The brilliant, shifting blue-green and blue-violet colors of abalone shell jewelry can be found in a million beach shops around the world, but true abalone pearls are very rare indeed. The abalone is a single-shelled, uni-valve saltwater mollusk, native to the Pacific Coast of California stretching up to Alaska, and can also be found in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Japan and East and Southeast Asian regions along with other cold-water regions.
There are approximately 56 different species of abalone, with 18 additional sub-species or deriviatives belonging to the abalone Haliotidae family, and only one genus, haliotis. They include the white, red, black, green and pink varities among many others.
The most common form of abalone jewelry found today is either jewelry made using the shell, or mabé abalone jewelry. Cultured mabé abalone jewelry is a fairly recent development starting around the 1980's, and is centered in New Zealand, as the native abalone species, known as pâua is widely considered to be the colorful and desirable of all the abalone types.
Abalone farming has been around for a very long time, but the animals were traditionally harvested for their meat, with any pearls or commercial jewelry use considered a bonus; this was mainly due to the fact that abalone are hemophiliacs and the traditional process of pearl culturing would cause the abalone to bleed to death. The abalone pearl farmers have perfected the mabé culturing process so that beautiful abalone pearl jewelry is now available and affordable to everyone in a stunning array of colors that ranges from pure cobalt blue to intense emerald greens, rosy pinks and violets.
A small dome-shaped disc made of resin is glued to the inside of the abalone's shell and left for a period of approximately 3 years while the animal covers the insert with iridescent nacre. At the end of the culturing process, the meat is harvested and the mabe pearls are cut out of the shell, with the remaining shell pieces sold for buttons, mother of pearl inlay or other commercial uses; everything is used and nothing is ever wasted.
Wild, whole abalone pearls are an entirely different story however! Wild abalone pearls are so rare, that many studies have found that a fine quality, decent sized pearl over 15mm can be found in nature only in about one out of every five hundred thousand to nine hundred thousand abalone!
The reason that these pearls are so rare is that they require about 8 to 10 years to form (note that it takes only 24 to 36 months for the pearls to develop in pearl farms, as ideal circumstances are provided), and most abalone are fished by the time they're only four or five years old and haven't had sufficient time to create a true pearl. Furthermore, not every kind of Abalone is able to produce pearls, and even in those that do require a very specific combination of elements in order for the natural pearlto form. This includes everything down to the water temperature, the stress levels of the abalone and what the abalone has to eat throughout the 8 to 10 years of the pearl’s formation time.
Abalone pearls found in nature vary greatly in color and shape, and may either be solid or hollow. The shapes may be round, oval, flat baroques, or even giant horn-like shapes. The colors of the natural abalone pearls may be anything between royal blues and greens and magentas or silver pinks, golds, bronzes, silvers, crèmes, purples, and mystifyingly beautiful combinations. It is possible for a single abalone to produce several pearls of different shapes and colors.
Natural abalone pearls grow within thick nacreous layers which are joined together with organic conchiolin. They are formed in a way that is quite similar to the way other saltwater pearls are formed, except that the nacreous layers in abalone are thicker and more intensely colored.
Abalone pearls may be used within all different kinds of accessories and pearl jewelry, and may even be matched for sets as long as they are painstakingly collected by the right jeweler.
Though expensive for pearl farming, abalone does have its commercial advantages, as it is the only mollusk which can be used in its entirety. Its shell is used for inlay, buttons, and carvings, its meat is used for food, its guts are used for fishing bait, and of course, its pearls are wondrously valuable gems.
The price of abalone pearls can range anywhere from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, in the case of the rarest, highest quality pearls.