The birth of a pearl is truly a miraculous event. Unlike gemstones or precious metals that must be mined from the earth, pearls are grown by live oysters far below the surface of the sea. Gemstones must be cut and polished to bring out their beauty. But pearls need no such treatments to reveal their loveliness. They are born from their mother oysters with a shimmering iridescence, luster and soft inner glow that is unlike any other gem on earth.
A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of sand, that by accident lodges itself in the oyster’s soft inner body where it cannot be expelled.
In an effort to ease this irritant, the oyster’s body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called nacre.
As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around the irritant, layer upon layer. After a few years, the irritant will be totally encased by the silky crystalline coatings. The result — the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.
But how precious pearls are formed from what an oyster regards as merely protection against irritation is one of nature’s most prized secrets. For the nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals, each crystal aligned perfectly with each other so that light passing along the axis of one is reflected and refracted by the other to produce a rainbow of light and color. Cultured pearls are formed by oysters in almost an identical fashion. The only difference is that man surgically implants the irritant — a small piece of polished shell — in the oyster rather than leaving it to chance, then steps aside to let nature and the oyster create their miracle.
Bred for Quality
Early pearl cultivation depended entirely on wild oysters. Now pearl cultivation is more selective. Japanese scientists isolated strains of oysters possessing superior pearl bearing qualities. These selectively bred oysters produce pearls of exceptional lustre and color clarity.
Enter the Nucleus
Highly skilled technicians open the live pearl oysters carefully, then surgically implant a small polished shell bead and piece of mantle tissue in each. The shell bead serves as the nucleus around which the oyster secretes layer after layer of nacre, the crystalline substance that forms the pearl.
Back to the Sea
The nucleated oysters are returned to the sea. There, in sheltered bays rich in natural nutrients, the oysters feed and grow, depositing lustrous layers of nacre around their nuclei. In winter, the oysters are moved south to warmer waters.
The nucleated oysters are suspended from rafts such as these in order to provide the best growing conditions. Pearl technicians check water temperatures and feeding conditions daily at various water depths and then move the oysters up or down to take advantage of the best growing conditions.
Periodically, the pearl-bearing oysters are lifted from the sea for cleaning and health treatments. Seaweed, barnacles and other undersea growths that might impede feeding are removed from their shells. Then the shells are treated with medicinal compounds that discourage parasites from injuring the oysters.
The Birth of a Pearl
At last, the oysters are ready for harvest. Those that have survived such perils of the sea as typhoons, suffocating red tides, and attacks from predators are brought ashore and opened. If everything has gone well, the result is a lovely, lustrous and very valuable pearl.