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How Green Are Your Pearls?
Pearls are organic gems in more ways than one

Even as the world economy skids, pearls remain popular. Maybe that’s because in times of crisis, we find comfort in tradition and investment classics like cultured pearls. Pearls lift us up and bring elegance to everyday life.

Pearls are organic gems, of course. But in this time of ecological sensitivity, can we enjoy our pearls and the environment too? Is there an ecological price for pearl production?

While researching the answer to that question, I’ve drawn on my 30 years as a pearl importer and wholesaler and two recent GIA cultured pearl tours of the South Pacific and Asia. What I’ve learned is that the environmental impact of pearl culturing and how the environment affects the pearls in return varies depending on the type of pearl.


Saltwater oysters have strict tolerances for growing conditions. As a result, farms are developed in natural habitats far away from civilization. Growers prefer remote bays, lagoons, and channels, providing sheltered areas rich in nutrients and abundant plankton to nurture their crops. Maintaining the health of surrounding waters is critical to the success of the industry in Australia, Tahiti, Philippines, Japan, and New Zealand. Pearl farmers understand that the health of the pearl is an indicator of the state of the environment.

Quotas for collecting wild stocks effectively protect species of wild oysters, Pinctada maxima in Australia, and Haliotis iris (abalone) in New Zealand. In the 1970’s, Japanese pearl farmers became oyster farmers too, establishing hatchery-bred akoya or Pinctada fucata. Philippine South Sea golden pearl farmers have also successfully bred their own crop of Pinctada maxima oysters, since 1989, according to Jacques Branellac, Jewelmer’s managing director.

From December through March, most farms in Tahiti are on a cleaning cycle to maintain optimum growing conditions for Pinctada margaritifera. “French authorities monitor any foreign algae species and go to the spot to determine origin and set up corrective action,” explains Bruno Wan of Robert Wan Tahiti.

Roger Beattie, the managing director and owner of Eyris Pearls, funded a local environmental study and is lobbying the community of Akaroa Harbor in New Zealand to keep treated sewage “on land and irrigated onto sustainable forestry, thus reducing the amount of sewage entering the harbor.”

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Philippine golden South Sea pearls
In nutrient rich seas far from civilization, buoys support long lines holding nets of Philippine golden South Sea pearls.
Photo by Mona Lee Nesseth.

freshwater pearl farms
Soda-bottle freshwater pearl farms coexist alongside multistory homes, agricultural fields, and farms in provinces along the Yangtze River in China.
Photo by Betty Sue King.