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Culturing Pearls

Only one in ten thousand molluscs in the wild will contain a natural pearl, which is why pearls have been so treasured and sought after throughout history.

With natural pearls so valuable, yet so hard and dangerous to find, it is no surprise that people set out to find a method of reproducing the pearl growing process in a safer, more controlled way.

The three pioneers of perliculture, or pearl culturing, were Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise, with Mikimoto eventually emerging as the father of the trade. He began his work in the early 1900s and his first commercially available cultured pearls appeared in the 1920s. While it took a while for cultured pearls to be accepted, virtually all of the modern pearl market is made up of cultured pearls.

The pearl culturing process

Originally, the molluscs used for perliculture were harvested from the wild, but since the 1960s they have been bred specially for the industry. These young molluscs cannot start pearl production until they reach two years old.

Once it is mature, the mollusc is gently prised open and a small piece of mantle from a donor mollusc is grafted into its reproductive area. If a saltwater mollusc is being used, a shell bead is also inserted. This is a highly skilled process and the top ‘grafters’ can earn serious money.

The mollusc is then returned to the water in nets or baskets, which are hung from rafts to keep them at the right depth and temperature to maximise the chances of pearl production. The longer they are left to grow, the larger the pearls will be, however this also increases the chances of the mollusc falling prey to disease or predators such as starfish.

Pearl farming takes patience

Pearl farmers face a hard choice between taking a risk on longer growth for larger, more valuable pearls, or harvesting early to cash in on a crop of smaller, but more plentiful pearls. Not surprisingly, most take the latter option, making larger cultured pearls much more scarce.

Pearls are harvested at the coldest time of year to maximise their lustre. If the harvesting is done carefully enough, then the mollusc can used again for another crop of pearls.

Once they have been harvested, pearls must undergo several stages of preparation before they can be used to create the beautiful pearl jewellery you’ll find here at Absolute Pearls.