The Native Americans on the Atlantic coast and along the Mississippi river collected and used freshwater mussel pearls and shells. Indian men and women wore pearl pendants around the neck or ears and used the shell to decorate clothes. A key difference from their salty cousins is that freshwater pearls are not spherical, but are usually asymmetric in shape. Though the shape may be irregular, thereâ€™s a standardized vocabulary to describe the recurring shapes: â€œrounds, pears, eggs, drops, buttons, dome, and baroques.â€ Baroques break into â€œnuggets, dog tooths, wings, hammers, twins, barrels round-a-circle, and rosebuds.â€
How did they get that way?
Unlike their seawater counterparts, freshwater pearls are often tinted, and they have quite a range of colors: â€œwhite, silvery white, pink, salmon, red copper, bronze, brown, lavender, purple, green, blue, cream, and yellow.â€ Pinks and lavenders are most popular for jewelry.
Where does the color come from?
Blame the mussel. The color of the pearl is related to the producing musselâ€™s species, water quality, and where the pearl lays in the shell.
From Art to Industry
If you wish to find a pearl, youâ€™ve got a lot of mussels to look at. There are twenty different pearl-making mussel species out there.
Where does beauty come from?
It arises from mussels with unlikely names: â€œthe ebony, washboard, hell-splitter, pimple back, elephant ear, mapleleaf, three-ridge pigtoe, pistol grip, and the butterfly.â€ Divers are on the lookout for these species from April through September, all along the rivers streams and lakes in the east, south, and central parts of the U.S.
Commercial enterprises started in earnest in the U.S. as early as the mid 1850s. Cultured freshwater pearl farms took longer to start up. The first attempt was made by John Latendresse of Tennessee in 1963. (His name roughly translates to â€œthe tendernessâ€ in French.) He became the pioneer of the pearl cultivation industry in the US, opening five farms over 30 years.
Researched and written by Sylvie Beauvais, adapted from Gordon Austin, â€œAn Overview of Production of Specific U.S. Gemstones.â€ Special Publication 14-95. United States Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1995.