Cultured saltwater pearls born from oysters may be the ultimate green gem, with some farms paving the way for clean oceans, good jobs, and healthy aquatic life.
In June 2017, pearl farmer Justin Hunter of J. Hunter Pearls took a big step in telling the world that his beloved Fijian pearls, grown in the South Pacific waters surrounding Savusavu, Fiji, were good for Fijians and the local environment. Hunter introduced the Fiji Pearl Development plan to attendees at the United Nations Oceans Conference, where government officials, academics, and others concerned about the environment gathered to discuss solutions to the declining health of oceans. The plan has since been temporarily shelved, but its goal—and Hunter’s—remains promising: nurturing a national pearl farming industry that enhances the effectiveness of locally managed marine areas while creating meaningful employment and income-generating opportunities for communities.
“Fiji recognizes sustainable initiatives in its pearl industry,” says Hunter, whose own farm currently employs twelve.
Shot of the Palawan, near Jewelmer golden pearl farms. Photo by Marc Josse
A golden South Sea pearl being harvested by a Jewelmer employee. Photo by Romain Rivierre
Sustainability—using resources in a way that does not damage or deplete them—is an oft talked-about topic in fine jewelry, but perhaps no niche is as familiar with it as saltwater pearls. Just like Fiji’s pearls, grown in the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera-typica oyster, the growth of other saltwater varieties in places like French Polynesia, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, and more, can boost economies and improve the health of aquatic environments. Farmers of saltwater pearls rely on wild oysters or hatchery-born ones, with both requiring equally pristine habitats since oysters are filter feeders. After seeding with mother-of-pearl beads, adult saltwater oysters then hang in baskets in protected lagoons or bays for roughly two years, coating the beads with nacre until pearls are ready for harvest. During this time, water is continually filtered—one oyster can filter tens of gallons of water—while fish, coral, and other marine life thrive, and locals can be employed to support farm operations.
Some farmers are even promoting farm-specific pearls versus pearls from a general area (like Tahiti) to better drive home sustainable efforts and stories and engage collectors.
Dr. Laurent Cartier, a project manager at the Swiss Gemmological Institute, cofounder of Sustainablepearls.org, and a gemology lecturer at the University of Lausanne, has visited cultured pearl farms in ten countries, including Micronesia. Knowing the potential of saltwater pearls to foster sustainable scenarios in employment and marine conservation, he’s keen to see more retailers ask about cultured pearl origin.
“The more there is a connection between the source farm/area and the consumer, the more a lot of themes around sustainability have meaning and can create value,” he says.
Sustainable Saltwater Pearls
Proponents of saltwater pearls as sustainable gems are many, and with good reason: Properly managed saltwater pearl farms—and even wild pearl beds, such as those in Bahrain—can produce pearls indefinitely if healthy marine eco-systems are maintained.
Pearlers like Jewelmer know that caring for locals living near farms—Jewelmer’s are a two-hour helicopter ride from Manila in the Philippine and Sulu Seas—is just as important as nurturing the pearl-producing oysters. For three decades, the golden pearl brand has educated islanders against farming with cyanide fishing and guided them to work in sustainable livelihoods like virgin coconut oil processing and organic vegetable farming.
“The beauty of the pearl is inextricably linked to the beauty of the place and the beauty of the people, meaning the happiness of the people,” explained Jacques Christophe Branellec, deputy CEO, during a recent webinar. “Jewelmer protects 100,000 acres of marine concessions in Palawan—an area seven times the size of Manhattan—in addition to 37,000 acres of marine coastland. These activities go hand in hand with harvesting gem-quality pearls.”
French Polynesian pearl farmer Joshua Humbert of Kamoka Pearl agrees with Jewelmer’s ethos. When done right, saltwater pearl farming can be an impetus for change, such as increases in fish populations, flourishing coral reefs, and cleaner water.
“Simply sustaining can rise to regeneration,” observes Humbert, whose third-generation family Tahitian pearl farm is situated in Ahe atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. “We get our oysters from wild spat when they are planktonic. It is essentially a free, zero impact source, as the survival rate of those wild spat is about as close to zero as you can get. As soon as they settle to the bottom they are eaten by fish.”
More farm practices include employing and training local grafters—versus seeking out less-expensive labor from abroad—and letting fish clean their oysters’ exterior shells. “Each kind of fouling has a specific fish that specializes in eating that kind of creature, so all the different reef inhabitants are lifted up by this method,” adds Humbert. Less-diligent farmers might pressure-wash oysters during cultivation, letting the effluent of the operation drip back into the lagoon, a move that can lead to mushrooms of harmful organisms.
