Pearl parties: The multi-level marketing scam that just won't die

Welcome to the weird and wacky world of "pearl parties," an MLM (multi-level marketing) scam that's actually been around for years but is currently having a resurgence on TikTok. What are pearl parties? BuzzFeed News reporter Leticia Miranda explains the set up:

A new twist on the old-school Tupperware party has been flooding Facebook timelines, with multi-hour live streams of people popping open oysters to reveal colorful pearls nestled inside. Pearl parties follow a basic formula: the host opens dozens of oysters, each of which was purchased by a party attendee. People typically pay around $20 per oyster, and get the pearl in return; some companies that run the parties charge anywhere from $29 to almost $200 to set the pearl in an item of jewelry.

However, the viewers/buyers pay way more than the pearls are worth, and are often lied to about the supposed "appraised" value of the pearls. BuzzFeed News reveals the deception involved:

But there's often a dose of deception mixed into these live streams, BuzzFeed News has found. In particular, industry experts say the way Vantel's party hosts appraise the value of the pearls their customers are buying is nonsense, misrepresenting the value of cheap grades of pearl that can sell in mass for less than a dollar.

Party hosts working with companies like Vantel often cite an "appraised pearl value" chart to explain how much each pearl is worth. That chart suggests there is a standard way to value pearls based on their size and color, which the experts insist is not the case. And the chart says its valuations are based on data compiled by the National Pearl Association of the United States, which does not exist.

The pearl party hosts keep their streams ticking along with raffles and giveaways — they might promise, for example, to raffle off a free pearl necklace if five people spend more than $150 during the party. Like other skilled livestreamers, they hustle to keep the audience engaged and participating for hours, hyping up every oyster opening and then gushing about the rare qualities of the pearl found within each shell.

Despite the fact that the pearls are almost worthless, people can't seem to get enough of these parties—the hashtag "pearl party live" has 6 billion views on TikTok, and there's no shortage of companies you can buy into. A quick search led me to many such companies, including Pearl TimeAww ShucksPearls Gone Wild, and the Oyster Pearl Company. One of the original and biggest "Pearl Party" MLMs was called Vantel Pearls, which began hosting pearl parties in 1987. They were the subject of a class action lawsuit in 2017 and closed up shop for good in 2021. And in case you need reminding, research from the FTC reveals that 99% of the people who join MLMs lose money.

If you want an example of what these parties are like, here's TikTok user Megan Reid, in one of the countless Pearl Party videos on TikTok. You can see her opening an oyster; upon finding three pearls inside, she explodes in excitement – she screams, rings a bell, and jumps up and down. I've watched a few pearl party videos and there's something about them that's sort of mesmerizing, which perhaps partly explains why so many people participate. If it were just for entertainment, I guess that would be one thing, but folks are losing lots of money both signing up for the MLMs and buying the pearls in the live shows. 

One company, "Chic Mermaid Pearls," explains its business model. You can "start your own business today" with the "Chic Mermaid Pearls Consultant Starter Kit," which costs $175.00 plus tax and shipping. The company claims the kit value is $500.00. The kit comes with: "Oyster Keeper; Pearl Sizer; Pearl Display (2); Oyster Tray; 22 Oysters; Pearl Baggies; Jewelry Display (2); Pearl Towel; Pearl Jewelry Settings (5); Oyster Shucker; Chic Mermaid Pearls Gear Brand Shirt; (Starter Oysters include 2 oysters for practicing and for display in provided jewelry)."

And what would you do as a Pearl Consultant for Chic Mermaid Pearls? The company explains:

You will be hosting home and online parties for a live audience on Facebook, and other social media platforms, facilitating a fun and family-friendly experience for customers and followers to come and watch you open oysters to see what beautiful pearls are revealed. You control your own online store and make a 25 percent commission on every retail sale, excluding tax and shipping of your personal sales.

