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"The Perfect Pearl"

PBS Airdate: December 29, 1998
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NARRATOR: Tonight, on NOVA, lives were imperiled, fortunes spent, to possess a precious gem plucked from the sea. For centuries, its mystique centered on the mystery of its origins: an accident of nature, or a product of human engineering?

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: For this particular lot of shells, everything went right.

NARRATOR: Has science unlocked the secret of the perfect pearl?

__: Major funding for NOVA is provided by the PARK Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television. And by Iomega, makers of personal storage solutions for your computer, so you can create more, save more, share more, and do more of whatever it is you do. Iomega, because it's your stuff. This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life. And by, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Of all of the world's gems, it is the pearl which has held the greatest fascination for humans. So powerful is the pearl's allure, that for thousands of years, people have risked their lives to rest this perfect jewel from the ocean's depths. Today's cultured pearls are produced in their millions in a remarkable collusion between nature and science.

NARRATOR: But as science continues to perfect the techniques for pearl culturing, nature is not always a willing partner.

NARRATOR: Pearl oysters are sensitive creatures, susceptible to even subtle changes in the environment. They are a member of the mollusk family, one of the most successful species on earth. Mollusks have been around for at 530 million years, and have evolved into over 130,000 living species.

NARRATOR: All types of mollusks can produce something resembling a pearl, but relatively few species create the lustrous objects we prize as gems.

NARRATOR: The quest to uncover the secrets of the pearl oyster has been a lifelong passion for zoologist John Lucas, an international mollusk expert.

JOHN LUCAS: This is the body of the pearl oyster. There's the inside of the shell, the lustrous nacre or the shiny bit that make the pearl oyster. And one of the most dominant things is this large muscle here, which pulls the two shells together, so that when you try to pull it apart, this muscle resists. And these do have predators, fish and crabs and things that try to break them apart, and the animal depends on that adductor muscle to hold the shells together and resist the predator.

Oysters are found all over the world. Many of them are found in estuaries and, typically, the ocean, but pearl oysters are more tropical animals. What oysters like is a place where there is lots of algae in the water, because they are filter feeders; they just sit there filtering water all of the time and getting algae cells from the water. So they're really looking for a spot where the water has lots of food for them, so there are good currents, and things like that.

NARRATOR: Currents also carry foreign material which can enter the shell. Normally, the oyster can expel any irritant that finds its way inside. But sometimes a piece of shell or coral catches in its delicate flesh. If it can't get rid of this foreign matter, the oyster isolates it inside a membrane or pearl sack that secretes nacre, the same smooth substance called mother of pearl that lines its shell. The irritant is slowly plated with translucent layers of calcium carbonate crystals, which make the irritant smooth and tolerable to the oyster.

KRISTIN JOYCE: Pearls cast a glow. There is a property that's called orient, a manner in which the pearl actually casts light. And this is the essence of pearls.

KRISTIN JOYCE: You're speaking about a gemstone that's pure and perfect, as it's plucked from a mollusk, from an oyster. One can only imagine how amazing it must have been for the first man, for the first woman, to discover this, have no idea whether they should worship it, eat it, wear it. But shamans, and the mystics, and the alchemists, and early man, who is worshipping the sun and the moon, would have been drawn to something like pearls, like no other stone.

NARRATOR: Throughout history, the pearl has been passionately sought after by kings and queens, emperors, and maharajahs. As valued in the West as in the East, pearls proclaim their owner's wealth and power, and were often the currency of romance.

__: I should love to have a man dive twenty fathoms to bring me up a pearl.

__: And if I were that man, what then?

__: Then, I might be very kind to you.

NARRATOR: Even after the introduction of underwater breathing systems, diving for pearls remained dangerous and unpredictable. Shark attacks and accidents took their toll, along with the diver's disease known as the bends, where nitrogen bubbles form in the blood stream.

NARRATOR: Sometimes divers were forced to dive too deep, or stay below too long. The human passion for pearls took a heavy toll.

NARRATOR: Natural pearls are always rare, exquisite accidents of nature. And when discovered, they're almost never perfectly round. They come in an infinite variety of shapes. Formations, bumps, and half-domes, that grow against the shell's interior surface are called mabes.

