Biwa Pearl Mussel

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Hyriopsis schlegelii

In 1914 pearl farmers began culturing freshwater pearls using the pearl mussels native to Lake Biwa. This lake, the largest and most ancient in Japan, lies near the city of Kyoto. The extensive and successful use of the Biwa Pearl Mussel is reflected in the name "Biwa pearls," a phrase nearly synonymous with freshwater pearls in general. Since the time of peak production in 1971, when Biwa pearl farmers produced six tons of cultured pearls, pollution and overharvesting have caused the virtual extinction of this animal. Japanese pearl farmers now culture a hybrid pearl mussel--a cross between the last remaining Biwa Pearl Mussels and a closely related species from China--in other Japanese lakes.

Biwa Pearl Mussel shell with cultured blister pearlsLake Biwa, Japan
The Field Museum, Chicago Gift of Kawabata Shinju Company

Pearl culturing intended to produce free pearls often goes awry when the pearls accidentally attach to the shell.