The coveted pearl has been prevalent in human history since ancient Egypt and Rome, and has since remained a prized gem. Yet unlike its valuable counterparts such as gold, rubies, and diamonds, pearls are a precious jewel created by a living animal. Its formation is hypothesized, but the definitive process remains a mystery as the brilliant gem makes its way from the depths of seas from all over the world to the most esteemed jewelry houses from New York to Paris.
The remote, untouched waters of the North Western Australian Shore houses the most valuable pearl known to man. 20 miles off the coastline lies the world’s best preserved bed of Pinctada maxima oysters, producing the finest, most expensive pearls in the world that maintain their luster, color, and size forever. Even with careful planning and deliberate cultivation, these South Sea Pearls–some valued at millions of dollars–are exceptionally rare.
By way of comparison, the weight of diamond production each year is about 10 times greater than the weight of the annual Australian South Sea pearls harvest. As far as the global pearl production, those derived from this area account for a mere .05% of the pearls harvested, but upwards of 35% of the value across the world.
The unique oysters that produce this pearl can grow to a foot wide, and live for 40 years, producing merely one pearl at a time. Obtaining and cultivating these creatures is a high-risk venture, with millions of dollars and countless hours on the line. Divers must venture into shark-infested waters to harvest as pearlers battle the elements to keep their stocks safe from tumultuous waters. Whether the animal produces a pearl is not guaranteed, and in the event that they do, the quality is also a gamble after the massive logistical and financial efforts up to that point.
Though the core formation of the substance remains an ominous yet beautiful mystery, pearls are made of nacre, and layers upon layers of the material–accumulated over many years–form the lustrous, iridescent pearl we recognize. This nacre coating is one of the five ways a pearl is classified and valued, along with luster, surface, shape and color. Because of the long cultivation process and large size, a pearl with high luster yet few blemishes is incredibly rare–but once found, can be worth millions.
Watch: Australian South Sea Pearl
Watch this never-before-told story of ingenuity, where man and nature work together to forge the ocean’s most desired treasure. The Secret Life of Pearls airs this Thursday, April 28th at 10/9c on Nat Geo WILD.