NARRATOR: Some pearls grow into irregular and, sometimes, fantastic forms called baroques. A baroque is created when an oyster is unable to turn the foreign object inside its shell, causing the layering of nacre to build up unevenly.

NARRATOR: The mystique of the pearl centered on the mystery of its origins.

FRED WARD: There are several instances in history where people actually wondered how these pearls came into existence naturally, and if they could do anything to induce an oyster to make a pearl on command.

NARRATOR: The first known example of pearl culturing came in the 12th century, when the Chinese produced little pearl Buddhas by sliding figurines into freshwater mussels between the body and the shell. The practice of inducing mollusks to make pearls goes back more than 1,500 years.

NARRATOR: As early as the 5th century, the Chinese produced pearls by inserting small objects, including images of Buddha, between the shell of a freshwater mussel and its nacre-producing mantle.

FRED WARD: And that technology never got out of China. It now seems relatively simple. This is not rocket science. It's a relatively simple process, in fact. But it baffled people for at least hundreds of years, and maybe thousands.

NARRATOR: It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that a technique for culturing pearls was invented in Japan. At last, the natural process could be duplicated.

NARRATOR: The essential discovery was made by the son of a noodle shop owner, Kokichi Mikimoto. After twenty years of exhaustive research and many disappointments, he founded Japan's cultured pearl industry.

FRED WARD: Mikimoto's dream was not just to make a pearl; his dream was to make a round pearl. He knew the world wanted and would buy a round pearls, if you could make rounds on demand. So it took a long time. He tried every conceivable product that he could grind and make into a sphere to push into an oyster to see if he could induce it to coat it and make a pearl -- soap, wood, metal, glass -- until he finally found a product that did. It was a sphere made out of a freshwater mussel shell, which happened to come from the United States.

NARRATOR: Mikimoto had discovered a natural irritant which the oyster wouldn't reject. But these implanted beads were still not being consistently coated with nacre. Another ingredient was needed. Fortunately, two other Japanese experimenters found the answer, which Mikimoto would later license.

FRED WARD: And the secret turned out to be that the thing that would induce an oyster to coat the foreign object is a small piece of mantle tissue from another oyster. Once you sacrifice one oyster, you cut the lip -- the mantle tissue -- into small pieces, make a slit in the oysters, put in the foreign object, and put in a little piece of tissue -- bingo, the secret is now revealed. That's what makes a cultured pearl.

NARRATOR: In this procedure called nucleation, mantle tissue from another oyster induces the formation of a pearl sack around the irritant bead. That pearl sack then secretes nacre, and, over a period of time, produces a cultured pearl.

NEWSREEL: Under these waters, there is a king's ransom in cultured pearls forming around the previously planted beads, and Mikimoto's famous girl divers go down for the harvest.

NARRATOR: Mikimoto also invented a system for farming oysters. His divers gathered wild akoya oysters, which thrived in the sheltered coastal waters of Japan. Once they'd been nucleated, the oysters were caged and suspended from rafts and left to grow for four years, to produce a thick coating of nacre.

NEWSREEL: Now begins the search for the pearls themselves, and the haul is a rich one. From an irritant planted in the oyster, a pearl is born. And on Mikimoto's farm, a bumper crop is harvested. Sparkling gems for export, prosperity for Japan.

NARRATOR: Mikimoto wasn't just a remarkable innovator. He was also a brilliant business man and promoter. He worked tirelessly to have his cultured pearls accepted as true gems.

FRED WARD: He actually made the world accept the product as pearls, without a disclaimer about them, that they were almost pearls, or man-made pearls, or anything of that sort. The word "cultured pearl" became accepted, legal, and satisfactory all around the world.

NEWSREEL: Glamorous Gloria Swanson, well guarded, arrives at the Waldorf, wearing the world's most expensive gown. The dress is covered with 100,000 cultured pearls. It is worth $100,000 dollars, and weighs thirty pounds, as Miss Swanson can tell you.

