Curiosities

How pearls are formed

Since ancient times there are different myths about the origin of pearls and the different uses that have been given to them. Behind the discovery of the pearls we find the effort of divers and the tenacity of the scientists who have investigated to know the phenomenon of their formation. Pearls are one of the most prized objects in the world and human ambition to obtain them for commercial purposes has increased with the passage of time.

What are pearls

The pearl is a shiny and hard object of great value for the human being that is generated inside the soft tissue of a mollusk . There are different types of pearls depending on their color, size, shape and the area where they are collected, such as:

  • The sea pearls.
  • The river pearls.
  • The white pearls.
  • The black pearls.
  • The round pearls.
  • The baroque pearls.

Mainly, the pearls are formed in bivalve mollusks , that is, they have two valves (shells). Oysters and mussels are clear examples of mollusks that produce pearls, but for the pearl industry the oyster is normally used, especially the so-called mother-of-pearl.

Pearl formation

The natural pearls are formed with the entry of a foreign body , either a single parasite, a small shell fragment or a grain of sand, inside the mantle of the mollusk. The mollusk as a natural protection method covers the particle that comes from the outside with a substance called nacre, composed of calcium carbonate, organic matter and water. That is, pearls are nacre cysts that mollusks form to isolate a foreign body that has entered their body.

However, the pearls used for the manufacture of jewelry come from pearl cultures , since there is less probability that a pearl is formed naturally and those that were formed were overexploited ending up are the natural pearl reserves, so it has that spend more time for them to abound again. At this point we encourage you to learn more about the Overexploitation of natural resources: causes and consequences with this other GreenEcology article.

For pearl cultivation, temperate water areas such as Vietnam, the Caribbean, Australia, Japan or the Persian Gulf are usually chosen. Although other countries such as China, Indonesia or Polynesia are entering the market. To have a large volume of pearls for the market, this is how pearls are formed , with the intervention of people:

  1. Raising a large number of oysters: Oyster larvae are fed phytoplankton until they develop into a small oyster, then they are transferred to the sea and to protect them they are kept in cages that have been specially designed for this. To guarantee the survival of the oysters, they must be under the ideal weather conditions and where there is enough food. All possible measures are taken to guarantee the survival of the others, if they survive for two years, it means that they will be ready for the next phase.
  2. Provoke the nucleation phase: this is carried out by experts and first a piece of mantle (secret nacre) is introduced into a live oyster, which has been previously extracted from another oyster, and then a small spherical body is introduced (it replaces parasites, sand or other particles in the formation of natural pearls). The mantle creates a pearl sac around the spherical body and then gradually secretes layers of mother-of-pearl to surround it.
  3. Return them to the water: once the oysters are nucleated they are returned to the sea, they are placed in mesh panels to allow the flow of water and plankton. The others attract parasites and mosses that can clog this flow, so the others should be cleaned roughly every two months to avoid clogging.
  4. Collect the pearls: the mollusks form layers and layers in the cyst to isolate the foreign object. After a certain time, the pearls will be ready for use, so they are collected, as we will explain below.
How long does it take to produce a pearl?

Once the oysters are returned to the water with the implantation made, about 3 and a half years pass until the pearl is formed and the harvest can begin. Therefore, the formation of a pearl is a slow process.

Sadly, although oysters are monitored to control their environment as well as possible, generally more than half die before pearl harvesting and only 5% are capable of producing pearls of the desired quality.

When the pearls are to be extracted, the oyster is opened and the area where the pearl is to be extracted must be cut with a scalpel. Generally, most oysters are killed in the process , as they sometimes split the oyster when the pearl is not easy to extract and the oysters that survive are reused to continue producing pearls.

The extraction process is painful for the oyster due to the cut that is generated to get the pearl, although it is necessary to mention that at the time of nucleation the oyster is also being damaged by introducing a foreign object.

The reality is that the industrialization of the pearl has caused and continues to cause the death of millions of oysters since this practice began.

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