Q&A: Betty Sue King, The Pearl Goddess

A former elementary school teacher in San Francisco, Betty Sue King departed from her position and decided to focus her love for learning in a different field. Always enamored by the beauty around her, Betty Sue King had a special fascination with pearls. She says, “I’ve always had a love for beautiful things and pearls captured my attention more than anything else. Maybe there’s an affinity. Whatever it was… it resonated with me.” Now a shop-owner in Sausalito, Calif., a stones throw from San Francisco, she's known as the “Pearl Goddess”. A frequent contributor to pearl journals and a commentator at many conferences, Betty Sue King is the lady to know when it comes to picking the perfect strand to adorn your neck. LadyLux is a longtime fan of her collection and wanted to hear her “pearls” of wisdom when it comes to shopping for the exotic ocean treasure.

LadyLux: How did you develop a fascination for pearls?
Betty Sue King: I wanted to find the most amazing pearls I could ever find. Many years ago, I decided that I would make the journey to Japan. I started looking at the Japanese trade index and finding names of pearl dealers. I wrote them letters saying “I’d loved to see your pearls” and they welcomed me with open arms.

LL: What are you known for?
BSK: I am known for the unusual, the most beautiful, and the most collectible. That covers a range of all kinds of pearls, not just freshwater, which I have a great depth, but also the salt-water pearls and the interesting colors and shapes that are found there.

LL: Are the crosses saltwater? How are they formed?
BSK: They are freshwater pearls that are formed very specifically. The nucealators cut the strands of body tissue into strips. When they operate on the Chinese freshwater mussel, they make two incisions (like a cross) and they insert those strips of tissue in the place. The mussel creates this wonderful shape from the inserted tissue.

LL: Is it a similar process with the keshi, which look like petals?
BSK: Good question. Those are totally different. They actually create a pearl with a shape, such as a coin. The coin pearl is started with a shell disc cut into the shape like a dime, and that’s inserted into the muscle with body tissue. The natural tissue helps start the growth of the pearl sac. They’ll leave it in the mussel for a year 1/2 to two years. When that’s harvested, the blueprint of the next pearl is there, in the body of the mussel. They just put the mussel back in the water and it’ll spontaneously create the pearl and that is keshi shape!

LL: Do you think people are drawn to these unusual shapes?
BSK: They become popular because people love things that are different and they’re very unique. They also come in many exotic colors.

LL: I was going to ask, are all those colors natural?
BSK: Many of the colors are natural. The peach, pink, and mauve are pretty wonderful. Some have a multitude of colors that shimmer. The dark ones—like the blacks, blues and greens—those are dyed. There’s a color for everybody.

LL: I noticed your article “How Green are Your Pearls?”…How can people be environmentally conscious when buying pearls?
BSK: They’re environmentally conscious, when buying saltwater pearls in particular, because the people that create those pearls must do it in an absolute pristine area. If the water is polluted in any way, the pearls will suffer and die, or the crops will be very low. Everything has to be antiseptic and the conditions must be pure.

LL: Any examples of the environment going array?
BSK: In Japan, the Japanese cultured pearls… they have issues with some of the crops that they are grown in. In one place, they were growing the fugu fish. It’s a puffer fish that gained notoriety in the culture. They have to be prepared by specially trained chefs because if you don’t do it correctly, and cut the liver, the liver has toxins that can kill people.

LL: I know what you're talking about!
BSK: That fish got so popular that they wanted to grow them and put them in the same areas where they cultivated pearls. Well, they forgot that the fugu fish have toxins and emit their waste products, which is toxic to the pearls.

LL: Wow. So a healthy environment is really important.
BSK: Definitely.

LL: What trends do you see in the pearl market?
BSK: The trends keep evolving. Even with our economy, when things are down, people still love beautiful things. Most of my clients already have the basic round pearls, so these exotic shapes are becoming more attractive. They’re looking for something different. Mixing pearls of different shapes and colors is a strong trend.

LL: Do you have a favorite style?
BSK: There is one that I wear often that has become part of my signature line. It’s with large angel wing keshi pearls that I mix with white topaz briolettes. It looks like a flower lei. I also love my Tahitian strand, which is a mixture of all different colors.

LL: Any advice for people when shopping for pearls?
BSK: Pearl colors vary the same way skin color does, so you have the opportunity to find the best color for you. Take the pearl and put it on the back of their hand, then you have an idea about the way the color will look around your neck. If the color is right… it will pop! If it doesn’t work, the color will fade and might look grayish. If you’re buying for someone else, think about the colors that the person likes to wear. Also, look for pearls that have a shine to them. You want them to glow.

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