KRISTIN JOYCE: What was remarkable about Mikimoto was that he was truly a marketing genius. He had the ability to take his discovery, so to speak, beyond the borders of Asia, into Europe, and the United States. And I think because he brought pearls to the masses, in so many different forms, and was able to offer them at various prices, that he changed the face of pearls, in terms of jewelry.

NARRATOR: Mikimoto invented the process for culturing pearls in Japan's Ago Bay. Today, dozens of large pearl companies cultivate oysters in the bay.

NARRATOR: Small oysters, like the akoya, usually cannot tolerate nucleation more than once. Most will be killed during harvesting when the pearls are separated from the flesh.

NARRATOR: The Japanese Akoya, Pinctada imbricata,

produces pearls between two and ten millimeters in size, the industry standard for many decades.

FRED WARD: The other side of that story is that, first of all, the Mikimoto company perceived this as their secret. As the decades went on, other people, other Japanese companies were, because people do talk, discovering the secret. But, the Japanese tried to make it the Japanese secret, that no one else should know how to culture. No one should know where to place the bead. No one should know about the mantle tissue addition. They wanted it to be a national treasure. And they successfully did that by making their workers swear that they would not reveal it to other people. It was a long held secret.

FRED WARD: So when they would go out into other countries, like Burma, or, ultimately, into Australia, it was always with Japanese technicians. It was always with an entire contingent of folks to come and do the process to nucleate the oysters, and to harvest the oysters, and to take the product back to Japan to sell. So it was a virtual global monopoly.

NARRATOR: Japan's pearling industry expanded beyond its boarders to other Pacific shores in search of larger South Sea oysters. In the late 1950s, the Japanese arrived in Australia, helping to establish the countries first cultured pearl farm in the Kimberly region.

NARRATOR: Australia is home to the Pinctada Maxima, the world's largest oyster, producer of the biggest and most expensive pearls. It can live up to twenty years, growing to the size of a dinner plate.

Long before the arrival of pearl culturing methods, these mighty mollusks were harvested for their precious mother of pearl.

Throughout the century, they formed the basis for Australia's pearl shell industry.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: In the 1800s, late 1800s, when the Australian pearl beds were first discovered, it was only a matter of two or three years after the discovery before these beds were supplying the world, the whole world, with 75 percent of the world's shell requirements, you know, for buttons, inlay, knife handles, gun handles, all these sort of things.

NARRATOR: The environment in this remote region proved ideal for sustaining a large, healthy population of pearl oysters.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: This Eighty Mile Beach area, this has the world's most unique, fantastic shell beds. There's no other shell bed like this in the world. It's unique because it has this fabulously clean Indian Ocean.

NARRATOR: These shell beds are swept by an exceptionally high tidal flow, providing the oysters an abundant supply of food.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: So the only place that oysters will really proliferate is where you've got an abundance of plankton, so you need a rich ocean, you need a tide carrying the plankton to the oyster, because the oyster can't move, it's a filter animal, so it doesn't do very well if it's competing for plankton. Eighty Mile Beach has got all of that, but, at the same time, it has sand and silt coverage, which prevents other creatures from growing. And you have a unique situation where the tides run in-shore and out-shore, northwest, southeast. And so what you have is spawnings are carried from each reef, across the reefs, back in shore, and then out across these things and so you get a continual regeneration of the shell stocks.

NARRATOR: Nick Paspaley now runs a modern pearl culturing operation along these shores. His father began the business in the 1930s, harvesting oysters long before the arrival of Japanese culturing methods. In those days, gem quality pearls were rare, and the business of the day was in the profit the shells could bring.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: All my father ever did really, was live pearling, and so it was sort of a big part of my life. All my childhood experiences were out in luggers, and with my father at the shell sheds, and down in the engine rooms, and things. I remember, as a little guy, the hours that my father and some of the other pearlers would stand around the veranda, with a couple of pearls in their hand, and I don't know what they spoke about, but they'd be there for hours discussing this particular pearl. And they just had a passion for pearls, and the industry, that's all they knew. And, to them, there was nothing else outside of that world.

But perfectly round pearls were very, very rare. In my father's whole lifetime as a pearler, he wouldn't have been able to put one string of perfect pearls together.

