'The girl with the pearl earring' Johannes Vermeer
Defence mechanisms in nature can often be beautiful - chameleons changing colours to hide themselves from invaders to the beautiful patterns on the skins of insects that warn others not to eat them. But perhaps one of the most attractive outcomes of defensiveness is the pearl - the child of sand and molluscs. Pearls form when an oyster is under threat... if it feels like some unwelcome visitor is entering its home, it converts tiny grains of sand into a smooth, white sac to ward off intruders or infection. They are, therefore, not a particularly positive totem - they are created out of adversity and attack.
Throughout history we can consider pearls as being problematic. Associated in folklore with the moon, they too have a dark side. From the 1800s onwards, pearls were harvested globally by pearl divers, who often had little equipment and would dive deep into the ocean to harvest what they could find and back to the surface again in one single breath. Diving for pearls was perilous work, if an accident during a dive didn't kill them, the eventual pressure on their body would. Internationally, pearl divers were often slaves or vulnerable communities taken advantage of by colonisers and were paid poorly, if at all, despite the risk involved with the job. The high consumption of pearls also lead to the near collapse of the pearl oyster. Thankfully, pearl diving ceased in the 1970s and what followed were industrialised pearl farms, started initially in Japan, which did away with slave labour and helped repopulate the earth's seas with oysters.
Though pearls grown naturally and harvested before the 70's are still highly valued, almost all newer pearls are farmed. Like any mass manufacturing process, growing pearls on a huge scale can and does still upset the fine balances of nature. There is, however, a movement (though still not large enough in my opinion) for more sustainable pearl growing that could benefit the environment. Oysters, like mussels and clams, filter water - they are kind of like the vacuum cleaners of the sea. In fact, the average oyster can filter between 100 and 200 litres of water a day. Paired with the environmental crisis which is seeing record levels of pollutants entering the ocean and waterways, oyster farming could be a hero of the sea.
Growing oysters for pearls could not only help to protect the seas but is also an incredibly efficient way of farming as it requires minimal labour for maximum profit, as oysters can produce hundreds of pearls each and reproduce quickly. Therefore, pearl farming also has the propensity to create economy to support the poorer southern hemisphere, where the predominant amount of pearl oysters are grown.
So many of the shiny things that humans are attracted to are simply not good for the environment - and precious stones, with their narrative of enslavement and mistreatment are no exception. However, when it comes to pearls, it seems to me as if there is so much scope to not only farm better but to positively impact the environment by giving our water a second life - the trick is to encourage the market to buy sustainably.