The late Salvador J. Assael played a stellar role in popularising Tahitian black pearls in North America, and later, the world. Known as the Pearl King, Salvador was a visionary who created sustainable community models around the pearl farms that he built during his lifetime. His dynamic better half, Christina Lang Assael, President and CEO, shares insights about the historic legacy of her husband, brand Assael’s future, diversification into high-end jewellery, and the addition of Precious Coral in their exclusive repertoire of natural gems. Read more in this special email interview with Solitaire International.
Assael, a 75-year-old iconic brand is known as a purveyor of magnificent pearls and responsibly sourced coral in North America. “My late husband, Salvador Assael, was a legend in the pearl world,” notes Christina Lang Assael, President and CEO of Assael. “He was the first to bring South Sea Pearls to North America, and he literally started the global Tahitian Pearl industry.” Christina narrates a compelling story of the man who was an inveterate adventurer and marketing genius. Salvador Assael left behind a rich legacy, and his wife continues with equal fervour to delight pearl and coral connoisseurs with extraordinary gems and jewels.
Part of Assael’s brand history is intricately linked to Tahitian black pearls. Tell us more about how the journey began for Salvador Assael?
Salvador met a Polynesian Frenchman who had heard about Salvador’s unique reputation as the pre-eminent fine pearl dealer in North America. This man showed him a natural colour black pearl, and Salvador was immediately intrigued. There were no natural colour black pearls anywhere on the market. The two men became business partners. They promptly bought the atoll of Maurutea, built a landing strip for easy airplane access, constructed some small buildings and proceeded to start a pearl farm.
Salvador didn’t waste a moment. That was who he was. Perfecting the pearl cultivation process in the area took some time, but when they had enough gem quality pearls to assemble a strand, Salvador brought it home to New York and walked up Fifth Avenue to Harry Winston. He showed his friend Harry the strand, and Harry had never seen anything like it. Salvador challenged Winston to sell it. He put it in one of his best Fifth Avenue windows.
I was working at Sotheby’s at the time, had not even met Salvador yet, but I remember the buzz and excitement about these mysterious new black pearls in New York City. That first-ever Tahitian gem pearl necklace sold within a week, for $250,000! A whole new gem was born with that necklace!
Assael’s firm belief in his judgement that black Tahitian pearls would do well leads us to believe that he was a visionary – tell us more about his love for pearls… what made him believe in black pearls which didn’t have any market in North America until then.
Salvador was indeed a visionary. He had a passion for exceptional quality pearls that started when he fell in love with the large, beautiful South Sea pearls back in the 1950s. He brought back to New York some of the early magnificent Burmese South Sea pearls, and he assisted the Australian pearl farmers when they began cultivating South Seas. His passion was contagious! He could make you love pearls as much as he did. And his marketing and business savvy were unsurpassed. He brilliantly marketed South Sea pearls to North America! Everyone wanted them, when months earlier no one had even known what they were.
When Salvador started cultivating Tahitian pearls, there was no market for them anywhere. They did not exist, except for a few dyed black pearls or the very few natural black pearls, which were nowhere near the size or quality of the cultivated Tahitian pearls that Salvador produced. Salvador and his partner literally produced the first Tahitian cultured pearls! So yes, he was a true visionary.
He earned the sobriquet of “pearl king”… how did that come about?
In addition to introducing South Sea Pearls to North America and creating the global Tahitian pearl market, Salvador also formed the South Sea Pearl Consortium, convincing other pearl entities to join together and invest in pearl marketing. He had such a passion for the very finest pearls. This legacy led the press to dub him as the “Pearl King.”
With the cultivation of the Tahitian pearl farm, he even built a sustainable model around it… your comments.
This is the very first Tahitian pearl farm that I referenced in a previous question. It was not a pearl farm when he bought the small island/atoll. Salvador built that pearl farm and started a whole new industry in French Polynesia. He was given an award by the government for doing this because it creating so many jobs and healthy flow of export income for the country.
Assael is also known for the creation of jewellery lines dominated with corals… how did that come about? Do you have a team of designers who manage your chic and contemporary lines?
When my husband passed away, I started managing the business. I have always had a fascination with and love for precious coral. It is just so beautiful … One of Mother Nature’s most exquisite gifts! When I met Enzo Liverino, an older coral fishing and dealing family in Italy, he told me of his ‘stash’ of Angel Skin coral from the 1970s and 80s, sealed and stamped with the date of import to Italy. It had not been cut or polished at the time. I convinced him to sell a great part of it to us at Assael, and he promptly began to cut it for me. We additionally bought some of his finest, largest Sardinian coral. I believe we have, by far, the largest coral inventory in the Americas. And all of it is legally harvested and responsibly sourced. I just adore it.