NARRATOR: Nick's father became one of the first Australians to move into pearl culturing, and, in 1958, he established a farm with Japanese and American partners.

NARRATOR: Oysters were gathered in the wild. But instead of killing the oysters for their shells, the live animals were transported to sheltered bays and used as raw stock to cultivate pearls. Japanese technicians were employed to make use of their proven, but still secret culturing techniques. The Japanese also brought their oyster farming methods.

NARRATOR: They crowded together the large Australian shells, 5,000 or more, suspended from a single pontoon. But disaster struck. 60 percent of the oysters died, and those that survived produced only a few gems quality pearls. Clearly, Paspaley would have to find new methods.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: The first thing he did with me when I came back from university was send me out to the pearl farm to solve some of the problems. And one of the biggest problems was that the systems they were using were the Japanese systems. They were fine for the Japanese shell, but they were unsuitable for the Australian shell. When I was diving, picking up pearl shells, I could see the difference immediately between the health of those shells and their appearance and the shells in the pearl farm situation. So, my ambition was to keep all pearl shells in the same condition that they were in when I found them.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: Well, the Japanese shell is much hardier than the Australian shell. It will live under much higher concentrations. It requires less plankton, its stress levels are much higher. The Australian shell will not respond in the same manner as the Japanese shell to the same treatment. And to clean the shells, what you had to do, you had a team of workers that physically went to the raft, pulled up the baskets, tipped them out of the baskets, and they got to work with tomahawks and chopped all the barnacles off.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: Soon, it became obvious to me that, by three months, the shell was close to death and the shell never had a chance to produce a pearl.

NARRATOR: Unable to roll in the surf, captive oysters quickly become smothered by barnacles. To avoid this, oysters were winched onboard and put through cleaning machines every few weeks. The oysters' health did improve. But other problems remained. The harbor water was becoming less pristine and overcrowding was a growing concern.

Ten years of experimentation led to a simple, but expensive, solution:

To take the entire pearl culturing operation out to sea.

NARRATOR: Now, every year from June till September, Australian crews and Japanese technicians live and work in an environment more beneficial to the health of the oysters. This floating enterprise is a high-tech solution to the threat of oyster mortality. But it is a solution few can afford.

NARRATOR: In Japan, pearl farmers are also struggling with the problem of overcrowding. And pollution is a major concern.

NARRATOR: After 100 years of continuous pearl culturing in Ago Bay, the Akoya oyster is under assault.

NARRATOR: Katsumasa Tanaka and his wife, Kikumi, are second generation pearl farmers at Shimatown on Ago Bay. One of hundreds of independent producers in Japan, the Tanikas practice a technique handed down from Katsumasa's father, who started the family business more than 30 years ago.

KATSUMASA TANAKA: We are an average-sized farm for this area. We usually cultivate between 30,000 and 50,000 shells. But the mortality rate for our larger sized shells is very high. We are happy if even half of them survive. The reason for this are the condition of the sea and the natural factors like the weather.

NARRATOR: Ago Bay is no longer a quiet backwater. Today, it's a busy port surrounded by residential and tourist development. Industrial and domestic wastes are steadily polluting the once healthy waters in which the farmed oysters live and breathe.

FRED WARD: Oysters require clean water to produce good pearls. They're like the parakeet in the mine: They're a good barometer for what's going on. So, you need, as the farmer, to put that oyster basket into good water. And that's virtually unobtainable in an industrialized country like Japan.

NARRATOR: One threat is when toxin-producing plankton reproduce in great numbers, causing what is called "red tide." Long term problems with pollution have made Japanese scientists leading authorities on algal blooms. The senior manager at Mikimoto's Pearl Research Laboratory is Dr. Shigeru Akamatsu.

SHIGERU AKAMATSU: Red tides are usually caused by agricultural pesticides, detergents, or conditions which increase nutrients in the water. But with this type of red tide in Ago Bay, we unfortunately still don't know the cause.

NARRATOR: Every day, the laboratory collects samples to monitor the water quality in Ago Bay. When dangerously high levels of plankton are detected, Mikimoto scientists alert government authorities, who advise local farmers to reposition their oysters.

