Buying sustainably and ethically grown freshwater pearls

pearl girl

New Member
Aug 28, 2016
I recently won pearl jewellery designer of the year: Gold Award for pearl design 2016. Awarded by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths CDCA in the UK. Its a great honour.
It has made me think more deeply about how I use pearls in my work and how I promote those pieces of work.
I have championed using recycled gold and vintage stones in my work for a while. Its important to me that my design and the production of my designs advocate for a sustainable and better future. It was a surprise that I won pearl jewellery designer of the year, now to fulfil my companies manifesto and my dreams I must find suppliers that can help me be responsible. I use freshwater pearls in my work. I would like to find a freshwater pearl supplier who scrutinises the pearl farmers who supply them for best practise. Are there experts that I could talk too ?
Congratulations pearl girl. You have come to the right place for this type of information :)
I am sure someone will know the answer.
I do not know the growing practices of freshwater pearl farmers, but Kamoka in French Polynesia and Cortez Pearls in Mexico use sustainable and environmentally kind practices in their pearl farming.
Congratulations. What an honor. Was there a particular piece or your ethics and creativity that brought the judges ?
Hi Pearl Girl !
I'm sure we would all love to see your designs! What a wonderful achievement! Certainly Kamoka and Cortez Pearls are both environmentally ethical cultured pearl farmers. Both excellent choices. If you want natural pearls ( i.e. not interfered with in any way by humans) then I'm sure we have sellers of those items that can be recommended.
This is a nice goal, but I doubt it is achievable with freshwater pearls. It is with some saltwater pearls. Jewelmer, for instance, along with the other two mentioned. :)
A friend of mine who was starting a jewelry company in Hawaii a few years ago called and asked me the same thing. She was getting ready to travel to China to buy freshwater pearls and wanted to know if there were farmers I could introduce her to like you described. It isn't possible. Farmers sell to processors. Processors bring in pearls from all over China. There are thousands of farms.I am not saying all farms don't produce responsibly or sustainably. It just isn't something considered the way it is in western societies.

If you can, travel there. You'll understand it well very quickly.
Not to get too political, but Jeremy your point is well taken...and I believe very current as President Obama is today traveling to Asia to highlight the global impacts. He also met with Pacific Island Nations to discuss rising sea levels and climate change. I do hope that, whoever our next president may be, they treat the issues of climate change, global sea rise, and degradation of our oceans and fresh waters as urgent matters.

Stepping down off my soap-box now...and I hope I haven't violated any forum rules...but people Climate Change is REAL, and it is happening.
Not to get too political, but Jeremy your point is well taken...and I believe very current as President Obama is today traveling to Asia to highlight the global impacts. He also met with Pacific Island Nations to discuss rising sea levels and climate change. I do hope that, whoever our next president may be, they treat the issues of climate change, global sea rise, and degradation of our oceans and fresh waters as urgent matters.

Stepping down off my soap-box now...and I hope I haven't violated any forum rules...but people Climate Change is REAL, and it is happening.

100% agree
You might want to consider using the rare, beautiful freshwater Kasumi-ga-Ura pearls from Japan. Sarah of buys them directly from the farmers (only 3 farms operating now) and is very familiar with how the pearls are produced. Sarah is a highly regarded member here.
I agree with Pattye. They are the only freshwater pearls I have ever heard of that might match your wish. They come in a rainbow of pinks, purples, golds, turquoise- usually all in one pearl.

Otherwise, as indicated by the several farms mentioned above, there are a number of salt water pearl outfits who are writing the book on sustainability....and/or on the lecture circuit of the topic; Cortez pearls- also unique in several other ways, being the only pearls cultured in the Pteria sterna mollusk aka the 'rainbow lip' and they grow on the only pearl farm in the New World - just 6 hours south by car from Tucson AZ. They come in a range of colors on a usually silver base color. Kamoka Pearl Farms is sustainable in the Tahitian world, and both the above farms do have people giving lectures on sustainability the world round. Fiji pearls are also unique pearls in the Pinctada Margaritifera, the black lip mollusk. - (the same mollusk also used in Tahiti), but a variety with an orange body and more chocolate pearls than regular Tahitians. Jewelmer is another world leader in pearl sustainability and specializes in gold pearls like nothing else you have ever seen.

