When most people think of Tennessee, images of shiny pearls and gleaming pearl necklaces probably aren't the first thing to pop in a person's head. However, with the number of pearls retrieved from the mucky bottoms of its rivers, Tennessee has become known as a pearl center throughout the country, as well as the rest of the world.
Whether there are several strung together to make a necklace or a single one dangling from an earring, pearls are known for their simplistic yet striking beauty. These glowing white beads form inside mussels. When an irritant, such as a grain of sand, gets inside of the shell, the organism coats it with a hard, less irritating layer, which creates a lovely, glossy pearl. When pearls are cultivated or farmed, a technician surgically implants a piece of shell into the mussel. The mussels are returned to the river and left for a certain amount of time, which leads to the formation of a pearl. Tennessee's rivers and lakes are home to more than 70 species of mussels, including the Tennessee River Washboard Mussel, which are often used to cultivate pearls.
The cultured pearl industry initially began in Japan and was brought to Tennessee by John Latendresse. Since 1954, Latendresse's Tennessee Shell Company has been exporting North American mussels to Japan, China, Australia and Tahiti. To cultivate his own pearls, he started the American Pearl Company in 1961. Mussels were prepped for pearl growth in a laboratory then returned to the Tennessee River in nets, which were tied to pipes. After 20 years of research, finding innovative techniques and a lot of hard work, the company successfully cultivated marketable pearls in 1983. Along with Latendresse's company, other divers search the river bottom for mussels that they take to dealers, such as Tennessee Shell Company, or companies in Asia who pay for shells and then sort and sack them.
While pearl diving was once the common way to obtain pearls, it is now nearly obsolete in most of the world. Nearly 250 residents of Tennessee make a living by diving for pearls. These divers are responsible for swimming to the murky bottom of the Tennessee River and finding mussels. The work in such challenging, low-visibility conditions is dangerous. It is common for one or two divers to die on the job every year. Pearl diving is also slow work, and doesn't guarantee the finding of pearls. Instead, many in the pearl industry have turned to the more reliable method of cultivating pearls at a pearl farm. In general, mussels that have been planted at the river bottom are ready to be pulled up after three to five years of submersion.
Visitors interested in learning more about the creation of pearls and pearl diving can head to the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm (tennesseeriverpearls.com) for a tour and a museum visit. Walk-in visitors learn about North America's only freshwater pearl farm by watching a video and by visiting the museum. A full tour lasts three to five hours and provides visitors with a full background of the organization and the process. The tour introduces guests to a local diver to learn about her profession and the role of mussels in the river ecosystem, as well as the farm manager to learn about how pearls are shucked from the mussels, sorted and shipped. The tour ends with a barbecue lunch and a visit to the museum and gift shop.
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