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How Freshwater Pearls Are Harvested Sustainably - The Bead Traders

How Freshwater Pearls Are Harvested Sustainably

Pearls are a special kind of gem that are as unique as they are beautiful. Elegant and lustrous, these stones are the only type of gemstone that doesn’t come from the ground. Instead, they are harvested from living creatures after a lengthy and painstaking process. Because of their beauty, pearls have been utilized for centuries by jewelry makers. High demand led to the scientific discovery of pearl cultivation nearly a hundred years ago because naturally occurring pearls are a rarity.

Pearl cultivation requires the proper ecological ingredients, presenting a challenge in recent decades due to climate shifts, habitat disruption and over-farming. Commercial pearl farming by large corporations has led to ecological decline and pollution due to harmful practices that don’t consider the well-being or sustainability of marine life.

Sustainable harvesting presents an ideal solution to these concerns as well as that of the economic importance of pearl farming for many areas that struggle with few opportunities to generate income. By farming pearls more sustainably, not only does the environment benefit but so too does every other link in the cultivation chain.

freshwater pearl assortment

Types of Pearls: Saltwater vs. Freshwater  

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Most pearls fall into two categories: freshwater and saltwater. The type of water that a pearl is grown in can significantly impact its value. Freshwater pearls are found in smaller bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes, and are produced by mussels. Saltwater pearls are created by oysters in the ocean. An example of saltwater pearls is the Akoya pearl, a particularly lustrous and beautiful type of pearl harvested mostly around Japan. Akoya pearls are well known as one of the roundest and most flawless types of pearls. Both saltwater and freshwater pearls can be found in a variety of diverse hues, including blue, green, yellow and purple.  

One main difference between the two major types is the amount of them that can be produced at one time. Mussels can produce many freshwater pearls at once — as many as 50 at a time. Saltwater pearls, however, only grow one pearl at a time. For both types, it takes several years from start to finish for a pearl to be created.  

akoya pearls graphic

Freshwater pearls are the most widely available, generally sold for a more affordable price than saltwater pearls. They are produced primarily in China, although to a lesser extent in Japan and parts of the United States. Saltwater pearls are produced all over the Pacific region, including in Japan and Australia. The first certified sustainable pearl fishery was for saltwater pearls in Australia.    

Baroque pearls are those that have an irregular shape. Most freshwater pearls are baroque, although sometimes saltwater pearls can be baroque. A mere 10 percent of freshwater pearls are perfectly round. Tahitian pearls are the most valuable type of baroque pearls. Despite a common focus on perfectly round and uniform pearls, some people are drawn to the unusual shapes and colors of the baroque variety. When many people think of pearls, they think of round, white, perfectly uniform beads, but baroque pearls are often the complete opposite of that appearance.  

Making a Pearl

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The process to create a cultured pearl takes the right resources, a great deal of time and careful attention to detail on every level. Of 100 oysters that are set up to go through the pearl cultivation process, only five to 10 will create pearls that are high-quality enough to be used for jewelry.

In sustainable pearl farming, the habitat for the mussels or oysters is carefully arranged to meet all the ideal conditions for pearl production. This eliminates any risk to the local ecosystem and gives the process the best shot at success. Sustainable farming allows those factors to be controlled fairly and safely.

The mussels are placed into the water in protective baskets that keep them safe from natural predators. These baskets are set up in rows and anchored with concrete or coral formations. This allows the baskets to be held at the particular depth that is ideal for pearl formation, as these creatures are more capable of doing so at colder temperatures. The mussels are encouraged to grow to a certain size before the next step in the process starts.

closeup dark pearl necklace

For freshwater pearls, cultivation begins when each mussel is nucleated, a process involving implanting minute fragments of mantle tissue into the organism. After implantation, the natural method of making a pearl takes over. Sacs form around each speck of mantle tissue, and the organism secrets nacre.

Numerous layers of nacre build up over the years to slowly form a pearl. Since all these layers slowly develop, one on top of another, the chance of the pearl being perfectly round or uniform in color is exceedingly rare, hence the high value of such pearls. The process is similar for saltwater pearls, although usually instead of mantle tissue, a bead made from mother of pearl is used.      

What is Sustainable Pearl Harvesting?

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Sustainable farming applies to both the cultivation and extraction of pearls. Wild pearls are extremely rare, especially with the changes that marine ecosystems have suffered over the past 100 years. Mussels, in particular, are only capable of creating pearls under the right conditions in water that is uncontaminated. Due to the rise of pollution in their natural habitat, it’s difficult to find suitable locations to perform the cultivation process. Many areas where pearl farming has traditionally been carried out have seen havoc wrought by climate change and environmental destruction.

To qualify as sustainable, a pearl farming company must abide by a set of sustainability principles based around environmental responsibility. These rules include protecting and maintaining the natural habitat during the company’s activities, making an effort to conserve the biodiversity of an area, maintaining transparent operating practices and complying with any applicable local laws. Companies must adhere strictly to these principles or face consequences and fines.

pearl farmer clams net

Since sustainable pearl harvesting began, once-depleted ecosystems have slowly started to recover, companies have continued to grow, and workers whose livelihood was threatened have enjoyed renewed economic opportunity. This practice is crucial to the future of pearl cultivation due to the delicate nature of marine sustainability.

Benefits of Sustainable Pearl Harvesting

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Pearl farming is a difficult and time-consuming practice that requires ideal conditions to achieve success. It’s also a large industry that provides numerous jobs on many different levels, and some areas greatly rely on this work as an irreplaceable foundation of their local economy. For many years, the demand for pearls caused companies to over-farm these areas, which led to shortages and climate destruction. Pearl cultivation began in the 1920s, but sustainable cultivation only started to take off in recent years as a response to these problems.

