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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

Pearl Harvesting in Shanghai

Pearls … they have been worshiped and coveted for millennia, they are ranked among the precious stones, yet they are like no other gem; the by-product of a living organism, they are indeed one of a kind, even though they are more precious when put together and look alike.


Coco Chanel once said, “A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls.” The iconic designer did walk her talk by wearing stacks of pearls, often a mixture of real and faux, a trend she had pioneered in the 1920’s. Before Coco Chanel made costume pearl jewelry desirable and fashionable, pearls were only worn by the ones who could afford them, as pearls’ beauty and rarity made them a symbol of status and wealth.


In ancient Rome they were considered more valuable than diamonds and, during Julius Cesar’s time they could be warn only by nobility within Rome’s borders. Similarly, in medieval Europe, there were times when wearing pearl jewelry was a royal entitlement, making them even more desirable by the high nobility. In China, pearls are mentioned in writing as far as 4000 years ago and there are many legends around the pearls that associate them with mythological creatures.


It is ironic and amusing that such a beautiful creation is born as a side effect of a .. nuisance. The natural pearls occur in the wild, in saltwater pearl oysters or freshwater mussels, when a microscopic object penetrates the mollusk and irritates its mantle, who would, in time, create the pearl by covering the intrusive object with layers and layers of nacre. Also known as mother of pearl, the nacre is the hard and iridescent material that forms the pearl and lines the shell.  


Not all such pearls are gemstone material though. The natural pearls are hand harvested by free divers. Finding a perfectly round natural sea pearl, the most sought after, demands many free dives and throw-aways as hundreds of wild oysters need to be open and thus killed, to find even one good pearl. It takes years to gather the pearls for a necklace as, typically, they would need to match in colour, shape, and size.


It doesn’t come as a surprise that their possession could become an irresistible desire despite of their out of ordinary price. It is a double strand of natural pearls that got Pierre Cartier the renaissance style building on New York’s Fifth Avenue, building that is, to-the-day, the Cartier flagship store.  Story goes that in 1916, Cartier wanted to move into the Millionaire’s Row on Fifth Avenue but could not find a suitable place. So, when Maisie, the young wife of Morton Plant, a railway mogul with a mansion on 5th Avenue, fell over hills with the natural pearl necklace offered by Cartier, an exchange was made: the $1 million mansion for the $950K necklace. Fair trade after all, don’t you think?


The availability and affordability of pearls was changed forever with the invention of the cultured pearls. For a cultured pearl, a foreign object is being introduced by a manually into a mollusk that would make a good pearl host and thus, the pearl making process gets a kickstart. It still takes years for a pearl to take shape, as the mollusk must do its thing, but it’s a much easier and controllable process that, depending on the grafting techniques, can produce amazing results.


You may wonder if cultured pearls are considered real pearls and the answer is yes, they are. Cultured pearls don’t imply cheap though, as exquisite pearls have secured their name on the market, such as the Akoya, Tahitian, White and Golden South Seas, or Sea of Cortez. The high-end cultured pearls, typically the saltwater ones, can look very much like the natural ones, so one would need to be an expert to distinguish them.  However, it is easier to recognize even average cultured pearls from the imitation ones either by the reflection test, as you should be able to see your face mirrored in a pearl, or the durability test, as a light scratch and wipe of the pearl’s surface should leave no trace behind.


The freshwater cultured pearls are the most affordable and available and thus cultured pearls often implies being of the freshwater kind.  Even though Japan pioneered the freshwater pearl culture, its industry is pretty much extinct and, nowadays, China is the only commercial producer of freshwater cultured pearls. The challenge China encountered throughout time was regarding the quality of its pearls. While numerous, the cultured pearls typically failed to attain the coveted round shape and have an adequate size, being too small to make them good candidates for jewelry.  A few years ago, this trend was changed by the Edison pearl who was created by nucleating the host mussel with a perfectly round nucleus to serve as a template for the mussel to build the nacre around it.  The difference in quality is significant, and so is the quantity, with only one pearl being produced per mussel as opposed to 15-20.


I got to discover this difference firsthand in the comfort of a small atelier in Shanghai! For the first time ever, I was a freshwater cultured pearl harvester and jewelry maker, and I loved every bit of it.




This experience has dramatically changed the way I look at pearls.

They are, in some way, very much an organic product even though they are lifeless.

Their beauty comes from their simplicity and finesse, and their true value is revealed only to the one who seeks it.

They look fragile but they are incredibly durable.

Pearls’ beauty is timeless and limitless.

They are .....a symbol of femininity.

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6 Comments

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Guest
3 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I love pearls and I wish to have your experience.The nature can do amazing things .Beautiful experience

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Cristina Dwyer
Cristina Dwyer
3 days ago
Replying to

So true . Thank you for stopping by and leaving your impressions

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Guest
4 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Another great post.

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Cristina Dwyer
Cristina Dwyer
3 days ago
Replying to

Thank you

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T T
T T
4 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What an interesting topic. What a way to explore absolutely new experiences!!

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Cristina Dwyer
Cristina Dwyer
4 days ago
Replying to

Thank you TT. Being the first touching those pearls was quite a special feeling. I know there are people that do that for living and it’s routine for them, but it was special to me.

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