Recently the world’s oldest pearl was discovered in an excavation in the Persian Gulf near Abu Dhabi. The tiny pink pearl is only 3mm, which may seem insignificant, but it provides us with evidence that the Arabian pearl industry stretches back an incredible 8000 years.
Harvesting natural pearls is quite an undertaking. Pearl boats would go out to the natural pearl beds for months at a time and the divers would do up to 200 dives a day, descending to the bottom and collecting as many shells as they could carry back to the surface on a single breath. With only around one in a hundred oysters producing a natural pearl the hit rate was rather low but it was still a vastly successful industry with pearls exported via the silk road to India, Persia and Europe. Of all the natural pearls ever harvested in the world it's estimated that at least 70% are from the Persian Gulf.
But by the 1970s this ancient pearl industry had been completely obliterated, eclipsed by the oil boom and the invention of cultured pearls in Japan. It was a great deal easier to make money from oil and so Arabian pearls disappeared from the market. Which is probably why I had never heard of such a thing as an Arabian pearl until I chanced upon an advert for the Suwaidi pearl farm during our brief sojourn to Dubai. It was started in 2004 by Abdulla Al Suwaidi, the grandson of one of the last commercial pearl divers in the gulf, with the intention of reviving the Arabian pearl industry and restoring his family’s connection to the sea.
I wasted no time booking us a tour of the farm paying little heed to the fact that it was the middle of the Arabian summer, which is how we found ourselves one fine Saturday morning standing on a deserted dock in Ras Al Khaimah in over 40 degrees Celsius. Despite us being the only crazy tour takers Suwaidi Pearls put on the full show starting with a Dhow trip around the mangroves with coffee and dates, which is traditionally all the pearl divers would have had to sustain them for a full day of diving. We couldn’t see the pearl seeding process (where a bead nucleus is inserted into the oyster) because all the highly skilled seeders had gone back to Japan to wait out the insane Arabian summer heat, but we did get to open a few oysters to search for pearls which was purely magical and of course I couldn’t resist buying one. After much deliberation I selected a very pretty silver colour baroque teardrop to make into a pendant. It was a tough choice.
Arabian pearls come from the Pinctada radiata, which is the pearl oyster that occurs naturally in the Persian Gulf and is different to the oyster used to culture Akoya pearls in Japan. Arabian pearls are slightly heavier than Akoya pearls and grow a lot faster in the warmer water, what takes 12 months in Japan only takes around 3 months in the Persian Gulf. Suwaidi Pearls are producing around 40,000 pearls a year. That’s really not a lot - around 20 tonnes of Akoya, 13 tonnes of South Sea and 6-700 tonnes of Freshwater pearls are produced each year. The 40,000 Arabian pearls equate to just 24kg.
If you happen to find yourself in Dubai I urge you to book a tour of Suwaidi Pearls, they are passionate about the revival of pearling in the Persian Gulf and if you decide to purchase a pearl or two you'll come away with a piece of Arabian pearl history.
Video following the process of culturing Arabian pearls.
The ‘Abu Dhabi Pearl’ is on display until February 2020 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of the ’10 000 years of luxury’ exhibition.
hunting for pearls at Suwaidi Pearls in the Arabian Gulf