Pearls are unique gemstones because, unlike other precious stones that form from rocks, pearls are created by live marine animals. Pearl cultivators breed thousands of oysters and clams to create pearls and set up the ideal conditions on their farms for this purpose. But how long does it take an oyster in nature to create a pearl?
It can take between six months and four or five years for a pearl to form naturally. Cultivators create conditions for oysters to make pearls within a few months, but it usually takes longer. Pearl formation only begins once the oyster starts to mature, which happens after the age of three.
Finding a pearl in nature is pretty rare. In this article, we’ll see why it’s so challenging to find pearls in a natural setting, explore the pearl-making process, and explain what to do if you find a naturally occurring pearl.
Pearl Forming Is a Slow Process
The formation of pearls is a gradual process, and a few conditions must be met to ensure an oyster begins creating a pearl in the first place. In nature, an oyster may take several years before it initiates the process of creating pearls.
On a pearl farm, cultivators create the ideal settings for an oyster to initiate this process. However, some elements may be missing in a natural setting, and it may be a while before the proper conditions are in place.
As such, while most farms can safely predict when they will obtain a pearl from their oysters, there are too many variables involved to make an accurate prediction in nature.
How a Pearl Is Formed
The creation of a pearl is the oyster’s natural defense mechanism against external elements that may harm it. While most people assume the pearl is a gift of nature meant for humankind to harvest and profit from, the real reason an oyster makes a pearl is to protect itself.
When a foreign object, like dirt, a food particle, or a parasite, enters the oyster, the pearl formation process is initiated. The shell releases two substances — aragonite and conchiolin. These compounds are the same things used to create the hard outer shell of the oyster as it grows.
Aragonite and conchiolin combine to form what’s popularly called ‘mother-of-pearl’. In nature, this compound is called nacre, and nacre creates the unique shine and smoothness that you see on pearls. Over time, the oyster continues to secrete nacre, which envelops the foreign particle and protects the soft, vulnerable insides of the shell.
As this process progresses, the nacre starts to cover the particle in a ball which eventually becomes the pearl we see. And, as you can imagine, the process of secreting nacre and slowly covering a particle with it can take anything from a few months to several years. And bigger oysters typically take longer to create pearls, although their pearls tend to be larger as well.
On a pearl farm, an irritant or external element is forcibly introduced into the oyster to initiate the pearl-making process. Additionally, pearl cultivators cross-breed oyster varieties that are likely to produce pearls to obtain oysters that are guaranteed to give them pearls.
These farms also introduce the irritant once the oyster is of mature age, so the pearl-formation process can begin. And even with a control over so many factors, these oysters can take months to produce pearls, with more valuable specimens taking up to four years to properly form.
If engineered pearls can take years to form, imagine how much longer a natural pearl would take. And that’s only if the right conditions are met.
Why You Won’t Find Naturally-Occurring Pearls
Have you wondered why there are no stories of people making a fortune from finding a natural pearl? Well, there aren’t any because finding a natural pearl is an incredibly rare occurrence, and you’re unlikely to find one of any real value anyway. Let’s look at why it’s nearly impossible to find a naturally-occurring pearl.
The Odds Are Low
For starters, the odds of finding a pearl in an oyster is roughly one in 10,000, and that’s if the oysters you find are the variety that produces pearls, to begin with. These odds get lower depending on the species of oyster and at what point in their pearl-making journey you find them.
As mentioned, pearls take months, if not years, to form. And if you happen to look in an oyster before it’s ready, you won’t find anything. Add the time it takes to beat the odds of finding a pearl-producing oyster, and you can guarantee you’re unlikely to find a valuable specimen.
Want to know the odds of finding a pearl in a store-bought clam? Check out my article to find out: Can You Find Pearls in Store Bought Clams?
You May Not Find the Right Species
As previously explained, certain oyster species are more likely to produce pearls than others. And while all oysters possess the mechanism to create pearls, the process of pearl formation won’t take place in most of them, even if an irritant is introduced.
So aside from the low odds, you may not have access to natural oysters capable of creating pearls. Some pearls that come from specific oysters include:
- Freshwater pearls: These pearls are usually made by two varieties of oysters — the Hyriopsis cumingi and the Hyriopsis schlegeli. Freshwater pearls are the easiest to harvest and also the cheapest pearls on the market. These pearls often take between six months and a year to make on a pearl farm.
- Akoya pearls: Akoya pearls take between one and two years to form fully and can grow to a diameter of about 0.35 in (9 mm) within that time. These pearls are produced by the Pinctada fucata martensii and nearly all specimens are cultivated on pearl farms today. These pearls are expensive, and it’s nearly impossible to find a naturally-occurring one.
- South Sea pearls: These are the most expensive pearls on the market and are produced by the Pinctada maxima. They are nicknamed the “Rolls Royce of pearls” due to their high value and can take up to four or five years to properly form in an oyster. South Sea pearls yield considerable profit, which is why these oysters are sought after by cultivators.
As you can see, even if these pearls were to be formed naturally, it would take far too long for the oyster to create them. Additionally, collectors can’t tell whether an oyster has created a pearl. As such, it’s best to leave an oyster alone, even if you think it may contain a pearl.
Why You Should Leave Oysters Alone
So, we now know that it takes years for a pearl to form naturally. Additionally, the chances of finding a pearl in an oyster are incredibly low and not worth the trouble. And finally, most pearls aren’t valuable, and the handful that are reside in oyster farms, not in nature.
As such, it’s best to leave oysters alone when you find them. Here are two more reasons why you should leave them alone:
You Will Kill the Oyster
The only way to tell if an oyster contains a pearl is by opening up the oyster and checking. Live oysters will keep their shells shut most of the time or forcibly close them when they are disturbed or under stress.
So the only way to take the pearl out of an oyster is by opening the shell with force and seeing what’s inside. The only problem is that doing so will harm and possibly kill the oyster. This is why the oysters you find at restaurants are still closed — so that they remain alive and don’t start rotting.
And considering the negligible chances of finding a valuable pearl, it’s best to leave the oysters alone.
You May Disrupt the Ecosystem
Most marine scientists and those studying natural environments will tell you that every living creature forms an integral part of the environment it lives in. This interconnectedness of things is why most beaches caution visitors against taking home any live creatures, as you risk disrupting the natural ecosystem there.
By picking up a live oyster and cracking it open to look for pearls, you’re killing a creature that forms a vital part of its ecosystem. And while it’s safe to collect dead sea shells, checking for pearls in this cruel manner can have unintended consequences.
This phenomenon is known as the butterfly effect, and while it may seem inconsequential, killing an oyster can have negative consequences on its environment.
And, as mentioned before, given the low odds of you finding a valuable pearl, it’s best to leave nature alone.
Pearls take months and, more likely, years to be created naturally without human interference. And in most cases, naturally-occurring pearls take several years longer than normal to form. While finding one in nature is a possibility, the odds are so low that it’s best to avoid considering it altogether.
Instead, focus on shell picking, and leave the pearls to the pearl farmers.