When Cartier unveiled Sustainablepearls.org in 2011, he received funding for it from the Tiffany & Co. Foundation to research the impact of pearl farming and to expand the conversation on sustainability and responsible pearl production. A decade later, much has been learned.
“There is huge potential for marine conservation with respect to pearl farming and also for economic development in remote coastal areas,” he says.
An employee of J. Hunter Pearls working at a pearl farm in Savusavu Bay
Fijian keshi pearl strands from Assael
Mexican Black Pearls on the Brink
Douglas McLaurin, a biochemistry engineer with a master’s degree in sustainability and natural resources management as well as a university and Pearls As One (PAO) instructor, began conducting research on the rainbow-lipped Pteria sterna oysters in the early 1990s. He saw potential to bring back the species from near extinction—it had been overfished decades before—so he and some friends initiated a university research program to culture pearls, including nurturing hatchery-born mollusks, in the Sea of Cortez near Guaymas, Mexico. According to PAO education, the Mexican government imposed a permanent fishing ban on them in 1939 to save what was left of the wild pearl mollusk population. By 1996, McLaurin’s team harvested 20,000 mabé pearls, followed by whole pearl production in 2000. Today, the Sea of Cortez pearl brand is the first commercial marine pearl farm in the American continent.
McLaurin’s work not only brought back a species from near decimation but also repopulated wild stock since oysters spawn naturally in proximity to baskets of oysters culturing pearls. “By establishing a farming operation, you end up having a massive pearl bed … that will actually breed in the farm and will help repopulate the area that has been overfished,” he explains.
Eric Braunwart, a pioneer in Fair Trade and responsibly sourced gemstones like Malawi (African) rubies and Montana sapphires, has been selling Sea of Cortez pearls for 17 years. The founder of Columbia Gem House offers them to clients because he can verify that the farm adheres to stringent Fair Trade gem protocols, including good working conditions for employees and a healthy aquatic environment.
“When we saw the pearl farm producing Cortez pearls, we saw that they really did share our same vision, and that made it an easy decision to add pearls to the mix,” he explains of his one and only pearl variety. “We love these beautiful pearls, but the reason they became a part of our offerings is because of the principles and commitment the founders of the Cortez pearl farm believed in … it was just a great fit.”
Farm at Kamoka Pearl in French Polynesia
Challenges for Saltwater Pearl Farms
Despite numerous benefits, saltwater pearl farms are not without their share of issues. Mother Nature delivers her own in the form of typhoons and red tide, but man is responsible for more. These include eutrophication, or excessive nutrients in the water, caused by land runoff that can lead to algae blooms and mollusk disease. Defying fishing quotas in places where wild oysters are used, like Australia, can lead to oyster bed depletion. Meanwhile, the use of genetically modified oysters to increase the strength of native pearl oysters typically produces disastrous results.
“Genetic modifications end up ‘polluting’ local stock,” says McLaurin, who has witnessed the practice. “These methods are non-sustainable.”
Global warming hurts pearl oysters, too. Extreme temperatures can weaken and stress oysters to the point where they don’t want to produce nacre. “Our oysters are comfortable between 27–31 degrees Celsius,” says Branellec. “Otherwise, they’re not making gold pearls.”
Another problem is microplastics in the water that can harm oysters and fish. It’s a familiar and imperfect scenario to farmers like Humbert, who use polypropylene ropes to hang oyster lines. He’s testing out other materials like stainless steel and hemp as an eventual replacement.
“The desire to operate in the most harmonious way possible is a journey that we are on, and we do not pretend to have arrived at our destination,” he explains.
Then there is the matter of people, plain and simple. Lack of employment and food insecurity in marine tropical environments can pave the way for harmful practices, such as dynamite fishing. The engagement of indigenous communities in pearl farming regions can lead to conservation and “future generations taking up the role of being stewards of the sea,” says Hunter. “The greatest threat to our environment is poverty. We must find the balance between conservation and economics so man and nature benefit.”
The payoff for balancing environmental responsibility with human life is a priceless legacy for jewelry. Studies reinforce this fact; a survey of U.S. consumers by MVI Marketing reveals that young shoppers are interested in buying fine jewelry that contributes to positive environmental impacts.
“Managed properly, both natural and cultured pearls are sustainable gems,” notes Kenneth Scarratt, managing director of ICA GemLab Bangkok and former CEO of Danat Institute in Bahrain.
Shari Turpin of Pearls by Shari in Jackson and Park City, Wyoming, carries Jewelmer, has visited their farms, and knows the unique magic of a pearl’s allure—both visible and behind the scenes.
“When you visit the farm and the helicopter pilot’s daughter has left the islands, attended college, and then decided to return, that’s a wonderful legacy of beauty and conservation.”