Are pearls vegan? And why should we care?

Are pearls vegan? We all know that pearls come from oysters, but I believe many vegans never make the connection. In this post, and in the accompanying video, I examine whether pearls are vegan, but also whether they are necessary. Pearls are a perfect example, in my opinion, of why it’s important to constantly re-examine our concepts of luxury to allow for new innovations.

I’m a little weird, so pearls were one of the first things I thought of when I decided to go vegan. Perhaps it’s because my name, Margaret, means pearl, and I think the origin is fascinating. It also relates in a strange way to the extreme rarity and value of natural pearls, as I will be discussing later in this article.

And yet, despite what I consider to be the ethical quagmire of pearl-farming, there are very few discussions of this topic online.

Are Oysters vegetables? And are Pearls Vegan?

Now, some vegan-ish people consider oysters and other bivalves some sort of vegetable because they have nerve ganglia rather than a brain. I don’t really want to get into that at the moment – it’s pretty clear that oysters aren’t vegetables.

But still, I understand that oysters may not be highest on your list of priorities when it comes to animal cruelty.

I think the real question here isn’t so much “are pearls vegan,” but “are natural pearls necessary or desirable.” In order to answer that question, let’s examine how pearls are made.

How are Pearls Made?

As you probably learned in school, pearls are naturally formed when a a parasitic worm burrows into an oyster.  Or any other mollusk, as a matter of fact. While researching this topic, I learned even snails can produce pearls. They just won’t be pearlescent.

But natural pearls are exceedingly rare. In fact, they were so prized in ancient times that the Greek word for pearl,  μαργαριτης (margaritas), is actually derived from sanskrit. Sanskrit is an even older language, and shows that pearls have been prized for as long as we’ve had language. It was a super popular name in the middle ages, but not so much today, if you hadn’t noticed.

How Commercial Pearl Farming Works

Today, pearls are made through a more invasive process. Since natural pearls are rare, and dangerous to find (plus wasteful – thousands of shells need to be opened in order to find good quality pearls) it’s much easier to grow them artificially.

Currently, we culture pearls by implanting a small round piece of oyster shell in the gonads of an oyster.

Ouch! While oysters don’t have a central nervous system, they do recognize the foreign object as a threat. In response, they produce a lustrous material called nacre that covers the foreign object and makes it less irritating to the animal.

In this day and age, I think it’s important to consider, not just the discomfort to the oyster, but the senseless waste in light of cruelty free alternatives. Despite of the best efforts of pearl farmers, only about 1/3 of oysters survive the first harvest. Saving the oysters would be much less expensive, but it’s impossible for pearl farmers. Consequently, the FAO reports that disease and other challenges result in most pearls being harvested by dissolving the oyster’s organs and collecting the pearl that way.

Follow Coco Chanel’s Lead, and make your pearls vegan

coco chanel first to make pearls vegan

When you consider the cost and cruelty of “genuine”pearls, artificial pearls start looking more attractive. Coco Chanel knew this instinctively, and wondered why women would limit themselves to “real” jewels, when the alternative was unlimited quantities of manmade ones.

Chanel was the first designer to make faux pearls a fashion statement. Modern women, she said, should wear jewelry because it makes them feel beautiful; not because it advertises their wealth. This modern vegan couldn’t agree more.

Why go faux

As with most jewellery, pearls are the product of cruelty. In the case of pearls, it’s only the oysters that suffer needlessly (or don’t, depending on how their nervous system operates). You’ve probably heard of blood diamonds, which fund conflicts across the globe. Where vastly overpriced commodities exist, human rights abuses will follow. In Colombia, for example there are challenges with the emerald trade as well.

I’m not really a jewellery person. But I’d encourage you to go for manmade gems or peruse estate sales, if you really want “genuine”stones.

Enjoy jewelry, but don’t be a victim of marketing

Jewelry is almost entirely marketing, something Coco Chanel instinctively recognized nearly one hundred years ago. Ever since less expensive alternatives came on the scene, marketers have been hard at work, convincing us “a diamond is forever.”

Pearls, like ivory, is a relic of the past. It’s expensive, wasteful and unnecessary. Embrace Coco Chanel’s wise dictum:

Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.

– Coco Chanel

What could be more vulgar than such a pointless waste of life (and money)?

I really hope that we’ll move on.


What do you think? Join the conversation!

    • It’s true that she used leather and fur (most people did at that time), but she was ahead of her time in realizing that synthetic materials were just as good. If she’d lived in a later era, she may well have promoted synthetic leather and faux fur as well. I don’t think it’s fair to judge historical figures because they don’t live up to standards we might accept today. I prefer to take the good where I can find it.

  1. I interest I’m what faux pearls re made of – are they vegan? I don’t have a problem if celebrating the world around is by reflecting it’s gorgeousness, in a kind way!!

    • Hi Sarah! It depends on the type of faux pearl. Most faux pearls are made of painted glass beads, and those are vegan. The kind you want to avoid are Majorica pearls. Majorica pearls (also sometimes called majorca pearls) are made from glass beads that are dipped in a fish scale or mother of pearl mixture, and so they aren’t vegan. Majorica pearls are usually more expensive, and they’ll always be labelled “majorica” or “majorca,” because there’s a lot of brand recognition. Swarovski is one brand I know that uses 100% faux vegan pearls. They look great, and unlike real pearls, they are resistant to sweat, perfume and a host of other things that damage real pearls. I hope that helps!