American Pearls

American Pearls

In modern times, the United States is known to produce limited quantities of natural pearls, both from saltwater and freshwater. Between 1979 and 2000 it also produced beaded freshwater cultured pearls in the Tennessee river basin. The main pearling activity has been, however, the economically more relevant production of mussel shell, which was historically important as mother-of-pearl for the button industry and as a decorative material for inlays. After the 1950s, the United States became the world’s largest supplier of shell beads ("kaku" in Japanese) that continue to serve as nuclei for the beaded cultured pearl industry from Japan to China, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, French Polynesia, Fiji and elsewhere.

Saltwater Pearls

On the East Coast, notably between Cape Cod in Massachusetts and New Jersey, the Mercenaria mercenariamollusc, locally-known as the hard-shell clam or quahog, is known to produce occasional uneven white, cream to deep purple non-nacreous natural pearls with a characteristic surface texture and porcelanous lustre in sizes from 3 to 8 mm, to above 10 mm in exceptional cases. These so-called quahog pearls may exhibit an eye-effect caused by a concentric colour distribution (lighter colour in the centre and darker colour in the rim) and some examples exhibit a rare mosaic pattern.

In the southern state of Florida, the rare non-nacreous pink, salmon to brownish to white natural pearl known in the trade as conch pearls also found as a by-product of the food industry from the local queen conch gastropod (Lobatus gigas, formerly known as Strombus gigas) a rare mosaic pattern. In the southern state of Florida, the rare non-nacreous pink, salmon to brownish to white natural pearl known in the trade as conch pearl. This pearl with a cross lamellar micro- structure and porcelanous lustre has a characteristic surface flame structure that is a known diagnostic feature and occurs in sizes of 3 to 8 mm, rarely larger than 13 mm and being exceedingly rare above 20 mm. Their trade is regulated since the species has been listed in Appendix II of CITES since 1992 mostly due to harvesting for the food industry.

On the West Coast, especially in California, the most relevant pearl producing mollusc is the abalone or ear-shell, notably the red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and the green abalone (Haliotis fulgens), both edible marine gastropods with a characteristic colourful, iridescent inner shell. These have typical tooth or horn-shapes that are due to their growth not in the mantle, as is the case with most nacreous natural pearls, but in the gonads of the animal and are often hollow. Round abalone pearls are very rare and the largest reported is a 29.95 carat pearl, measuring 18.45 × 17.25 × 15.75 mm, which is not hollow.

Conch pearl and conch shell brooch © Tiffany & Co.


Freshwater Pearls
It is not that well-known that the United States produces nacreous natural freshwater pearls of gem quality. Archaeological evidence, notably at the Hopewell Mounds site in Ohio, shows that local natural freshwater pearls were used by indigenous Americans for decoration and reportedly as coinage more than 2,000 years ago. Mussel harvesting for food, fish bait or to collect shell has been reported in many river basins across the US, namely in Tennessee, Mississippi but also in nearly half of the country’s states, with natural pearls being a valuable by-product of those activities. The more than 300 species of pearl producing molluscs occasionally produce natural pearls that, according to George Frederick Kunz (1856- 1932) in his The Book of the Pearl published in 1908, are found in the region of one pearl for every 10,000 shells, with white being the most common colour with occasional golden, pink, mauve, bluish or silver-grey colourations.

Photo: American Pearl Company


In the mid 1800s, notable finds in New Jersey created a stir and, in the following decades, notably in the early 1900s, a ‘pearl rush’ occurred throughout the territory. Kunz reported that, by 1906, more than 8,500 fishermen were involved in pearling in US rivers and lakes, producing both pearls for the jewellery industry as well as mother-of- pearl mostly for the button industry but also for the marquetry industry. Famous early-20th century jewellery brands like Tiffany & Co used North American freshwater natural pearls in their creations, like the one depiced in the opening photo of this article representing the iconic chrysanthemum brooch made in ca. 1904 featuring elongated natural pearls from US freshwater reservoirs. René Lalique, the notable Art Nouveau jewellery artist, has been referred by many authors to as another user of American freshwater pearls.

It has been suggested that the French jewellery artist René Lalique used American freshwater natural pearls in his creations © Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

The famous 1904 Chrysanthemum brooch by Tiffany & Co. featuring diamonds and freshwater natural pearls from the USA © Tiffany & Co.

Cultured Pearl Industry
After the Second World War, the then thriving Japanese cultured pearl industry created a higher demand for the shell beads, locally known as "kaku", that were used in the culturing process. The best nuclei material was derived from American freshwater mussels namely the Ohio Pigtoe mussel, Pleurobema cordatum, and the washboard or Mississippi pearl mussel, Megalonaias nervosaAn American visionary, John R. Latendresse (1925-2000) saw a business opportunity there and founded the Tennessee Shell Company in 1954. He began collecting shells for the production of beads, eventually becoming the largest supplier. In 1961, he founded the American Pearl Company and, as he was buying shells from local fisherman, he also collected the occasional natural pearls they offered as by-products, gathering a significant collection that is still available through his family company.
After being challenged that he could never grow a cultured pearl in America, he engaged in a long period of trial and error that eventually resulted in the first commercial production of American freshwater beaded cultured pearls in 1979 in Birdsong Creek, Kentucky Lake, Tennessee. Typically, these pearls had fancy shapes, that Latendresse used to call ‘fancishapes’ and were produced in sizes from 10 mm up to 30 mm. The very occasional non-bead by-products were locally termed as lagniappe pearls, or bonus pearls — a southern Louisiana and southern Texas term for ‘unexpected gift’, in an attempt to avoid the word ‘keshi’, which is typically used for non-bead saltwater cultured pearl by-products.
The production of these cultured pearls went on until 2000 with minor production still reported today. The pioneering work of John Latendresse and the historical and cultural heritage that
is deeply associated with local pearling eventually led to the freshwater pearl becoming the state gem of Tennessee and Kentucky. Although not a major player in the pearl world, the United States has a place in their history and in the development of the modern beaded cultured pearl industry.
In the photo: Chessy, Gina and John Latendresse sorting a harvest of their "fancishape" beaded freshwater cultured pearls from their former Tennessee river pearl farm © Americal Pearl Company
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Gina Latendresse for her assistance in reviewing the manuscript and adding important information to this article.
Adapted from Galopim de Carvalho, Rui (2020) "A Pledge to Pearls", Gems & Jewellery, 29, 1, pp. 32-33
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