“Are pearls mummified parasites?”

The Five-Year-Old's favorite pearl necklace. It's not made from mummified parasites, but rather glass, wax and essence d'orient, which turns out to be a pearly coating made from fish scales. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Five-Year-Old’s favorite pearl necklace. It’s not made from mummified parasites, but rather glass, wax and essence d’orient, which turns out to be a pearly coating made from fish scales. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Five-Year-Old, putting on her favorite pearl necklace on a recent Sunday morning: “Mommyo, did you know pearls are mummified parasites?”

Mommyo: “Really?”

The Five-Year-Old: “Yep. Just ask the iPhone.”

And so I did.

And what do you know — she’s right, mostly. Naturally occurring pearls are not the result of random bits of grit making their way into an oyster’s mouth–most of the time the oyster just spits those out–but rather a mollusk’s way of defending against drilling worms and wayward food particles that become trapped in its shell. Since the mollusk can’t simply eject the particle, the affected oyster, clam or mussel coats it with layers of aragonite and conchiolin — the same two substances it uses to create its own shell. Over time the coating transforms the icky invader into a pearl prized by collectors around the world.

As you might have guessed, this is pretty much the same process used to create cultivated pearls, with the exception that the round bead or scrap of shell triggering the coating process is implanted by human hands, not laid by random chance. (Naturally occurring pearls are quite rare, with only 1 in 10,000 mollusks ever creating one.)

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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