Gathering Pearls

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

A Long History of Collecting Pearls

For many centuries, humans have gathered pearls and mother-of-pearl shells--sometimes placing themselves at great risk in the process. Because most pearl oysters live in the ocean at depths exceeding 10 feet, collecting them in any quantity has always required diving, with its accompanying hazards of sharks, poisonous jellyfish and decompression sickness, or "the bends." Because the work was so dangerous, many cultures conscripted slaves to bring pearl oysters up from the ocean floor.

Freshwater mollusks living in shallow rivers and streams are much easier to gather. Long harvested for food and shells, pearl mussels have also been collected for the gems found inside. Gathering freshwater pearls has not always been free of risk, however. At various times throughout history, royal families have set aside local pearl beds for their own use and severely punished anyone who tried to harvest the precious gems.