After visiting pearl farms in Asia, I was equally excited to visit a freshwater pearl Tennessee farm
right here in the USA.
Camden, Tennessee is about a 9 hour drive from my home in Muscatine, Iowa...that is without car trouble. John, Sarah and I, had a tad bit of that, allowing us to spend the night in Mediapolis, Illinois, hometown of “Superman.” It was great to see a giant statue of this All-American character and also look up a friend of John's.
Following map quest's great directions we found our way through Illinois, Kentucky and along the lovely winding forested road to freshwater pearl Tennessee farm at Birdsong Resort just in time to join in on a scheduled mini tour.
We arrived at the same time as a large bus load of senior citizens. Bob Keast, the big, friendly guy who owns Birdsong Resort, was out front greeting and directing folks.
Bob told us to “park in front of the boats”...so that's just what we did.
Birdsong Resort is a busy "do it all" place. They even grow pearls. And that's why we went.
We sort of joined in on two tours, first the spontaneous one with the elderly folks and then on one with some school children. Bob, a second generation owner of freshwater pearl Tennessee Pearl farm at Birdsong Resort, is this great kind of guy who was happy to spend lots of time with the bus load of people, showing them a video and explaining many things about freshwater pearls.
I was happy to see the video twice. The short video was a CBS Sunday morning documentary with Don Osborne, featuring paleontologist Neil Landman, “mollusk man,” one of the men responsible for the Pearls, A Natural History Exhibit which is now traveling the world. Presently, this exhibit is in Bahrain, which is a natural pearling center.
Landman says, “It's the time of democratization of the pearl,” meaning that they are no longer only for the wealthy, but today, all people can own pearls.
I'm glad to be alive in this period of time. I'm having a blast learning about pearls, writing this website about pearls, buying pearls, creating pearl jewelry, and selling pearls. If I lived just one hundred years ago, none of that would be possible...especially the website!
Birdsong pearl farm was a part of this video documentary, with Don Nerren, the happy-go-lucky freshwater pearl Tennessee farm manager shown flipping out a lustrous beautiful Tennessee freshwater pearl from a mussel, while saying, “Who says we can't grow pearls!”
Don's son, Dave, is one of the local mussel divers and on a longer tour folks get to see him dive. Dave's jewelry designs are also for sale in the pearl showroom.
After testing 300 bodies of water, the freshwater pearl Tennessee farm at Birdsong was started by John and Chessy Lantandresse in 1980. Several of John's pearls from his private collection are on display in the traveling pearl exhibit. I was especially thrilled to see his natural graduated pearl necklace plus other of his large natural pearls when I saw the exhibit in Tokyo.
The Lantendresses have turned down large offers for this fabulous natural pearl necklace. You can see a photo of this necklace and the Lantendresses in the August issue of 1985 National Geographic, page 218. This extensive 32 page article about pearls by Fred Ward, starts out at the freshwater pearl Tennessee River farm and near the end he again returns to John Latendresse's experiences with pearls. The article ends with a quote from Elizabeth Taylor and a full page photo of her wearing La Peregrina.
You may read about several of the Lantandresse pearls on my famous pearl page.
John Latendresse passed away in 2000 leaving his wife, daughters, Gina and Renee and son, J.K. to run the American Pearl Company in Nashville.
At the Birdsong pearl farm Bob shares tons of interesting facts about mussels and freshwater pearl Tennessee during his presentation and he's a natural comedian which makes listening and learning a joy. He says, “Farm is a four letter word and work is a four letter word...and that's just what a farm is...work.”
His question and answer style gets the group involved. “What two gems come from animals?” Yes, an elderly lady knew, “Pearls and Ivory.”
Bob explained that a mussel is capable of reproducing 1 million baby mussels per year and can live to be 75 years old growing as big as a dinner plate...now that's a lot of potential mussels. Of course, fish and other predators take their share. According to Bob, the chance of these mussels going extinct is little to none.
And the mussels themselves are Tennessee's “gifts from God,” allowing a huge export business. 90% of all the world's pearls start with a shell bead from an American mussel, which is very thick. Nine counties bordering the Tennessee river, with 250 divers, export from 25 million to 50 million pounds of shell each year to Japan, China, and Tahiti. Only certain sizes are gathered for export.
