Southern California is Pearl Harvester's Oyster
By Natalie Best
On a cloudy April morning
in the warm waters of Carlsbad Lagoon, aquaculturist and Jeweler
Paul Cross deftly opened an ugly, teacup-size green oyster. In it
was a large, iridescent, silver-blue Mabe pearl -- the first, according
to Cross, oyster pearl harvested in the United States.
be the last. Cross, who is also growing pearls in abalone beds along
the coast wants nothing less than to transform Southern California
into the pearl capital of the world. "You have just witnessed history," Cross,
49, told a group of journalists and scientists gathered for the event.
everything you were taught about the pearl. Pearls are no longer
grown by oysters only, are not all round, do not start from a grain
of sand, and are no longer dominated by the Japanese." If pearls
once grew from grains of sand inside oyster shells, they now grow
from material taken from mollusk shells harvested in the United States
and shipped worldwide. The shell material is cut into strips, rounded
and polished to produce a bead that is implanted into an oyster,
and now, into abalone.
resources off the coast of California and West Mexico combined with
new pearl nuclei technology provide significant new potential for
the pearl industry," said Kent Trego, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
which is working with Cross.
in association with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution,
Stanford Research Institute, the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History
and Cross, is developing advanced technology to manufacture nuclei
for the seeding of pearls in both oysters and abalone.
require certain kelp and red algae for best growth while the pearl
oysters need abundant phytoplankton of appropriate species make-up,
all available in Southern California," said David Leighten, a Carlsbad
aquafarmer also working with Cross. "High-quality pearls are produced
by the most healthy and rapidly growing hosts." Cross, owner and
CEO of Island Pearls in La Jolla, insists that local pearls can compete
with Japanese imports, which now dominate the market. He charges
that the Japanese have squandered the endangered mollusk and have "degraded
the pearl by allowing insufficient growing time."
saltwater pearls are considered superior to cultured freshwater pearls.
of a decline in the freshwater mussel population in U.S. rivers and
lakes within the Mississippi River drainage system, the mollusks
are in short supply. The U.S. government (according to the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service) prosecuted a Japanese-owned mussel shell company
last year on charges of illegally taking thousands of pounds of freshwater
mussels out of the United States. The fine reached $1 million.
a native of Bremerton, Wash., grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, learned
about the Japanese techniques of pearl production while working with
an oil and gas company in the southern United States. He encountered
divers collecting mussel shells in the Mississippi River to be sent
to Japan for pearl oyster seeding. A graduate of Chestnut Art Academy
in San Francisco, he had owned jewelry stores in Hawaii before relocating
to the mainland, and his fascination with pearls prompted him to
start a pearl business. Last year, he moved the business to La Jolla.
I set out to find a location to develop pearls, I was torn between
Hawaii and Southern California," he said. "The EDC (Economic Development
Corp.) is here, and its excellent help has been a deciding factor.
That and Scripp's science research of La Jolla, plus the pristine
condition of the Pacific Coast and the availability of natural resources
makes La Jolla the perfect home for the pearl." Enthusiasm for the
pearl, new or old style, continues to be strong, said Debbie Case,
manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, San Diego. "The pearl is a mainstay
of fashion. The pearl will never go out of style. We've seen a resurgence
of the pearl, especially the black pearl."
of the pearl varies around the world, with the Tahitian black pearls
selling from $40 to $100 per piece, with strands ranging from thousands
to hundreds of thousands of dollars; abalone pearls sell from $300
per piece on up. Small white pearls (Japanese akoya) range from $15
to $30 per piece, with strands varying from hundreds to thousands
of dollars. White South Sea pearls range from $80 to $1,000 per piece,
with strands ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands
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