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Behind the Pearly Gates
“Assumptions are made and most assumptions are wrong.”
– Albert Einstein
Most gems come from the bowels of the earth; pearls come from the bowels of oysters (and other mollusks)1. Long known as the ‘queen of gems’, a natural pearl necklace was seen as a treasure of nearly incomparable value. History is laden with stories showcasing their importance across India, China, Egypt, and Rome, dating back over 5,000 years. Until the advent of their cultured variety, pearls were so expensive that only nobility and the very wealthy could afford them. So rare were pearls that in the year 69 A.D., the Roman emperor Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings2. Centuries later, the land for Cartier’s flagship store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue was bought with a pearl necklace. Long before the discovery of oil, the Persian Gulf was the center of the pearl trade. Gemstones were a major source of wealth in the region. In ancient China, pearl jewelry symbolized the purity of its wearer. During the Dark Ages, knights wore them on the battlefield to keep themselves safe. The Pearl Age emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries with their discovery in Central and South America. By the 19th century, demand for pearls reached such heights that oyster supplies began to dwindle.
Pearls are the world’s oldest gem. As it turns out, the very existence of pearls is a freak of nature. Unlike gemstones mined from the earth, a natural pearl is formed when an irritant or debris gets accidentally lodged inside an oyster’s body. In response, it secretes an organic-inorganic composite material called nacre, known as ‘mother of pearl’, which builds up around the irritant in layers. Until the late 19th century, pearls were harvested from oysters residing in the ocean by divers going as deep as 100 ft, or from freshwater mollusks in shallow ponds3. That changed in 1893, when Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, created the world's first cultured pearl by manually implanting an irritant into an oyster to form a pearl. By 1935, there were 350 pearl farms in Japan, producing 10 million pearls annually. Pearls come in a range of colours including white, gold, and black and in sizes ranging from 9mm to 20mm. A cultured pearl still comes from the body of an oyster; the only difference is that the irritant is artificially implanted, rather than inadvertently trapped inside the oyster’s soft tissue. In contrast, the similarly-named cultured (or cultivated) meat process does not require the animal’s body for production.
Image credit: iStock.com/inusuke, An oyster farm in Notojima Island
A Bigger, Better Harvest?
A pearl is the only gem that comes from a living creature. Pearls naturally form in only about 1 in 10,000 oysters. As the popularity of pearls soared, the population of oysters in the ocean became severely depleted from overfishing4. Today, the cultured pearl industry spans over 30 countries including China, Japan, Australia, and French Polynesia5. In recent years, China has overtaken Japan as the largest producer.
The culturing process is no picnic for the oyster, to say the least:
Implantation: During the culturing process, farmers pry open oysters’ shells and insert an irritant, often a bead or another oyster’s mollusk tissue. While we cannot tell if oysters feel pain, when disturbed by touch or even loud noises, oysters snap their shells tightly shut. This seems to indicate an understanding of the potential danger when their shell is pried open.
Suspension: From there, farmers suspend the oysters in water in a cage or net, subjecting them to varied water temperatures, chemicals, and other unnatural conditions to optimize the desired shape, size, and color of the pearls. An oyster lives in this state for approximately two years with an irritant artificially implanted in its soft tissue. In response, it generates a coating around the foreign object, presumably to protect itself (which unfortunately results in a pearl).
Extraction: The oyster is then pried open a second time to cut out the pearl sac. This puts the oyster through a second cycle of unnatural interference.
Rinse & Repeat: About a third of oysters undergo a second (and sometimes a third) implantation process subjecting them to the above process yet again.
‘Retiring’: At the end of this process, the organisms are forcibly shucked (the process of putting a knife through the organism’s abductor muscle so they can no longer open or close the shell). Their flesh is sold as food, and their shells are used in decorative ‘mother of pearl’ jewelry.
The culturing process itself results in the death of nearly half the oysters before they are even ‘retired’. While there are ethical pearls on the market made from glass, alabaster, plastic, or other non-animal materials, they tend to be coated in animal-derived materials, including isinglass, fish scales, oyster scales, and mother-of-pearl powder6.
Consumers have little awareness of these issues, thanks to clever marketing from the industry. According to Forbes, 42% of millennials aged 25-to-35 are very likely to request pearl jewelry, compared with only 19% of 46-to-55-year-olds. Retailers have jumped on the bandwagon, as profit margins in pearls are higher than in diamonds7. Pearls are seen not just as glamorous, but as renewable and sustainable. Photos and narratives, whether by industry associations or retailers, bypass the treatment of oysters, the conditions of intensive farming and the fate of these organisms in favor of gleaming images of the end product, with little visibility provided about how it is produced.
The Ethics of Pain
Science cannot prove if oysters feel pain. Like most mollusks, oysters are bivalves (organisms with two halves connected by a hinge). They also have body parts such as a mouth, digestive tract, heart, gills, abductor muscle, and mantle, but their brain, called ganglia (a cluster of nerves), is different from that of humans and other animals. The question is, does a differently structured brain feel and respond to pain in the same manner?
Research shows that an oyster’s homeostasis (a stable physiological state) is maintained through layered defenses8. Its hard shell is the first line of defense, which is breached in the initial step of the farming process. When a foreign object penetrates its initial defenses, the oyster secretes a fluid that coats the irritant with multiple layers, a second line of defense. There is clear evidence that an oyster is employing these mechanisms to protect itself against foreign threats, yet we take no issue with routinely violating them.
Science makes new discoveries every day, but one must wonder whether our treatment of oysters is more about the limitations of science, or our own. Would we be content being held in a cage, subjected to minor irritants, then ‘expired’ unnaturally when we exhibited no utility? Australian charity Animal Liberation asks: how would you react if dirt blows into your eye? You would rub and scrub until the irritant was eliminated. Is it permissible to subject other organisms to the same irritation without any means of ending the suffering simply because we cannot comprehend the way they feel pain?
Perhaps the problem lies in our desire to hold ourselves to different standards, to define suffering on our own terms, to make assumptions when science cannot give us the answers we seek. Perhaps science will give us the answers one day, or perhaps our humanity will.
The Jewelry Editor
The Pearl Source
Zhu, Southgate, and Li (2019), Goods and Services of Marine Bivalves (Chapter - Production of Pearls)
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
Schmitt et. al. (2012), The Antimicrobial Defense of the Pacific Oyster, Crassostrea gigas. How Diversity May Compensate for Scarcity in the Regulation of Resident/Pathogenic Microflora