How many pearls does an oyster produce in its lifetime?
Saltwater Akoya Oyster
This is the original classic, popularized by Kokichi Mikimoto. The irritant used is a rounded bead made of mother of pearl. Each shell is typically nucleated with one to two beads. If a large bead is used, only one is inserted. Most often, however, two are used. One bead will be slightly smaller than the other.
There is an exception, however. If very small beads are used in an attempt to create small pearls (3-5mm range), up to 5 beads can be inserted.
Akoya oysters die at harvest and cannot be re-nucleated. So the total number of pearls produced cannot exceed five.
Tahitian Saltwater Oyster (aka Black-Lip Oyster)
Tahitian oysters are nucleated with only one bead at a time. This is the same bead used in akoya production. But at harvest, the shell does not necessarily die. Very often the pearl is removed and a bead (the same size as the harvested pearl) is reinserted into the existing pearl sac to create a second pearl. This process can be repeated again, although this is very rare.
So the maximum number of pearls a Tahitian pearl oyster can produce in its lifetime is three.
South Sea Pearl Oyster (aka Silver-Lip or Golden-Lip Oyster)
The South Sea pearl oyster is nucleated in the same fashion as the Tahitian pearl oyster. The only difference is that on a rare occasion, if the shell is continuously producing fine pearls, a 4th nucleation may occur.
The most pearls a South Sea Pearl Oyster can produce is four.
Freshwater Pearl Mussel
This is the producer of the most common of all pearls, freshwater pearls. This shell is not an oyster, but is actually a mussel. It is typically nucleated only with a piece of mantle tissue (no bead) and receives 16-32 implants on either side of the valve. This shell does not necessarily die upon harvest as it can be returned to the water to grow “keshi” pearls, or the pearl sacs can be nucleated with a bead to grow CBSB beaded freshwater pearls.
Given all the variables of freshwater pearl production, it is not easy to give an exact number of pearls this shell can produce over a lifetime, but in the most extreme cases of production it is doubtful that a single shell will produce more than 60 in its lifetime.
In natural pearl formation, the process is so rare that only 1 in 10,000 shells may produce a gem-quality pearl. It is possible, however, to find more than one natural pearl in a single shell. If the area where the shell was found has a high parasitic content more natural pearls will form, as most pearls are formed from the invasion of a parasite into the shell.
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