SHIGERU AKAMATSU: We experimented by forcing plankton into the oyster. Much to our surprise, when the plankton entered, the oyster tried very hard to expel the plankton. Within three to five minutes, the movement of its heart became very abnormal, and the oyster died at once. So, now we know this plankton is very dangerous.

NARRATOR: But red tide isn't the only problem. Ago Bay is now pushed to the limits, accommodating scores of small pearling companies.

KATSUMASA TANAKA: All the places you see here are pearl farms. Just in our area alone, there are over 130 companies. So, overcrowding, too, has become a huge problem.

NARRATOR: Packed tightly across the bay, the mesh of oyster nets restricts tidal movements, reducing the food supply. If the oysters don't grow, neither do the pearls. Rising mortality rates is one reason Japanese pearl farmers have taken to harvesting early.

NARRATOR: On some farms, the traditional three-year growth cycle has been reduced to as little as six months. Often, buyers are unwilling to risk the wait for higher-quality pearls. This harvest will supply the ready market for less expensive pearl jewelry.

KATSUMASA TANAKA: Several decades ago, in my father's time, almost all the pearls were a two-year crop, sometimes even three years. If we left these a year longer, they'd be of better quality. But to leave the oyster one more year is a costly gamble, because they'll probably die. And that's our dilemma.

NARRATOR: In the still-clean waters of Western Australia, pearl producers have been able to avoid many of the problems faced by Japanese farmers. But clean water alone is not enough. During the nucleation process, the large Australian oyster becomes stressed. An elaborate storage and conveyance system is designed to reduce the time it spends out of water.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: The Australian shell is a very difficult animal to deal with. It's a very delicate creature. It'll stress from being out of the water too long, it'll stress from being overcrowded with other oysters.

NARRATOR: No longer a secret, Mikimoto's technique is still performed here by Japanese technicians. A cut is made in the oyster, and a shell bead inserted into the flesh. Positioning the bead is critical. For a perfect round, the technicians aim for the reproductive organs.

It's traumatic for the oyster and demanding for the technicians, who perform up to 500 operations a day. One slip of the scalpel and the oyster could bleed to death.

NARRATOR: Nick Paspaley and his technicians have developed their own trade secrets. They've introduced antiseptics and hygienic conditions to minimize the oyster's exposure to infection.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: The results were spectacularly different. Mortality rates dropped to less than one percent, and the pearl shell is much happier.

NARRATOR: Unlike fish, oysters can survive out of water for hours.

But to minimize stress, they're stored in tanks immediately after nucleation, and then transported to huge underwater farms. Here, they're kept for three months to recover from the operation.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: What we try to do is help the shell to be perfect. The healthier a shell is, the more chance that it has of producing something without flaws or without problems in its growth cycle.

NARRATOR: Every two weeks, the oysters are cleaned to remove marine growths, which carry parasites and diseases that can affect the oyster's health, or even kill them. The cages are turned regularly, so that the embryonic pearls develop evenly. This way, they're more likely to produce the perfect spheres that are so highly prized in the marketplace.

NARRATOR: Once they've recovered, the oysters are transferred to one of the farms dotted in more sheltered waters. The farm at Talbot Bay is nestled among the ancient cliffs of the Kimberley Coast. It's home to more than 100,000 nucleated oysters. As the oysters mature, they're periodically x-rayed to gauge their progress. But with all the care in the world, nature still has the power to intervene. High winds and waves can kill unprotected oysters and tear apart entire farms.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: Several years ago, a big cyclone went through, and we had a whole fleet hiding from 250 kilometer winds. Every minute that you're out there in the middle of nature, it's sort of overpowering. You can't be there without feeling its presence.

NARRATOR: After two years of careful nurturing, the oysters are removed from the water, so that the pearls can be harvested. This is the moment of truth.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: At the end of the day, the shell is the one that does what it does and we really don't know what it's going to do, until two years later. Hence, it's quite exciting when you harvest. If you look at shells in the water and try to pick out which one of those shells has got the fine pearl, I think you've got more chance in a casino picking the roulette number.

