Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Haliotis species

Known for both their meat and mother-of-pearl, abalones, or ear-shells, can be found around the world. They produce beautiful natural pearls in shades of turquoise, rose, green and cream. Evidence from archaeological sites in California shows that natural abalone pearls were used as trade goods by native peoples for thousands of years. Species in California and New Zealand are now being cultured, chiefly for food but also for mabé pearls.

Green Abalone shell with boring bivalves
Green Abalone shell with boring bivalves Haliotis fulgensBaja California Norte, Mexico
American Museum of Natural History

These animals thrive off cold-water rocky shores, where they cling like limpets, and are often encrusted with small clams that bore in from the outside. These stimulate the production of blister pearls.






Paua Abalone shell Haliotis irisNew Zealand
American Museum of Natural History

Paua Abalone are cultured today for both pearls and mother-of-pearl. Many mollusks attract various species of seaweed and tube-building worms, which accumulate on the outside of the shell.





Red AbaloneHaliotis rufescens
J. Beckett/AMNH Photo Studio

This cross-section through a natural blister pearl in a Red Abalone shows that the pearl was formed when a small clam bored into the abalone shell from the outside. The abalone responded by secreting layers of mother-of-pearl on the inside surface of the shell, forming the blister pearl.