What is a pearl? A pearl is a pellet of calcium carbonate. Of all the gems in the world, it is the only one created by a living creature. A pearl is found in an oyster or other mollusk. They are grown in limited areas of the world’s oceans and come in wide range of shapes and colors. The value of a particular pearl is determined by a number of factors. The prices of these precious stones are widely varied depending on the perfection of the stone. A pearl is a very unique, valuable gem.
Pearls were first introduced in the 1850s when they were discovered in Western Australia’s Shark Bay. Here the gems were found in the salt water albina oyster, known as Pinctada. In the 1880s the pearl industry rapidly spread along the north west coast of Australia. By 1910, “nearly 400 luggers and more than 3500 people were fishing for shell in the waters around Broome, then the biggest pearling centre in the world”(Western Fisheries Australia). During this time, the luggers were powered by sail and only equipped to carry the apparatus for one diver. The divers wore vulcanized canvas suits, lead-weighted boots, and enormous helmets made of bronze while they collected shell underwater for hours at a time. The 1930s improved upon the vessels. They were now motorized and had mechanical air pumps that could support two divers per boat. The early pearl industry had an alarming death toll of approximately 300 men. Cyclones and sharks mostly caused the deaths. Between the 1920s and 1940s the pearl industry nearly crashed due to the increasing use of new plastics for buttons, buckles, and other shell products (Western Fisheries Australia). The introduction of cultured pearls revived the pearl industry in more recent years.
Pearls are the product of several mollusks. They are usually found in the salt-water species known as Pinctada. There are two ways that pearls are formed. They can be man made or naturally made. Natural pearls are formed when deposits of nacre around an irritant accidentally settle within the flesh of an oyster. Pearls that are produced with the help of man are called cultured pearls. These pearls are created in an oyster and are “composed of concentric layers of a crystalline substance called nacre that is deposited around an irritant placed in the oyster’s body by man” (Kelley Jewelers).
Cultured pearls are produced on “oyster farms,” where the mollusks are grown to the age of three. At this age, they are removed from the sea and have pegs placed in their shells to keep them open. The nucleus and a small portion of the nacre-secreting cells are then placed in a tiny incision made in the body of the mollusks. Finally, the pegs are removed and the oysters are returned to their cages in warm waters. The oysters will grow in the cages for two to four years before the pearls are ready for harvesting. Size, weight, and color assort the harvest (Pick a Pearl).
There are many different colors, sizes, and types of pearls on the market today. White, cream, pink, green, blue, and black are recognized as the seven acceptable colors by the pearl industry (Pick a Pearl). The industry also acknowledges several different types of these precious stones. One type is the Akoya, which is the most common cultured pearl. It is grown off the coasts of Japan in pearl oysters. It rarely grows beyond nine millimeters in size. Another pearl that is cultivated in Japan is the Biwa. It is only grown in the fresh water of Japan’s Lake Biwa in mollusks, not oysters (Kelley Jewelers). Some larger cultured pearls are the South Sea and Burmese. South Sea pearls are very rare and expensive. They are found of the coasts of Australia and have a metallic bluish-black color. They are much larger in size compared to the Akoya. “South Sea pearls are normally ten to twenty millimeters in diameter, with a harvest average of about thirteen millimeters” (Anderson). The Burmese pearls are produced off the coasts of Burma. They too are rare and expensive. A Mabe pearl is large in size and has a hemispherical shape. It is less expensive and is usually found in rings, brooches, and earrings because of its shape (Kelley Jewelers). These are only a few of the many different types of pearls.
There are many factors that decide the value of a pearl. One of these determinants is the scarcity of the gem. Because of the number of years they take to grow and limited areas in which they can be grown, cultured pearls are considered rare. Size is also a contributing factor. Generally, the larger the pearl, the more money it will cost. This is mainly because many oysters do not produce very large pearls. Another determinate for a precious pearl is the orient, which is its ability to “absorb, refract, and reflect light” (Kelley Jewelers). A valuable pearl has a deep luster and iridescence. Shape also contributes to the value of a pearl. The more symmetrical the pearl the more valuable it is. The final characteristic that is looked at during the pricing of a pearl is the surface perfection. A valuable pearl is silky smooth in appearance (Kelley Jewelers). All of these factors play an important role in determining the value for each pearl.
The modern pearling industry is still fairly new. The industry now contains high-tech labs, boats and safety efficient farming rules. “The Paspaley Pearling company pioneered the development of the purpose-built boats which revolutionized the industry, transporting live shell, allowing seeding at the farms and making life far more comfortable for the many workers” (Fisheries Western Australia). Modern diving techniques are much more competent than those of the past. “Today’s divers use wetsuits and hookah breathing apparatus; the hookah hoses are attached to booms which project out from the accompanying diving vessels. The divers make their way across the seabed and periodically send up bags filled with shells to the waiting dock” (Fisheries Western Australia).
Due to the outrageous amount of wild shell that were being killed for pearls, Fisheries Western Australia administered pearling licenses and a quota of wild shell to each pearling company. Presently there is a large debate over whether or not the quotas should exist. In modern times “most of the basic techniques for pearl growing are established, but research and development continues, either within company laboratories, funded by the Pearl Producer’s Association (PPA), or at Fisheries Western Australia” (Fisheries Western Australia). Pearling is presently and will continue to be a growing industry.
Pearls are very precious and valuable stones. There are many different types of these gems that come in a variety of shapes, colors, and orient. They are only found in a few areas of the world and take many years to grow. The two major pearl producing countries are Australia and Japan. This is mainly due to the fact that warm ocean waters are a necessity in the growth of pearls. The pearl industry, which began a little over a hundred years ago, has changed dramatically over the years as technology improvements were made. The industry will continue to change with new technology.