Conservation of many marine species is a vital concern. The Pacific area where the vast majority of pearl harvesting is carried out has suffered in recent decades due to the negative effects of harsh climate shifts, pollution and overdevelopment. The conservation of marine life is vital not only to countries in the Pacific coastal region but also to the entire world.

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Sustainable harvesting doesn’t just benefit the ecosystem. Pearl harvesting provides income that is relied upon by many people in the Pacific region. The economies of some of these areas are struggling, providing little in the way of jobs for many people. Some areas where farming traditionally took place saw a serious problems develop from over-farming. Due to this issue, protective restrictions had to be put in place that limited the areas in which pearl farmers could do their work.

Sustainable farming allows pearl-producing mollusks to be cared for under appropriate conditions during their lives, which not only contributes to a healthier environment but also to better quality pearls. Creating innovative ways to make farming pearls environmentally sustainable allows this important source of income to continue and thrive.

Since pearl farming ties economic concerns with that of the environment, it provides a valuable industry to boost both conservation efforts and sustainability practices. Due to the strong economic draw of pearl farming, it’s an ideal industry to encourage biodiversity preservation and conservation efforts.

Processing the Pearls

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When it’s time to harvest the pearls, farmers start by lifting the baskets containing the shellfish out of the water. Generally, the mollusks are loaded up onto vehicles and moved to specific facilities where they are processed. Each oyster or mussel’s shell is first carefully opened. Then, any pearls that have been cultivated are extracted.

The pearls are carefully sorted by a professional team and individually inspected for any blemishes or flaws that would decrease their worth. It may take thousands of pearls just to find 10 that are appropriate for the market. The pearls are divided into categories for their shape, color, quality and size. Since the various types of pearls can fetch different prices on the marketplace, this sorting process is crucial.  

a pearls luster graphic

A pearl’s luster is its most treasured attribute, so pearls with the most brilliant luster are the most valuable. Even if a pearl is not perfectly shaped or has a less than ideal color, the presence of sufficient luster can cancel out its flaws. This luster is due to the natural light-reflecting qualities of the pearl’s surface.

The roundness of the pearl is the second most important trait. While uniquely shaped baroque pearls are popular for jewelry making with many people, perfectly round pearls are still considered the most valuable.

Once the best pearls are chosen, those that are to be used as beads will have holes carefully and precisely drilled into them. This process is carried out by trained and experienced professionals using state-of-the-art tools capable of extreme precision. If mistakes are made during this arduous process, the pearl can be damaged and rendered worthless.

Pearls are available for purchase both individually and in sets. The sets are groups of matching pearls that come temporarily strung together and fetch a higher price than individual pearls.   

Using Pearls in Jewelry

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All over the world, pearls are prized for their unique luster and timeless beauty. From luxury jewelry manufacturers to independent crafters, pearls have maintained their popularity throughout the years. For their desired opulence in creating beautiful necklaces and earrings to adorning wedding dresses and enhancing decorative items, the elegance of pearl beads is still appreciated.

freshwater pearl beads closeup

Unlike many gemstones that require significant processing to refine their appearance into a saleable product, the right pearls need no additional work other than drilling holes for stringing. The shine that makes pearls unique among faceted gemstones is all natural.

Shape categorizes pearls into either the traditional or baroque pearl categories. Round, flawless pearls are considered traditional and are generally sold for high prices. Throughout the years, whole strands of evenly colored and uniformly sized pearls have been considered the most desirable, but as tastes have changed, variations and different colors are seeing an increase in interest.  

Baroque pearls have captivated many with their unusual style and beauty, and they have seen an increase in popularity in recent years. Since baroque pearls run the gamut in terms of shape and color, they lend themselves to more interesting and unique jewelry pieces. Thus, many jewelry designers seek out these distinctive pearls when creating their pieces. Baroque pearls can be found in a multitude of colors, shapes and size combinations that are often affordably priced. These beautiful styles lend themselves toward crafting unusual, gorgeous wearable art.   

Another type of pearl that’s known for its unique style is the Keshi pearl. When Keshi pearls are formed, the oyster rejects the bead nucleus, and the pearl develops from layers of nacre (also called mother of pearl). The distinct mother of pearl luster is very popular among jewelers. Keshi pearls also come in a range of colors and shapes, making them versatile for all different jewelry styles.

For use in high-end jewelry, only the highest-quality, blemish-free pearls are chosen. Since these types of pearls are so rare, the price tag on high-end necklaces, bracelets and earrings reflects how cherished they are. It may take sifting through 10,000 or more pearls just to find enough of them that meet the high-quality standards to create one necklace.

Sustainable harvesting practices allow the cultivation of pearls to continue, meeting the demands of consumers around the globe. Since pearl cultivation is such painstakingly delicate work that requires specific conditions to perform successfully, sustainable farming offers the perfect solution.

In Conclusion

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open clams focus on pearl

The cultivation of pearls is a billion-dollar industry, and the demand created by this business stands to support crucial steps to protect the fragile balance of marine ecosystems. Sustainable pearl farming allows this business to continue while promoting the environmental conservation efforts necessary to minimize ecological impact and continue a livelihood that many people rely on for survival. Pearl farming offers an important incentive for companies to increase their environmental protection and conservation efforts in order to increase their profits, unlike many industries in which the opposite is true.

As pearls have continued to be a popular component for jewelry and bead making, choosing sustainably farmed pearls allows their production to continue in an environmentally beneficial manner.

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