The Pearls and the Bees

Woman Thinks in Pearl Necklace
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Where do pearls come from?

The creation of a pearl is one of nature’s most beautiful success stories. When an irritant – whether the fabled grain of sand or more likely a parasite – breaches the shell and enters the soft tissue of a mollusk, the mollusk starts a defense. These particles gain entry when a mollusk opens its shell for feeding or respiration. To smooth over the abrasive edges or prevent injury, an oyster, mussel or clam will form a pearl sac that seals off the irritation.

This is when the art of the pearl begins to take shape. Layer by layer, the mantle tissue within the mollusk will secret a composite material called nacre. Nacre consists primarily of conchiolin and calcium carbonate platelets. This is the same compound that produces the iridescent mother-of-pearl lining of a mollusk’s shell. The color of this substance varies, but can range from the creamy white of akoyas to the rich aubergine of Tahitian pearls.

Known as encystation, the method of enveloping an irritant in glossy nacre will continue as long as the mollusk lives or until an event causes the mollusk to repel the formation. Left undisturbed for years, thick layers of nacre will continuously wrap and turn around the irritant in an immune system-like response. The result: a single pearl. Perfectly round pearls are quite infrequent; many will be off round, pear-shaped or baroque.

If this process occurs within the wild, the rare pearl is called natural. Cultured pearls are man’s way of helping this process along by simulating the irritant, but the resulting process within the mollusk’s shell is the same. For 3-5 years or even more, the mollusk quietly turns the pearl within. At harvest, a technician removes the mollusk from the water and extracts the pearl with a quick turn of the knife. Specialists then evaluate and sort the pearls for quality. Only the finest make it into pieces of exceptional jewelry.