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Can Snails Make Pearls?

Can Snails Make Pearls?

Abalones are large snails with a beautiful secret. Brown and grey on the outside, covered in seaweed, slowly crawling rocks in tidal zones whilst remaining firmly attached to them using a muscular foot, Abalones deposit striking iridescent mother-of-pearl nacre inside their shells.

Abalones are a marine gastropod, a sea snail resembling a typical garden snail by also carrying a single spiralled shell on its back. Along with Conch snails and Melo melo, Abalones are one of the few gastropods that are capable of producing pearls.

Abalones live in shells that are up to 20 or 30 cm in size and can survive in cool or warm waters, which has supported their broad geographic habitat. They are typically found off the coasts of Western USA, Mexico, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Although most abalones live for 10 to 20 years, they can even reach 40 or 50 years in age. A delicacy in some of the areas of the world, Abalones have historically been collected by hand for meat with the shells being used for ornaments, cups and even coins.

As with pearls that come from a mollusc such as an oyster, an Abalone’s pearls are made by depositing thousands of layers of an organic substance called nacre. Their inner mother-of-pearl shell is typically more colourful than that of bivalve molluscs such as oysters and frequently displays a stunning combination of blue, green, pink, purple and silver.

Natural Abalone pearls are quite rare and until the last century were relatively unknown in gemological markets. With their unique colour and baroque horn shapes, these pearls are now highly sought after by jewellery designers and collectors. One of the largest natural Abalone pearls ever found is the Big Pink Pearl, which was valued in 1991 at $4.7 million. Round symmetrical abalone pearls remain very rare and can take many years to form.

Attempts to produce cultured pearls with Abalones have been recorded since the late 19th century in several countries. The principal pearl farms today are in New Zealand and California. The main challenge for pearl farmers is that the animal’s blood does not coagulate and, if the animal is accidentally injured during the surgical insertion of a nucleus, it may bleed to death. For this reason, Abalone mabe blister pearls are more frequently cultivated by pearl farmers as no incision is required to start the Abalone making a blister pearl.

Although large sea snails such as Abalones do secretively make very valuable and rare pearls, beautiful cultured mabe Abalone pearls are also made into pendants and earrings that are quite accessible in price to jewellery lovers.

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