Last updated on June 22, 2023
While the majority of gemstones are formed within the earth’s crust, pearls have a unique origin within the soft tissue of living organisms. This sets them apart from other gemstones, as they are not obtained through traditional mining methods. Delving into the details of the pearl farming and harvesting process provides valuable insights and answers to many questions surrounding these exquisite treasures.
History of Pearl Harvesting
Pearls, known as the ‘Queen of Gems,’ have been highly prized for centuries, predating written history. They are believed to have been discovered by early humans who were foraging for food along the seashore.
Throughout history, pearls have been presented as prestigious gifts to royalty, symbolizing wealth and status. They have served as a significant commodity in trade since Roman times. The 15th and 16th centuries marked the ‘Pearl Age’ with the discovery of pearls in Central and South America. However, the high demand for pearls by the 19th century led to a depletion of natural pearl supplies. To meet the growing demand, innovative techniques for culturing both seawater and freshwater pearls were developed in China and Japan during the early 20th century, later spreading worldwide.
Before the advent of pearl farming and harvesting processes, pearl collection relied on divers risking their lives at depths of 20 to 30 meters to retrieve pearl oysters. The divers would partially open the shells, search for valuable pearls, and then return the oysters to the water. Success rates were limited, with only a few high-quality pearls obtained from a ton of oysters. Freshwater pearl harvesting posed fewer challenges; however, these pearl beds were typically reserved for royalty.
In the 1880s, Mikimoto Kōkichi, as the chairman of the Shima Marine Products Improvement Association, embarked on a quest to find an alternative method for pearl production. After numerous failures and near bankruptcy, in 1893, Mikimoto successfully created the first cultured pearls by implanting a small piece of mother-of-pearl into oysters. Despite this groundbreaking discovery, the initial selling of cultured pearls faced challenges due to public confusion. It was not until 1916 that the cultured pearl industry began to experience rapid expansion.
Mikimoto’s pioneering efforts revolutionized the pearl industry, making pearls more accessible and available to a wider audience. Today, cultured pearls continue to captivate with their beauty, and the pearl industry thrives as a result of innovative cultivation methods.
How Are Pearls Harvested?
In modern times, pearl cultivation is a widespread practice across the globe. Pearls are nurtured in controlled environments, both in saltwater and freshwater, by introducing a minute irritant into molluscs, predominantly oysters such as Pinctada fucata (Akoya pearls), Pinctada margaritifera (Tahitian pearls), or Pinctada maxima (South Sea pearls). Farmers carefully maintain these oysters in sheltered bays with nutrient-rich waters, providing ideal conditions for their growth. Over time, the molluscs respond by enveloping the irritants with successive layers of nacre, ultimately yielding precious pearls.
It takes between six months and four years for a pearl to form, and the farmers have to take utmost care of the oysters during the whole period. They feed the oysters, check for organisms that may interfere with their feeding, treat their shells with medicines to prevent parasites and ensure that water conditions are optimal for the development of gems.
When the pearls are ready to be harvested, the oysters are sent to harvesting facilities. Harvesters carefully open the molluscs and remove the pearls using special instruments. This is an extremely delicate process and requires gentle hands not to damage the gems during the harvesting.
It is important to note that most oysters do not survive the harvesting process. However, oysters producing pearls of exceptional quality may undergo re-nucleation. In this practice, a new nucleus is inserted into the same mollusc, allowing the growth of subsequent pearls. Since pearls produced by older oysters tend to possess superior quality and often larger sizes compared to first-generation gems, this technique contributes to the production of high-quality pearls.
Following the completion of harvesting, the pearls undergo a thorough cleaning process. This involves immersing them in a cleansing solution to remove dirt and odours. If necessary, pearls may undergo bleaching and polishing procedures to enhance their appearance. Subsequently, the gems are sorted and matched by pouring them into large sieves, which effectively separate them based on size. Finally, the pearls are meticulously graded and categorized according to various quality factors.
By adhering to these meticulous steps, the pearl industry ensures the cultivation, harvesting, and preparation of exquisite pearls that are cherished for their beauty and value.
Do Oysters Feel Pain?
In addressing the question of whether oysters feel pain, it is important to consider the nature of pain and how it is processed by these organisms.
Oysters lack a centralized nervous system like mammals do. Instead, they possess two ganglia that primarily serve the purpose of stimulus-response, emphasizing reflexive reactions rather than conscious reflection. For instance, if a doctor taps your knee with a small hammer, your immediate leg jerk is a reflexive response. Subsequently, your brain registers the sensation of pain caused by the hammer, which involves conscious reflection.
Oysters, on the other hand, do not exhibit the capacity for such reflective processing. While they can react to changes in their environment, these responses are not indicative of pain perception.
Given their anatomical structure and sensory capabilities, it appears that oysters do not possess the ability to experience pain in the same way that humans do. However, the topic of animal sentience and the nature of consciousness continue to be subjects of scientific exploration and ethical consideration.
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