Chinese freshwater pearls are grown on farms in football field sized ponds water paddies,actually, but dedicated to growing pearls rather than rice. They grow in a special ecology that requires fish living in it too- because the fish are needed for the baby mussels to grow on.
These ponds often use manure such as pig manure to feed the mussels, so the ponds may look ugly and smell, but it really is a sustainable method. The pond can be reverted to rice paddies, if pearls loose value. They do not add manufactured chemicals, the pig manure is a necessary part of the overall sustainability of the farm. Freshwater pearls farms usually multi-crop, whereas sea pearl farms do not. The Chinese farms are totally sustainable. They sell to and are contracted by the processors, some of whom own their own farms.The processors are often the exporters, too.

Our pearl course mentions the processors, but not much is really known about them. They do use chemicals to bleach and dye. They may not dispose of the chemical residues properly. It would be interesting to find out. Because other than that, freshwater pearls are sustainable, too. If you know the right people in the right company, you can get pearls that have had no treatments and therefore no chemical runoff.

So, overall, I think you can get sustainably sourced freshwater pearls when you get unprocessed freshwater pearls -which is not easy if you don't know a farmer who also owns the processing plant..... What do y'all think?
I got quite a long PM from someone who educated me quite a bit about pig manure being sustainable, but didn't want to call me out in it, publicly. I asked her to post it here anyway, and said it was very acceptable to set me straight. I have eaten crow here, before. Then forgot about it.

I am sorry that she did not, as there seemed to be a lesson in it. I have never even remotely conceived of myself as being an expert on pollution; I figured pig manure is organic. It composts.So it must sustainable if used in the water- especially if the mussels like it. I wonder if they use it for the rice paddies too? As the rice paddies are interchangeable with the mussel ponds, depending on what is selling for a higher price.

Anyway, pig poop is not sustainable, maybe not in any amount in the water, because it violates a sustainable principle to put manure from a land animal in water, according to the PM.

If this is so, I certainly wish an expert would state it for the record. As it is, I am sorry to mislead anyone about what is sustainable by saying putting manure in water is OK, if it is not.

DANG. Please answer. We need education more than we need to preserve my ego!
My thought would be that, like most things, it is okay in moderation. If the mussels are happy, the water is happy, the plant life is happy...After all hippos spend a lot of time in water and presumably they poop while there...?
I am wondering if the difference is that pigs are not particularly herbivores? Wild boars are known to attack and eat deer/fawn (meat). My family raised hogs back in the day, and I remember they would eat just about anything they could including careless baby chicks, goslings or ducklings, so their manure was not used on edible crops, though they did use it in the garden if I recall, my Aunt had the biggest Hydrangeas I'd seen (till moving to Cali). Anyway I don't want to hijack the thread, I just figured pig-poop and aquaculture never heard of it...the mussels finding correct nutrients enough from the organic waste materials makes sense though.
This subject bothered me so much that I have been doing research. Here is one article on the process of freshwater pearls farming.
It appears I should have said "animal" manure. Before finding this article i looked at several rice paddy articles. Fish are often grown in rice paddy ponds. They make trenches that the fish can retreat to when the paddy is drained and fertilized or pesticides. I was disappointed to see many farmers are using chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Apparently farmers can switch to pearl/fish production from rice/fish production. When fertilizer is used, whether animal or chemical, the pond is drained and it is added. then filled up again - I read in one article. The fertilizer is not what the mussels eat, rather it encourages algae growth and the mussels feed on the algae.

It appears rice has been grown this way since the beginning. Human and/or animal fertilizer is put into the (drained) ponds. Does that violate the principle of putting land manure in the water? It is not strictly in the water, but added to the land, which is then refilled. Obviously the farmers using chemicals are not sustainable, but it looks like the paddy method of fertilization has endured since the earliest days.

I will keep reading, because before the Chinese embraced chemical fertilizers, they were rather well known for their sustainable methods.

