Revisiting Gulf pearl industry

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Updated 22 May 2013

Revisiting Gulf pearl industry

Impressive! Remarkable! “Sea of Pearls” is indeed a masterpiece! This long awaited book examines for the first time, the social and historical context of the pearl industry in the Gulf from its origins to its demise. Lavishly illustrated, and thoroughly researched, “Sea of Pearls” is indeed the definitive book on the history of the pearling industry in the Gulf.
The discovery of a 7,000-year-old pearl at a Neolithic site in Kuwait triggered the author’s passionate interest in the pearling industry from its ancient beginnings to the 20th century.
“What I found was one of the most extraordinary stories of specialization and joint endeavor in the history of any region of the world, spanning more than seven millennia… Pearling dominated the thoughts and way of life of nearly all the coastal inhabitants of the Gulf for centuries, and over the last three hundred years, it completely reshaped the social, political and historical configuration of the Gulf…” Robert Carter says.
Seven thousand years ago, during the Neolithic, pearls were already sought after for their beauty. The pearling industry, however, became known at the end of the 4th century BC and by the 1st century AD, it was already well established. Pearls had become luxury goods and were worn by both men and women.
The Gulf had earned, through the preceding centuries, the reputation of providing the most beautiful pearls and with the arrival of the Portuguese in the region, pearls became a truly global commodity.
Around 1665, two to three thousand pearling boats were based in Bahrain alone. The Gulf was the unrivaled supplier of pearls providing from 65 percent to 80 percent of the world’s pearls.
A brief look at 16th and 17th paintings of European rulers and elites shows how much pearls were highly valued. India was also a great market for pearls. Portraits of Indian rulers highlight the breathtaking pearl jewelry worn by the maharajahs.
This is especially true of the Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. His magnificent seven-string necklace of large lustrous pearls photographed in 1911 would have cost over a million dollars at the time.
Until the advent of Japanese cultured pearls, nearly all the pearls worn by men and women in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and America came from the Gulf. Buyers were prepared to pay a lot like the American industrialist, Horace E. Dodge who purchased a five-strand necklace of 389 pearls in 1920 for his wife. He paid $ 825,000, the equivalent of $ 60 to $ 80 million today. These unique pearls once belonged to the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
Another famous pearl is La Peregrina, (The Wanderer). It was owned by Phillip II of Spain who gave it to Queen Mary of England. After the queen’s death, the pearl was returned to Spain then taken to France where it was sold by Napoleon to the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn. La Peregrina was subsequently bought by the film star, Richard Burton for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. This large pearl with a setting by Cartier of rubies and diamonds was sold in 2011, for 7.6 million pounds at Christie’s, New York.
The collapse of the pearling industry took place gradually. It began at the end of the 19th century when Kokichi Mikimoto was perfecting the art of culturing pearls in Japan. The industry also suffered subsequently, two major setbacks: First, the shutting down of the global markets during the First World War, and the second, was the temporary closure of the Indian market following Indian independence.
By 1939, pearling had almost completely disappeared in the ports of Saudi Arabia and by the 1960s, this traditional industry finally died in the rest of the Gulf.
Although pearls conjure images of luxury and exoticism, those who had observed the industry closely, denounced its cruel hardships. Alan Villiers, in particular, criticized virulently the pearl diver’s working conditions in “Sons of Sindbad” (Arabian Publishing).
The pearling industry, he said: “was accompanied by hardships almost intolerable by risk to health and life and limb, and its rewards were scanty, often distributed most unfairly, and sometimes withheld from their rightful owners altogether… If there must be pearls, let them be dredged… I had seen quite enough of pearling and found nothing to admire in that romantic industry, except the courage and fortitude of the crew.”
Throughout the centuries, divers were sustained by the hope of finding a great pearl. Although this happened rarely, it did actually happen to a Kuwaiti indebted diver, Ali Al Dubs. With profits he made from the sale of this large pearl (4.2-4.6 g), the lucky diver paid off his debts, built a house, bought a car and became a diving instructor!
As a final but ironic twist of fate, Robert Carter tells us “the Mikomoto family has recently been approaching pearl merchants in Bahrain, seeking new stocks of natural pearls. It is rumoured that competition from Chinese and South East Asian cultured pearls businesses hassled them to consider promoting the natural pearl again.”
To read this book is a true self-indulging pleasure. It is a real pearl!

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At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”