A History of Pearl Diving

There is femininity and grace in pearls that has lasted millennia, but beneath the romance lies a gritty and wrenching tale of the history of the divers that brought this gem to light.

Before the beginning of the twentieth century, pearl diving was the most common way to supply an insatiable global demand for pearls. Divers culled mollusks from the sea to be split and scoured for pearls within. It takes a unique and rare sequence for wild mollusks to produce pearls, so vast fields of ocean floor were overturned in the hunt. Nearly one ton of oysters could yield less than a handful of pearls. Scarcity and cost were high.

Ama are traditional female Japanese free-divers, popularized by Bond girl Kissy Suzuki in Ian Fleming’s, You Only Live Twice.

In order to source enough pearl oysters, armies of divers were enlisted or enslaved to plunge to the sea bed. Divers were trained to stay under water for up 90 seconds, often descending to depths of 125 feet in a single breath. Some greased their bodies to conserve heat, or plugged their ears to prevent bursting. Others clipped their nose or gripped a stone to descend to the bottom. Most tied a basket or net to their bodies to collect their harvest.

Diving up to two dozen times per day exposed the body to grueling distress. Aggressive sharks, rays and eels share the same habitat. Undercurrents could pull divers for miles under water. Pressure at such depths could cause bleeding, vision loss, organ failure and blackouts. The price paid for the queen of gems and the gem of queens was staggering.

Pearl diving has been practiced for over 4,000 years, from the ancient Sumerians along the Persian Gulf, to the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and Sea of Japan. These regions dominated the pearl trade until ravenous demand from the monarchies of Europe drove the hunt for pearls to the New World. There, colonial slavery fueled a steady stream of precious cargo back to the Crown, who restricted the possession of pearls to the nobility.

Today, pearl diving has largely succumbed to more civil collection methods and pearl culturing, producing billions of pearls from controlled, regulated and environmentally sustainable farms. Divers still work, but primarily for the tourist industry, sport, or to source new broodstock for culturing. The allure of pearls continues, but perilous diving does not.

Pearl Diver Emerges from the Sea