Culturing a South Sea Pearl is not only a labour of love but there is a science to it as well. Every step of the way the oyster’s health is of paramount concern. Highly technical seeding procedures that minimise stress are conducted on purpose built seeding ships. The oyster that provides the mantle tissue graft is carefully selected. A resting period follows seeding on the ocean floor before the oysters are moved to grow out farms. In some cases the oyster is also X-Rayed to check that the pearl “seed” is still in place. However seeding techniques have improved to the point where rejection rates are so low that X-raying the oysters is often not cost effective.
The nucleus (seed) is made from the “Washboard” mussel shell found in the Mississippi River. The seeds cost from $0.20 to $150 USD
An oyster from either a hatchery or collected from the wild, is “seeded” with a nucleus and a mantle tissue graft. An incision is made near the gonads of the animal where the graft and nucleus will be placed. The mantle tissue will proliferate and grow around the nucleus to form the “pearl sac” and secrete nacre onto the seed that over years will grow into a South Sea pearl.
Pearls are harvested during the cooler dry season months when nacre production is slowest, and the oysters are no longer sexually active and hopefully the nacre crystals are better aligned giving better lustre. If the pearl is good the oyster is reseeded. An oyster may be seeded up to 3 and on occasions 4 times. The harvest results vary wildly. Some will have no pearl, many will produce lower quality product and a small percentage will produce magnificent gems.
For the Maxima pearl only about 65 of every 100 oysters first seeding will produce a saleable pearl with diminishing returns for the second and third seeding of oysters. Of course these second and third seedings produce larger pearls as the older, larger animal can accomodate a larger seed. The very top quality gems represent only 1% to 5% of the harvest.