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SuChin goes right to the source to find out how pearls are formed.
Segment Length: 7:00

Black Pearls

Show Number 1402

How does the oyster make a pearl?

What do you know about pearls?
How long do you think it takes to make one?

[Apple Image] Getting Started

What do you think the difference is between "natural" and "artificial"? Is a cultured pearl natural or artificial? Explain your reasoning. Do you have any pearls? What do they feel like? What color are they? Where do they come from? Where are pearl molluscs found? How are pearls formed in nature and how are they made by humans? Is there some way humans can "help" nature make more beautiful pearls faster? How do you think people discovered these beautiful things? Why are they so valuable?

[Apple Image] Overview

For centuries, humans have treasured pearls. The lustrous play of light across the surfaces of good pearls is so attractive that people have paid fortunes for them, even though they have no human use except adornment.

Pearls actually come in many colors, sizes, and shapes, and are ranked in value according to these qualities. Perfectly round ones with a deep glowing luster, particularly in unusual colors that also show an iridescence (or orient), have always been the most prized and expensive; dull, irregular ones the least.

Pearls come from a group of water organisms called pearl molluscs, which includes oysters, mussels, and clams from both freshwater and saltwater. The pearl itself actually begins as an irritant. Sand, a pebble, or a pesky parasitic organism gets inside the oyster's shell. To reduce the irritation, the oyster coats the intruder with layers of a solid, slick material called nacre.

The oyster's mantle tissue secretes the two main components of nacre: thin layers of the mineral aragoniteand a gluelike substance called conchiolin, which cements the layers together. Because the aragonite is translucent, light interacts with the overlapping layers to give the finished pearl its lustrous appearance. Pearl molluscs also coat the inside of their own shells with nacre, so some shells picked up at a seashore are shiny and iridescent inside.

Pearls used to be harvested by divers. However, it is a dangerous occupation and natural pearls of high quality are rare. People have now learned to farm pearl molluscs specifically to produce cultured pearls, small beads with layers of pearl material around them. Oyster larvae (called spat) are allowed to settle in sheltered locations underwater. Once they have attached themselves to ropes or rafts, the young oysters are grown for a few years. Then their shells are opened just wide enough to surgically insert a small pearl bead and a piece of mantle tissue from another mollusc into the soft tissue. This nucleation process provides the oyster with a spherical irritant to coat with nacre, increasing the likelihood of a symmetrical, round pearl. The farmer removes the cultured pearl from the oyster one to three years later. Cultured pearls, produced around the world, account for about 90 percent of all pearl sales.

[Apple Image] Connections

  1. Pearls are rated primarily for their beauty, based on the criteria of luster, color, shape, and size. What other objects around you do you rate in some way? How do you do it? What criteria do you use?
  2. Why do you think people pay so much money for something as attractive but impractical as a pearl?

[Apple Image] Resources

McClintock, J. (1994, May - June) Out of the oyster. Sea Frontiers, p. 18.

Mineral gallery (choose aragonite from the list)

Gems and gemology University of Texas at Austin (many links to other gem pages)

Pearls and other organic gems

What you should know about cultured pearls -- from a jeweler's point of view

Gemological Institute of America (GIA)
(800) 421-7250
(Ask for either the library and information center or the bookstore. The bookstore has children's activity kits and books on pearls)

Student Activity:
Black Pearls
[Oyster Shell & Pearls Image]

Mother of Pearl

Examine the coating in an oyster shell to test the properties of nacre.

[Apple Image] Main Activity

Real pearls are too expensive to experiment on, but you can investigate their properties by studying oyster shells, which are coated with a layer of the same nacre, called mother-of-pearl.


1. Observe and describe the shell as thoroughly as possible. (Put on the safety glasses and wrap the shell in cloth if you want to smash the shell with a hammer.) Put a shell chip (with nacre) under a magnifying lens or microscope and draw what you see. How many different characteristics can you notice? Do you need to make up new words to completely describe every characteristic?

2. Scratch the shell using your fingernail, a sharp knife or chisel, a stone, or the back of your pen. How hard and scratch-resistant is nacre? Which substances scratch the surface and which do not? Can you pry up the layers in thin sheets and then relayer them?

3. How does light interact with nacre? Does the luster change depending on the angle at which a flashlight beam strikes the surface or how far away you hold the flashlight? Can you see any iridescence? If you chip or dissolve off the outer layer of nacre in the shell with vinegar, do the inner layers show different light effects?

4. Soak an oyster shell in each of the household liquids. What happens? Why do you think that happens?

5. Share your observations with other groups.


What other kinds of questions do you have about these shells?
How could you investigate those questions?

[Try This] Some freshwater clams (available in pet stores) do well in a simple aquarium with a light, filter, some gravel, and food. Make a home for a clam and take notes on its behavior. How and when does it move around? Can you determine how it eats and circulates water?

[Try This] Place a layer of sand at the bottom of a partially full aquarium and bury various kinds of shells, stones, and other materials in it. With your eyes closed, can you tell the difference between the objects just by digging around in the sand with your hand?

[Try This] Pearl is an example of "biomineralization," the process by which an organism makes hard materials from a combination of organic and inorganic compounds. Other examples include the formation of bones and teeth. Investigate these at the library. How do bone formation and teeth formation compare with pearl formation?

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Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.
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