All over the world divers risk their lives in the perilous business of retrieving pearls from the bottom of the sea. In Japan the amas are always women; they plunge as deep as 40 feet with nothing more to protect them from the sharks, sea eels, and jellyfish than the hook-nosed iron knife they use to dislodge the oysters.

Treasure under the Sea: Some Jewels of the Ocean

By Mr Ghaz, May 5, 2010

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Treasure under the Sea: Some Jewels of the Ocean

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The sun glints on the blue ocean as the pearl fisher casts anchor. A flash of white. A human figure dives into the deep water. After 50 seconds or more, the ama, or Japanese pearl diver, remerges, triumphantly bearing her prize a netful of oysters.

All over the world divers risk their lives in the perilous business of retrieving pearls from the bottom of the sea. In Japan the amas are always women; they plunge as deep as 40 feet with nothing more to protect them from the sharks, sea eels, and jellyfish than the hook-nosed iron knife they use to dislodge the oysters.

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Pearl-producing oysters are also found in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Manaar (the stretch of water that lies between India and Sri Lanka), and the Red Sea, as well as the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s eastern coast. In many of these places, notably Sri Lanka, pearl divers still use traditional methods; elsewhere, sophisticated equipment, such as scuba gear, has made their task easier.

Self-Defense

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From the outside, oysters give no hint of the treasure they may conceal. The shell-gray, gnarled, and frequently misshapen-contains a moist, fleshy, living oyster, surrounded by flaps of tissue called the mantle. Nature has devised a way of protecting the oyster’s delicate body: the mantle secretes a substance called nacre that covers the inner shell surface in a smooth layer known as mother-of-pearl.

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Pearls are formed from the same material. The oyster feeds by opening its shell slightly and sucking in plankton, the tiny organisms that drift through the ocean. Occasionally, however, it sucks in something less desirable-perhaps a grain of sand or a small piece of shell. To protect itself against such uninvited guests, the oyster simply covers the offending particle with layer upon layer of mother-of-pearl. Sometimes the oysters have been found with tiny fish perfectly rendered in mother-of-pearl.

Most pearls are white, ranging to delicate pink. But they come in many other colors, too, depending upon the pigments in the nacre: black, blue, and golden yellow pearls are greatly prized.

Real or Imitation?

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But by no means do all oysters produce pearls. On average, in a haul of three tons of oysters only three of four shells contain good pearls. But in Japan around the turn of the 20th century a reliable way of cultivating pearls was discovered. Today, with a little human intervention, almost all oysters can be made to yield.

Cultured pearls are produced by inserting a perfectly spherical artificial irritant into the oyster’s body. The oysters are then carefully tended in special beds until the pearls are ready-usually three to six years later.

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Essentially, cultured pearls are formed in the same way that natural pearls are, and it is almost impossible to tell the two apart. The only ways to distinguish between them are to dissect the pearl or X-ray it: the one with a completely round original center is cultivated.

Imitation pearls vary widely. Some are made from high-quality materials, such as mother-of-pearl, conch, and coral; others, simply from glass beads coated with a solution containing fish scales, known as essence d’Orient. These can make acceptable jewelry. But unlike genuine pearls, whether natural or cultured, imitation pearls do not have the same weight, their surface in smoother, and in time their luster will dim.

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Neither do false pearls command the same price. But through genetic engineering techniques, now in their infancy, it may become possible to keep the mantle tissue alive in a test tube. If so, an amazing prospect may open up: the cost of cultured pearls may tumble to a lower level, and we may, at last, be able to purchase laboratory-grown pearls at a more affordable price.

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  • Christine Ramsay on May 5, 2010

    A fascinating article. I love pearls and treasure the pearl necklace my mother gave me for my pearl anniversary. A great post.

    Christine

  • Uma Shankari on May 5, 2010

    Loved the info on pearl. Quite a valuable pearl of an article.

  • CHAN LEE PENG on May 5, 2010

    Pearls are great essence of the sea. Your articles are always brilliantly written, cheers! Clicked you “liked it”

  • LoveDoctor on May 5, 2010

    Excellent write. I vote that I like it.

  • giftarist on May 5, 2010

    This is interesting. I too love pearls.

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