Hanadama, the Grade for Top Quality Akoya Cultured Pearls

Gary Roskin –
Roskin Gem News Report

Hanadama, the Grade for Top Quality Akoya Cultured Pearls

There is a term that the Japanese use to describe the finest quality, highest value, Akoya cultured pearls. It is Hanadama. Literal translation of Hanadama is “flower beads” or, in this case, “flower pearls.”

If one goes back into the literature several decades, it is noted that the term Hanadama used to be applied only to Akoya cultured pearls, straight from the mollusk, undrilled, unbleached, beautifully round, with the highest quality nacre, and luster, with no blemishes. Pretty much, the perfect pearl.

But with the advent of accepted treatments, such as bleaching, drilling, polishing, and tinting, the term Hanadama has evolved.

And with current pearl supply being limited, and demand heavily increasing with the growing Chinese consuming market, fine quality cultured pearls are more important than ever.

Marketing Terminology as a Quality Standard

Hanadama, Pigeon’s Blood, Paraiba, Chrome this, Cobalt that, are commercial names, marketing tools used to convey to the consumer a notable high quality of a particular appearance. In the past, these terms had been avoided by gemological laboratories since there were no specific internationally accepted definitions for these terms.

A prime example: Historically, the color of the finest quality Burmese rubies were called “pigeon’s blood.” But so many variations of “pigeon’s blood” now exist on professional gemological laboratory reports that gem merchants argue over what should or shouldn’t be called “pigeon’s blood.”

[The GemGuide, by Gemworld International, has published a few ‘subscription only’ features on just this topic. Without an internationally accepted definition of the term, professional gem laboratories differ in which rubies qualify for the term Pigeon’s Blood. To make the point, the GemGuide shows an image of several rubies that range in color and quality, with values ranging from $450/carat to $50,000/carat, and all of them labeled by professional gem labs as having “pigeon’s blood” red color.]

And because of this, consumers are likely to believe that pigeon’s blood simply describes the color of all rubies – or that all rubies with a pigeon’s blood lab report must be the finest ruby in the world.

What will Happen with Hanadama?

And now we have GIA using the notation “Hanadama” for Akoya cultured pearls, a label that implies top quality in color, overtone, roundness, surface condition and luster, as well as nacre thickness (which accounts for depth of color, surface quality, and durability). So let’s see exactly how it will be used.

Gem Trade vs. Retail and Consumer

While the gem trade is having issues with professional gem laboratories using marketing terms to describe quality, the retail trade and consumers are finding them appealing.

Yes, the new Hanadama quality notation can be seen on GIA’s existing pearl grading reports. But as mentioned above, the term is not new. The term goes back many decades, maybe even to the early 1900s when Mikimoto was able to commercially grow Akoya cultured pearls for the jewelry industry. As an interesting reference, it was in the early 2000s that we covered the Chinese freshwater pearl market adopting a variation of the term, calling their top quality freshwater cultured pearls “Freshadama.”

GIA Defines Hanadama

According to GIA’s recent press release (September 6, 2023), the Hanadama comment is applied to cultured Akoya pearls that display a combination of all the following GIA Pearl Value Factors classification ranges:

Round to near-round shape, white body-color (with or without overtone), excellent luster, clean to lightly spotted surface, excellent to very good matching, and of sufficient nacre thickness and quality.

When a pearl, strand or jewelry item meets the carefully defined parameters for ‘Hanadama,’ a comment that states These pearls fall into the select quality range that is known in the trade as ‘Hanadama’ (or a variation thereof) will be added to any GIA pearl classification report.

“We’ve undertaken a thorough exploration into the original and contemporary applications of the term ‘Hanadama’ along with gathering extensive input from industry insiders,” said Tom Moses, executive vice president and chief laboratory and research officer. “Incorporating this historically important industry term into the report underpins our commitment to robust laboratory services and reports that allow consumers to make more informed choices in purchasing Akoya cultured pearls.”

Moses believes that the use of the term Hanadama can be very beneficial to the trade, “as long as the use of ‘Hanadama’ is well-defined, that we can defend that, and articulate what it means.”

Are there any internationally accepted definitions, any qualifications for what would be necessary of an Akoya cultured pearl to be labeled “Hanadama?”

“Hanadama is the term that is used to describe the top quality Akoya cultured pearls,” says Chunhui Zhou, Ph.D., senior manager of Pearl Identification. “We have done a lot of research within the industry, looking at the history of the term Hanadama. It was actually used to describe only untreated Akoya cultured pearls that came directly from the farm. But then this changed over time. People are now applying Hanadama to pearls that have been processed.” [polished, bleached, and tinted] “While the term has changed over the years, we believe that Hanadama can and should be applied only to the top quality Akoya cultured pearl.”

In terms of the grading pearls, GIA has a seven value factors:

1 – Size

Millimeter measurement

2 – Shape

Round, Near-Round, Oval, Button, etc…

3 – Color

Body color is the dominant overall color of a pearl. It consists of hue, tone, and saturation.

Overtone is a noticeable translucent single color that appears to overlie the bodycolor.

Orient is a combination of colors shimmering on or just below a pearl’s surface.