I inflamed the situation by saying the manure is added to the water, which is how I heard it. Apparently, that is not a literal statement at least some of the time.. So, are the freshwater mussels raised in manure-fed ponds sustainable?

Maybe? If the pond is drained first? I really hope an expert will take advantage of this situation to enlighten us.

This reminds me of how I "met" Mikeyy on this forum. It was very early on, before I owned Strack- but I did own Kunz who goes into great detail on how Americans took to picnicking by streams and runs in the 1880's. They would look for and open mussels looking for pearls. Naturally, this practice decimated some varieties of the mussel population in the smaller rivers where people could wade, so I was repeating what I read about that in some government paper. Mikeyy came on to tell me that Mussel Harvesting is still going on in the Mississippi itself, with no sign of scarcity. The shells are universally used as nuclei in cultured pearls. The biggest, hardiest, varieties who live in deeper water are doing fine. So, we were both right, but Mikeyy really set the record straight about mussel extinction in general. Not happening!

Now we know the best growers of salt water pearls are very sustainable- the question is- is the way freshwater mussels are raised in paddies, sustainable?
Mussels, oysters and other invertebrates don't eat poop, although they'll ingest cells of plankton which may have been borne or enhanced by fertilizers, but not feces itself.

Most mollusks are actually very fussy about what they'll ingest. During winter, they'll ingest tiny cells then slightly larger one's during warmer seasons. Although many cells of species and sizes may be drawn, most will be gathered in mucous then passed as pseudo-feces.

That's not to say they won't uptake pathogens or other metabolic processes within those organisms, but as a general rule they do not eat everything and anything in the water column merely because it's there.

I have no opinion whether pig manure is sustainable or not, but so long as tainted oyster meat isn't used for human or animal consumption and diseases don't spread across other species, it's more of an ethical question than a sustainability issue. It's important to remind ourselves, that even in the absence of human caused pollution, shellfish may otherwise naturally produce deadly toxins dangerous to mammals that eat them.
Obviously we need more input, here. The manure is to feed the algae which feeds the mussels. Now, I do not think think these ponds are constantly manure-filled. Rather, they seem to be drained, manure applied- I do not not know for how long it stays that way, then the ponds are allowed to refill.

Manure in and of itself is extremely sustainable. Manure is poop, but usually understood to be composted poop when it is applied to farmland. Composted is the operative word here and it is left out because composting is so fundamental to farming and farmers, it goes without saying.

The Chinese have traditionally collected all waste from their animals- and paid good money for human waste collected from cities. All waste, or poop, is composted before use. Raw waste burns plants. Composted waste makes the best soil and fertilizer known to man. It returns to the soil everything that the plants took out to feed the people.

No one has actually claimed that raw pig poop was added to the ponds. If any kind of tradition is followed, it would be composted. Compost is compost is compost. It is nutritious, full of beneficial ingredients and is no longer raw poop. Compost in rivers is still compost, not a bunch of raw poop. Anywhere it lands, it will have a positive, nourishing effect.

Of course, many Chinese have abandoned the old ways, but I still doubt they add raw poop to anything- raw poop burns plants and every farmer knows that, even if we civilized folks do not, and imagine raw animal sewage pouring into pearl ponds and spilling over into rivers, setting off our sustainability alarms.
Hey JP
I got your first version

I am positive that compost is not a pollutant. It is not a single chemical like phosphorous from detergents that pollute. Any pollutant like nitrogen or phosphorous is not alone, on its own, it is literally bound up in the compost into complex organic compounds with no free chemicals to pollute or burn. Compost does not force algae blooms or overgrowth. It is inert and waiting to have its nutrients sucked out by active roots.

Compost is full of nutrients, but they are inert, bound up safely in organic compounds, until broken down and consumed by plants. Compost is also the organic part of all dirt. It makes up the majority of all undisturbed topsoil, such as in forests. Rivulets that run through forests should be sweet tasting with the released minerals of the compost- the forest topsoil slowly dissolving in their beds and adding slight freshness to the taste of the water that passes over the composting forest floor.
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