For centuries, the world’s finest pearls came from a small island country seated near the western shores of the Persian Gulf. The waters off the shores of the Kingdom of Bahrain – a unique combination of freshwater springs and warm, highly saline seawater – proved the perfect alchemy for spectacularly rich, lustrous, natural pearls. Legends of these pearls date to classical times and appear in ancient Mesopotamian and Greek texts. The golden age of pearls from Bahrain peaked in the 19th and 20th centuries, when jewelers like Jacques Cartier visited the island to source pearls of exquisite luster.
Pearls from Bahrain were harvested without any specialized diving gear. Divers clutched a weighted rope or wrapped stones to their body in an effort to descend more quickly to the seabed. Scrounging for oysters among rocks and sands, with nose clips and finger guards their only protection, divers were subject to the fickle waters. Burst eardrums were a common hazard. After surfacing, the quick turn of a curved knife revealed the promise of pearls within the oyster.
Simple, traditional sieves measured the pearls and categorized them by size. Pearls from Bahrain were then meticulously drilled by hand, as master craftsmen spun a wafer-thin drill bit through layers of delicate nacre. At its peak, pearling season lasted from June to October and involved, in some way, nearly the entire male population of the capital city. With so many tied to the industry, from divers to merchants, the island kingdom’s culture and economy blossomed with the pearl. By 1930, the island supported 30,000 pearl divers and supplied nearly 80 percent of the world’s pearls.
But this pearl mania was not to last, succumbing to the more lucrative oil industry and competition from the emerging culturing process in Japan. Those who once dove for the “tears of mermaids” now rushed to find black gold. The resulting pollution from refineries and spilled oil decimated the natural populations of oysters. Cultured pearls, introduced by Mikimoto, cost a fraction of the price of pearls from Bahrain. Put simply, the Bahrain pearl industry could not sustain itself.
Today, while there is still the occasional natural pearl to be found, pearl diving is practiced mainly as a hobby. The number of viable pearl beds cannot support the market demand. The island still remembers its rich pearl heritage, marking the pearl as a national icon and banning the trade of rival cultured pearls. The government has enacted efforts to refurbish pearl trading centers, preserve traditional pearling techniques, and restore long-abandoned oyster beds. Pearling is distinctly woven into the fabric of the kingdom; Bahrain gets its name from the Arabic for “two seas.” Without doubt, pearls from Bahrain will not soon be forgotten.