Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



A lustrous concretion produced by certain bivalve mollusks consists mostly of nacre, commonly called "mother of pearl," which is the substance forming the inner layers of mollusk shells. A tiny pearl inhabiting one of these is actually an abnormal growth, and begins with a foreign object such as a grain of sand that invades the body of the mollusk, acts as an irritant, and becomes covered by layers of material.

The thin layers of organic material are like onion skin. Discolored and imperfect outer layers can be peeled off, leaving a fine textured gem that can be black, gold, white, or opalescent green depending on the mineral eaten by the pearl forming mussel.

Thus a pearl is rare by any standards. The most valuable originate in some of the pearl oyster mollusks of the Persian Gulf. Western Australia and Japan have pearl industries, and there are dozens of North American pearl fisheries off Baja, Mexico and in the Gulf of Panama. Again, all these pearls are found in oyster shells.

Occasionally, river pearls develop in mussel shells, and China is the principal trader in river pearls. Although fresh water pearls are equally valuable and make high quality gems, finders of mussel pearls often pass them off as oyster pearls, as it is difficult to tell the difference, and buyers might not consider fresh water gems to be valid pearls.

According to a fascinating article printed in the Van Buren County Register on October 5, 1950 valuable pearls worth hundreds of dollars were at one time found in the Des Moines River bed near Douds and Eldon, as well as in the Skunk and Cedar rivers of Southeast Iowa. Although finding them involves long, muddy, tedious work, Bill Nelson of Farmington sold one for $500. River men commonly peddle the pearls in Chicago or back east without divulging their fresh water source or the location of their prize find.

A stretch of the Des Moines River with a rocky gravel bottom called the Pittsburg Shoal extends northward above the Pittsburg Bridge for about two miles and has been the best source of pearl discoveries in Van Buren County. Nelson said that decades of shelling and pollution of the river has made finding them exceedingly difficult and rare.

Mussels that develop pearls are not necessarily confined to Iowa rivers. In 1931, Darrell Loeffler accidentally discovered a large dark pearl in a mussel shell while fishing in Bennett's pond south of Keosauqua (just off the Bentonsport Road.) Several jewelers tried to buy his Van Buren gem, but Darrell wisely kept it. Years later, Harvey Spurgeon mounted the pearl into a beautiful ring which Darrell gave to his wife Laura to mark their pearl (30th) anniversary.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick