Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Pearl of Great Price

If I love pearls so much, why do I hardly buy them anymore?

Their soft shimmer, their cool temperature in warm weather, their silky feel are wonderful. My first ring from my boyfriend in high school was a simple pearl ring; my husband's mother gave me a beautiful single pearl on a gold chain for my wedding; and my daughter has a single pearl that came from a ring inherited from my great-grandmother. My go-to earrings are simple dangles of Biwa stick freshwater pearls and tiny gold spacer beads.

I hardly buy real pearls anymore, however, including for my own beading. When I do buy them, they're usually on the clearance rack. I choose to buy them there not only to save money, but because I think the clearance rack is the last stop before goods are tossed into a box and shipped somewhere. I don't want those pearls to go to waste after everything it took to produce them.

A pearl is produced around an irritant within the soft tissue of a live mollusk. Like the shell of the mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate, which has been deposited in layers. Because the most costly pearls are created in the wild without human intervention, pearls have come to signify a rare thing of great value.

Natural pearls (not formed through through human intervention) are very rare. Most of the pearls sold today are cultured or farmed pearls made by implanting tissue and possibly a form inside pearl oysters and freshwater mussels. That's why we can get the exotic shapes we see in stores: squares, coins, x's, hearts and so on. An implant is inserted into the living mollusk, which then coats it with nacre in response. Some very small oysters and mussels produce some very big pearls, relative to their size. Some types of mollusks survive the surgery to remove the cultured pearl and are put back in the water with a new form around which to create a pearl. Others are killed (and, I hope, used for food and other purposes) when the pearl is removed. Some types of mollusks are implanted with several forms at once.

More and more, I buy artificial pearls for my beading projects. In our eagerness for an affordable abundance of what was once a naturally-occurring gem, I'm afraid that we haven't weighed the costs of producing such an abundance. I consider any real pearls, natural or cultured, to be of great price and don't want to take for granted that a creature was involved in producing them and possibly had its life taken away to do so. I feel the same way about abalone and other shells; when I use them, I try to be mindful of how we got these gorgeous materials.

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