The backbone of the cultured pearl industry rests not within designers’ shops or jewelers’ vaults, but rather in the pristine, tranquil waters of the pearl farm. Suspended beneath the surface are fields of blissful oysters, silently filtering the water and turning their pearls within. Where did the farmer find all these oysters? There are three common ways that a pearl farm acquires stock, but it’s first helpful to understand a thing or two about the life and times of bivalve mollusks.
In the wild, mollusks (like oysters and mussels) reproduce by natural spawning: thrusting millions of eggs and sperm into the open water and, essentially, hoping for the best. Because of tides and predators, most of the scattered eggs are never fertilized, but those that find a match embark on a fascinating transformation. In salt water, these fertilized eggs soon develop into embryos and in 16-20 hours become tiny, free-swimming larvae. This newfound freedom is short lived however; within about three weeks the young mollusks lose the ability to swim and settle to the sea bottom. In freshwater habitats by contrast, larvae first attach to the gills of fish (like salmon in the River Spey). This oxygen- and nutrient-rich environment fuels their growth, though they, too, soon detach and settle to a peaceful life on the bottom.
Mollusks may spend their entire lives fastened to the same small plot of ocean floor or riverbed – serving as hosts themselves to a bio-diverse mix of organisms that affix to their shells (pictured). The life of a mollusk commonly spans 20 or 30 years, with some freshwater specimens living over 100 years. But all of this occurs in the wild. How do oysters make it to the pearl farm? Pearl farmers may either: collect adult mollusks from their natural environment; collect wild spat (juvenile mollusks) and raise them; or breed and grow mollusks under precise conditions. As you might guess, there is complexity in each scenario.
The traditional method to stock a pearl farm was to send divers into the wild with one task: bring back as many healthy oysters as could be found. Because mollusks were a largely untapped resource, this proved fruitful at first. The oysters were old enough and strong enough to produce cultured pearls, and the farm’s genetic diversity was constantly being bolstered to prevent disease and predation. The pearl farm had fewer overhead costs (as compared with breeding mollusks) and whenever a farmer needed more, he simply went out and collected them. You see the issue: the result of this early method was a sharp decline in natural populations. Thankfully, the pearling industry aligned with new government regulations that either prohibited or limited the collection of wild stock.
That leaves the pearl farmer with two options: spat collection and mollusk breeding. Aligning the collection window to perfectly synchronize with a mollusk’s breeding cycle, pearl farmers take advantage of natural spawning (remember the spray and pray method discussed earlier) to collect baby oysters before they are lost to predators or the environment. Because they naturally attach to fixed surfaces in this critical stage of development, simple mesh ‘landing pads’ are employed and then delicately transferred to the farm, where they are raised to adulthood. The far more sophisticated method to stock a pearl farm is by controlling the entire process within one hatchery and breeding mollusks in tanks. This leads to a steady, predictable supply of healthy, genetically diverse mollusks to produce the next generation of pearls – pearls destined for the lustrous Spey collection of jewels. The process may take a decade or more to be fully operational and sustainable, but it is a process very much worth the wait.