NARRATOR: Now, in a second operation, the pearl is removed. After a two-year growth cycle, the hope for a result is a large pearl of excellent quality, with a thick coating of nacre. If an oyster yields a good-quality pearl, the technician immediately implants a fresh nucleus to start the process all over again. With a productive life of around eight years, an oyster can produce up to four pearls.

NARRATOR: As the oyster continues to grow, it can tolerate increasingly larger nuclei, so it will produce its biggest pearl towards the end of its life. Giant South Sea pearls such as this comprise only five percent of the world's pearl market. They are extravagantly expensive, and out of reach for most consumers. The smaller Japanese pearl is still the most popular and affordable. The Mikimoto Company specializes in the high-end of this vast consumer market.

SHIGERU AKAMATSU: This is a quality triangle. If we take this as an example, generally, the top quality items from the harvest comprise five percent of the total. Mikimoto concentrates on this top five percent to make its products.

NARRATOR: For years, the Mikimoto Company produced all the pearls it sold. Today, half of what it sells comes from other pearl suppliers. China and other Asian countries are rapidly developing their own pearl culturing industries, competing for the mass market with Japan's Akoya pearls. Japan's dominance has diminished as a producer, but Japanese companies still control much of the world's pearl market. The rest of it is shared by others. Nick Paspaley will soon be selling his most recent harvest.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: This is a fabulous crop. This is one of the nicer crops. And for this particular lot of shells, everything went right from day one, and nature was kind. And there's some fabulous pieces. But the ultimate objective is beauty. And beauty can only come from the maker itself.

NARRATOR: In the world of pearls, these command the highest price. And it is New York where many of them will end up. Americans spend more each year on pearl jewelry than any other consumers in the world. Much of what they buy passes through New York.

SAKVADOR ASSAEL: We are, I think, today, in the United States, great fashion leaders, because on Fifth Avenue, New York, you have Harry Winston, and then we have people like Van Cleef and Arpel, Tiffany, Cartier, Aspray. I mean, this type of jeweler, they are all-- Not only are they jewelers, but they create fashion. In other words, they have created the image for the pearl.

NARRATOR: One of this country's best known pearl dealers is Salvador Assael. He specializes in South Sea pearls from Tahiti and Australia, that command dazzling prices in New York's auction rooms and jewelry salons.

SALVADOR ASSAEL: Well, I love pearls beyond anything. I love my family most of all, I love my office staff most of all, but, after that, I love pearls most of all. There's a warmth to it that no other gem stone will do to me. A diamond I have no feeling for. To give you an idea here, here you have it right here, these are all Australian pearls. They are natural in the sense that-- They are not natural pearls, they're cultivated, of course, in the sense that the Australian pearl, just like the black pearl, too, but it's the only pearl, I would say, that comes out of the water and it is sold in its natural way. In other words, it is not bleached, it is not colored, it's just drilled, if you want to make a necklace or halved if you want to put it in an earring. This necklace, as you see it here, a woman will wear it for 20 years, 30 years, she can die and give it to her daughter, the daughter can wear it again for 20 or 30 or 40 years, and give it again. This necklace, this strand of pearls, can last hundreds of years.

KRISTIN JOYCE: What's interesting about pearls as fashion in the 20th century is probably the range of ages and the types of women who wear them, particularly in the '20s, with Josephine Baker, for example, who was an erotic Parisian dancer.

NARRATOR: Her flamboyant costumes included yards of the gem that had once been the trademark of nobility.

KRISTIN JOYCE: Josephine Baker wore nothing but pearls, encrusted bustiers and hula skirts with laces of pearls dangling down.

NEWSREEL: At the Folies-Bergère, the rage is Josephine Baker, daughter of a St. Louis washerwoman. Her loose-limbed abandon epitomizes Paris at night.

KRISTIN JOYCE: Twenty years later, we suddenly have the girl from the good family, we have the patrician upper-crust, particularly represented in the American cinema with women such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, who were wearing gloves and hats and the perfect pearl choker.

