Pearl Farming: Sustainability, Environmental & Economic Impact

Pearl farming is what produces most of the pearl jewellery that we wear today. Because natural pearls are so rare, making up less than of 1% of pearls sold today, the demand for cultured pearls has risen dramatically.

As you might have guessed, pearl farms are where cultured pearls are grown and harvested to eventually be made into jewellery.

Let’s dive into the process and its effects on the environment and pearl farming communities.

The Process and Timeline of Pearl Farming

On a pearl farm, several thousand oysters are cared for all at once. Generally, each oyster takes between two and five years to grow and develop a pearl to the stage where it can be harvested.

There are lots of factors which go into creating a single pearl which can be worn in a piece of luxury jewellery for years to come. As well as the skill of the pearl farming community, there’s also lots of external factors to consider. Some of these factors that cannot be controlled have the potential to ruin an entire bed of oysters.  Water pollution, severe storms, extreme temperature fluctuations, and disease are just some of those factors.

Before starting a pearl farm, it is important to conduct a feasibility study.  This helps pearl farmers to determine if the right conditions exist in order for the pearl farm to thrive.  If the right conditions are found, a pearl farm can be started in the area.

Once everything is ready, pearl oysters are brought in.  Each year, a new stock of oysters should be added to the existing pool so that there is a continuous cycle of grafting and harvesting.

At about two years of age, pearl oysters are ready to be grafted.  This is the process which catalyses the development of a cultured pearl; the type you’d wear in a necklace or bracelet, for instance. In cultured pearls, this process is usually started when an irritant is manually inserted into the pearls. You can read more about how pearls form here.

After the grafting, the pearl oysters should be inspected regularly to produce the best quality pearls possible. Pearl oysters stay on the farm for another one to two years before the pearls can be harvested.

If an oyster has produced a good quality pearl, they are sometimes grafted a second time in the hope of creating another near-perfect pearl for jewellery.

What Happens after the Harvest?

Once the pearls have fully developed, they can be harvested.  The pearls are extracted from the oysters and then washed and dried to remove any debris or odour. They are then polished and treated with a special oil or coating – this is because the surface is very porous.

What Happens to the Pearls?

Once pearl production and pearl cultivation is done, the pearls are inspected and then sorted. They’re sorted according to grade and value before being offered for sale. Usually, the pearls will be used to make the kind of luxury pearl jewellery offered by Lullu.

What Happens to the Oysters?

The pearl harvesting process is manual and requires great skill. During this process, as much care is taken as possible to protect the oyster. When the oyster lives, it can be grafted again so that it will form a new pearl.

However, if the oyster dies during the extraction process, it is still put to good use and not wasted.  Here the meat and shell can be used.  The meat will be sold for eating and the shell can be used for mother of pearl buttons.  On top of this, shells are often also used for décor items like furniture or ornaments.

Economic Impact on Communities

In previous years, oysters used to be fished to obtain natural pearls.  Worldwide, this created a problem as oysters were overexploited and populations were declining.  Sustainable, well-managed pearl farming is a way to combat the problem of overfishing while still providing farmers with a way to make money.

More than that, pearl farming actually promotes environmental conservation because creating quality pearls through sustainable methods also came with the added bonus of financial incentives for the community when the pearls were harvested and sold.

In addition to this, pearl farming can take place on remote islands that don’t have access to many other economic opportunities.  French Polynesia and the Cook Islands are two areas where pearls are successfully being farmed.  This has helped communities to develop alternative income streams in areas that ultimately relied on tourism as a means of income.  Thanks to the introduction of pearl farms, many of the islands’ inhabitants are now gainfully employed.

The only Sustainable Gem

Sustainable pearl farming can even help the environment in many ways. As we know, pearl farms are crucial in reducing overfishing of oysters to obtain pearls.

Oysters need pollution free water to produce high-quality pearls.  Pearl mussels and oysters can help to purify water.  The muscles and oysters filter the water removing impurities such as algae.

Oysters also need the fish to survive.  They live on plankton and by-products of the fish and coral.  If the ecosystem is not healthy, neither are the oysters.  In some locations where there are pearl farms, fishing has been restricted or banned and there is greater care taken in protecting the coral reef.  Oysters and fish also sustain each other.  Carp will live in areas where there are freshwater pearls, and this can help the pearl farmers to earn additional income.

So from an environmental standpoint, pearl farming may improve the quality of water, improve ocean biodiversity, and have a positive impact on the conservation of the coral reef.

From an economic standpoint, pearls are very sustainable. Pearl farming adds to the diversity of local economies.  Where they once relied on tourism and government support, the island inhabitants are now earning income through pearl farming.

In an Oyster Shell

Pearl farming gives communities a way to protect the environment while developing economic independence.  Pearl farming can be a long process and the environmental conditions play a huge role in the success of the farm.  When done right, farming pearls benefits both the ecosystem and the people who live in the pearl farming community.

In fact, the demand for beautiful, luxury pearl jewellery can actually increase the sustainability of pearl farming.  Choosing pearls over other gems is one of the most sustainable choices, and part of the reason why it is encouraged by so many jewellers.

Vulnerable Pacific communities can benefit from the economic activity that pearl farming brings and marine conservation will also be encouraged.

Now that you’re an informed buyer, and know of the positive impact pearl farming can have on the entire pearl farming ecosystem, you can browse Lullu’s range of pearl jewellery with a clear conscience.

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