July 14, 2023

Pure Pearls Weekly Newsletter: Akoya Pearl Farming Exposé


Pure Pearls Weekly Newsletter


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Pearl Farming: Akoya Pearl Farm


Farming cultured Akoya pearls is a time consuming, nerve-wrenching and highly skilled endeavor requiring patience, knowledge and persistence. Even with all that, a million different things can go wrong at any moment putting multiple season's worth of pearl harvests at risk.

Today I'd like to give you an insider's view on what goes on at an Akoya pearl farm, so you can see how these wonderful gems are brought to life.

Special credit for the pearl farm, grafting and oyster images are brought to us by a friend who owns a pearl farm in Japan, Tomokazu Tanabe. I am in his debt for letting me use so many of his gorgeous photos from his daily life. 

Pearl Farming: Growing Akoya Oyster Spat

In Japan, Akoya pearl oysters are grown from spat in oyster spat farms, not harvested from the open ocean like Tahitian and South Sea pearl types. Pearl farmers will purchase the young spat when they are between 2-6 months old from their favored spat supplier.
Every farming operation is responsible for raising their own oyster populations to maturity, and keep a very careful eye on the health of their oysters.
Baby oysters are raised in "safe tanks", usually grouped together in mesh cages to reduce the chance that the oysters will get sick or die. The spat pictured above are about 2 months old. At around 2-3 years old, the juvenile oysters are ready to undergo the grafting process.

Pearl Farming: Akoya Oyster Shell Varieties

There are more than just a single Akoya pearl oyster species used to culture pearls in Japan. Akoya oysters belong to the pinctada fucata family, of which the martensii variety is the most famous. The photo above shows NINE different varieties Mr. Tanabe will choose from for next year's oysters residing on his farm. He'll choose from:

Big moon
Second-hand temple
Ehime Water Test
Water test white lake
No. 2 in the gate

I wonder which one will be the big winner??

Pearl Farming: Grafting an Akoya Oyster

The grafting shed is where all the technical action takes place. This station is used to graft the oysters, and also later to open the oysters and harvest the pearls.

Skilled technicians called "grafters" operate on the Akoya pearl oysters that are ready for implantation.

The grafter gets the oyster to open its shell by packing them tightly together in  a tray. A chocking block is inserted to prevent the oyster from closing back up before a bead nucleus can be implanted inside.

Once the technician is ready to go to work, they select an oyster and place it into a special device that holds the mollusk still while he operates.

The grafter uses a scalpel to carefully make an incision in the oyster's gonad (its reproductive organ); then they will select a perfectly round and white mother-of-pearl bead nucleus to use for implantation.

Once the nucleus is inserted into the open incision, the grafter then places a tiny 1.0mm square piece of donor mantle tissue from a donor oyster on top of the bead. The incision is then closed and cleaned with an antibacterial medicant, and the chock is removed from the oyster, allowing it to close. The newly operated oysters are then taken to a recovery tank where they are allowed to heal from the operation.

Pearl Farming: Growing Akoya Pearls Long Lines


Once the oysters have been given sufficient time to recuperate from their operation, and the farmer ensures that none of the mollusks has rejected their bead nuclei, the animals are moved to mesh baskets hung from long lines held afloat buy buoys. 
Long lines are often used in pearliculture because they allow the oysters to easily filter feed upon algae and phytoplankton floating through the open ocean waters. The mesh baskets also help to protect the oysters from predators looking around for an easy snack! Periodically workers will come inspect the oysters to make sure they are healthy and to clean off parasitical organisms and flotsam growing on the outer shells. 
Meanwhile inside the oyster, a complicated and fascinating process is taking place: a pearl is forming! Once an oyster has been implanted with the bead nucleus and donor tissue, the oyster forms a pearl sac around the intrusion and begins secreting pearly nacre around the bead. Layer upon layer the pearl grows and gains its unique beauty. 
For a deep dive on pearl nacre, what it is, how it forms and how it acts to create one of the most spectacular organic gemstones on earth, read my in-depth guide: Pearl Nacre

Pearl Farming: Akoya Pearl Harvest
Pearl Farming: Akoya Pearl Harvest

Harvest time!
Japanese Akoya pearl harvests generally occur around 18 months to 2 years after implantation; this ensures that the oyster has had enough time to coat the bead nuclei with thick, lustrous nacre layers. This is important because pearls with "thin skin" are not only not very attractive, but they are easily damaged and later on can result in peeling nacre away from the bead inside.
This is a delicate balance for the farmer: the longer the pearls spend inside the oyster the higher the chance that the pearls inside will be valuable on the market. On the other hand, the longer the oysters are left in the water the higher the risk the farmer runs that his crop could be damaged by factors outside of his control like storms or algae blooms like red tide which have the potential to kill all his oysters in a single day.
Decisions, decisions! 
At harvest time, the baskets are pulled up and the oysters are taken by boat to the harvest area where the oysters are cleaned and inspected. The oysters are then carefully opened by workers using special knives, and the pearls inside are collected. The left over shells and meat are often sold to cosmetics companies, pet food companies or even mother of pearl manufacturers which value the iridescent shells for buttons or inlay slices for musical instruments. Nothing is wasted.

Pearl Farming: Bleaching and Pinking Akoya Pearls

As you can see by the raw harvest photos above, not all Akoya pearls come out sparkling white! Often the pearls will be yellowish, greenish or tinged brown or grey ... not the most attractive colors for the majority of pearl lovers. Therefore, the harvested pearls are sent to a pearl processing factory for further "beautification". 
Pearls are submerged in a gentle hydrogen peroxide solution and bombarded with UV rays for up to 6 months at a time - this process is called "bleaching", and is standard for 99.9% of all Akoya pearl harvests. Bleaching is done to remove those greenish, yellowish and brownish tinges and bring the pearls to a beautiful bright white color. 
After the bleaching process, the pearls are then "pinked" which is a process by which the pearls are transferred to new jars and submerged into a pinking solution which returns some of the pinkish overtones and iridescence to the pearls. Each processing house has their own secret, proprietary recipe for bleaching and pinking.

Pearl Farming: Sakura Akoya Pearl Necklaces

Finally the pearls are sorted by size, quality and matched for body color, overtone and luster. The pearls are drilled and made into matched pairs for earrings, pendants and rings, and full temporary hanks which dealers and retailers can later make into pearl necklaces. 
After years of hard work and perseverance, the pearl farmer's work has paid off beautifully! 
Again, I'd like to personally thank Mr. Tanabe of the Tanabe Pearl Farm for his amazing photos showing off daily life at his pearl farm and his award-winning pearls! I hope you've found them as interesting as I have.  

Until next time! 





The PurePearls.com Wishlist: Weekly Pearl Jewelry Spotlight 



Pure Pearls Weekly Product Spotlight: Japanese Akoya Pearl Bellatrix Earrings 



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