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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