While you are live, be sure to mention to your viewers how they can win free pearl jewelry settings. Viewers are asked to comment where you are watching from and comment on LIVE party and a form of party participate on. Please make sure your viewers have "Liked" and "Followed" the Chic Mermaid Pearls Facebook business page and the Independent Consultant's page. Sharing the Live Chic Mermaid Pearls party, enters viewer to win our free pearl and pendant setting. Drawings are done once a month. Feel free to share our live feeds on your personal profile.

You will announce a winner. Winner will be randomly selected and announced at the beginning of each month viewer must to present to win.

Pure Pearls, a website that sells legitimate, high-end pearls, also warns potential pearl party customers that they are being promised high value pearls when in reality the pearls are practically worthless. They state:

Typically Freshwater pearls used in Wish Pearls will range in price from $0.02 to $5.00 per pearl, depending on its sizeshapesurface quality and luster. Pearls that have been dyed are usually lower-grade jewelry quality, chosen specifically to undergo a color-treatment process due to poor luster (which makes or breaks the pearl as a gemstone); the color-treatment process usually covers up chalky luster, and gives the pearl a bright, almost plastic-looking surface shine. I CAN tell you that Wish Pearls are currently wholesaling overseas for$1.00 to $2.00 per entire kit – that includes full packaging, submerged mollusk in tin, pearl, promotional materials AND pendant for the pearls. So what does that tell you??

Pearlescence, another high-end pearl website, further explains the scam:

The scam goes like this. The operator buys pickled oyster shells from either a wholesaler in the UK or America or direct from china. They are vacuum packed and dead. The poor things have had a random freshwater pearl shoved into them. The process is that the pearl is inserted into a live young akoya oyster shell which opens as it dies. The corpse is then dumped into a chemical bath which shrinks the adductor muscle so it slowly closes, and preserves it. Then it is vacuum packed or tinned and sold to one of the companies at the top of the supply pyramid.

There is one company which has been recruiting sellers hard and promoting these parties, because they are selling the preserved shells and findings at a huge mark up and controlling the drilling and setting of the pearls. Big profit for them.

And finally, pearl company Timeless Pearl asserts customers are being misled by pearl party MLMs about the pearls being saltwater (they aren't), high quality (they aren't), and valuable (they aren't). Other issues include:

Saltwater vs. Freshwater: Oysters are mostly found in saltwater and they produce saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are produced in mussels. Most pearls used in oyster-opening parties are freshwater pearls, which are implanted into used oysters right before packaging. The pearls are real, but unfortunately, they are often misrepresented as being the more valuable saltwater pearls.

Quality: Freshwater pearls used for oyster-opening parties are of regular quality and luster. 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.

Colors: Freshwater pearls come in a wide variety of pastel colors such as peach, pink, purple, bronze, champagne, as well as white. Pearls are often dyed green, silver, black, or dark gold to meet market demand. Saltwater Akoya oysters, on the other hand, can produce exquisite pearl colors, such as silver-blue, but these are very expensive due to their high quality and scarcity. Party hosts attach a value to the pearls based on a chart where colors like blue-silver and black are appraised higher. Participants often have the false perception that they are buying high-value Akoya pearls for a bargain price, when in fact they are getting dyed freshwater pearls.

Addictive nature: These parties can also be quite addictive. Say for example that the oyster you bought delivers one black pearl, which you would like to use for a pair of earrings. You might be tempted to buy more oysters until you find a similar pearl to complete the pair. The sad truth is that you can get complete earring sets of much higher quality and at lower prices in your desired color and design from a pearl jeweler.

Oyster meat: This one is probably obvious, but worth a mention. The oysters used at these parties are not fresh, and therefore not edible. Oysters are often chemically treated to keep them from spoiling. Their meat is harmful if ingested.

The bottom line is: avoid these pearl parties, and the MLMs associated with them! For more information on these pearl party scams, check out these videos from two of my favorite anti-MLM content creators, Cruel World Happy Mind and CC Suarez.