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MASTERS AT WORK

Birks bolsters the enduring magic of Tahitian pearls by pairing expert craftsmanship with forward-thinking design.

 

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  • DARK, LUSTROUS, ALLURING—Tahitian pearls have long been an object of desire for their rarity and the transformative power of their beauty. Their shades of silver-gray, mauve, aubergine and even anthracite black are like movie lighting for the face.

    “They flatter more skin tones because they reflect so many hues and have more undertones than other kinds of pearls,” says Birks’ pearl-sourcing partner.

    Cultivated in the lagoons and saltwater atolls of French Polynesia, only five to 10 per cent of the region’s cultured pearls are round enough to be viable, making them rare and even harder to match for strands and jewellery than other types. They come in many shapes other than round, including oval, button, ringed or circled, irregular (called baroque) and pear.

    Today, the pearl experts at Birks are discussing their holy grail—the search for two 13-millimetre-wide pistachio-hued Tahitian pearls a Canadian client would love to own as earrings. Thirteen millimetres is very large for cultured pearls, even though Tahitian oysters are larger than Japanese Akoya oysters.

    “Finding a pistachio pearl that size and colour is hard enough, but finding two that match?” says Darlene Dennison, Director of Product Development at Birks. The team has been on the hunt for three years, quietly making phone calls and keeping an eye out. But Mother Nature doesn’t take orders. There’s no gaming her wait list.

  • When pearl farmers deem a black-lipped oyster ready for cultivation, they open the shell and surgically implant a small piece of mother-of-pearl shell to act as a nucleus. The presence of this foreign body stimulates the creation of an iridescent substance called nacre inside the oyster. The nacre hardens around the nucleus, taking three to four more years in the water to create a pearl. So many things can go wrong, caused by the weather, interfering algae and water temperature. Still, the pearl farmers remain undeterred.

    “Tahitians call their pearls a gift from God,” notes Nobile, holding a hank of dark, lustrous, unstrung pearls. It’s easy to see how they got that idea.

    Once these or any other precious pearls—saltwater or freshwater—are sourced, Birks relies on a Montreal team of masters who sort, match, drill and string those destined to bear a coveted Birks label. The bivalve beauties are sent to the nearby Birks design atelier, also in Montreal, where they are transformed into black-tie-worthy stunners, modern —even casual—pieces and everything in between.

    Indeed, white pearls have become a basic wardrobe item over the course of the brand’s history. They’re the white t-shirt of jewellery. They go with everything, dressed up or down. They have romance, they have tradition and they have elegance.

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  • That’s due in part to the advent of large-scale pearl cultivation about 60 years ago, which gave more women access to the classic gem. Most of the Birks pearls, including the Tahitians, are sourced at silent auctions in Japan, where they are sold in lots sorted by the vast range of regions, sizes and colours.

    While a pearl choker or a longer rope of pearls is a classic staple that will never go out of style, clients are increasingly lured by pieces that combine pearls with silver instead of gold for a more street-style feel. Industry insiders have a phrase for this shift in preference from gold to silver: “the metals moved.”

    Birks revamped the brand blueprint just as those metals were moving, creating the Pebble & Pearl and the Rock & Pearl collection both in silver. They’re both very accessible, with an entry price of $225 for freshwater pearl earrings and a bold look that’s appealing to millennials embarking on a relationship with pearls very different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’, suggests Dennison.

    That’s not to say the designs are untethered from Birks’ storied history. Those studs you see in the Rock & Pearl collection? They’re not a generic nod to punk; they’re inspired by the flagship boutique’s signature doors on Montreal’s Union Street, all heavy strapping and metal studs.

    “You don’t expect to see those elements in silver, mixed with pearls, but they’re so striking together. That’s the magic,” Dennison says.

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Encouraged by the success of that line, there is renewed focus on freshwater pearls within the company. Indeed, the cork mood boards in the design studio the day I visit are covered with multiple renderings of the Birks Rock & Pearl collection. A tray of gray wax prototypes of edgy pearl-and-silver pieces, created using a 3D printer, sits on a nearby table. Not all will make it to the selling floor.

 

Of the 20 new designs, only 10 will make it into production, explains Frigon as I linger to ogle. There are statement necklaces, two-finger rings and bangles, all on the drawing board.

 

Working with pearls isn’t like working with any other kind of gem, she says. They’re softer in texture; they can get scratched when used in combination with other stones and elements.

 

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The team is equally careful while daring to work on Birks’ most beloved trademarks, such as the chic clasp used on their topdrawer strands of pearls. When the popularity of pearls soared in the 1980s, Birks started featuring the company logo on this clasp, adding diamonds and two sapphires. The clasps are made by a 300-year-old German company that serves royal dynasties and the European elite.

 

“We are working on a reengineering of the clasps to make them more modern,” says Frigon. “We want them to become integrated into the strand itself, so they look less separate.” (Purists have no fear: the clasps will still be made by the same manufacturer.)

 

Meanwhile, the team is preoccupied with a pressing creative mission: Birks is creating a dazzling one-of-a-kind layered necklace in pearls and diamonds that will debut on the neck of a Canadian celebrity. In its last stages of production, the design is still morphing, with stones added to ensure a complete “wow” effect.

 

It will be the newest iteration of a remarkable pearl odyssey, one which starts inside an oyster shell, travels to auction in Japan, passes through the hands of experts and finally lands on the red carpet for the world to see.

 

“This is the most exciting time to be in the pearl business,” says Akkelian. “It’s a new world.”