South Sea Pearls is a must-see documentary currently running on The Smithsonian Channel. It offers a rare behind-the-scenes and in-depth look at the cultivation of pearls from oyster to farmer to jeweler. The viewer gets to follow Paspaley Pearls as they dive for deep-water oysters, implant the nucleus, care for and harvest their crop, sort and grade their product, and last but not least, make jewelery from these breathtakingly beautiful specimens. In just 45-minutes, my understanding of and appreciation for the complex and difficult process of pearl farming grew exponentially. I highly recommend this movie for jewelry makers and jewelry lovers everywhere.
The scenery’s not too shabby either. Paspaley’s operations are based in Darwin, Australia, the capitol of the Northwest Territories. Their farms are located in remote and pristine coastal areas to the north, where the ambient water temperature stays between 82- and 88-degrees farenheit year round. Maintaining the cleanliness of the environment is critical to pearl cultivation, as is seeing to the health of the oysters. It seems that happy oysters make better pearls.
Each South Sea pearl grows hidden inside a shell for two years. There is no way of knowing the quality of the pearl until it is harvested. Its shape, color, size, and luster are always a surprise and always unique. The average size of a Paspaley pearl is between 10 and 15 mm, with the larger ones measuring 16 to 20 mm. The color of the oyster influences the color of the pearl. Senior Pearl Technicians (nice title, eh?) sort the crop, and there are more than 40,000 grading categories. It can take years of crops to make a single matching strand. Paspaley’s in-house jewelers design and produce two collections each year. Watching them decide what should be the face of a pearl and where to drill its hole is just one example of what makes this a riveting, entertaining, and informative documentary. I hope you can catch it.
Food for Thought
* Only 1 in 10,000 oysters will naturally produce a pearl.
* Paspaley farms just 1% of the world’s pearls, representing 30% of the monetary value of global output.
* All images in this blog were taken from Paspaley Pearls website, which is loaded with extraordinary amounts of historical and technical information as well as breathtaking jewelry.