National Geographic : 1985 Aug
The land of the Pearl River revived its traditionof pearl cultivationin the late 1960s, and today China leads the world in production offreshwaterpearls-50 to 80 tons this year. The pearls of myriad colors and shapesfrom its native sankaku and kurasu mussels have made a splash in the U. S. market, andJapan will buy as many as 12 tons to augment its dwindlingfreshwater harvest, only aboutfive tons in 1984. Criticizedfor stressingquantity over quality, the government-controlled Chinese industry works to improve culturingmethods and has built an artificiallake for research60 kilometers 214 southwest of Shanghai.Low-tech, labor-intensiveoperations characterizeChina'spearl business. When not fish-farming,Han Gen Sheng (below) tends his crop of 7,000 mussels-each hangingfrom its own string-on a pond in a hamlet near Shanghai.After two years the mussels are returnedto a government center for pearl harvesting. Most of the country's pearls are sorted, drilled,and strungin four Shanghai factories. Teenage workers do some of the drillingwith metal bit and bow saw (right), economicalbecause they are paid 16 cents an hour.