• April 11, 2019
The pearl ordered by Te Waha Nui was opened live on Facebook. Experts later confirmed it was not an Akoya pearl. Photo: screenshot
The Commerce Commission will not investigate a fake-pearl scam run through Facebook Live because it does not consider the overall harm to Kiwis to be high enough.
Imitations are being sold as Akoya pearls through Facebook events known as “pearl parties”.
Most nights of the week multiple online pearl parties are run by New Zealanders. Parties usually last several hours and can accrue thousands of views.
Party hosts open oysters on camera, revealing pearls for those who have ordered them and engage with viewers as if part of a community of pearl buyers.
Experts confirmed that a pearl bought by TWN from Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand was not an Akoya pearl.
Pearls like the one TWN bought sell for $20 to $50 each at such pearl parties, including Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand.
However, they can be bought for around $1 each off the e-commerce website Ali Baba.
A genuine Akoya pearl tends to sell for about $100.
While sometimes acknowledging the pearls were cultured, Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand hosts did not explain the type of shell the pearl was grown in, the irritant used or the conditions in which the pearl is grown, all of which affect its value.
Dennis Blacklaws, a gemmologist in Lower Hutt, confirmed that the bright pink pearl TWN bought from Akoya Pearl Party Nerw Zealand was not an Akoya because there was no bead of mother-of-pearl inside.
“Anything that is called Akoya has a bead, and it should have been stated that it was dyed.”
However, Mr Blacklaws couldn’t conclusively confirm whether the pearl was entirely fake or a tissue-grafted freshwater pearl, which he thought was a more plausible explanation.
Tissue-grafted pearls come from a mussel instead of an oyster. Chinese saltwater and freshwater pearls are tissue-grafted; a small piece of shell from another mussel is used as an irritant.
These two types of growth schedules produce visually similar pearls but can produce a significant difference in price. However, Mr Blacklaws took one look at TWN’s hot-pink pearl and stated that it was dyed.
“They are previously harvested from freshwater operations in China.
“These pearls are re-mass produced by inserting them into one-year-old Akoya oysters, then deceptively marketed as saltwater pearls.
“Sadly, people started showing up in the [Pearlguide] forum and requesting information on their ‘valuable’ pearl. They were inexpensive freshwater pearls being valued at high prices and sold as Akoya pearls.”
Christina Clarke, a regular attendee of Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand, told TWN that if the pearl parties were misleading customers, they should be made illegal.
“I would want every dollar I have ever spent back because I was not receiving what I was told I would be and therefore I have a draw full of expensive worthless beads.”
Ms Clarke says she spent hundreds of dollars believing she was getting authentic Akoya pearls.
The party host of Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand described her work as selling “genuine Akoya oysters” and “saltwater cultured pearls”.
When approached by TWN, Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand did not deny its pearls were fake Akoyas but then ignored any further contact.
This post was also then added to its Facebook page:
Shortly after this post, the entire page was deleted.
The Commerce Commission investigated Akoya Pearl Party New Zealand but decided not to take further action.
It told TWN the overall harm to New Zealand consumers was not significant enough to warrant spending resources on investigating further.
Ms Clarke said of the Facebook Live videos: “I found them entertaining. When you purchase, the video becomes solely about you, the excitement of a real pearl opened in front of you.”
Another attendee, who declined to be named, when told about the scam, said: “To be honest it doesn’t make me feel any less about them.
“I have no knowledge of pearls . . . but I personally buy them because it helps me deal with my depression.”
On the night TWN bought a pearl from Akoya Pearl Party New Zealasnd’s Live video, there were people from the USA, Australia and all over New Zealand taking part.
The pearl-party videos are also shared with other groups on Facebook, including the Auckland buy/sell/swap page.