4 – Luster

Luster is the light reflected from the surface and underlying nacre layers of a pearl; it is evaluated by the intensity as well as sharpness of that reflection.

For Luster, the full grading scale is:

Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, and Poor

5 – Surface

Taking into account the size, number, nature, location visibility and type of surface characteristics, blemishes or irregularities that are confined to a pearl’s surface.

For Surface, the full grading scale is:

Clean, Lightly spotted, Moderately spotted, and Heavily spotted.

6 – Nacre

Acceptable or Unacceptable, based on its condition. [The majority of pearls within the jewelry trade fall into the Acceptable category, but pearls with nacre that is too thin, desiccated, broken, or otherwise compromises a pearl’s durability fall into the Unacceptable category. We are currently working on refining our nacre calls, to provide a more nuanced scale, but we are not yet at a point where we have finalized information to provide on that.AH]

7 – Matching

Uniformity of pearls in a pair, strand, or jewelry item. It takes into account the consistency of size shape color luster surface nacre and other features throughout the gem.

For Matching, the full grading scale is:

Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, and Poor

from Gems & Gemology Summer 2021

Grading Pearls

GIA will grade pearls, for example, for luster, using their own in-house master pearls. Luster, as the chart above suggests, is graded from excellent to poor.

“And when we talk about round and near-round, I believe we are pretty strict in terms of shape. So even the ‘near-round’ pearl is still pretty round.” Dr. Zhou points out that in order for a pearl to be given a Round grade, it must be pretty close to being perfectly round. “We are actually quite strict in terms of calling pearls round.”

Dr. Zhou notes that often, GIA has graded pearls as “near-round,” even when they appear quite round, but the strict grading of the pearls show that either the measurements are slightly off, or when examining how easily it rolls says that it is not as round as it may first appear.

“Same with the surface grade,” says Dr. Zhou. “Our masters are generally quite robust. And by that, I mean towards the top quality, so even the cleanest surface has to be quite clean.”

Zhou noted that in order for a strand to receive a “clean” surface grade, the majority of the pearls need to be quite clean, blemish free.

If, on the other hand, GIA were to grade a strand as “lightly blemished,” this does not mean that every pearl in the strand has a blemish. “Sometimes it’s a mixture of pearls, with some pearls having a little blemish, but most being relatively clean. We are actually grading pearls on the upper end of the standards, in our opinion,” says Dr. Zhou.

Nacre Thickness

There has always been concern that laboratories are not measuring nacre thickness. And while it is true that nacre thickness measurements are not included on reports, the GIA lab will measure the thickness to assess nacre (as the chart above suggests).

[Accurately measuring nacre thickness requires the use of X-ray. For the retail jeweler, a quick glance down the drill hole under magnification may give an indication of nacre thickness. – gr]

In the past, it was suggested (and taught) that the nacre thickness of a high quality Akoya cultured pearl measured 0.5mm. GIA notes that the general industry standard for quality nacre thickness is now about 0.4mm. “This is the standard we use when we are evaluating the overall quality for Hanadama.”

“For nacre quality, we not only consider the nacre thickness, but the overall nacre condition of the pearl. For example, we look to see how nice it is. How good is the continuity of the nacre? Are there any external scratches and other features on the surface?”

Research to Back Quality Grades

“We did a lot of research to really understand Hanadama,” says Akira Hyatt, a GIA senior staff gemologist who has been overseeing pearl classification since GIA introduced it in the lab in the mid-aughts.

“We know that there has been a lot of confusion and some controversy around the term. We tried to consider and incorporate both the historical and current contexts and usages of the term. We also looked at the predominant reports in the trade to see what the industry would expect in terms of Hanadama calls. It was critical to GIA to respect the importance of the term ‘Hanadama’ and try to develop parameters based on industry guidelines, while simultaneously maintaining the high standard of the term’s history.”

If Hanadama is to represent the highest quality Akoya cultured pearl, why then would the value factors of Surface condition, Shape, and Matching be a range instead of simply the top quality grade?

“Each individual classification of a value factor, be it shape, color, luster, surface, etc., represents a range of appearances,” says Hyatt, “not a single point of reference, as pearls are organic and widely varied. So there is a discrete range for White, for Near-round, Very good luster, or Lightly spotted. And, each range has a top end, bordering the next higher grade, and a low end, bordering the next lower grade.”

In terms of GIA’s Hanadama criteria, that range includes Round, Excellent luster, Clean surface, Excellent matching, and the higher ends of Near-round, Lightly spotted, and Very good matching, particularly for strands or larger mounted groups.

The range is not that wide. The near round or lightly spotted pearls really do need to be at that borderline of the better grade in order to be considered as a small part of a better strand. Hyatt did explain that both quality and quantity matter. GIA would not accept an entire strand of near round or lightly spotted pearls as Hanadama.

“And with regards to shape, if a strand were predominantly round but contained a few high-end near-rounds, we would call it ‘Round’ and add the Hanadama report comment (provided it met the rest of the criteria).”

As for  smaller groupings, noted Hyatt, the range is even more strict.  For individual pearls, pairs, or small mounted groups, the pearls must be at the high end of the range to receive the Hanadama report comment.

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