Pearl: Is It a Stone or an Animal Product?

So what are pearls anyway? Pearls are made of calcium carbonate and may be considered nature’s little accidents. Sometimes in the life of oysters, mussels, conch and some other shellfish, a tiny parasite or grit of sand gets ingested in the folds of the shellfish body. The animal will secrete a substance called nacre and coat the intrusion with a hard layer to protect itself from doing damage to the rest of the body.

Nacre is a very hard substance and is made up of tiny bricklike pieces that bond together and build up layer upon layer of these tiny bricks, almost like a brick wall. Nacre also coats the insides of the shellfish as well as creating a nice, shiny surface. This surface called mother-of-pearl is an organic/inorganic hard, composite material produced by some mollusks as an inner-shell layer; it also makes up the outer coating of pearls. It is strong, porcelaneous, resilient, and iridescent.

Due to the bricklike structure of nacre it results in the pleasing appearance or pearlescence we see when we look closely at the pearl. Scientists have experimented with lasers to create patterns similar to those nacre bricks by engraving them in glass. The results were 200 times the hardness of regular glass.

William Saville-Kent was born in England in 1845, was educated and lived for many years in Australia and New Zealand. In 1889, he became Commissioner of Fisheries for Queensland. In 1892, he was promoted to Commissioner of Fisheries for Western Australia, a position he held until 1895. During this time he experimented with culturing pearls on Thursday Island. The method he invented is still in use today. He sold his patent to a Japanese businessman who promoted the business and brought it up to where it is today.

The process to create a cultured pearl is quite simple and takes the guesswork out of the natural hit or miss creation.

A small spherical piece of shell is rounded, polished and then inserted into the mantle of the oyster by prying open the shell. A small incision is made and the nucleus is inserted along with a small piece of mantle gland.

The oyster is then placed in a cage and returned to the water where it will remain for about two or three years. During that time the bead will be coated with layers of nacre. Finally, the pearl will be extracted as a perfectly round delight.

So now we go back to the question, Is the pearl a stone or an animal product? You can now be the judge.

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