Marking our nation’s independence, we at Spey revel in all things American. In the Stars and Stripes; the fireworks bursting in air; the Washington Monument standing firm: we see the light of freedom and the greatness of our nation. How could we – a purveyor of pearls and pearl jewelry in Washington, DC – pay tribute to our forefathers’ brilliance? The only way we know how: by celebrating our two favorite things and telling the story of American pearls.
There are numerous North American mussels that produce pearls. Evidence of pearl jewelry and pearl art has been unearthed from remains of the Hopewell culture in modern Ohio, dating some 2,000 years ago. Even colonist John Smith remarked on the strands of pearls that adorned Native American leaders. Columbus, in his quest for new lands and new treasures, was tasked by the Spanish monarch to return with as much gold and pearls as his ships could hold. Given this rich history of American pearls, what of the American pearl industry today?
The early 1800s saw a resurgence in the hunt for American pearls. Westward expansion pushed Americans over new rivers: the mighty Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers proved not only excellent waterways, but also fertile streams of resources. As mussels entered the American diet, pearls were an occasional and serendipitous addition to the meal. These discoveries triggered systematic harvesting of freshwater mussels for pearls and mother-of-pearl, then used to fashion buttons for the garment industry. When the culturing process of Japanese pearler Mikimoto grew in fame a century later, the shells of American pearl mussels were particularly prized for grinding into the nuclei of the next generation of pearls.
Today, the lakes and rivers of Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin support viable American pearl mussels. Overexploitation and industrialization, however, with the accompanying pollution, have greatly reduced the number of American pearl populations. Off the coasts, pearls are sourced from the Gulf of Mexico to Hawaii and are even found in Californian abalone. Natural American pearls have become quite rare; those that are found are often irregularly shaped. Perhaps the story of American pearls offers two lessons. First: our natural resources are one of our greatest treasures, and second: that pearls have been inextricably linked to America from the start. This Independence Day, we’ll don a bit of Spey luster while toasting America and American pearls.