We all know by now that mined gems and precious metals are bad for the planet. But…Are pearls ethical?
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. They look wonderful on all women, of all ages.
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 have been held in high regard and associated with beauty and style, worn by style icons from Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy to Angelina Jolie and Kate Moss.
And what’s even better: they’re completely natural, and unlike mining for gems, the process of creating them doesn’t rip holes in the Earth. But is there a less brilliant side to this type of jewelry? Are pearls ethical?
Are Pearls Vegan Friendly?
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 discarded.
Are Pearls Ethical?
On the other hand, it’s important to know that some farms aim for a highly ethical approach to pearl oyster farming, whether this be due to legal restrictions, personal morals, or a desire to create higher quality pearls. 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 even 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.
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 unconsciously sends out white blood cells when an intruder enters it.
“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 also shouldn’t be densely packed together so they can produce larger pearls”.
Are Pearls Eco-Friendly?
There can be little doubt that pearls are a far better jewellery alternative to mined gems or metals, which do so much damage to the Earth. But there’s also an argument that consciously cultivated pearls can actually be good for ecosystems.
There reason cited for this is because they are cultivated on nets or baskets, oysters need to be cleaned regularly. The National Geographic has published an article about responsible cleaning practices, which involve taking the oysters to shallower waters and letting nature take its course by allowing certain species of fish to clean the oysters by feeding on their parasites. The baskets also protect the oyster populations from predators like rays and sea turtles.
The article posits that oyster farms overall are actually good for the environment, as they naturally filter the water and remove nitrogen as well as heavy metals from the water they live in. In fact, the article states that oyster farms are a wonderful bio-solution for polluted water!
But unscrupulous pearlers can also wreak havoc on ecosystems. For example, some Japanese researchers decided that the shell of a wild mussel in the Mississippi river basin had the appropriate density for a pearl nucleus, and thanks to them, many nuclei come from this unlikely mollusk. This practice leads not only to inferior pearls, but has also endangered the very existence of this North American mussel due to overfishing.
The Bottom Line
So, are pearls eco-friendly? They certainly can be. They can actually protect oysters from preditors, can clean dirty water, and they definitely 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.
That way, you can make like Jackie O and ensure your accessories are ‘always appropriate’ too!
Images: 1. Kamoka 2. , 3 wikicommons 3. My Pacific Pearls 4. Kamoka