Culturing Quahog Pearls

Brendan Breen is the first person to culture pearls in Rhode Island’s official state mollusk, the quahog.

When Brendan Breen was a teenager, he worked as a commercial fisherman, owned his own fishing boat and put in time at a Massachusetts aquaculture business. By the time he got to college, he knew he wanted to do something entrepreneurial related to the fishing industry, but couldn’t figure out what. Then, during an aquaculture class at the University of Rhode Island, he learned how oysters make pearls — and, more importantly, how to artificially trigger that process — and was instantly energized. With that lesson in pearl culturing, he found what he was looking for.

The Newport resident decided to become the first person to culture pearls in Rhode Island’s official state mollusk, the quahog. “I’m surprised that no one had even tried it before, because the anatomy of the quahog is similar to the oyster,” he says. “I figured there was no reason why I couldn’t do it myself.”

It wasn’t easy. With funding from a URI undergraduate research grant, he spent every available hour of his junior year studying mollusk biology and pearl culture, and then worked in a lab devising a method to induce the quahogs to make pearls.

“I had to be creative and figure it out for myself,” Breen says. “I had some mortalities in the beginning, but then I got to a point where I felt my method was pretty good. So I let the clams grow, and when I came back for my senior year, I continued minding them and taking notes. Just before winter break, I harvested some of them, and I was overjoyed to find that they had produced quahog pearls down to a T.”

A year later, he has a patent pending on his pearl culturing process and a start-up company he calls Mercenaria (, after the Latin name for quahogs. While working full time as a seafood importer, he is culturing pearls as fast as he can at an undisclosed aquaculture farm somewhere in Southern New England. The 18-month process means he won’t have pearls ready to sell until 2020, but that is giving him the time he needs to find business partners, jewelry designers and others with the expertise to help him build his business.

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