Online Pearl Parties are Completely Insane and Crazy Popular

Left: Show Me The Pearls, Vantel Pearls Independent Consultant/ Center: Typical Pearl Party pearls / Keeping it Real in New Jersey Pearl Party

A couple of months ago, a dear friend of mine had surgery on one of her knees. It left her largely housebound and on bed rest for an extended period. I called her one day to check in, and asked her how she had been keeping herself amused. Here is a rough approximation of the conversation that followed:

Her: "I've got super into watching Pearl Parties."
Me: "What's a Pearl Party? Is it porn?"
Her: "No! It’s like gambling, but with pearls. There's only one lady I really like to watch open the oysters, but there are tons of them."
Me: "Wait. There are actual oysters involved?"
Her: "Totally. She opens the oysters and inside there are pearls that have all been dyed different colors."
Me: "And then what?"
Her: "Nothing. That's it."
Me: "But... what's the point?"
Her: "Okay, so it’s like $25 to buy one oyster, or you 'game pay' to play games and win the oysters and bags and necklaces and things."
Me: "Necklaces and things?"
Her: "Yeah. Necklaces you put the pearls into, which you can win in the games as well. The one lady I really like also does these mystery tote bags for all genders and ages. It’s a whole operation."
Me: "This makes absolutely no sense."
Her: "It does to her. I'm pretty sure she makes crazy-good money doing this."

Two days later, my friend sent me a link to a live show, with a note attached: "Okay, here's my favorite Pearl Party host," she wrote. "She really is a very cool, chill person. And she goes on for hours -- until 3 or 4 in the morning."

Ana, a Pearl Party host on Facebook has thousands of fans.

Turns out, my pal's favorite Pearl Party is Keeping it Real in New Jersey. The show she directed me to was Shakespearean long (three and a half hours) and featured a suburban woman named Ana, sitting in a crafting room, interacting warmly with her viewers, while games were played and oysters were opened.

For most of the live video, Ana chatted about whatever came up in the comments -- "fur babies," her viewers' physical ailments ("I hope your back gets better fast!"), the weather ("Oh no, snowing 4 to 5 inches an hour, Barbara!"), and, inevitably, pearls, which were greeted rapturously by viewers (“Beautiful colors”; “Oh my those gorgeous matallic [sic] pinks in the front Amy”). Voices and dogs were frequently heard in the background, and family members interrupted. When things got quiet for a few seconds in the comments, Ana filled the time singing snippets of Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Loretta Lynn.

Sponsored

The entire thing seemed, to me at least, completely batshit crazy.

Ana presenting the potential prizes of her Pearl Party.

Games played by viewers and Ana include Pearlopoly, Big Bingo Bash, and Pearlette (Ana had to literally dust off a mini roulette wheel before she could do that last one). And these people have an entire language all of their own. "Cages," "the Aw Shucks Bucket," and "the Kindness Tray" were discussed repeatedly, and I never quite figured out what any of this meant. I thought, This is what happens when you turn a Pearl Factory store into a concept, inject it with a little Las Vegas, then throw it at the internet. Hard.

By the end of Ana's video, there were over 3,000 comments on it. In disbelief, I went to Keeping it Real in New Jersey's Facebook, only to find it has over 21,000 followers. A cursory Facebook search revealed a wealth of other Pearl Parties including: My Lucky Pearls, The Pearl Lady of Portage, Phana Packer Pearl Girl, Angel Pearls Canada, That Pearl Life, Forever Curious Oyster, and simply too many more to list here. A couple of Pearl Parties stood out because of their sheer dominance -- a single Pearl Chic video on Facebook, for example, currently has almost 70,000 views.

Then there's Vantel Pearls, a company that has been hosting Pearl Parties since 1987, which means this used to be a thing people did at specifically organized gatherings in their homes. And, according to the Vantel website, it still is. Vantel veers away from the gambling element that Ana embraces and spins more towards spirituality. Founder and CEO Joan Hartel Cabral says on her website: "Pearls have taught me about gratitude and nature’s wisdom. How many of us are able to take a challenge, as Oysters do, and find the gift in it? It isn’t always easy to find the positive in the hardships we endure, but in time, beauty is often revealed."

Pearl Party popularity is now at such an all-time high that Timeless Pearl, a purveyor of high quality saltwater pearls, has an entire page on its website explaining the problems with Pearl Parties. "Most pearls used in oyster-opening parties are freshwater pearls, which are implanted into used oysters right before packaging," it says. "The pearls are real, but unfortunately, they are often misrepresented as being the more valuable saltwater pearls... The pearls would have been bought wholesale for anything between $0.10 and $3.50, depending on the mollusk type, and sold to party attendees at anything from $25 to $200."

Websites warning of the "scam" nature of Pearl Parties -- and there are plenty -- often fail to see what these strange little videos are really providing. In many ways, it seems that much of the appeal has little to do with the actual pearls and more to do with feeling part of a community. Based on their multitude of comments, many of the people who tuned into Keeping it Real in New Jersey seemed to already know each other and feel a kinship with host, Ana, as my friend does. When players won pearls, they were warmly congratulated by strangers in the thread. When one viewer talked about turning 80, birthday wishes were sent. And they are planning their second annual group cruise (because of course that's a thing).

A lot of people watching probably do so for the same reason my friend started: boredom and isolation brought on by outside factors. Pearl Parties are an escape. And while there is undoubtedly a ridiculously profitable system in place for the hosts, many viewers are there simply to observe and comment and feel part of their own little clique -- and doing that is entirely free.

Sponsored

For those that do participate, it's impossible to know just how many truly believe they're getting something valuable. It's possible that participants are doing so with the full knowledge that they're not getting the quality of a high-end pearl (the dye is a pretty major giveaway). In the end, perhaps throwing money at Pearl Parties is a little like our willingness to overpay for drinks and snacks at stadiums and other large music venues: you're not paying for the product, you're paying for the overall experience. And based on what I saw, that experience is a predominantly joyful one -- even if it makes almost entirely no sense to the rest of us.

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.