Interview with Betty Sue King, aka The Pearl Goddess
Karen says: I’ve known Betty Sue King "The Pearl Goddess" for about 25 years. I met her at my first SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) Conference in Atlanta, GA. I love pearls and find them as unique as the person who sells them.
Where were you born and raised? What were your earliest memories of your childhood that resonate with you now? What is your background?
My roots sprouted at Manhattan General Hospital. Our family lived upstairs above the mom-and-pop grocery store on Mott Street, in the quintessential Chinatown, New York City.
I was waking up to a bouquet of red roses from my father while recovering from complications of a tonsillectomy is a touching memory. I enjoyed sunning myself, sitting in my rocking chair in front of our family grocery store. Circa 1935, my father’s business card details “Fancy Groceries-Cigarettes, Cigars & Ice Cream.” He would have appreciated Dramatic Pearls from his daughter, The Pearl Goddess. I am my father’s child.
Travel and adventure became a part of my world at an early age. When I was five, the entire family traveled cross country from New York City to San Francisco in our 1947 Packard sedan. We tasted the flavors and absorbed the country's sights, including stops for ice cream at Howard Johnsons and looking for four-leaf clovers on freeway shoulders. After San Francisco, we settled in rural Phoenix, Arizona. The neighborhood was a patchwork of little stores. Ours was a mom-and-pop grocery business. Being different, only Asians was not a barrier. Here we were all just families and children.
The family team changed displays, selected the best produce, gave customer care, and participated in all aspects of running King’s Food Market. Business skills became ingrained as part and parcel of our lives. I am grateful to Harry & Fay King, strict immigrant parents who were caring, loyal, and dedicated to raising their children for a better life. They laid a solid foundation of ethical values and entrepreneurial skills to access and evolve as time progressed.
How did you become an entrepreneur in the pearl industry? How long have you been selling pearls?
In 1978 Legislation in California reduced property taxes resulting in massive layoffs that swept me out of the classroom. Being laid off felt like going into free fall. A door opened to my future when a friend in the diamond and estate jewelry business offered me the opportunity to wholesale diamonds. I named my business King’s Ransom, appropriate use of my name. I studied course manuals from GIA and read everything in sight about gemstones. I networked with dealers, traveled to Tucson, purchased gems, and made contacts to buy pearls. I was utterly immersed in this world. I began knocking on doors selling in the Bay area, where my inventory of unusual gems and exotic pearls was a hit. I was rehired and continued teaching middle school.
I taught my 6th-grade students, drove to sell to clients between classes, and simultaneously styled food for an advertising company. I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. After the school year was competing, I was laid off again. I knew I had turned the page to pursue my fledgling new career.
I met dealers and gemstone cutters in a short time and began buying inventory from domestic sources. Soon my clients asked me to represent their jewelry line. I decided to take my first road trip to the frontier of Alaska. The rollicking pipeline days had passed, but I was welcomed by Ketchikan, Anchorage, and Fairbanks stores. In the lower 48, I joined forces with other dealer friends that evolved into reliable supporting networks and lasting friendships, vital for survival in this industry.
Sharing a booth with three women gemstone dealers and a jewelry designer was my first foray into the exhibition in Tucson at the Holiday Inn Broadway. We were an attraction and a sensation –a five-women booth. Soon, AGTA evolved, and King’s Ransom segued to the Art of Perfection theme, showcasing carvings and designer jewelry alongside pearls.
Pre-covid, you traveled to China to purchase pearls. How did you get started?
When I decided it was time to buy pearls directly from Japan, I researched the Japan Trade Index and compiled a list of pearl suppliers in Kobe. In 1983, letters of introduction flew overseas announcing myself as a buyer seeking exceptional pearls for my wholesale business and exhibition at trade shows. Funded with a second mortgage on my home, I was on my way to the first of many overseas buying trips, eventually expanding to other destinations. Warmly welcomed, even generously referred to other dealers, I was thrilled to discover pearls I’d never seen before.