Black Saltwater Pearls – The Leader in Pearl Sustainability

(This post is part of our blog series that deals with Pearls International’s take on social and environmental responsibility. For more information on how Pearls International gives back, please click here.)

Black Saltwater Pearls demand a much higher price on the market, and are harder to come by than their freshwater cousins. But, if you are into ethical, environmentally friendly jewelry, these saltwater pearls are worth the extra cost.

Black Saltwater Pearls come from two general areas, the Gulf of Mexico and Tahiti.  The Rainbow-Lipped Oyster (Pteria sterna) and the Panamic Black-Lipped Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) are referred to as “Sea of Cortez” pearls, are found in the Gulf of Mexico.  Pearls from the Black-Lipped Oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) are thrive in the waters surrounding the Tahitian Islands.

We love these black saltwater pearls for their “peacock” ability – the wide variety of colors in their orient and their high luster allows them to capture almost any colors around them.  Because of this adaptability, they can flex to match any color or colors in your outfit!  These pearls are amazingly beautiful on the surface, but the more we dug into the world of pearl sustainability and ethical pearl farming techniques, the more we found that the value of these gems goes much deeper than the surface.

Sea of Cortez Pearls
Sea of Cortez pearls.

In the world of sustainability, the progress that has been made by the producers of the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster is incredible. Found only in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico (the “Sea of Cortez”), this oyster is still extremely rare.   The beautiful pearl it creates was at one time so coveted that divers drove this species of oyster to the brink of extinction.

The popularity of pearls from the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster began as long ago as 1533, when Spanish Conqueror Hernán Cortez sent expeditioners into the area. The Spanish explorers were so taken with the pearls they saw natives wearing that for the next 300 years it became the area’s most valuable export, actually bringing in more capital than gold, silver and spices combined!  By the 1800’s, the species was near extinction.

In 1939 a ban was set in place to protect the oysters from being used for food (fishing ban), and along with the prohibition on pearl diving, the Mexican black pearl industry became virtually nonexistent.  But around 1996, the practice of culturing pearls slowly began to catch on in the area, bringing the Mexican pearl industry back to life.

In the wild, only ten spats (baby oysters) out of a million will grow to adulthood, however, around 80% of the oysters raised under the protective conditions of pearl farms survive long enough to breed successfully and multiply the population.  The Sea of Cortez pearl farms act as breeding stations, helping to re-populate the waters with the once critically endangered oysters.

The Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl farm currently tends around 230,000 pearl oysters in their facilities, but less than 4,000 of these pearls are cultured per year. The pearls take two to three years to grow, meanwhile there are a host of predators that try to prey on the oysters. Difficulties abound, but the pearl farmers at Perlas del Mar de Cortez are determined to bring back these lovely pearls.  Sea of Cortez pearls are so rare that there are still no full strands of these beauties available on the market!

Sea of Cortez pearls
Amazing color variations on these Sea of Cortez pearls.

How is it possible for the Sea of Cortez pearls to go from near extinction to actually making their way one-by-one back onto the market? – The answer is that the pearl producers have invested a lot of time, care, and ethical business practices.

Sea of Cortez pearls are actually the only pearl to fully meet each and every one of the qualifications for Fair Trade Jewelry.  Pearl jewelry that is considered Fair Trade Jewelry contains pearls that are produced with great care to the environment, are never treated to enhance color, and in the production of which all workers are paid fair wages.

One example of the steps Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl farm has taken towards sustainability is that it raises not one, but two types of native oysters.  The pearl producers culture only one of the two species, the Pteria sterna.  This means that the second species, Pinctada mazatlanica, is kept apart for the environmental benefits and to help grow the oyster population, rather than to draw in more profit.

Protective oyster cages in a pearl farm
Protective oyster cages in a pearl farm.

Another pearl farm, the Kamoka Pearl Farm in Tahiti, also stands out for its ethical farming methods. Here, the oyster’s journey toward making a pearl begins when it is just a spat. The farmers at Kamoka Pearl Farm put out their nets during the changing seasons, when oysters are breeding, to catch the baby oysters.  This gives them a secure place to grow.  Then two-and-a-half years pass under the care of the pearl farm before the oyster is large enough to produce a pearl.

Black Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian Black pearls

When the oyster is finally mature enough to undergo the surgical procedure of nucleation, precision tools and antibiotics are used in the process to insure the oyster’s health. Most saltwater pearl farms use shell bead nuclei from the Mississippi mussel, as it has a thicker shell than most other species. However, due to over-harvesting this mussel for culturing saltwater pearls, this animal is also becoming threatened. Therefore, the farmers at Kamoka use only mother-of-pearl beads from native oyster stock, usually their own Pinctada margaritifera, in order to protect the threatened Mississippi mussel.  The oysters are kept high above the sea floor, where they have more access to oxygen and food sources.

Oysters must be kept clean of barnacles and other growths in order to be healthy and produce perfect pearls. In order to remove the barnacles and growths, most pearl farms pull the oysters out of the water and spray them with a high-pressure hose. This method doesn’t harm the oysters and is cost-effective and fast, but it creates excess organic matter in the farming area that can negatively effect the water quality for fish and other animals.

Kamoka chooses to use a more environmentally-friendly method and allows the native fish populations to clean their oysters for them!  The oysters are moved  to waters where fish feed and the process works naturally, because the varied fish population feeds off of all the different organisms that grow on the oysters.  In this way, all of the oyster pests are handled while at the same time supporting and actually helping to grow the fish populations in the area.

The care that the oysters in this farm receive is second-to-none, and much of the rest of the company’s business practices are ethical and green. For example, all of their electricity is solar- or water-powered, their freshwater source comes from rainwater capture systems, and their septic systems are completely biodegradable.  The Kamoka Pearl Farm in Tahiti is truly an impressive example of how a modern pearl culturing company can give back to the environment.


A Kamoka Pearl Farmer inserting a nucleus into a Tahitian Black Lipped Oyster
A Kamoka Pearl Farmer inserting a nucleus into a Tahitian Black Lipped Oyster.

Sustainable pearl farming is a great industry.  It is gratifying to find companies that strive to do what is right for the environment, the consumer, and their employees even when it is not always the easiest course of action. Healthy oysters clean our oceans and rivers, so the more we have, the cleaner our water will be. And with a bi-product as beautiful as these black pearls, it’s a win-win!




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