The hunt for the perfect pearl is a tale as old as humankind; pearls were among the first gems to be valued and worn by early man. But he also found a problem: as few as 1 in every 1,500 wild oysters contains a pearl within. Relying on this random chance and the perils of pearl diving prompted Japanese researchers in the early 20th century to develop a method of inducing pearl production in a farmed oyster. This process, called culturing, launched the modern pearling industry and fed the insatiable global demand for pearls. So what’s it like on a pearl farm?
Pearls may be farmed wherever mollusks, like mussels and oysters, live naturally. From an industry perspective, this has become most commercially viable in the waters of Southeast Asia (including China and Japan), the Pacific Islands (most notably French Polynesia), and Australia. Pearl farmers typically choose locations with diversity-rich, clean, stable, and protected environments that allow the mollusks – and therefore the pearls – to grow steadily and well.
Pearl farms vary between small, single-family collectives to large and complex aquaculture operations with state-of-the-art technology and equipment. Most pearl farms fall somewhere between these two extremes, but all typically share four common components: a hatchery, a grafting laboratory, a calm-water recovery area, and deep water nets.
Because many governments have enacted laws that prevent the unlicensed collection of wild mollusks, most cultured pearl oysters start their life in an onshore hatchery where they are commercially bred and farmed. The hatchery is able to produce a substantial number of mollusks – often millions – without disrupting wild populations, though these are occasionally called upon to replenish genetic diversity. The aim is to raise strong, healthy mollusks from juveniles through adulthood, when the mollusk is ready for nucleation.
The Grafting Laboratory
The graft lab is the central feature of the cultured pearl farm. This is where each mollusk is carefully pried open by a trained technician and nucleated (implanted) with a small piece of bead or shell. This insertion stimulates pearl formation, as the mollusk protects itself by coating the irritant in layer after layer of nacre. The graft lab may also be the building where cultured pearls are harvested. Typically, these buildings are built close to the water to minimize the time the mollusks spend out of their comfortable habitat.
The Calm-Water Recovery
Because nucleation is major surgery for a mollusk, they need time to recover in peace and quiet. Just like a human patient, mollusks require particular care and nutrients in these first few critical weeks. They are moved to a special calm-water area on the pearl farm, where environmental factors may be closely controlled and where the mollusks may be closely observed. Mollusks spend roughly two or three weeks swaying gently underwater in special suspended baskets.
The Deep Water Nets
When the mollusks have recovered from the trauma of surgery, they are returned to the farm’s general population in natural bays or lagoons. These areas are more protected from the dramatic currents and conditions found farther offshore. Many farmers keep mollusks in net panels or wire cages, where they can enjoy room to filter food and oxygen while being protected from roaming turtles, fish, and rays. These nets (pictured above) hover 20 to 50 feet under water, suspended by cord between floating buoys on the surface and concrete anchors on the seabed.
One of the seemingly never-ending chores besetting a pearl farm is the task of cleaning the mollusks. Marine growth and barnacles quickly accumulate on the shells and nets. Mollusks are removed from their cozy net and scraped clean. This also gives the pearl farmer the opportunity to inspect the mollusk for signs of sickness or parasites. This forms the day-to-day operations during the 3 to 7 years it takes to produce lustrous pearls.
Harvest typically occurs as the weather cools and during fine nacre production. When harvest begins, the nets are collected and mollusks are brought to the surface. Mollusks can be preserved for second- or third-generation nucleation, but most perish during harvest. The pearls that emerge may be gently cleaned or polished to remove tissue and debris, but little additional processing is needed to bring the pearls to market. There is risk at every stage of pearl production, but the perfectly lustrous, glowing gems are the true reward of the pearl farm.