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About Mother Of Pearl (guide)

The Pinctada, a unique oyster  

Pinctada is the scientific name given to pearl oysters, distinguishing them from edible oysters known as Ostreidae. This group includes Pinctada fucata martensi, the Akoya pearl oyster that yields small white pearls in Japan, and the larger South Seas oysters, Pinctada maxima, the silver- or gold-lipped pearl oyster.  The Tahitian pearl comes from Pinctada margaritifera of the variety cumingi, the black-lipped pearl oyster.

Other varieties of Pinctada margaritifera are found throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific as far east as the Persian Gulf and as far west as the Gulf of California.
What distinguishes a Pinctada margaritifera, variety cumingi?
That is the scientific name of the largest of the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster that produces Tahiti's magnificent cultured pearl. The key word in the name is cumingi, which is the variety of oyster found only in the lagoons of Tahiti & Her Islands. The name of this variety comes from the name of the man who first collected it, Hugh Cuming, a naturalist. This specific oyster is what gives Tahitian cultured pearls their spectacular wide range of colors, something the other non-cumingi varieties of Pinctada margaritifera cannot do anywhere else.

Grafting (The Human Touch)

There is only one difference between a spontaneously occurring pearl and a cultured pearl, and that it is at the very beginning of the process that creates a pearl.  Left to nature, some foreign body must find its way accidentally into the oyster in such a way that it cannot be dislodged, and the oyster then isolates the intruder over time in smooth layers of aragonite, or "mother of pearl".

The cultured pearl begins in the same way as the pearl in nature, with help from a highly skilled grafter at a pearl farm.  The grafter surgically inserts a spherical nucleus of mussel shell into the oyster to coax the oyster into creating a pearl.  After this moment, nature takes over and the pearl forms in exactly the same manner.  The oyster builds up successive layers of aragonite and conchiolin to create a pearl.  The color, the surface quality, the luster, these all depend on the interaction of the oyster and the environment just as it has for millenia.

Preparing the oysters The oysters are ready for grafting after three years of cultivation on the pearl farm. Before the grafting begins, each oyster is deprived of food for a few days in order to slow down their metabolism and lessen the risk of the grafting being rejected.

Preparing the nucleus
Next, nuclei measuring 2mm-12mm are cut from the shells of certain varieties of freshwater mussels and then smoothed so that they are perfectly spherical. The best nuclei come from a mussel that grows in the Mississippi River in the U.S.

The grafting process

The young oysters are stored in saltwater storage basins at the grafting laboratory. In this laboratory, highly trained technicians work in complete silence carrying out the surgical operations of grafting the nucleus into each oyster throughout the day.

The delicate process of grafting begins by cutting small squares of from the mantles of the donor oysters. A piece of the mantle is then inserted along with the mussel shell nucleus into the oyster's gonad which has been opened up for this delicate operation. The oyster is then massaged to speed up the healing process.

After the grafting

As the grafting is finished, the oysters are placed into individual pockets of a special net suspended in a different part of the lagoon. The individual pockets allow for the immediate detection of an oyster that has rejected the graft. The surviving oysters continue to receive constant attention.  The divers bring the oysters to the farm facilities at regular intervals to be cleaned, brushed down and then taken back to their resting place in the lagoon.

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