My Senior Vice President, Peggy Grosz designs and develops our jewellery according to the standards Assael has always been known for. She introduced The Colors collection; beautiful coloured gemstones in pieces, always with pearls or coral… or both! Peggy started this unique combination of pearls with coloured gemstones in 2018.
Cultivating both pearls and corals are part of your sustainable projects – with checks and balances in place to protect the environment. We would love to know more about the brand’s methods of saving the environment and at the same time producing outstanding natural gems.
Pearls are the most earth-friendly gem. The more pristine the waters, the healthier the oysters, and healthy oysters produce better pearls. Most pearl farmers go to great lengths to keep the waters in which their oysters live clean and to maintain their natural ecosystem. I also support marine studies, as well as projects to protect the coral reefs.
It’s important to understand that Reef Coral is not used in fine jewellery! Only Precious Coral is used in fine jewellery, and there are only about ten species of Precious Coral. These corals grow in very deep waters alone, unlike the Reef Coral which supports an entire ecosystem that harbours the foundation of ocean life.
Countries whose waters grow Precious Corals have strict regulations for controlling the amount of coral harvesting. Today, it is so tightly regulated that there is little or no chance for endangerment of the species used in fine jewellery. It is quite a complicated and time-consuming process to import coral legally as it requires documentation from the day it is harvested, then through every country in which it travels.
Angel Skin requires a CITES certificate each time it is shipped internationally. This paperwork is the certification that the coral was ethically, sustainably and legally harvested. Each country’s government department of Wildlife and Fisheries must examine the coral and its documentation in order to release it to its buyer. I’m very, very happy that this is so strictly controlled. Especially as a company that deals in gems from the sea, I feel very strongly that we all must be stewards of the oceans and take good care of them.
Does Assael have its own gem-cutting factory?
We do not have a gem cutting factory. We are pearl and coral dealers, as well as a fine jewellery brand. We are experts in pearls and precious coral. We rely on a very small, elite group of expert gem cutters to supply us with our high quality gemstones. We know the difference that the very best cutting makes to any gemstone material … When every single part of a jewellery creation is handled by top experts for the different elements and the very finest craftsmen, that’s when the magic happens.
We would like to know your major markets for pearls and jewellery designed with pearls or coral.
The US is certainly our major market. We are also represented at the very best jeweller in Canada, Mindham’s Fine Jewelry. Our international clientele usually purchase our pearls and jewellery pieces while in the US, in cities such as like New York or Washington, DC. We also ship directly to Asia or Europe to satisfy clients there.
Are Assael’s bejewelled creations retailed across America? Do you retail in other parts of the world as well?
We are very pleased to be represented at fine retailers throughout the US, such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, along with many of the best independent retailers. The Assael customer for our more sophisticated pieces can find us at approximately 35 stores, and our pearl strands and classic jewellery at an additional 35.
Canada is our only other country with retail representation. When we do business out of the country, it can be directly with a collector known to us or through one of our gem cutters or jeweller friends.
How has the pandemic impacted your company? And what are the moves that the brand has taken to ensure it stays connected with its clients?
New York was locked down for months at the same time as our retailers, so we used the time to create both a Brand Presentation, which we give to our stores and an 8-minute mini documentary film of our history. The short film tells the story of Salvador’s legacy and continues with what we’ve done since his passing. Of course, we also continued to hone our social media presence during the pandemic. Peggy Grosz has done several Live Instagram interviews, as well. Together, Peggy and I did a live ‘show and tell’ event online with New York City Jewelry Week. That was fun. I am happy to say that business became brisk again almost immediately after lockdown.
Which are your main export markets in the B2B segment and has the demand picked up in these regions?
We export B2B to Italy and France. That has remained quiet.
Going forward, what would be the future of the pearl jewellery segment?
I firmly believe that pearls will remain objects of desire. In addition to the many reasons they have been collected by ancient civilizations, royals and modern women, younger buyers are starting to realise how earth-friendly they are and how personal they can be to one’s particular style.
Anything else you may wish to add.
We are having yet another fabulous pearl moment in history – we call it the Pearl Revolution, with pearls appearing in designer fashion shows, celebrity red carpets and in numerous editorials. Everyone from Vogue (“Are Pearls the New Diamonds”) to The Coveteur (“In case you’re living under a rock, there’s been a huge resurgence of pearl jewelry lately”) is talking about pearls. These major pearl eras always last for a couple of decades or longer. Assael is ready to satisfy the high-end of this major pearl moment, as we always have in our 75-year history, beginning with my husband, of course.
Thank you for your interest in us. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to your readers.