Girl with a Pearl: Ocean & Sea Conservation with Stephanie Maris Hicks, Founder of Maris Pearl Co.

By Stephanie Maris Hicks, Founder of Maris Pearl Co.

The first time I saw a baroque pearl I was 20, on a pilgrimage to my family’s ancestral island in Greece. I was enchanted by the idea that water had given the pearl its natural shape, and that no two would ever be alike. I bought the pearl, tied it around my neck on a simple gold chain, and the course of my life changed.

Maris means ‘of the sea’ in Latin. It is my maiden name, as well as a nod to my family’s ancestral ties to the Greek island of Andros. One hundred kilometers away from Athens and her famous Acropolis, across the temperamental Aegean Sea, Andros is dramatically different from its barren neighbors. The island is dotted with hidden ravines and waterfalls, and surrounded by some of the most diverse marine life in the Mediterranean.

It is here, beneath the surface, where our mission was founded. In 2018, an Athens-based NGO called Aegean Rebreath undertook an exploratory dive in the sea around Andros and discovered a nightmare. Beyond the whitewashed sea walls was a hidden mountain of debris: abandoned fishing nets drifted like specters above a plastic gulf where some of the Mediterranean’s rarest marine life struggled against plastic bags, old tires, and broken toilet seats.

Of the sea, for the sea

It is a Maris family tradition to give back to the island of Andros, and I viewed this discovery as a call to arms. As a global marketing professional with over 10 years of experience working for international brands and NGOs, I decided that I wanted to create a brand of my own with ocean conservation at its core to raise awareness about the plight of the Mediterranean Sea.

Maris Pearl Co. was founded in 2019 as an ocean-conscious studio dedicated to making a positive environmental impact. Pearls, a timeless symbol of beauty and connection to the sea, were the perfect conduits to raise awareness about ocean conservation. We launched with a single product: a baroque pearl on a simple gold chain.

Our brand was founded on several core values that it still upholds today: we donate a portion of every single sale to ocean conservation initiatives; we follow a strict code to ensure that our process is both ethical and sustainable; we partner with small, female-run businesses wherever possible; and we use our brand as a platform to educate and inspire our customers about ocean conservation. 

We are proud to partner with Aegean Rebreath to support their initiatives around the island of Andros by donating 5% of our total sales, as well as 50% of every sale of the organic net bags that we designed as an attractive alternative to single use plastics. Through these donations, we help sponsor educational activities, cleanup dives throughout the Mediterranean Sea, and research equipment, such as micro-plastic filtration devices.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the Mediterranean is among the seas with the highest levels of plastic pollution in the world. Greece, home to one of the world’s longest coastlines, produces roughly 700,000 tons of plastic waste a year—about 150 pounds per person. Of this staggering number, 11,500 tons of plastic waste ends up in the Mediterranean Sea every year.

The state of Andros’ seabed specifically is largely due to a defective landfill that toppled into the sea during rough weather, meaning that without policy change and new infrastructure, cleanup dives alone would be a temporary stopgap. Our current donations to Aegean Rebreath are made to support their efforts with the Greek Minister of Environment and the Andros Maritime Association.

Natural Pearls for Modern Muses

Picture a pair of pearl earrings, and I’ll describe them for you. I don’t need to be a mind reader to paint a very accurate portrait: round, white, perfectly symmetrical. The pearl industry follows standards of beauty that have been in place for thousands of years, with early records dating back to pearls being offered as gifts to Chinese royalty in 2300 BC.

Traditionally, pearls are graded based on their symmetry, their color, and their glow, what is referred to in the pearl industry as their luster. MARIS pearls differ from these traditional standards of beauty because we handpick every one for their natural shape and the liquid luster that has become our signature. For this reason, no two of our pearls are ever alike: our naturally shaped pearls are as unique as the woman who wears them.

Though our studio has grown over the past year, we continue to work with the same small, female-run suppliers that we launched with. Through these close relationships, we are able ensure that our pearls are ethically and sustainably cultivated, and that there is as little waste as possible.

Our freshwater pearls are raised in a symbiotic relationship with other marine life. As the pearl mollusks draw impurities from their freshwater surroundings, the marine plants thrive, providing shelter and food for an ecosystem of fish and other life forms. For this reason, pearl mollusks act as aquatic canaries: they cannot thrive in polluted or harsh conditions. Happy, healthy mollusks produce the most beautiful pearls.  

On the Horizon

A true muse, the sea has always been a source of wonderment, inspiration and hope. Just as our pearls are uniquely shaped by water, the sea has shaped our brand, as well as our foundational mission to steward our precious oceans.

There is still a great deal of work to be done both in our studio and through our partnerships. When MARIS launched last year, we made a point of using recyclable packaging and organic cotton bags. Today, we’re in the process of upgrading our packaging to feature acid-free tissue paper and algae-based ink, the world’s most sustainable, carbon-negative printing option on the market. As we make these discoveries for our brand, we hope to share them with other founders so that retail startups can build their foundations sustainably and responsibly.

As a founder, I am gratified by the feedback that we receive from our customers and retail partners. As another World Ocean’s Day arrives, we celebrate the opportunity to grow our community and add our voice to the global conversation. It is my dream to raise a pearl army of women across the world, united behind our mission to champion not just the Mediterranean Sea, but the entirety of our saltwater planet.

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