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Cultured Pearls: Alabama's Role in Production

Our last post concerned pearls: those found in restaurant oysters, natural and cultured.  Here's an interesting side note:  Our area of the world has been instrumental in the cultured pearl industry!

In the late 1800's, Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan discovered that when spherical beads created from the shells of freshwater mussels were placed into marine pearl oysters, they served as exceptional nuclei as the oyster surrounded the beads with secretions from the nacre (this is what gives pearls their opalescent sheen).

Beginning in the mid-1950's, mussel shells from both the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River were shipped to Asia.  There, freshwater mussel shells were then sliced, cubed, rounded and implanted in oysters which lay their own nacre over the bead.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama was the perfect place for freshwater mussel.  The 53-mile stretch of the Tennessee River from west Decatur to below Seven-Mile Island in Florence once had the greatest diversity of freshwater mussel species of any place on Earth.  Mussel shells from the Mississippi River were also found to be excellent seed material for the growing cultured pearl industry.  As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters can potentially reject an inserted nucleus.  The shells from the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers proved to be the least likely to be rejected.

The period of the 1960s-1980s was the peak time for shell harvesting.  Mussel diving was a booming business around Muscle Shoals even in the 1990s when a 5-gallon bucket of shells from washboard or ebony shell mussels could earn a diver more than $300.  Today, plastic beads have replaced mussel shell pellets as the core of many cultured pearls so the demand has decreased.

The next time you wear your pearls think about it.  The nucleus that began the process of forming each pearl may have come from very close to home!

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