UAE’s Pearl Culture – National treasure
Long before the discovery of oil, pearls were an important source of wealth for the people of the United Arab Emirates. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, pearl divers would sail for four months at a time, working from sunrise to sunset, scouring the depths of the Gulf waters for this natural treasure. It was a very dangerous practice and pearl diving equipment at the time was rudimentary. Divers had to take to the waters with just a nose clip, or fetam, fashioned from goat or gazelle horns and hold their breath to search for pearl oysters on the seabed. Their only lifeline back to the boat was a rope that would be used to haul the divers back to the surface.
Pearling in the UAE died out in the early 1930s when the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls changed the face of the industry. Fortunately, the UAE’s rich pearling heritage is now undergoing a revival thanks to the efforts of RAK Pearls Holding that operates a dedicated pearl farm in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
“The project started in 2004 when my brother and I explored the feasibility of making pearls in the Arabian waters. The question was very simple – if this region was the most important for producing natural pearls why not bring it back again using modern technology,” explains Mohamed Al Suwaidi from RAK Pearl Holdings.
Following the Japanese method of pearl culturing, a small mother of pearl bead is implanted into the oyster along with a tiny sliver of mantle tissue from another pearl. This then forms the nucleus around which the oyster naturally secretes layer after layer of nacre, the substance that forms the pearl. The pearl farm uses local pinctada radiata oysters, found wild in the waters of Ras Al Khaimah and across the Gulf region.
Comparisons to Japan, regarded as the cultured pearl capital of the world, are to be expected but Al Suwaidi reveals that there are inherent differences in quality and production. In Japan, oysters are no longer produced naturally and are instead prepared in labs but remain quite weak in comparison. The nutrient-rich mangrove ecosystem in Ras Al Khaimah presents an ideal environment for producing cultured pearls where oysters produce layers of coating three times faster. Pearls produced here can also reach 12mm in size while in Japan the average size remains about 8mm.
In the past, hundreds of oysters were collected in the Gulf waters in the hope of finding a few natural pearls. Now, through exacting pearl culturing methods, the pearl farm in Ras Al Khaimah witnesses an average success rate of 65 to 80 percent for the entire harvest of about 40,000 oysters.
“The best quality of pearls are used in jewellery, while others are kept for accessories and souvenirs. The rest can be crushed and grinded and used for medicine or cosmetics. Nothing goes to waste – the meat is used in restaurants and the shell itself can be polished to create mother of pearl,” says Al Suwaidi.
Implanted oysters are carefully nurtured for around six to eight months on average before they are opened. Free from artificial bleaching and colouring, pearls produced in Ras Al Khaimah are of varied sizes, shapes and colours but each reflect a lustrous shine. An expert team, that combines the talents of people from Japan, Europe and the Arab world, ensures that the right days are chosen to harvest.
“Oysters can grow for a year but if you choose the wrong day, you can end up with a dull shine or pearls with blemishes. We harvest in winter because summer heat makes the oyster produce more mother of pearl but cold water polishes it so that there’s high lustre. The secret lies in managing this process. At the end of the day, you are dealing with natural species so you have to be alert 24/7,” reveals Al Suwaidi.
These cultured Arabian pearls have already been used in exclusive jewellery pieces in collaboration with international brands, including British designer Stephen Webster and luxury watch and jewellery firm Mouawad. There’s been growing interest from around the world but Al Suwaidi insists that it’s about quality and not quantity.
“We produce 40,000 pearls at the moment which is very little when compared to other markets like China that produce thousands of tonnes a year. Right now we want to raise awareness that there’s a new type of pearl in the market that has the same characteristics of the old Arabian pearl. Historically, our pearls were known for their lustre and colours and we want to retain that,” says Al Suwaidi. The hope is that Arabian pearls will once again be held in high regard around the world.
“For us, pearls aren’t products – they are our history and culture. In my grandfather’s time, pearls were precious. It was what he lived on and, unfortunately today, people forget this. We are working on having pearl farms in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman in the future with our know-how and through collaborations. Our dream is to revive the industry back to its glory days and be one of the most important producers of pearls.”