Are Pearls Vegan? [Plus Vegan-Friendly Pearl Substitutes]

Can vegans wear pearls?

Oysters can create multiple pearls over their lifetime. On pearl farms, oyster are protected from predators by being placed in nets that can be raised and lowered.

That begs the question, are pearls vegan? No, pearls are not vegan because they are a product from an animal. Many oysters die during the pearl-making process so pearls are not vegan-friendly.

Below I’ll cover the pearl making process and give examples of vegan-friendly pearl substitutes.

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cream cultured pearl necklace on a white background

How are pearls made?

Natural pearls are exceedingly rare so most pearls on the market considered “cultured.” Pearls are made by placing a small round bead or piece of oyster shell inside of an oyster.

Some of the oysters die during the nucleation process. Clams can create pearls too but it’s less common so they aren’t used in commercial pearl farming.

This shell piece is an irritant to the oyster so they start producing a protective crystalline nacre that coats and encapsulates the foreign object. Over time this builds up and it creates the pearl that is then harvested.

It can take between 2-5 years for a pearl to be formed to the desired size. In order to speed up the nacre process, the oyster farmers may change the water type or temperature in order to stress the oysters.

Do oysters feel pain when making pearls?

Oysters are invertebrates and don’t have a central nervous system like humans do. There isn’t a scientific consensus yet as to whether oysters feel pain and irritation like we do.

The nacre that oysters create is an autoimmune response to a foreign object, much like the white blood cells our own bodies send out when we get a splinter.

Even if pearl creation isn’t painful to oysters, the biggest vegan issue lies with pearl harvesting.

Do oysters die when you remove the pearl?

A pearl is harvested by opening up the oyster’s shell and removing the pearl. If the oyster produces excellent pearls and is young, this will be done carefully so that the oyster can repeat the pearl-making process again.

If the oyster has stopped producing valuable pearls, it is discarded and dies. An oyster that is in this system will make pearls until they can’t anymore and then will be killed.

Every harvesting season an estimated 1/3 of oysters are discarded for meat and shell usage rather than being released into the ocean.

Are pearls cancer to clams?

This is a question that became popular on social media. The short answer is no, pearls are not cancer to clams.

Clams are a type of mollusk similar to oysters. Clams aren’t used in commercial cultured pearl productions because pearls are not a common occurrence in clams.

For a pearl to be formed in a clam, a foreign object like a piece of sand or debris has to have gotten lodged into the clam. This creates an autoimmune response by the clam.

The clam creates a protective nacre around the foreign object so that it won’t cause irritation or harm to them. This response is more similarly equated to a human with a splinter rather than cancer.

Are pearls ethical?

The pearl creation process involves exploiting oysters for human use. Many of the oysters die during the pearl culturing process so pearls cannot be called ethical.

When the oysters have outlasted their usefulness in pearl creation, instead of being release back into the sea, they’re harvest for food usage and shell usage for mother of pearl.


Is Mother of Pearl vegan?

Mother of Pearl is the iridescent layer inside the shell of a mollusk such as a pearl oyster, abalone, and freshwater mussels. The iridescent layer is created by the same nacre that gives pearls their beauty.

No, mother of pearl is not vegan. In order to harvest mother of pearl, the oyster is killed for the shells to be used.

Is abalone shell vegan?

Similar to mother of pearl, abalone shell is the colorful nacre that coats the inside portion of a mollusk’s shell. Abalone shell is not vegan since the mollusk must be killed in order to harvest the shell.

Are faux or synthetic pearls vegan?

Some faux pearls are vegan while other synthetic pearls are not. Let’s look at some of the most common types of cultured pearl alternatives more closely.

Majorica Pearls

Majorica pearls are sometimes called Majorca pearls. They are a brand registered in Spain who’s faux pearls most closely resemble real pearls.

You can find this brand of synthetic pearl at department stores.

They achieve this similarity by coating each bead in a fish scale or mother of pearl mixture thus making them not vegan.

Verdict: Majorca Pearls Are Not Vegan

Glass Bead Faux Pearls

It can be difficult to tell if a generic faux pearl is vegan or not. Most faux pearls are made from glass beads and coated in a paint or lacquer.

If the pearl bead has any iridescence then it may also be coated in a non-vegan fish scale or mother of pearl coating.

Verdict: Glass Bead Faux Pearls Are Hard To Tell

Swarovski Pearls

Swarovski pearls are made with a crystal core and have a proprietary vegan-friendly iridescent coating.

These crystal pearls are so similar to cultured pearls that most people won’t be able to tell. Swarovski’s pearl designs are high end and hold up well. I emailed the company myself to confirm.

Verdict: Swarovski Pearls Are Vegan


Vegan-Friendly Jewelry To Wear Instead Of Cultured Pearls

Now that you know that cultured pearls are not vegan, what jewelry can you wear instead? A combination of Swarovski pearls, vintage pearls, and beaded jewelry is your best option.

Vintage Pearls

Wearing vintage pearls is an option for someone who really wants authentic pearls but doesn’t want to contribute to the new pearl market.

Borrowing friends’ pearl jewelry is a way to temporarily have pearls for a special event. Many vegans don’t want to wear any animal products, even borrowed, so this isn’t an option for anyone.

Swarovski Pearls

Swarovski pearls will be the closest you can get to authentic pearls but without the animal cruelty. Their pearl jewelry designs are modern and fun.

Swarovski sells loose pearls in the bead market so you can make your own pearl design or have someone make you what you envision.

Beaded Jewelry

If it’s the look of a beaded necklace you’re going for, you can achieve this without pearls. Stone beads come in every color and size so you can recreate the look you were going for without pearls.

Conclusion

There is sometimes confusion on whether pearls are vegan but they are clearly not vegan since they come from an animal. Luckily, there are pearl alternatives vegans can use to get the same look of pearls.

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Stephanie Mantilla

Plant-Based Diet & Vegan Lifestyle Expert

Stephanie is the founder of Plant Prosperous, a plant-based vegan living, and parenting blog. She has been eating a plant-based diet for over 24 years along with a B.S. in Biology & Environmental Science. Stephanie is currently raising her son on a plant-based diet and hopes to help others who are wanting to do the same. You can read more about her here.

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