Sunday, April 17, 2011

South Sea Saltwater Pearl Farms Adventure

By on Sunday, April 17, 2011 4 Comments

Pearl Paradise : Golden South Sea Pearl Pendant
In my previous article, we "visited" China where most of the world's freshwater pearls come from. Now it's time to do another arm chair journey to see where saltwater pearls come from.

If you love pearls, especially the large, luscious natural colored and rarer kinds, then the saltwater pearls are for you.  The pictures here were kindly provided by Jeremy Shepherd, the CEO of Pearl Paradise from one of his trips to the South Seas - New Zealand, Australia and French Polynesia - to visit saltwater pearl farms there.

Map from Pearl Paradise

Saltwater pearls are cultured in various species of marine oysters in lagoons or protected volcanic atolls. South Sea pearls range in color from white, silver, pink, gold, cream. The golden ones are among the rarest.

Most of the saltwater pearls are bead nucleated ie, a starter bead was placed within the oyster so that it would coat it over time with pearl nacre.  The starter beads are polished round beads made from US freshwater mussel shells. The growers also implant a small piece of mantel tissue from a donor oyster into the reproductive gland (gonad) of the oyster to speed up the process. It's the only place which was found to work. Typically only 1-2 pearls are grown per oyster which is why saltwater pearls cost more than freshwater pearls.
Tahitian and South Sea Pearl Necklace (Grade AAA) from French Polynesia
French Polynesia
Jeremy's first stop for this two week trip was at the Marutea Sud atoll which is accessed from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti via air.

 Doesn't the pearl farm lagoon positively inviting?

Baby pearl oysters (spat) have to be first caught and reared before they can be used to culture pearls. Below is a picture of a spat collector loaded with different kinds of oysters. The tiny spat are attracted to the mesh bags because they think they are attaching to fan coral. The spat are allowed to grow before the collectors are hauled in.

 These workers are preparing the oysters grafting and culturing in an assembly line fashion. Jeremy said, they are "prepping shell for surgery by opening them, selecting and cutting mantle tissue, drilling the shell to hang in the long-line system, tying shell to the ropes, and several other “grunt” jobs of hauling trays of shell and equipment between different points."

Interestingly, the grafters in this particular farm are not Japanese technicians but Chinese.

The pearl oyster lines have to be regularly hauled onto specialized cleaning boats to rid them of barnacles and other growths.

The Tahitian Pearl Ministry has a quality control program where every pearl is examined before it can be exported. The x-ray machine below examines trays of pearls to make sure the layer of pearl nacre is at least 0.8mm thick. The surface of the pearls are also examined for flaws. According to Jeremy, 2-3% of pearls are destroyed because they don't meet both criteria.


New Zealand
While in NZ, he visited the Eyris Blue Pearls farm which specialize in producing exquisite blue pearls not from pearl oysters but from New Zealand abalones. These shellfish are the ones where we get those gorgeous bluish Paua mother of pearl shell beads from.

As you can see, it's a lot chillier here! The black perforated bins floating in the water are where the abalone are kept.

This is the lifting of the "skirt" or mantle of the abalone to show where the mabe pearls are growing on the inner shell in order to get the blue nacre. Mabe pearls are thus hemispherical or "half-pearls".

These special mabe pearls are called Luscious and Google Earth :

The northern coast of Western Australia is where the South Sea white pearl farms are located. Jeremy visited the Paspaley Pearl operation in Kuri Bay which is where the very first pearl farm started in that country.  Access to that beautifully rugged but remote region is easiest by air.

All that lovely water, but swimming is not recommended. Sharks, stingers, poisonous sea snakes, and saltwater crocodiles abound. More Australians die each year from encountering the near transparent and highly venomous box jellyfish than crocodiles.

Kuri Bay

This is what happened when scraps from lunch are dumped overboard:

But the place is worthy as they turn out gorgeous pearls like this.

The pearls are washed or polished with walnut shells in these machines :

These women are sorting out pearls for auction lots :

What happens to the shellfish when the pearls have been harvested?  Most of them are not renucleated. Jeremy said, "The shells were first opened completely and the guts removed. The edible adductor meat was separated and set aside. This meat is a delicacy and sells for over $100 per kilo. The shells were then trimmed of periostracum new-growth from the edges, and then also cleaned of marine growth. The shells were then packed into large steel barrels."  That's where mother of pearl shell beads come from!

Thanks Jeremy for sharing these super photos with us since most of us will never get the chance to travel to the South Seas.
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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  1. Oh..I love south sea and Tahitian pearls..really want to own them one day

  2. still my heart!!! I so love those mabe pearls. Great article!!!
    thanks Pearl!!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love pearls but I am pretty wary about any product that kills a living creature just for adornment. Now I know that I can get the Australian pearls as they use the whole oyster.

  4. Yes, the oysters are sometimes used to graft more than once. I've just seen a video where the older freshwater mussels display a much richer and gorgeous nacre in their shells so pearls grafted in such specimens are also beautiful.