Just think you can buy a nucleated pearl half way around the world, but it probably got its start in the USA.
Pearl Museum--Notice Elizabeth Taylor wearing La Peregrina
Bob asks,”Why did God give us the mussel?” Nobody knew the answer to that one, so Bob explained that the mussel's primary job is to filter water. And that's what it does day in and day out by opening and shutting its “mouth.”
He tells us that pearls have always symbolize innocence and purity.
When it was question time, I had one. “How do mussels reproduce?” That's something I've often wondered about.
So Bob went into details how twice a year mussels give off microscopic glochidia (tiny mussels in the larval stage) which attaches to the gills of fish. The glochidia stays attached to the gills and travels where the fish travels. After a few weeks the colony all falls off at once in the same place and sinks into the soil at the river bottom. There the colony lives and grows with individual mussels never traveling more than 1 foot per year.
The Tennessee River has 125 different species of mussels. The washboard mussel is the most common one used for growing pearls.
In other countries most freshwater pearls are grown just with implanting a piece of mantle tissue in a mussel. And sea water pearls are grown with implanting both a shell bead and a piece of mantle tissue.
At Birdsong, the freshwater pearl Tennessee method they implement is implanting a shell shape...they have 25 different shapes...and a piece of mantle tissue. This yields a vast variety of modern pearl shapes popular in today's jewelry fashions.
The most popular style is the Dome' pearl which is a blister pearl shaped and made into jewelry.
We had plenty of time to enjoy the freshwater pearl Tennessee museum which houses interesting displays of shells...even a petrified mussel, publications, mother of pearl items and photos.
After the video and talk by Bob, we're invited down to the waterfront where they have a five to seven acre pearl farm, with 100,000 to 500,000 mussels in mesh bags hanging from PVC pipes, to see a mussel “shucked.”
Birdsong Pearl Farm
Here's where we met Don Nerren, the pearl farm manager we were introduced to in the CBS video. His plucky personality shines through as he shares freshwater pearl Tennessee facts: kaku is what the shell bead is called; here's a keshi pearl; our pearls never need bleaching and are durable enough to be cleaned along with the setting in ultra-sonic.
Wow...the fact that their pearls are that durable is very impressive.
Don with Net of Mussels
There are plenty of paper towels on hand to keep his hands clean while first opening the mussel by cutting its muscle and locating the pearls. Mussels are covered with plankton, which translates to slime and grime.
My crazy little camera wasn't behaving itself on this freshwater pearl Tennessee tour...so my video didn't turn out, but you can see pearls being shucked here.
Me with the “Freshwater Pearl Tennessee Guys”...Bob and Don.
After the pearl shucking I hung back...I'm always the last one it seems to move along on these tours...and enjoyed chatting with Don and taking a photo of the bamboo poles...uhhhhh, I mean, PVC pipes which are holding up the mussels that are growing pearls.
Back at the showroom I bought a sample freshwater pearl Tennessee. Let me know if you're interested in buying these here on my site.
If so, I'll consider that.
They have natural pearl jewelry for sale as well, and I enjoyed photographing this natural freshwater pearl Tennessee ring.
To show you what a friendly guy Bob is, he sat down next to my 14 year old Sarah, who had seen enough pearls for one day, and started tickling her feet!
It's little wonder that in 1979 Tennessee Governor Alexander named the “Pearl” the official Tennessee state gem.
So....why not plan an American road trip to Camden, Tennessee to visit Birdsong Resort Pearl Farm? Or, if you're from out of the country, its convenient location, 1 hour west of Nashville, would make for a great family vacation spot.
Learn more here about Tennessee River Pearls or sign up for a “Pearl of a Tour.”
Who knows? Maybe you'll be the next freshwater pearl Tennessee group to have your picture taken with Bob at the Birdsong Resort Pearl Farm.
Our Freshwater Pearl Tennessee Tour Group
I'm so glad that we grow pearls in the USA. I think more people should look into doing this. Yes, it's hard work, but wow...the pearls it yields are worth the effort.
Thanks to Bob and Don and the helpful salesgirls. You've got quite a freshwater pearl Tennessee place there!
Go to main pearl farm page after enjoying this page about this freshwater pearl Tennessee farm.
Read about Tennessee river pearls in history.