North America has a long history of natural pearling due to its very diverse and rich freshwater mussel resources. After the Civil War, pearl jewelry gained greater popularity in the United States than in Europe due in part to changing fashions, but more significantly influenced and supported by the discovery of freshwater pearls in U.S. rivers and lakes, especially in the southeastern states. The pearl was officially designated Tennessee’s state gem in 1979. 1
Tennessee’s freshwater pearl and mussel shell industry began with the outbreak of a “pearl rush” on the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee just before the turn of the century. 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.2
Although pearl mussels are among the most long-lived animals on the planet, living several decades and in some cases up to a century, since the end of World War I when dams were built along the major rivers and many Tennessee River tributaries, mussels lost their stable habitats, losing their shallow and swift shoals. Over-harvesting occurred during the prime of the mother-of-pearl button industry in Tennessee, the first third of the 20th century. Despite that, when the button industry came to an end in the 1950’s due to labor and cost issues, the commercial shell industry did not die with it.
Mussel shells from the Tennessee River played a key role in the creation of cultured pearls, formed when a piece of mussel shell is embedded in an oyster with the subsequent formation of a pearl.
To satisfy the high demand of the Japanese cultured pearl trade, many tons of American freshwater mussel shells were exported each year after World War II, peaking between the 1960’s and the 1990’s.
For traditional mussel divers, mussel hunting on a portion of the Tennessee River that passes through the Shoals used to be a way of life. As the number of mussels on the rivers has declined, it is unusual to find divers who collect freshwater mussels from the bottoms of waterways.
Mussel diving is a difficult and dangerous occupation as there is virtually no visibility. The divers must probe the river bottoms in the murky darkness, relying on their sense of touch to locate the mussels.
Tennessee River pearls are known for their beauty and durability. Today the mussel shells and river pearls are collected and crafted into jewelry and other art objects whereas a century ago they were crafted into cane handles.
Note: Published 9/25/2013, Center for Biological Diversity.
Tennessee River mussels now protected Endangered Species Act. Nearly 1,400 River miles protected in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.
“NASHVILLE, Tenn.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized Endangered Species Act protection today for two species of freshwater mussels in the Tennessee River watershed, including 1,380 river miles of critical habitat in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia. The decisions to protect the slabside pearlymussel and fluted kidneyshell result from a 2011 settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity requiring the agency to fast-track protection decisions for 757 imperiled plants and animals around the country.” For further information, please visit: