Sea's Nacre

Several brands in the UAE are reviving the country's pearl trade today



20 September 2012

Since antiquity, the Gulf has been prized for its pearls. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, dated to the seventh century B.C., the hero is described diving into the depths of the sea with weights tied to his feet to retrieve the ‘flower of immortality.’ In the first century A.D., Pliny declared that pearls were the most prized goods in Roman society, with those from the Gulf being the most esteemed. This early fascination with pearls also transcended earthly concerns: the Bible likens heaven to a "pearl of great price" while the Holy Quran promises pearls in paradise. Yet for the men who harvested the pearl, it was more than an object of beauty; it was a way of life, and for people who were poor and suffered the continuous harshness of the desert climate, the pearl offered the possibility of great wealth. But in order to source these beautiful natural creations, men would often risk their life.

Rich heritage
Known as the lulu, or locally quamashah, it isn’t clear exactly when people of the Emirates began to first harvest pearl oysters. Individual pearls have been discovered on archaeological sites which date back to around 7,000 years ago. In 1154, the Arab writer Al-Idrisi mentions that Julfar, in Ras Al-Khaimah, was already an established pearl centre. Other early documents state that Julfar had become known far and wide for its pearls. According to the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa in 1517, “Here [Julfar] is a very great fishery as well, of seed pearls as of large pearls; and the Moors of Hormuz come hither to buy them and carry them to India and many other lands.” The growing interest of European Gulf pearls finally led the Venetian state jeweller, Gasparo Balbi, to the Emirates in 1580 to uncover the majestic beauty and wealth of these prized creations of the sea.

While renowned traders in distant lands were captivated by Gulf pearls, for the inhabitants of the region, pearling provided seasonal, often risky, employment, and one which was regarded as an activity of status. The general term for the pearl fishery was ghaus, meaning ‘diving,’ and all the individuals who engaged in pearl diving were known as ghawawis. Outsiders were forbidden to take part in the activity without first obtaining permission from the local rulers. Those who plunged into the sea could rely only on breath-holding, with no modern diving equipment. Boats under the authority of the Sheikh would head out to sea during the beginning of June and would return towards the end of September, some 120 days later.

Despite the rich heritage associated with pearl diving, life was very hard for the divers. Divers would go into the water about an hour after sunrise, having eaten a small breakfast of coffee and dates. They’d often continue the activity until just before sunset, pausing only for prayers, coffee and a short rest around midday. To reach the seabed, the diver would peg his nose with clips made from a turtle’s shell, plug his ears with wax, and cast himself to the bottom of the sea with a stone attached to his foot. When under, he would quickly fill a basket in as little as one or two minutes, with as many shells as possible and would signal, by a tug on his rope, when it was time for him to be brought back up to the surface. The diver would then rest briefly in the water before plunging down once again.

In the Middle Ages, Bahrain and Julfar were the main trading centres for pearls because of their natural resources and manpower. Pearls from the region were soon exported to India, Persia and Turkey as well as sold in the Chinese and European markets. During the mid-18th century, the Gulf’s pearl industry blossomed as it integrated into other markets such as Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. According to numerous reports, in Dubai, the number of ships more than tripled to 335 between 1844 and 1907, making the city a major trade centre. The value of pearls was steadfastly increasing and was soon comparable to gold weight for weight. The Bank of England states that in 1917, in the Mumbai market, a single gram of quality Gulf pearls was equivalent in value to approximately 320 grams of gold or 7.7 kilograms of silver.

Modern reinterpretations
However, the boom of the Gulf pearl industry was tragically cut short when oil exploration, pollution and over-fishing led to the collapse of the industry in the late 1950s. In addition, the Gulf trade saw stiff competition in the early 19th century from Japan. Japanese fisherman began culturing pearls and seeded oysters with irritants in order to speed up their growth, thus providing a cheap alternative to the naturally sourced pearls from the Gulf which were so difficult to obtain.

I believe the last dhows set out in as late as the 1950s for their final season of pearl fishing,” recounts Susan Frost, the owner of the Dubai-based Pinctada Pearls. “The days of pearling are so recent in UAE history that you may still find Emirati families whose grandfathers were connected to the natural pearling industry.” Pinctada, whose 15-year history has recently seen it become the official jeweller to the Dubai World Cup, specializes in South Sea Pearls.”Pearls are now more popular than ever, and there are currently many souk jewellery retailers in Dubai that sell South Sea pearls,” adds Frost. While Pinctada sources its pearls from farmers in Australia and Tahiti, Frost proudly asserts that the company designs and crafts all of its jewellery in Dubai – the “City of God,” she says.

Pearls are now making a comeback on the Dubai market. Jewellery is booming business in the city which is home to the region’s biggest gold souks where shoppers can find gold, silver, gemstones and pearls sold at countless stands as well as within the folds of local women’s ornate abayas. Along with Pinctada, Jewelar, Paspaley and Mikimoto are other top global pearl producers who have set up shop in Dubai. In addition, in 2004, Japanese Imura Daiji and Abdulla Rashid al Suwaidi from Ras Al-Khaimah established the Emirates and Japan Pearl Cultivation and Trading Company prompting the harvesting of now tens of thousands of pearls on a farm in the village of Rams off the coast of Ras Al-Khaimah. Dubai is strategically located between Europe, still a major pearl consumer market, and Asia, where most pearls are harvested, thus continuing to stand as a vital location for pearl brands. The rich cultural and commercial heritage of the pearl industry can thus still be felt within the region. The enchantments in the sea for which divers risked their lives are very much a part of the UAE’s modern-day identity as well one of its prized commodities.