewer facets and still look like a miniaturized golf ball. Edward Boehm of JOEB Enterprises is delighted with the resemblance.

I'm thinking of marketing the loose pearls on golden golf tees.

He and Bill Larson of Pala International are the only distributors of faceted pearls in the U.S.