American pearls come from a variety of places all over the U.S., especially the ocean waters off the east, west and Gulf coasts and the freshwater rivers throughout the country. There have been pearls discovered in the Mississippi River, Tennessee River and many lakes and tributaries.
Picture it, if you can: The Native American people were covered in freshwater pearls when the new world was discovered by explorers in the 1400 and 1500s.
Archaeologist Dr. Juliet Morrow says, "Freshwater pearls were highly valued in the late Mississipian period. They were probably being used in that time period, 1350-1550, because there have been burials found with strings of pearls." The Native American ate a lot of mussels from freshwater rivers, they used the shells as tools, especially for digging, or as spoons. They prized their freshwater pearl finds as witnessed in the discovery of a burial site in Oklahoma where a bushel basket of pearls were discovered. Pearls have also been discovered in other burial sites from this time period.
The explorers to the U.S. exported many of the American natural pearls to the European royalty that had funded their expeditions. (I marvel at how many American pearls must be in the European royal jewelry collections!).
Despite the wealth of pearls that the native Americans had discovered, truthfully, natural pearls are incredibly difficult to find. The wealth of pearls that any one group or person possesses is usually the result of years of discovery. On average one out of 1000 mollusks carry a natural pearl. And it is usually certain species that are more likely to have a pearl.
It is not just oysters that produce pearls, a variety of bivalve mollusks can produce pearls and they can be created in both saltwater oceans or freshwater streams and rivers.
Our current supply of All-American pearls come from the Tennessee River where divers dive for mussel shells to export. The reason we are able to find these pearls is because divers are actively looking for shells. This industry has declined considerably as the international demand has fallen. Fewer pearl divers and fewer shell discoveries means it is becoming harder and harder to find natural pearls. Soon, it will become incredibly difficult to find any more natural pearls in the U.S. Or, any major supply of them.
So, our southern American pearls come from the pearl divers who have been diving for years in these waters. They have saved their natural pearl discoveries and have been gracious to work with us to turn these natural American pearls into small works of wearable art.