Just as early miners worked to cut a diamond from the ruff with great precision and expectation, so too did the pearl industry rely on a highly trained and dedicated corps of divers to cull oysters from the sea. These early divers, almost exclusively women and collectively called Ama, braved the hazards, depth, and chill of the sea to bring the most lustrous gems to light. The Japanese word Ama may translate to ‘women of the sea’ and these ladies certainly lived up to their name. Their exploits plunging to the seabed are recorded as early as 759 AD in a compilation of Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.”
This rich heritage is testament to the skill and pluck of these women, who dived in little more than a fundoshi (loincloth) for up to two minutes at incredible depths. More modern Ama adopted formfitting wetsuits and goggles to aid in their work, but the early divers had little of these comforts. A traditional free-diver, Ama never employed the use of air tanks or scuba gear and relied solely on specialized breathing techniques. Ama would work for around 4 hours each day, collecting abalone, seaweed, lobsters, and shellfish from the seabed. Oysters that were recovered were particularly prized, as these might just reveal a pearl within. The Ama received a bonus for each of these precious pearls that emerged.
Ama would keep diving well into old age; their ability to slow their pulse and restrict their oxygen intake would expand with years of practice. Today, the need for Ama has been greatly diminished as the industry moves toward more modern and sustainable farming techniques. The Ama will not soon be forgotten, however. Tourists intrigued by the allure of the pearl industry and thrill seekers training for sport and endurance keep the spirit of the Ama alive. Fewer than 2,000 Ama remain diving today using traditional techniques. What they have achieved for the pearl industry and their greatest triumph is never more clearly illustrated than in the perfect, round, lustrous fruit of their work: the perfect Spey pearl.