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American Pearls: A Family Affair

Gina Latendresse, president of the American Pearl Company, in Tennessee, doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t “sorting pearls, playing with pearls, dreaming about pearls.” From a young age, she would travel to shows with her parents, John and Chessy Latendresse, and stand watch over the tables covered with piles of pearls. “When you’re eight years old, your parents don’t give you a paycheck,” she says. “I was paid in pearls. At the end of the day or week, I could pick a pearl. Once, when I was about 12 or 13, I was sorting through the mound of pearls there. Usually there is one pearl that is just outstanding and you fall in love with it. You put it at the top of the sorting tray and it gives you the enthusiasm to search for more of them. On this day I pulled out such a pearl, and said, ‘Daddy, this one is so pretty.’” Her father took the pearl, looked at it, and said he could see why. He proceeded to tell her all about the color and quality of the pearl. Then he put it away.

“At the end of the week, I didn’t get that pearl. I didn’t get that pearl at the end of the year. And I eventually forgot about it. Then after I came to work for him in 1991, at Christmas he handed me a white envelope. In it was a gem baggie with the note he’d written on it: 1979. For Gina one day. He had been saving that pearl for a special time. That pearl is priceless to me because it is truly a gift from the heart. All that time before, he had known I would be involved in the business some day.”

The American Pearl Company is truly a family affair. It started in 1961 when John Latendresse decided to try to culture pearls in the tributaries of the Mississippi. It took time, but he and his wife Chessy Latendresse developed a successful, proprietary, process. Although the company gives no tours of the processing plant, it goes something like this:

Wild mussels are collected by divers under contract and taken to the operation facility where a skilled technician cuts a pearl sac and inserts a mother-of-pearl bead along with a graft of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue triggers the mussel to form nacre around the bead. The pearl-pregnant mussels are suspended in nets from PVC pipe in Kentucky Lake and grown from between eighteen months to five years. When taken from the mussel, the pearls are washed in warm distilled water and mild soap only. No further processing or dying is done.

At any one time, they may have between 300,000 and 500,000 mussel shells in the water “pregnant” with one to four cultured pearls. The company does not focus on round pearls, but instead focuses on baroque pearls and their blister pearls, both of which are sought after by designers for their unique shapes and colors.

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