Natural pearls are as precious and beloved as diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. But what makes pearls stand apart from other natural gemstones, which are typically mined from the earth, is how pearls are made. Unlike gemstones made from the earth, pearls are made by living shelled mollusks.
Where Do Pearls Come From?
So, where do pearls come from? Natural pearls are created by living shelled mollusks – and not just oysters. Pearls also come from: mussels, clams, scallops, and even sea snails are able to produce pearls, too. Though the image of the classic pearl is perfectly spherical and white, pearls come in an array of shapes and colors, each with their own unique beauty.
How Are Pearls Formed?
Pearls form when a foreign body, such as a parasite or debris, gets inside an oyster’s shell. As a response to the irritant, the oyster coats the debris, or parasite, with layer after layer of nacre. Nacre, also known as mother of pearl, is primarily made of calcium carbonate, the same substance that makes up egg shells, sea shells, and coral reef, among other things. The longer the layering process goes on, the larger the pearl.
Pearls can form in freshwater or saltwater but it’s important that the water is clean, as pearl oysters and pearl mussels can’t survive in polluted water.
What’s the Difference Between Natural and Cultured Pearls?
Both natural pearls and cultured pearls are “real” pearls in that they are made inside a mollusk with the same material, nacre. The difference between natural and cultured pearls is that natural pearls originate in the wild and are naturally formed by nature, making them very rare and therefore more valuable in comparison to a cultured pearl. Fewer than 1 in 10,000 oysters in the wild contain a natural pearl of value. Cultured pearls, however, are the product of human creation.
Cultured pearls are grown on pearl farms, where oysters or mussels are put through an extremely sophisticated culturing process and then harvested. Pearl technicians use delicate and advanced precision to “nucleate” oysters during the culturing process. This step places an irritant (typically shell or sand and a tiny piece of mantle tissue) inside an oyster, around which the pearl will form. It takes an average of 3 to 4 years for a pearl to fully form. During this time, pearl farmers and technicians take incredible care of the mollusks, ensuring optimal water conditions to keep them healthy and happy, and thus produce beautiful cultured pearls.
Pearl farming is the main source of pearls sold on the market today.
How Are Pearls Harvested?
When enough time has passed, it’s time for pearls to be removed, or “harvested” from their mollusk. A pearl harvester gently removes the pearl inside of a mollusk by opening the shell and carefully extracting the pearl with a surgical instrument. Pearl oysters typically produce 1 or 2 pearls each, while pearl mussels can produce 24 to 32 pearls at a time.
The oysters and mollusks used for pearl farming are meticulously cared for throughout their life. They are fed, cleaned and protected from every conceivable threat. Pearl farming is also an industry that also has a very positive impact on the environment. Since oysters are filter feeders, and are able to filter water while inhaling and expelling water through their gills. So whether freshwater or saltwater, the pearl farming industry is one that gives us beautiful cultured pearls, while also helping to enhance the water quality of surrounding ecosystems.