STACEY OKUN: I think pearls have always been an extremely popular American phenomenon. There was a look in the 1950s that every woman in America emulated, every mother gave her daughter pearls on their graduation day, and these have been passed down, and we're into two more generations since then. I'm wearing my grandmother's pearls right now in my ears and on my blazer. It symbolized a wealth and a glamour that was very important in America. There are a handful of contemporary jewelry designers who are turning tradition on its ear with pearls, creating very modern, delicate looks with Biwa and South Sea pearls that you haven't seen before.

NARRATOR: These cross-shaped pearls are from Lake Biwa in Japan. Formed in fresh water mussels, the Biwa pearls are induced by inserting mantle tissue alone without a bead. As a result, it's the shape of the tissue that determines the shape of the pearl. But as environmental pollution contaminates the lake where they grow, these gems are now virtually unobtainable.

NARRATOR: Today, it is the black pearl that is capturing the attention of jewelry designers. Black pearls were once considered an exotic oddity, rare and almost mythical. Now, they are becoming increasingly popular.

NARRATOR: Salvador Assael claims credit for helping introduce the black pearl to New York's fashion jewelers. In the past few years, more islands in the South Pacific have been producing this once-rare commodity. Most black pearls are produced commercially in the remote coral atolls of Tahiti, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

NARRATOR: The warm ocean currents and concentration of plankton in these waters create a favorable environment for the black-lipped pearl oysters, pinctada margaratifara.. This oyster is second only to the giant pinctada maxima in size, growing up to 12 inches in width and weighing as much as 11 pounds. It can produce pearls ranging from 10 to 17 millimeters. The pearl's distinctive range of colors is determined by the dark shades of the oyster shell and may also be affected by mineral salts in the water.

SALVADOR ASSAEL: We feel there must be at least 40 different colors of black, ranging from peacock, which is the top color, down to the fine black, down to a gun metal gray, to almost very, very light gray.

NARRATOR: Like the Australians, Tahitian pearl producers have adapted the traditional Japanese methods of cultivation to suit local conditions. But typhoons and sudden temperature fluctuations make these oysters vulnerable. Until recently, mortality was high, with a third of oysters dying after nucleation.

NARRATOR: To ensure the future of pearl culturing, the industry must understand every aspect of the oyster's development, even manipulating its genes in the quest for ultimate control. Dr. John Lucas is experimenting with a method of artificially breeding oysters in hatcheries, so that the small island states of the South Pacific can develop their own pearling industries without plundering their reefs for wild oysters. The moment of spawning begins with a milky eruption.

JOHN LUCAS: Look it, clouds of sperm, millions of sperm in that lock there. And the typical sperm with little heads and long tails and they swim through the water. We're going to collect them. And we keep the males like this separate from the females, and the females release millions of eggs, and then we will fertilize the eggs with some of these sperm. The real advantage of hatcheries, however, is that you can select the oysters that have particular characteristics, and so you can start to have generations of oysters, perhaps you breed for oysters that have a bigger gap between the shell, so that you can put bigger beads in to make bigger pearls for the same size.

JOHN LUCAS: You can also select for oysters that have, say, a more silver luster, if that's what you want, or if they're black pearls, that have a more blacky green, the really desirable color. So, over a series of generations, you can achieve this. One of the really long-term futures could be to take the pearl oyster tissue and culture it in a test tube and then have that secrete nacre around beads, so that you have cultured pearls produced in a test tube.

NARRATOR: The Japanese were the first to experiment with artificial breeding techniques more than 50 years ago. Then, as now, there are not enough wild Akoya oysters to meet the demands of the industry. Today, they hatch oysters in large glass tanks inside laboratories. After two months' growth, the spats, or baby oysters, are suspended under water in breeding cages.

FRED WARD: Those oysters never bounce around on rocks and they never are rough and tumble in the surf and in the sand. And they just don't seem to ever grow as large or as healthy as natural oysters. The oysters that I saw in Ago Bay a few years ago were so weak and small that you could actually press on the side and they were flexible.

NARRATOR: Overbreeding from the same genetic strains may soften the oysters' shell. Because the shell is its only defense against the outside world, any weakness in this natural armor can put the health of the oyster at risk.

