Tennessee’s Freshwater Mussel Pearls: The Gems of the Rivers

Mussel pic Don Hubbs TWRA Harpeth2006 004
Just below the surface of the waters of Tennessee’s rivers lay hidden gems that have captivated both history and imagination for centuries. Freshwater mussel pearls, exquisite natural gems formed within these unassuming shells, have held a unique place in the region’s heritage, shaping industries and traditions while leaving an indelible mark on the state’s landscapes and waterways.
Photo: Don Hobbs,TWRA, 2006
The history of freshwater mussel pearls in Tennessee dates back to the early 1850s, when these shimmering gems were discovered within the rivers and the search for freshwater pearls generated bursts of activity in Tennessee river towns. These pearls, often smaller than their saltwater counterparts, held a unique luster and charm that intrigued locals and traders alike. As word of these natural marvels spread, a burgeoning pearling industry emerged along Tennessee’s riverbanks, drawing attention for its beauty and economic potential.

Pearling became a significant trade in Tennessee, as the pearls found within the freshwater mussels gained prominence for their distinctiveness. As they became the must-have fashion item, river communities witnessed a surge in pearling activities and more individuals ventured into the waters in pursuit of these natural treasures. The industry not only provided a source of income for many but also became an integral part of Tennessee’s cultural identity. The period from 1895 to 1936 was the beginning of Tennessee’s prominence as one of the nation’s leading states in pearl marketing and production.

Among the various uses of freshwater mussel pearls, one notable application was in the creation of buttons from the shell of the mussel and mother of pearl layer lining found inside it. The durable and aesthetically pleasing nature of these pearls made them an ideal choice for adorning garments and this fashion statement was at its height in the early 1900s. The pearling industry met the demands of fashion, supplying a substantial quantity of buttons made from these shimmering gems, without thought of the rivers, these creatures, or the impact their fashion trend was having.

However, the widespread exploitation of freshwater mussels for pearls and buttons had consequences. The nearly insatiable demand for these pearls led to overharvesting, resulting in a significant decline in mussel populations, even pushing some species to the brink of extinction, and the deterioration of river ecosystems. The once-thriving industry began to falter as the resources it depended on diminished.
Photo: TWRA

The repercussions of the pearling industry’s unchecked harvesting practices emphasize the importance of conservation efforts. Organizations and initiatives have since emerged to protect and restore Tennessee’s freshwater mussel populations and their habitats, many mussel species are now considered endangered or threatened; some have populations limited to only one or two sites.

The composition of entire waterways including appearance and even the smell changes if freshwater mussels are not present to create favorable habitat conditions. This impacts everything from the fish we can catch and consume from those waterways to the water we drink; not to mention the other creatures who depend on this habitat!
Today, while the pearling industry has significantly declined due to conservation efforts and changing fashion trends, the legacy of Tennessee’s freshwater mussel pearls endures. These natural gems continue to be a symbol of the state’s rich heritage, reminding us of the delicate balance between human endeavors and the preservation of nature’s wonders.
Tennessee State Gem: Pearl
Credit: Tennessee River Pearls
So while mussels and pearls might seem small and rather insignificant they are incredibly important in our work to provide clean water and healthy ecosystems to the rivers in Tennessee. They truly are one of our most precious gems!