DAVE BING holds about fifty pearls of various colors, shapes and sizes, harvested from just one mussel, ranging from baroque to spherical. Note the luster of the opened shells. Photograph by Stephen G. Bloom.

Across the Chinese Freshwater Pearl Border

Entering the Transformatron



Upstairs were endless rooms of sorters, tens of thousands of pearls poured onto long tables covered with taut, stretched white tablecloths.

Zhuji, China, is the epicenter of the world’s freshwater pearl market. Zhuji (pronounced SHOE-ghee) is to pearls what Hershey, Pennsylvania, is to chocolate. Zhuji’s cultivated pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from large, oval-shaped or triangular mussels. China produces ninety-nine percent of all such freshwater pearls in the world. The province of Zhejiang is dotted with thousands of small, family-operated pearl farms, most of them state cooperatives. Such farms are seemingly everywhere, with millions of green plastic soda bottles bobbing up and down on the surfaces of thousands of small artificial lakes, each bottle signifying another crop of fresh mussels, and each mussel containing as many as one hundred lustrous pearls inside.

Exactly how the Chinese have been able to cultivate mussels that produce so many pearls remains something of a mystery. These pearls do not develop around an inserted nucleus, as their counterparts in oysters do, but instead grow from multiple tiny squares of mussel mantle tissue inserted into each host mussel. (When spherical pearls are desired, the mantle tissue is rolled into balls prior to insertion, although some producers do not roll the mantle tissue.)




Stephen G. Bloom is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan this year. Bloom also is on the faculty of the University of Iowa, where he is Professor and the Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar. He is the author of Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, The Oxford Project with photographer Peter Feldstein, and Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. It is from Tears of Mermaids that much of his story in this issue is taken. Bloom traveled thirty thousand miles for the nonfiction detective story, in which he attempts to track a single luminescent pearl, from the moment a diver off the coast of Australia scoops up from the ocean floor a Pinctada maxima oyster, to the moment a woman eight thousand miles away fastens the clasp of a necklace containing the very same pearl. It is an amazing journey.



This article in its entirety appears only in the print magazine.

Keep rich and engaging content in your life, click here to subscribe today.


Our upcoming issue 37.4 contains


Nubian Jewelry

Kate Mensah

Philadelphia Craft Show


  Follow Ornament on...