Robert Latendresse began Tennessee Shell Company in Camden in 1954 to ship Tennessee mollusk shells to Japan. There the shells were cut, ground into round beads, and inserted by Japanese pearl farmers into mollusks in Japan’s waters to be the nucleus of culturing pearls. The success of this arrangement led to shipments to China, Thailand, Indonesia, and other Pacific islands as well; and today all cultured pearl necklaces begin with beads from United States shells, and 60 percent of those beads come from Tennessee.
Once firmly established as a leading provider of Tennessee native shells to the East and as an importer/dealer of Japanese and Chinese pearls, Latendresse and his wife Chessy commenced extensive research and experimentation with growing their own fresh water cultured pearls in Tennessee. Two decades later, they had their first substantial harvest in 1985. By 1990 Latendresse sold Tennessee Shell Company and concentrated on a related business he began in 1961, American Pearl Company. It provides the only commercially available pearl culturing in the United States. Still family-owned and presided over by daughter Gina, this enterprise maintains pearl farms in Tennessee from which it markets loose pearls to U.S. and overseas designers as well as offering several lines of pearl jewelry and custom pieces.
Fred Ware, “The Pearl,” National Geographic 168 (August 1985): 193-223