Anywhere you find rivers you can find pearls. That includes all rivers in the United States. John Latendresse started US freshwater pearl farming in 1954.
In 1961, John Latendresse founded the American Pearl Company® Inc. in Camden, Tennessee. The company expanded to Nashville, Tennessee in 1991 after Mr. Latendresse’s death in 2000. He was a pioneer and doyen of pearl culturing in the US. John’s experience ranged throughout the entire scope of pearl production, natural as well as cultured, from salt water to fresh water. The company has reaped many, many pearls that are for sale today.
Freshwater pearls are the only gemstone from animal origin. John tested over 300 bodies of water for ideal conditions before settling on the final selection of the initial eight locations to begin attempting culturing. Success levels were measured and compared. As fate would have it, the prime location for production was only five miles from his home in the placid embayment of Birdsong Creek in Camden, Tennessee.
John was told at one time, “there is no way you’ll be able to start a pearl farm in the United States.” But, he was bound and determined to do just that. His first successful harvest was in 1986. Today, the freshwater pearl has the prestige of being the official gemstone of Tennessee.
The mussel, the animal used for culturing freshwater pearls, is native to the Tennessee River. The two species most frequently used in the culturing process are commonly referred to as the Washboard and Pigtoe varieties.
Mussels are gathered by local divers from the murky river bottom and sold to the pearl farm operation. They are then placed in an environment to stabilize their equilibrium for implantation. Skilled technicians surgically implant the irritant, nuclei, into the mantle tissue of the mussel.
The bead nuclei are made from the shells of previously harvested mussels from the Tennessee River. The empty shells are sliced into cubes and tumbled into spheres or other shapes like coins, crosses, sticks, baroque, triangle, hearts, marque, etc. The size of the finished pearl depends on the size of the bead implant. Therefore a 12mm cultured pearl must start with a shell-bead of 10mm. To cut a bead this size, the mussel shell must be around 75 years old.
Mussels live only three to eight hours out of the water so the implanting process is rapid. Up to 10 nuclei can be implanted into each mussel depending on the size and age of the mussel. Farms in China have been known to implant as many as 50 per mussel but Latendresse finds better success rate at 10.
Implanted mussels, in groups of approximately 18, are placed back into nets and lowered into the water after the nets are tagged and numbered. They are suspended 18” below the water’s surface, held by PVC pipe (American bamboo), and left for 18 months to three years depending on the quality desired.
The bi-vales’ only purpose in life is to filter the muddy, murky waters of the Tennessee River. Occasionally, when consuming an organic, foreign object like a parasite, a totally natural pearl can be formed. A natural pearl is solid nacre, while a cultured pearl has nacre only around the implant. Nacre is a secretion produced by the mussel to protect itself from foreign objects. It is what gives a pearl its unique iridescence and luster.
Freshwater pearls from the Tennessee River vary in natural color with various shades of white, cream, yellow, purple, pink and blue. Environment and shell lining determine the color.
Latendresse’s wife, Chessy, daughters Gina and Renee, and son J.K. are involved in the on-going operations of the American Pearl Company. The farm is now in the possession of Robert G. Keast, owner of Birdsong Resort, Marina and Pearl Farm. The farm is open to the public for tours in Camden, Tennessee. (731-584-7880)
With freshwater pearl farming within driving distance, what better opportunity to experience this wonderful process. Birdsong Resort and Marina in Camden, TN is open from May through October.
The more you learn about pearls, the more creative ways you can think to use them. Remember, these are not your grandmother’s pearls so think outside the box.