Pearls – The Birthstone of June – Part 3


Diagram comparing a cross-section of a cultured pearl, upper, with a natural pearl, lower

Pearls are formed inside the shell of certain mollusks as a defense mechanism against a potentially threatening irritant such as a parasite inside the shell, or an attack from outside that injures the mantle tissue. The mollusk creates a pearl sac to seal off the irritation. Pearls are thus the result of an immune response analogous in the human body to the capture of an antigen by a phagocyte (phagocytosis).

The mollusk’s mantle (protective membrane) deposits layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite (polymorphs with the same chemical formula, but different crystal structures) held together by an organic horn-like compound called conchiolin. The combination of aragonite and conchiolin is called nacre, which makes up mother-of-pearl. The commonly held belief that a grain of sand acts as the irritant is in fact rarely the case. Typical stimuli include organic material, parasites, or even damage that displaces mantle tissue to another part of the mollusk’s body. These small particles or organisms gain entry when the shell valves are open for feeding or respiration. In cultured pearls, the irritant is typically an introduced piece of the mantle epithelium, with or without a spherical bead (beaded or beadless cultured pearls).

Natural pearls

Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.

Typically, the build-up of a natural pearl consists of a brown central zone formed by columnar calcium carbonate (usually calcite, sometimes columnar aragonite) and a yellowish to white outer zone consisting of nacre (tabular aragonite). In a pearl cross-section such as the diagram, these two different materials can be seen. The presence of columnar calcium carbonate rich in organic material indicates juvenile mantle tissue that formed during the early stage of pearl development. Displaced living cells with a well-defined task may continue to perform their function in their new location, often resulting in a cyst. Such displacement may occur via an injury. The fragile rim of the shell is exposed and is prone to damage and injury. Crabs, other predators and parasites such as worm larvae may produce traumatic attacks and cause injuries in which some external mantle tissue cells are disconnected from their layer. Embedded in the conjunctive tissue of the mantle, these cells may survive and form a small pocket in which they continue to secrete calcium carbonate, their natural product. The pocket is called a pearl sac, and grows with time by cell division. The juvenile mantle tissue cells, according to their stage of growth, secrete columnar calcium carbonate from pearl sac’s inner surface. In time, the pearl sac’s external mantle cells proceed to the formation of tabular aragonite. When the transition to nacre secretion occurs, the brown pebble becomes covered with a nacreous coating. During this process, the pearl sac seems to travel into the shell; however, the sac actually stays in its original relative position the mantle tissue while the shell itself grows. After a couple of years, a pearl forms and the shell may be found by a lucky pearl fisher.

Cultured pearls

From Toba Pearl Island, Japan

Cultured pearls are the response of the shell to a tissue implant. A tiny piece of mantle tissue (called a graft) from a donor shell is transplanted into a recipient shell, causing a pearl sac to form into which the tissue precipitates calcium carbonate. There are a number of methods for producing cultured pearls: using freshwater or seawater shells, transplanting the graft into the mantle or into the gonad, and adding a spherical bead as a nucleus. Most saltwater cultured pearls are grown with beads. Trade names of cultured pearls are Akoya, white or golden South sea, and black Tahitian. Most beadless cultured pearls are mantle-grown in freshwater shells in China, and are known as freshwater cultured pearls.

Cultured pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls by X-ray examination. Nucleated cultured pearls are often ‘preformed’ as they tend to follow the shape of the implanted shell bead nucleus. After a bead is inserted into the oyster, it secretes a few layers of nacre around the bead; the resulting cultured pearl can then be harvested in as few as twelve to eighteen months.

When a cultured pearl with a bead nucleus is X-rayed, it reveals a different structure to that of a natural pearl (see diagram). A beaded cultured pearl shows a solid center with no concentric growth rings, whereas a natural pearl shows a series of concentric growth rings. A beadless cultured pearl (whether of freshwater or saltwater origin) may show growth rings, but also a complex central cavity, witness of the first precipitation of the young pearl sac.

More about Pearls in Part 4 of this series.

(Information from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)