Are Saltwater Pearls Eco-Friendly, Ethical or Sustainable? 

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Pearls are a classic when it comes to jewelry. They’re renowned for being timeless and their ability to pair effortlessly with any wardrobe. You can wear pearls with pretty much any outfit.

At least, that's what Mrs. M tells me anyway!

There are two main types of pearls: saltwater and freshwater.

Saltwater pearls are more expensive. But are saltwater pearls eco-friendly?

Many people believe they are because they come from the ocean. But is this really true?

In this article, I uncover the truth about cultured pearls and whether or not they’re eco-friendly.

Pearl Types

As mentioned above, there are two types of pearls.

Freshwater Pearls

freshwater pearls

Freshwater pearls come from mussels that live in lakes, rivers, and ponds.

They’re the most common type of pearl and can be found in various colors, including white, black, pink, lavender, and blue.

Cultivating freshwater pearls sometimes involves treating them with dye to enhance their color.

Saltwater Pearls

saltwater pearls

Saltwater pearls are a type of cultured pearl that is formed in oysters that live in saltwater.

They come in various shapes and colors and are often considered more beautiful than freshwater pearls.

They’re created when a small piece of mantle tissue from another oyster is inserted into the oyster. This piece of mantle tissue is called a ‘nucleus’. The oyster then secretes nacre, a substance that coats the nucleus and creates the pearl.

They’re more expensive than freshwater pearls because they’re more challenging to cultivate.

Eco-Credentials of Pearls

Pearls have been around for centuries and have a long and well-established history of being worn by royalty and the elite.

The saltwater variety is produced naturally by a wild oyster as a defense mechanism when a foreign object (sand, grit, parasite, etc.) gets into its shell.

Due to this being a natural process, they’re considered one of the more eco-friendly gems used in the sustainable jewelry trade - providing they’re farmed sustainably and humanely.

Cultivation Process

Keeping oysters clean and healthy is essential to producing the best pearls.

Disreputable pearl cultivators will simply scrub the oysters clean with little regard for the natural order of things.

A reputable oyster farmer will ensure that the oysters are kept in an environment where they can be kept clean naturally. For example, in stretches of the sea where there are lots of fish and other marine life that feed off the dirt and debris on oyster shells.

An ethical pearl farmer will do everything possible to ensure that the oysters have the best life possible.

Oysters are filter feeders, which means they strain tiny organisms and particles from the water around them to get food.

If the water they live in is polluted, it can harm their health and the quality of pearls they produce.

To keep oysters healthy, pearl farmers must carefully monitor the water quality in the area where they’re cultured. This includes checking the temperature, salinity, and pH levels.

The farmers must also ensure that there is a good supply of food for the oysters to eat.

Harvesting Process

is harvesting saltwater pearls eco-friendly and ethical

Cultured pearls are typically harvested after two to five years. The length of time depends on the type of oyster and the desired size and quality of the pearl.

The way the pearl is harvested from the oyster says a lot about the ethics of the cultivator.

An ethical pearl farmer will use a special knife to open the oyster and remove the pearl without damaging the oyster or causing it any unnecessary stress.

After the pearl is harvested, the oyster is returned to the water so it can continue to grow and potentially produce more pearls.

If the oyster is deemed incapable of producing another pearl, a reputable and sustainable pearl farmer will humanely kill the oyster or sell it for food.

Many disreputable oyster farmers cultivating pearls will simply force the oyster open once the pearl is ready for harvest and then toss it back into the sea to die.

Cleaning Process

After the pearls are harvested, they’re cleaned with a soft brush and mild soap to remove any dirt or debris. They’re then rinsed with fresh water and dried.

The cleaning process is vital because it helps to ensure that the pearls maintain their luster and beauty.

Challenges for Saltwater Pearl Farms

It’s not all plain sailing. There are many challenges to eco-friendly pearl farming, including:

  • Natural weather events such as typhoons can damage oysters or even destroy entire farms.
  • Disease outbreaks can quickly decimate a farm and wipe out years of work in a matter of days.
  • Genetically modified oysters getting mixed up with non-GM and ‘polluting’ the entire farm stock.
  • Extreme temperatures due to global warming can stress oysters and prevent them from producing pearls. Most oysters produce the best pearls in seawater between 27 and 31 degrees Celsius.
  • Chemical runoff from other farming in the area can get into the sea and damage the oysters.
  • Plastic waste in the ocean harms oysters and results in poor-quality pearls.

1 In 10,000

On average, only one in every ten thousand saltwater oysters will produce a pearl naturally.

These low odds are why the vast majority of pearls used in jewelry and fashion are cultured.

Kokichi Mikimoto: Pioneer Of Cultured Pearls

Kokichi Mikimoto was born in 1858 on the small island of Toba, Japan.

He was a self-taught man who became one of the world's most renowned jewelers and pearl farmers and is credited with creating the first cultured pearls in 1893.

Pearl Shapes

Pearls come in many different shapes. The most common six are:

  • Coin
  • Baroque
  • Kashi
  • Circle
  • Tear Drop
  • Round

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Oysters Feel Pain?

According to most experts, invertebrates like oysters do not have a nervous system or feel any pain or irritation.

How Can You Tell If A Pearl Is Real?

The easiest way to tell if a pearl is real is to rub it against your teeth. If the pearl feels gritty, it's real. If it feels smooth, it's probably fake/man-made.

Are Pearls Alive?

Technically, pearls are not alive because they cannot move or reproduce independently. However, they are still organic material and formed from living creatures, so they can’t be classed as vegan.

Do Pearls Decompose?

Yes, pearls decompose, but very slowly. It can take centuries for a pearl to decompose completely. This is because pearls are made of calcium carbonate, a very stable compound.

What Are Tahitian Pearls?

Tahitian pearls come from the black-lipped oyster, found in French Polynesian seawater. Tahitian pearls are typically dark in color, ranging from silver to black.

What Are South Sea Pearls?

South Sea pearls come from silver-lipped or gold-lipped pearl oysters found in the waters of Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They’re typically large and white.

Is Kamoka Pearl An Ethical Company?

Kamoka Pearl has a good reputation for farming pearls ethically and producing sustainable pearls. They're also a member of 1% For The Planet.

The Final Word

Many people believe that saltwater pearls are more eco-friendly than other types of cultured pearls because they are created in a natural environment.

But it's not quite as clear-cut as that.

The process of creating these pearls often harms the oysters that make them. According to PETA, only around 50% of oysters survive this process.

The insertion of the nucleus into the oyster can damage the oyster's body, and the oysters are often kept in crowded conditions that can lead to disease.

However, as with all animal products, if you ensure that the supplier/manufacturer employs the highest welfare standards, then the oysters can have a good life producing pearls (a bit like caged chicken compared to organic free-range chicken).

Obtaining pearls from the sea does not involve any destructive mining, nor do they need chemicals and pesticides to grow.

Saltwater pearl oysters can even clean up mildly polluted water by sifting and consuming the contaminants.

Well-run oyster farms can provide a livelihood for a local community and keep families out of poverty and away from other more environmentally damaging farming, such as traditional cotton for fast fashion.

So, all things considered, I feel that cultured saltwater pearls are eco-friendly when farmed in the right way.

However, if you’re vegan, have naturally high ethical standards regarding animal products, or believe that invertebrates can feel pain, you might want to steer clear of saltwater pearls.

Get In Touch

What’s your take on saltwater pearls? Do you own an antique pearl produced for fine jewelry?

Do you think pearl production is eco-friendly and sustainable? Or do you steer clear of anything produced by the pearl industry? Drop me a line and let me know.

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James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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