Southern California is Pearl Harvester's Oyster
By Natalie Best

style.gifOn 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.

It won't 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.

"Forget 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.

"The molluskian 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.

Scripps, 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.

"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."

Cultured saltwater pearls are considered superior to cultured freshwater pearls.

Because 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.

Cross, 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.

"When 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."

The cost 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 of dollars.


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