Think you know a thing or two about pearls? From where they come from to how they’re made, and from where they get their color to what makes them so good for the environment, we at Spey have compiled seven facts about pearls that might leave you clamoring for more. Get it? You will…
It rarely starts with a grain of sand
You may be familiar with the legend of how a pearl is formed; that a grain of sand enters an oyster and after a bit of time, a pearl is born. You also may have heard that a stork delivers babies to patient, loving humans. Not all fables are true. While a grain of sand can stimulate pearl production, most often the genesis is a parasite that breaches the shell and irritates the soft tissue of a mollusk.
The irritant might gain entry when the mollusk is feeding or when relaxing its muscles, or perhaps the parasite bored its way through the shell. Either way, this instigates a chain reaction wherein a mollusk forms a pearl sac and wraps layer after layer of a substance called nacre to smooth over the abrasion or irritant. In time, this forms the lustrous, organic gem. It’s a much less sexy version of the narrative, but one with greater resonance for our own lives: an oyster takes adversity and crafts something of compelling beauty. The pearl is the oyster’s greatest triumph.
Pearls don’t only come from oysters
Many mollusks (a phylum of soft-bodied animals lacking vertebrae and often, but not always, bearing a tough external shell) have the ability to produce pearls. Scientists estimate that as many as 50,000 to 120,000 unique species of mollusk scuttle about the planet, from our heroes the bivalves (mussels, oysters, clams and scallops) to gastropods (snails and slugs), cephalopods (octopi and squids) and many others. The bivalves produce the lustrous, gem-quality pearls that we’ve all come to love. And these needn’t just be your grandmother’s single strand of soft white pearls. Interesting, vibrant, colorful specimens emerge from conch, melo melo and abalone.
Even freshwater mussels may produce pearls and, if pollution or over-exploitation haven’t yet set in, there could be some resting peacefully in a river or lake near you. We encourage you to leave these alone. Mussels are critical to the health of the water system. Our beloved namesake River Spey in Scotland once boasted proud populations of freshwater pearl mussels (with Scottish pearls making their way into the British and Scottish crown jewels), but now these are critically threatened and a protected species under law.
Pearls don’t only come from Asia
While it’s true that the birth of the modern pearl culturing industry happened in Japan in the early twentieth century, mollusks are found on every continent. The Caribbean once proffered a major pearl supply to Europe – and even spurred Christopher Columbus into barbarous acts in the name of Crown and Catholicism. The waters off modern-day Venezuela were teeming with pearl-laden oysters – so, too, in Baja California. The pearling industry off the coast of Mexico is today kept alive by a few, small, dedicated proprietors. Even the Middle East was renowned for its pearls. Until oil disrupted the economy and polluted the waters, the Persian Gulf was home to some of the most lustrous pearls in the world.
Of course, Asia and the South Pacific do produce a large majority of the pearls at market, from China and Japan in the north to French Polynesia and Australia in the south. The region gives rise to the legendary akoya pearls, the enigmatic Tahitian pearls, and the kingly South Sea pearls. While we source pearls from across the globe, particularly to suit the tastes of our discerning Washingtonian clientele, the majority of pearls in the Spey fine jewelry collection hail from these regions.
Pearls can be farmed
The most sustainable, earth-conscious pearls are farmed, or cultured. Forming nearly 95 percent of the gems at market, these are both genuine and real pearls, simply encouraged by man. Think of a pearl farm much like a salmon or tuna farm. The stock is monitored aggressively for health and vitality; an acute, intricate science has developed around the single product; and advancements have ensured that production can meet demand without destroying the environment.
To stimulate pearl production, a highly skilled technician performs a delicate surgery on each individual mollusk, inserting an irritant into its soft tissue. The mollusk is then left to recover and live blissfully in the serenity of the pearl farm for many years, until a pearl of beautiful luster is extracted. To feed the needs of the farm, oyster or mussel stock is grown from tiny baby spat through maturity, with particular emphasis placed on genetic diversity. In the wild, 5,000 mollusks might yield only one gem-quality pearl. The farm makes that unnecessary destruction a thing of the past.
Pearls help the environment
You may have guessed (given Fact No. 4 above) that pearls actually seem good for the environment. You would be correct. When pearl farms move in, biodiversity increases, corals and reefs grow back, and entire marine ecosystems develop. This is because mollusks are most sensitive to the slightest changes in water quality. Like a canary in a coalmine, at the first onset of disease or pollution, entire fields of mollusks become at risk. A pearl farmer is on constant alert for any disturbance to this perfect balance.
Pearl farmers also campaign against deforestation (which causes excessive runoff) and the use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture (which enter the water system and wreak havoc on populations of filter-feeding mollusks). In fact, pearl farms bring a sustainable, ecologically focused, and consistent industry to many island communities that have traditionally relied on the overexploitation of seafood for their economy. It certainly is a good day to wear pearls.
Black pearls aren’t black
Commonly called black pearls, the dark Tahitian pearls from the islands of French Polynesia are anything but black. They abound in rich, naturally iridescent body colors, each with an exotic name of its own. From deep purple (aubergine), to gunmetal green and rose (peacock), to feisty lime and yellow (pistachio), the colors of Tahitian pearls are simply marvelous. These colors, naturally, influence the rarity and value of the pearls. The most prized Tahitian pearls exhibit a fiery iridescence over the surface of the pearl, which causes an optical rainbow effect as light dances between layers of nacre.
The temperature and salinity of the water, the health of the oyster and abundance of nourishment, the thickness of nacre and shape of the pearl, all affect the resulting body color. Thick nacre, rich luster, and strong orient are the reasons Tahitian pearls often take on an almost metallic sheen. The vibrant, colorful display is one of the reasons that collectors are drawn to Tahitian pearls, either waiting patiently until a perfectly-matched strand is assembled, or creating a multicolor strand the reflects the unique personality of the wearer. These pearls are never just black.
Mother-of-pearl comes from the lining of an oyster’s shell
So now you know how a pearl is produced, but you might not realize that the same nacre that coats the irritant and produces the lustrous organic gem also coats the inside lining of a mollusk’s shell. This insulates and protects the soft body tissue from the rough shell and has come to be known as mother-of-pearl (likely because it has always been connected with the origins of pearls). One can tell what color might be expected on a pearl from a given mollusk by first glancing at the inner lining of the shell. The colors match.
Man has always been fascinated by pearls and mother-of-pearl and couldn’t get enough of the lustrous material. Thus it was that mother-of-pearl was culled from the ocean and fashioned into all manner of goods – from silverware and decorative ornaments to that most lucrative industry (at least in the early days): buttons. At a time, Australia was supplying nearly three-quarters of the world’s buttons, mostly fashioned from the same oysters that produce South Sea pearls. Today that antiquated industry has been replaced with more cost effective plastic and synthetic materials, but the finest buttons on the best clothes are still crafted from mother-of-pearl.
There you have it: seven facts about pearls that you might not know. There is so much to learn and love about the pearling industry, but this at least gives you a primer and enough facts about pearls to make you a star at the next trivia night. Interested in learning more? Sign up (at the top left and bottom right of this page) for the latest from the Spey collection of fine pearl jewelry. We have a lot of facts about pearls and insider tips of DC to share!