Pearls have become such an ordinary part of the jewelry industry that we tend to forget this precious stone comes from living things, like clams and oysters. And some shell collectors are constantly looking for clams as they believe they may be able to snag a pearl and make a fortune. But what are the chances of you finding a pearl in one of these creatures?
The chances of finding a pearl in a clam are extremely minimal—roughly one in 10,000. Often, only the larger clams may contain pearls as they have had more time to develop. And even then, the probability of an oyster having a pearl in a natural setting is incredibly rare.
Pearl farmers have set up industries revolving around these creatures and the beautiful jewelry they produce. However, the chances of finding a pearl in a natural oyster are next to nothing, and this article will explain why.
Is It Rare To Find Pearls in Oysters?
Most oysters you come across on the beach while shell picking are usually dead, and you can look inside them, although you’re unlikely to find pearls. Live oysters found in shallow waters may contain pearls, but is it worth opening them up?
It is incredibly rare to find pearls in oysters, as they take several years to develop. In fact, the chances of finding a pearl are one in 10,000, and some collectors may not come across so many oysters in their entire lifetime.
Pearl farms are places where they breed oysters that are guaranteed to provide them with pearls if the farmers are patient. Some cultivators even cross-breed certain species that have a higher likelihood of giving them pearls. These oysters are then used to produce three to five sets of pearls over several years.
The procedure is delicate, and it takes great care to ensure the oyster doesn’t die when the pearl is extracted. Most farms kill the oyster while extracting the pearl and continue breeding new ones they can use to create more pearls. And no matter how many times the same oyster is used, the farm will eventually kill these creatures in the process.
However, if you visit a pearl farm, you’re guaranteed to find a pearl in most of the oysters there. But this shouldn’t inform you of the chances of finding one in the natural world, as things are quite different.
How Pearls Are Formed
Most fairy tales will have you believe every oyster conceals a pearl that’s revealed with a glow when you open the shell. And a single grain of sand magically turns into a pearl over a few days. But very few oysters create pearls. However, the process of creation is truly magical.
The creation of a pearl is the clam’s natural defense mechanism against intrusion from the outside world. As clams live on the ocean floor and their shells aren’t entirely sealed, irritants like parasites, debris, and food particles tend to float into their shells quite often. These irritants can, over time, harm the soft and vulnerable interiors of the clam.
In response to this threat, the oyster secretes two compounds—aragonite and conchiolin—that will protect it from the dangerous effects of a foreign body. Both these compounds are also used to form the shell of the oyster through a different process.
In its defense, the oyster releases aragonite and conchiolin, which combine to form a substance called nacre. This nacre is the same hard, shiny material that gives pearls an iridescent effect and natural beauty you see in necklaces, earrings, and other jewelry. This material is also popularly called mother-of-pearl.
The nacre begins to slowly envelop the foreign particle, encasing it in this hard shell to protect the soft tissue inside the oyster. The nacre eventually covers the foreign particle in enough layers to become the distinct pearl you see in an oyster.
This process takes several months and sometimes years to complete, making it even harder to find a pearl in a clam. So even if you spot a clam that’s capable of making a pearl, it may be in the formation stage, and you may have to wait years before you see a real pearl.
Why It’s So Hard To Find a Pearl in a Clam
Given the previous points, you should have an idea of why it’s so hard to find pearls in an oyster. But let’s look at some concrete reasons why you’re unlikely to find a pearl in a clam in the natural world.
Not All Clams Produce Pearls
While every mollusk is capable of producing a pearl, due to its biology and physiology, only a handful of species are known to create pearls over time. As such, even if you find an oyster in the natural world, it may not be of the variety that is inclined to create pearls. And unless you go to a pearl farm, it’s impossible to figure out which oysters are likely to give you pearls.
Small Clams Typically Don’t Have Pearls
In nature, the largest clams are the ones with the most time to grow and develop. So, if there’s a foreign particle in them, they’re most likely to create pearls out of it in the long run. Smaller clams often aren’t old enough to start the process of forming pearls. And even if they are, it’s unlikely you’ll find pearls in any of them as the process may be in its nascent stage.
It Takes Time To Produce Pearls
As mentioned before, the formation of a pearl can take a few months to several years. In fact, even the smallest clams in an oyster farm will take at least six months to produce a pearl of commendable size.
And if you happen to open up an oyster during this formation period, you’re unlikely to find what you’re looking for.
The Odds Are Stacked Against You
As mentioned in the first section of this article, the odds of finding a pearl in an oyster is one in 10,000. That’s a tiny margin of possibility to work with, and most shell collectors will never come across a clam or oyster that contains a pearl simply because they won’t see so many oysters in their lifetime.
Why You Shouldn’t Look for Pearls in an Oyster
The previous section should give you enough reasons to avoid searching for pearls in an oyster. However, some of us may be tempted to look for pearls either way, and we may wade into the waters, opening up every oyster we find in the hope of finding a pearl.
If you do find a pearl in an oyster, check out my article on what you should do next: What to Do if You Find a Pearl in an Oyster
But aside from the incredibly slim chances of finding a pearl, you should avoid looking for pearls because you’re likely to harm an innocent being in the process.
While oysters and clams aren’t exactly mobile, they are living things. We know this because an oyster with an open shell will immediately close up if it senses disturbance or noise in its environment.
So if you find an oyster with an open shell, it’s most likely dead, and it’s safe to add to your collection. Additionally, you can quickly check if there’s a pearl on the inside before stowing it away.
However, the only other way to know if there’s a pearl inside a clam is to open up the clam and check. And opening up a clam entirely guarantees the death of the creature. As such, looking for pearls on the beach (like in pearl harvesting facilities) is a cruel practice you should avoid at all costs.
And if you aren‘t sold on the cruelty aspect alone, remember that the chances of finding a pearl are minimal, and it’s not worth killing something for such a slim chance (one in 10,000 at best!).
The basic principle of collecting shells is to ensure that live creatures are returned to the ocean. It’s best to collect dead mollusks and seas shells that don’t have creatures living in them. Aside from being kind, preserving these life forms ensures a healthier marine ecosystem.
In the same vein, it’s best to avoid picking up clams to look for pearls. These creatures are responsible for cleaning up marine environments to a significant extent, and it’s best to leave them in the ocean to preserve the health of the ecosystem. To summarize, here’s why you shouldn’t look for pearls in clams:
- It could kill the clam
- The chances are incredibly small
- You’re unlikely to find a pearl of any value
- You may end up killing the clam or oyster
As you can see, finding a pearl in a clam is extremely rare. Moreover, you’re unlikely to find a pearl that’s valuable enough to bring you more than a few dollars. As such, it’s best to avoid looking for pearls in a clam as they’re not worth it.
Leave the live ones alone and look for dead shells instead that you can use to decorate your home.