Studio Notes: Stinky Pearls?

Sales manager Lisa Hooper sold me some freshwater Chinese pearls earlier this year at United States Pearl Company in Camden, TN. But they are only a sideline, she said. The company’s main business is to process freshwater mussel shells from the nearby Tennessee River. Once killed and cleaned, the shell halves are cut into beads and become the nuclei for salt water cultured pearls.

To collect Tennessee River pearls, the waste meat is dumped into a huge 500-gallon vat, heated with propane, and cooked out, she says. Then the stuff is poured into 50-gallon drums, capped and left to rot for a year.
The Tennessee pearl industry is known to be notoriously secret these days, but I have to ask: Are the drums stinky when opened?

“Oh my heavens yes,” Lisa says.

But it’s worth it. A rare 47.9-carat strand of rounded, graduated and matched Tennessee pearls from 3 mm to 7 mm is priced at $3,600 and took years to collect. Others, wing shaped or bubbly, go for hundreds of dollars.

Pearls have also been found in the Mississippi River, but are disappearing. In the old days, you’d find a decent angel wing or baroque shape in one of every hundred mussels you opened. A nice round pearl was tougher – these only occurred in one out of every 10,000 to 50,000 mussels, sources say.

And those gems are stinking expensive. One site showcased a perfect, round 11.6 mm Mississippi River pearl. The price? $14,000.

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her story on Colorado diamonds appears in the September-October issue and she will be writing about her experience in Kate Wolf’s class in 2018, along with her grant-writing adventures as a silversmith. You can reach her at [email protected].

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