“Pearls are always appropriate”, really?

The famous story of Cleopatra’s pearls as told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History where she dissolved a pearl from her earring in a goblet of wine (or vinegar) and gulped it at the legendary banquet where she had bet Marc Antony that she could host the most expensive dinner in history.

Pearls have always been considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. Long before the written history, pearls were probably discovered by a bunch of humans searching for food by seashore. Fast forward to today, pearls are “cultivated” at large scales given the studies and technological advancements humankind has made. However, with the growing supply-demand flow, a sense of conscious/ethical consumerism has also started to take today’s population by wave.

Myself, being a part of the same, tried hands at veganism (that lasted for exactly two days, because *GHEE*, my ultimate bait to gluttony). During that period, I read numerous articles regarding animal products. Pearl crossed my head as one, and that naturally made it unethical. What followed was a state of denial because I had just gifted my mom a pearl necklace. So, I got on a mission to subside my guilt.

By no surprise, the first article I read was by PETA, that said,

“Because only about one in 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl naturally — not nearly enough to keep up with demand — pearlmakers have devised a process called “culturing” or “cultivating,” which allows them to exploit oysters faster and cheaper.”

“Farmers then suspend the oysters in water in a cage, moving them around and subjecting them to different water temperatures to create the desired shape, size and color of the pearls. The oysters are then pried open for a second time so that the pearls can be extracted. One-third of oysters are “recycled” and subjected to this stressful process again; the rest are killed.”

Raising animals on aquafarms pollutes our oceans, and overharvesting oysters is destroying natural oyster beds beyond repair.

Then, after reading few more articles, next part is what I deduced.

  • How are Pearls cultured?
    The first step involves carefully cultivating oysters in freshwater ponds or nets/baskets in lagoons protecting them from predators.
    The next step involves “seeding” the oyster. The oyster forms it’s pearls when a foreign body /irritant lodges itself in the shell. To ease the irritation, oyster secretes nacre, or mother of pearl. Freshwater pearls are cultured by inserting another oyster’s mantle tissue. Saltwater pearls have beads and another oyster’s mollusk tissue inserted.
  • Is the Pearl cultivation ethical?
    It’s always in the cultivator’s best interest to treat the oysters with care so as to not kill it before the pearl is formed. After that pearl is harvested, oyster is usually “sacrificed”.
    Looking at most of the different types of oyster farms and harvesting method here, it can be concluded that most of them,
    1. End up dead.
    2. Meat is sold to be eaten or used as fertilizer.
    3. Shell is used for pearl powder.
    Although, the process is performed carefully and oysters have protection from predators, chances are third of them die from when being nucleated.
    Some also say, oysters can’t feel pain. Well, as per this-
    “Oysters have a nervous system; they can respond. They have no brain as such; they have two ganglia — or masses of nerves — around their body, but not a central brain like ours.”
    Thus, it’s still very much unclear if they feel pain or not!
    Plus, if you’re strongly vegan, you’ll not want to potentially harm any creature — whether or not its nervous system is capable of feeling pain.
    So, the answer to this is yours to find!
  • Is the pearl cultivation Eco-friendly?
    Pearls are definitely a far better option and an alternative to mined gems and metals which do so much damage to the Earth.
    Also, conscious cultivation might just help leave least amount of footprint. A NatGeo article on growth of sustainable Pearl cultivation can be found here. Additionally, the article also states that oyster farms are a wonderful bio-solution for polluted water! But unfortunately, not all pearlers follow sustainable guidelines.
    So, if pearlers stick by eco-friendly guidelines, pearl cultivation can be eco-friendly.

Now, to answer the ultimate question, are pearls always appropriate?

  • Well, if you’re a vegan, then -> NEVER appropriate because it comes from an animal.
  • If Vegetarian, -> MAYBE appropriate because it comes from an animal that’s compromised(in most cases) and depends on your reasons to choose vegetarianism.
  • Else, make your decision based on your personal equation with oysters.
    (Remember, it’s still better/ethical than mined gems).

Guess Jackie O couldn’t herself fathom depths of the statement she once made, “Pearls are always appropriate”.

Finally, what I take away from this?
Well, bye bye, going to look for some faux or vintage pearls!

Engineer with a passion for building and breaking one code at a time. Do 👏 and share if you like what you see here!