James Assael, a diamond dealer based in Milan, Italy, founded the business of Assael-Ventura in Europe in the early 20th Century. Before the onset of World War II, James moved his family to the United States via Cuba. His son, Salvador served with distinction in the U.S. Army in Europe, and post-war, began to work with his father and learn the trade. Salvador eventually changed the focus of the company to precious colored gemstones. In 1972, he took over the business and named it Assael International (now simply known as Assael). By that point, Salvador had established the company as a renowned purveyor of fine gemstones, and a leader in the rare pearl market.
The Pearl King
Salvador’s first encounter with pearls happened in the early 1950’s, when he traveled to Japan on business and was frequently paid in pearls – the small Japanese Pinctada Fucata or Akoya pearl. With growing interest in pearls, he discovered and was seduced by the beauty of the largest pearl of all, the Pinctada Maxima – the white Australian South Sea pearl and the smaller golden Indonesian South Sea pearl. Salvador traveled through Southeast Asia and Australia to acquire the best available specimens. In 1981 and again in 1986, the Burmese government awarded Mr. Assael with spectacular trophies as the biggest buyer of pearls from the 1st through the 25th Emporiums. Salvador always considered the Burmese pearl the most beautiful because of its rare, soft luster.
His quest to find the most magnificent pearls continued in Tahiti, at the suggestion of a friend. There, Salvador became acquainted with the Pinctada Margaritifera or black Tahitian pearl which was unknown in the west, and a new passion was born. He had reached the source, realizing that with ownership came market and quality control. Salvador became a producer, investing in pearl farms in the South Pacific.
To harvest a great pearl, the oyster must in the water for three to five years, vulnerable to typhoons that could destroy an entire crop. Further, perfect, round pearls account for just 5 percent of an annual harvest. Salvador insisted on keeping only the highest quality pearls, even though that meant it could take years to create a perfectly matched strand. His idea of discarding pearls, that did not meet his standard, was a costly practice, but one that ensured that the gems would maintain their value.
In 1976, when Salvador returned from his pearl farms, he brought with him a set of exquisite black pearls and created a perfect gem strand. Salvador decided to take the Tahitian necklace to his dear friend, legendary Fifth Avenue jeweler, Harry Winston and challenged him to sell the necklace. The deal was struck, the necklace was sold, and Salvador J. Assael had introduced a new precious gem to the world.
Faced with the challenge of marketing this previously unknown pearl, Salvador went to the GIA to request a new certification protocol, in order to establish parameters for appraisal and create a system for color authenticity. The GIA agreed to create a certification of color (to differentiate natural color pearls from dyed Japanese pearls) as well as a grading system of size, luster, clarity of surface and shape, which are all specific to pearls. The rest is history, as they say…
“My husband’s love affair with pearls earned him the title of "The Pearl King" in the press, as his pearls are worn by women all over the world. Assael continues to hold the record for the most expensive South Sea cultured pearl necklace ever sold at auction - in 1993 at Sotheby’s auction house in New York for $2,300,000.
I was privileged to share his life, travel with him and learn from him. Salvador was a giant in the pearl world. He lived and breathed pearls – he loved them with a deep passion.
When he passed away, Salvador gave me the business – an incredible gift and huge responsibility. We continue to offer the classic jewelry that the company is famous for, and I also focus on finding new ways for the business to thrive. I see myself as the bridge between two generations, to pass along the company to our son Robert, when he is ready.”
Christina Lang Assael