Obtaining Pearls

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Gathering and Culturing

Finding a valuable pearl requires as much luck as skill. And in their quest for both pearls and mother-of-pearl, people have sometimes taken extraordinary measures. For many centuries, divers for marine pearls had to outmaneuver sharks and other dangers to locate the pearl oysters they hoped would contain natural pearls. Some people attempted to "farm" natural populations of mollusks, periodically checking each animal for natural pearls in development. And over the last 100 years, scientists have developed elaborate techniques for artificially inducing the growth of pearls inside mollusks. The process, known as "pearl culturing," has dramatically increased the number and quality of pearls harvested each year. Nevertheless, the allure of uncovering a hidden pearl--either natural or cultured--remains as enticing today as ever.