Pearls are always on trend. They’re family heirlooms. They’re essentials on the red carpet and on wedding days. But where do they come from? And is it actually ethical to wear them?
Pearls and parasites seem like very, very different things. One is renowned for its beauty, while the other — which feeds off of other species to survive and can cause disease — is pretty grim.
But it turns out, parasites are actually key to the creation of pearls, at least some of the time. It’s one of the irritants known to cause a reaction in clams and oysters — the bivalves secrete layers of aragonite and conchiolin in response to the invader — which eventually causes pearls to form.
The process of forming pearls might not sound very glamorous, but the result is undeniably revered around the world. The semi-precious gemstones are used to make pretty earrings, buttons, necklaces, bracelets, and even dresses (hello, Kim Kardashian and Lizzo among others at the 2023 Met Gala). In 2022, the pearl jewelry market size was valued at around $10.5 billion.
But is it actually ethical to wear pearls? After all, they were produced by an animal, and, in many cases, require farming to produce en masse. Here’s what you need to know.
Is it ethical to wear pearls?
Pearls are different from most gemstones because they don’t have to be mined, a process that comes with its own detrimental environmental impact. But this doesn’t mean their production doesn’t raise ethical questions.
As described above, the conditions have to be right for a pearl to form. It’s not something that happens to every single bivalve mollusk. Natural pearls are quite rare — in fact, they only usually occur in one in 10,000 wild oysters. That’s why most pearls are cultured. This means they have essentially been farmed, and the irritants that cause pearls to form have been forcefully inserted into their shells.
Many animal rights activists believe this process is not only unnatural but also cruel. Oysters do have a small heart and internal organs, but they don’t have a central nervous system, so it’s unlikely that they feel pain in the way that humans do. But that said, the science is still not clear about whether or not they suffer when farmed.
“While we don’t yet know whether bivalves can feel pain in the same way we do, we can observe that oysters snap their shells tightly shut when they’re disturbed by touch or even when they sense loud noises,” notes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
For this reason, most advocates for veganism do not consider pearls to be ethical or vegan.
Environmental issues in the pearl market
Potential moral complications aren’t the only issue with pearls — the oyster market also comes with environmental consequences. According to the farming magazine AgronoMag, the growth of the pearl farming industry has led to the overexploitation and overharvesting of oysters and can impact the surrounding environment.
“Unsustainable oyster stock densities harm the environment,” it notes. “So pearl farming needs to be done with good measure, depending on the environmental conditions. Otherwise, the marine life can be affected as much as it would be from pollution or human impact.”
There is also a positive side to the pearl industry, at least when it comes to the environment. This is because oysters are considered blue carbon, which means they sequester carbon dioxide as they grow their shells. They also help to filter and purify the water around them, which may lead to a healthier marine environment.
Where to buy ethical pearls
If you’re not sure if purchasing real pearl jewelry fits your ethics, there are cruelty-free options available to you.
British jewelry brand Vellva, for example, creates PETA-approved, vegan pearls using crystal pearls, which are a type of imitation pearl with a glass crystal core.
According to the brand — which has been worn by celebrities including Mabel, Joy Crookes, Munroe Bergdorf, and Anne-Marie — the outside is coated in a “pearlescent material,” which is designed to give its jewelry the same look as real pearls.
According to a This Is Local London interview with the brand’s founder, Marie-Claire Sheedy, each piece of vegan jewelry is also handmade to order to reduce waste.
But Sheedy is far from alone. When searching for vegan pearl jewelry, keep an eye out for Swarovski pearls, made by, you guessed it, Swarovski, the renowned Austrian jewelry brand. These are just like Vellva’s crystal pearls and are designed to mimic the look and feel of real pearls using a crystal core and a special coating.
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