Like many natural processes, the birth of a pearl takes time - but when the process is complete, the result is stunning.
How Do Oysters Make Pearls?
In order to understand how oysters make pearls, you must understand an oyster's body composition.
Oysters, which are a type of mollusk, have two shells. Each shell features a protective layer that covers the mollusk's organs. This protective layer is called the mantle, and it is responsible for safeguarding vital organs that keep the mollusk alive.
The Birth of a Pearl
Oysters make pearls in response to an irritant, such as a grain of sand or another object. When any irritant makes its way between the mollusk's shell and mantle, the creature produces nacre, a protective coating that helps reduce irritation. Nacre is also referred to as mother-of-pearl; it's made of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, and it also lines the interior of a mollusk's shell.
Layers of nacre coat the irritant, eventually forming an iridescent gem - the pearl.
The only difference between naturally developed pearls and cultured pearls is that a pearl farmer embeds an irritant between the shell and the mantle by cutting into the mollusk's tissues. With freshwater pearls, irritants do not need to be introduced; simply cutting the oyster's soft tissues is enough to begin the pearl-making process.
How Long Does it Take for Pearls to Develop?
Some pearls can develop in a period of 6 months. Larger pearls can take up to 4 years to develop.
Pearl farmers must have immense patience to wait for their oysters to develop pearls. When a pearl is ready, the harvester opens the shell, extracts the pearl and evaluates it for quality. Some oysters can produce 2 to 3 pearls over the courses of their lifetimes, but only oysters that have produced quality pearls in the past will begin the process again.