Just as economists analyze yearly harvests and crop productivity, so too do pearl connoisseurs take a particular interest in the year’s pearl production. Nowadays, more than 95 percent of the planet’s pearls are cultured pearls and this means that the general public has access to an exquisite gemstone that makes for elegant and sophisticated pearl jewelry.
But have you ever wondered where they come from? There is an entire industry behind pearl production and professional pearl farmers follow very clear rules to ensure that the harvest is as high-quality as possible.
How Does Pearl Farming Work?
As stated before, the majority of the pearls sold today are cultured pearls and stem from pearl farms. Several hundreds or thousands of oysters (depending on the size of the farm) are involved in the process that ends with the production of a pearl. These oysters are nucleated and in the approximately five years following this nucleation, pearl farmers care for their harvest and their oysters.
But much like other forms of farming, pearl farming also relies on equal portions of luck and skill. The most skilled of pearl farmers may find entire harvests destroyed by uncontrollable factors, of which water pollution is the most relevant.
Of course, oysters are highly sensitive to a multitude of factors. Apart from water pollution (which makes pearl growth impossible), temperature changes and storms can also devastate the precious harvest.
The How and When of Pearl Farming
In order to prepare a roast, you first need a recipe. Similarly, pearl farming also relies on clear rules. Pearl farmers have to first identify those oysters suitable for nucleation. Despite the fact that such oysters would be collected from the sea in the past, modern farmers prefer to breed their own. This involves careful breeding among male and female individuals on the farm.
After fertilization, pearl farmers prepare entire generations of oyster larvae which are left to float freely for several weeks. So called “collectors” are employed to retrieve the larvae, which have the tendency of attaching themselves to rocks or similar objects. With time, the larvae develop into tiny oysters which must then be moved into “oyster nurseries”, where they live for approximately 2 years. This is when they are ready to be nucleated.
Nucleation and Pearl Production
Once the oysters have reached the required age to be nucleated, pearl farmers proceed to surgically implant irritants into the oyster. This foreign object (a parasite) causes the oyster to react by covering the irritant in white nacre. Pearl farming involves slightly different procedures for nucleating saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels.
In the case of saltwater oysters, the most common nucleation method involves the insertion of a “bead” surrounded by donor tissue stemming from a donor oyster. For freshwater mussels, no bead is used. Instead, just a portion of the mantle tissue is inserted into the mussel.
After nucleation, pearls are allowed to grow for several years, depending on the type of pearl that the farmers are aiming to obtain. At the end of this period, the pearls are extracted from the oyster, dried and washed, awaiting to be shipped to jewelers and manufacturers.
So next time you decide to wear your gorgeous pair of pearl earrings, take a moment to appreciate the delicate process that went into growing them.