Pearls jewelry is very popular with young adults today. When an “irritant” or foreign body enters the soft tissue of an oyster, the mollusk secretes nacre – a mixture of fine crystalline calcium carbonate and an organic binder – which coats the irritant as a self defensive mechanism. Successive layers of this organic substance are deposited and harden, causing the pearl to grow. One of the primary reasons for the increase in popularity of pearl jewelry is that pearls today are significantly more affordable than pearl jewelry prior to the 20th century. This reduction in cost is due to the fact that most pearls used in fashion jewelry today are processed through method call “pericultre”. In this method, the irritant needed to stimulate pearl development is introduced by man. Although natural pearls are also available, they are quite rare, and are limited for use in the design and making of fine jewelry. This discussion sheds light on pearl production through the ages.
Prior to the 19th century, pearls were “harvested” rather than “produced”. The only pearls available were natural pearls, where pearl production was left entirely up to the forces of nature. Divers would manually sink to the seabed and retrieve pearl oysters. The mollusk was destroyed in order to identify and then collect the pearl. Thousands of oysters were destroyed in order of find a single pearl. This is why natural pearls were considered to be very rare, valuable, and expensive. Historically, pearls have been harvested from seas and oceans by pearl divers. The main pearl beds were in the seabed in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Mannar. Some natural pearl harvesting also occurred in the South China Sea. Sometime in the 16th century, Spaniards identified several large pearl beds near the island of Margerita, a couple of hundred miles off the coast of today’s Venezuela.
The science and art of Periculture changed the face of the pearl industry, and made pearl jewelry infinitely more affordable for use in fashion jewelry. This process was first developed in the early 20th century in Australia. The process then spread to East and South East Asia, and soon Japan became a leading producer of cultured pearls. In particular, the Akoya pearls – which are slightly smaller than the typical pearl became famous the world over. Environmental pollution and economic considerations however, wiped out Japan’s pearl farming industry. Pearl production at Lake Biwa near Tokyo illustrates this problem perfectly. Throughout the 19th century, Japanese pearl farmers had a flourishing production business in Lake Biwa. Production of cultured pearls hit its peak in the early 1970s, when annual production was on the order of 6 tons! After than peak, environmental pollution caused a steady decline in production until the industry was eventually wiped out. The Japanese tried to restart production in other lakes in the country using different mollusk species but these efforts did not bear fruit.
The “silver lining” to the decline of the cultured pearl industry in Japan was that the Japanese invested in developing pearl farms in China near Shanghai. This jump-started the cultured pearl industry in China, and freshwater pearl production in China boomed. China today is the world’s largest producer of freshwater pearls, with production in excess of 1500 tons per year. Japan has been relegated to the role of pearl processor in the industry. In many cases, Japan’s involvement is limited to sorting, matching, and labeling of Chinese freshwater pearls.
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1 thought on “Worldwide Pearl Production – A Historical Perspective”
This is a very good and interesting article.