By Deanna Ayres
“Pearls are always appropriate,” Jackie Kennedy once said, and in a sense, it’s true–there’s hardly any time when pearls don’t match any given outfit or occasion. From black pearls to golden pearls, they have been a treasured gem for centuries, in no small part due to their shimmering iridescence, lustre and inner glow. From ancient Egypt’s Cleopatra to ancient Rome and Greece, through the dark ages up until today, pearls are held in high regard and associated with beauty and style, worn by style icons from Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy to Angela Jolie and Rhianna. And what’s even better–they’re completely natural, and unlike mining for gems, the process of making them can be fully eco-friendly. But is there a less brilliant side to pearls?
Vegans would argue that pearls aren’t exactly cruelty free. According to PETA, culturing pearls involves surgically opening each oyster shell and inserting an irritant in the oyster, which is stressful to the animal. What’s worse is that freshwater pearls can be cultured by inserting another oyster’s mantle tissue, and saltwater pearls have beads and another oyster’s mollusk tissue inserted. Fewer than half of the oysters may survive this process.
PETA also argues against cultivators of pearls, as they further stress the oysters by suspending them in water in a cage, washing their shells, moving them around in different waters, and raising and lowering their cages to subject them to changing water temperatures. And after the pearls are extracted from the oysters, one-third of oysters are “recycled” and put through the culturing process again. The others are killed and discarded.
The Ethical Process of Making Pearls
On the other hand, it’s important to know that some farms aim for an eco-friendly approach to pearl oyster farming, due to ethics, legal restrictions, or a desire to create higher quality pearls. Also, it’s in the cultivator’s best interest to treat the oyster with care, as creating a pearl is not a quick business – a grain of sand cannot be grafted onto an oyster to allow it to ‘protect’ itself from the irritation with layers of pearl until the oyster is between 12-24 months old. Moreover, pearl cultivators insist that invertebrates like oysters don’t have a nervous system like ours, and don’t feel any pain or irritation; rather the nacre they send out from their bodies is done as an autoimmune response, much in the same way our system sends out white blood cells when an intruder enters it.
The colour of the pearl will depend on the minerals in the water in which the oyster lives, and black pearls are produced mainly in the Indian Ocean, whilst very white ones come mainly from freshwater sources. “The health of the oyster is one of the most important factors in creating valuable pearls. This is where eco-friendly really comes to play, and pearlers gain numerous benefits from paying attention to the environment,” says Elizabeth Salles, of eco friendly brand Kamoka Pearls.
“For example,” she continues, “oysters are living creatures of course, and should not be overstocked to avoid disease. They shouldn’t be densely packed together so they can produce larger pearls”.
Because they are cultivated on nets or baskets, oysters need to be cleaned regularly. The National Geographic has released an article about responsible cleaning practices and explains that eco-friendly cleaning takes the oysters to shallower water and lets nature take its course by allowing certain species of fish to clean the oysters by feeding on their parasites. The article argues that oyster farms overall are actually good for the ecology, as they naturally filter the water and remove nitrogen as well as heavy metals from the water they live in. In fact, the article claims oyster farms are a wonderful bio-solution for polluted water!
The Bottom Line
So, are pearls eco-friendly? The bottom line is that they certainly can be – and they do provide a better alternative to mined gemstones. But not all pearlers follow sustainable guidelines, and of course, if you’re strongly vegan, you’ll not want to contribute to potentially harming any creature – whether or not its nervous system is capable of feeling pain. If you do choose to wear pearls, it’s probably best to support responsible cultivators such as Kamoka Pearls or My Pacific Pearls, so you can make like Jackie O and ensure your accessories are ‘always appropriate’ too!
All images: wikicommons