SHIGERU AKAMATSU: When the shell is so thin, it's easy for parasites to eat through it and enter the oyster's body. So, the oyster weakens and dies more easily. Scientists are now making a lot of effort to catch oysters in the wild. When we find them, we freeze their sperm. This way we hope to ensure the Akoya species survives. And the same technology can help to produce a stronger, healthier oyster for our industry. This is what we are striving for.

NARRATOR: But, even healthy oysters do not always produce perfect pearls.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: Five or ten percent is all you get in gem quality, five or ten percent of your crop may be gem quality if it's a good crop. And, of course, you also have fine quality, then you have good quality, and then you have the low quality. Actually, you need all of that to satisfy your markets. If it was all gem quality, you know, perhaps the scarcity factor might disappear.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: But, we don't have control over what the shell does with the pearl itself. It decides what color it's going to produce. It decides whether it's going to produce fine nacre or coarse nacre, if the rainbow colors are in the pearl or not. So, we have control over what we do. But, nature and the shells, they control the rest. And we just hope-- we hope it all works for us.

NARRATOR: At the end of the annual harvest, every gem is graded by shape, color, lustre and size. The painstaking process of matching the pearls then begins.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: To get the size, the shape and the exact color match, it's almost impossible. This strand-- This is the third year I've had this strand. And I'm confident we'll complete it from this year's crop. But, what we do is we have a first selection in the first year, and try to make it as perfect as we can in that year. But, then if it's not completed because we just don't have the pieces that match, then we'll keep it over for the next year. And from that crop we'll go right through all the crop. This will sell probably for about $350,000 U.S. dollars when it's completed.

NARRATOR: With only 150 gem quality South Sea necklaces produced in a year, these cultured pearls have started to command prices at auction once reserved for rare natural pearls.

NARRATOR: In 1992, an Australian South Sea necklace was sold at Sotheby's in New York for $2.3 million dollars, a world auction record.

Pearls have once more become icons of wealth and power.

SOTHEBY'S: This is the premier South Sea's necklace which we're offering in this magnificent jewelry sale. The pearls range from close to 15 millimeters to over 17 millimeters. As you can see it's a perfect match. Wonderful color and lustre.

One of the pearls is also incredibly rare, and they become rarer in these large fine qualities because of environmental problems. So, the unpredictability of nature effects the value of these pearls as well.

AUCTIONEER: Any advance over $800,000? L268.

NARRATOR: Australia's cultured pearl industry continues to benefit from the luxury of largely unpolluted waters. Off the country's remote northern coast, pearl farmers can still collect wild shells, but only with a permit. Strictly enforced quotas limit the number of shells each farmer can collect, helping to ensure the future of Australia's wild oyster population.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: You're talking to a man who has done well out of this beautiful natural resource. Over the years I've been involved with hatcheries, with people's ideas of cultivating pearls in great big factories in Japan with controlled environments and all that sort of-- all those ideas.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: It's the arrogance of man that makes him think well, I can create this in a factory. Well, I doubt it, you know. The only reason we have success with these is because we've got nature creating this for us. We couldn't do this if we tried. In fact, the only problems that we ever have in our industry are the problems that we've created.

FRED WARD: It makes you realize how vulnerable it all is once you start looking at the problem areas. So, you see there are more and more people on earth. They're polluting the earth more and more. Humans do have a certain amount of waste associated with their lives. And this is bad for pearling.

A good oil tanker wreck off the coast of any pearling country would probably wipe out production for some years.

__: Are you still set on my bringing you a pearl from the depths of the Indian Ocean?

__: Yes, a big pearl, a really big pearl.

NARRATOR: Pearls were once considered miraculous, a gift from the Gods. Science may have unraveled the oyster's secrets, but the pearl remains an evocative symbol of nature's genius, and a haunting reminder that humans too often destroy what they treasure most.

NICHOLAS PASPALEY: There's something unique about pearls that you don't see in anything else. And they have that mysterious characteristic which is very hard to describe. It's like the moon, you know. It's almost like these don't come from our life.

[music]

[Is a mysterious virus threatening Japan's once thriving pearl industry? Find out the latest thinking on NOVA's web site at www.pbs.org]

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