W Power 2024

How Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's 'pearl capital'

After 85 years, Bahrain has re-prioritised sustainability in its bid to offer visitors a chance to experience its pearl heritage beneath the waves of the Arabian Gulf

Published: Mar 23, 2024 09:05:01 AM IST
Updated: Mar 22, 2024 07:26:41 PM IST

How Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's 'pearl capital'A DANAT pearl diver harvests oysters in the waters of Muharraq, Bahrain Image: Courtesy DANAT

Bahrain's name stems from the fusion of two Arabic words—‘thnain Bahr’—translating to ‘two seas’, referencing the springs beneath the seabed merging with the highly saline water of the pearl banks. For centuries, Bahraini free divers braved the depths of the Gulf aboard traditional dhows, harvesting pearls, revered by royalty, fashion elites, and leading American, British and French jewellers.

However, this heritage dwindled amidst the harsh impact of the Great Depression, coupled with the emergence of cultured pearls from Japan. Following the onset of World War 2, the market relocated to Bombay. Over 500 tawâwîsh migrated from the Gulf to Bombay to sell pearls. “Hajras from Bahrain were among the most successful merchants who maintained offices in Bombay. The primary hubs for pearl trade was Moti Bazaar, with Mohammed Ali Road serving as one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares,” scholar Saif Albedawi wrote in a 2017 paper titled ‘Pearl Merchants of the Gulf and their Life in Bombay’.

Farah Mattar, director of Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, says, “The oyster beds in northern Bahrain were once the heart of a thriving pearl fishery, dominating the Arabian Gulf from ancient times until the early 20th century. This led to Bahrain's reliance on pearls, shaping its economy in the 19th century. Muharraq, the capital at the time, became the focal point of this single-product economy. The pearling season determined the livelihoods of many, including merchants, creditors, boat owners, captains, divers, hauliers, and sail-makers.” She adds, “Pearls collected in Bahrain were sent to Europe and India, where they were refined and traded to larger markets. Despite the decline of the pearl industry in the 20th century, its legacy endures as a significant aspect of Bahraini cultural identity.”

Acknowledging the historical importance of this tradition, Unesco added the Bahrain Pearling Trail to its World Heritage List in 2012, as a remarkable traditional marine resource utilisation and human-environment interaction. This site encompasses 17 properties within Muharraq, along with a natural coastline and three oyster beds, preserving the rich urban, architectural, and natural heritage of Bahrain's pearling economy. Successfully registered in 2012 and finalised in early 2024, the site spans 3.5 km at the core of historic Muharraq, offering a comprehensive narrative of the island's pearling history.
How Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's 'pearl capital'Bahrainis uphold a proverb: It's not about who collected the oysters, but who shucked them," highlighting the profound importance of the shucking process over the act of diving itself | pictures Image: Courtesy DANAT

Natural pearls originate from an intrusion, often an antibody or parasite, infiltrating the protective shell of an oyster. Much like our immune system's response, the oyster reacts by secreting a fluid known as 'nacre' to encase the irritant. Over time, successive layers of this substance accumulate, giving rise to the spherical pearl within the shell.

While some pearl oysters rest in relatively shallow waters, the most lucrative beds lie far deeper—up to 40 feet or even 125 feet below the water surface. These perilous dives pushed traditional pearl hunters to their limits, highlighting the dangers of this ancient practice. Pearl hunting isn't just scuba diving. Specialised gear is essential: Weighted stones for rapid descent, nose clips to protect the airway, oyster knives to pry open the shells, leather finger guards against sharp edges, oyster baskets for the precious haul, and even rudimentary cotton diving suits. Back in the day, pearl divers, historically skilled free-divers, used turtle bone nose clips and rocks as weights to plunge from dhows. A Seib deckhand managed a lifeline attached to the diver, ensuring safety during potential shallow water blackouts. After filling the baskets, the Seib would hoist them to the surface for sorting.

Discussing the evolution of pearl diving in Bahrain, Mattar explains: “Pearl diving, once a simple task requiring minimal equipment, has evolved significantly. Nowadays, advancements in diving suits and equipment have greatly improved safety and ease during dives. Despite these changes, the traditional method of manually opening oysters with knives remains unchanged from the days of the pearling heyday. The intricate knowledge of pearl diving, including the location of prime oyster beds yielding the finest pearls, remains closely guarded among experienced divers.”

The pursuit of pearls is a regulated endeavour, with divers required to obtain an official license from the Fisheries Department before embarking on any pearling activities. Today, pearl diving takes place through two methods: Shallow-water free diving in the near-shore pearl beds, with depths ranging from 3 m to less than 0.5 m, or scuba diving in the deeper waters of the northern hiyrat (pearl beds), where depths can reach 10 m to 20 m. One unique highlight of pearl diving in Bahrain is Fijiri music, a traditional form of singing practised by pearl divers on their expeditions. In a rhythmic display, the crew chants traditional Bahraini folk songs, their voices guided by the "Nahkam", a chant that sets the pace.

Mohamed Alslaise (43), a seasoned veteran of pearl diving with 18 years of experience under his belt, says, “Diving crews in Bahrain fall into two categories: The solidary divers, typically retired individuals or seasonal fishermen, who transition to pearl diving during the summer months when fish are scarce, wading through shallow waters to collect oysters. Come winter and spring, these divers return to fishing as the primary source of income. And then there are the modern new-age divers, comprising several groups across the island who pursue pearl diving as a year-round profession. These divers strategically shift their oyster-hunting locations based on the season, targeting the northern hiyrs in the summer and near-shore shallows in the winter.”

How Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's 'pearl capital'An assessor at DANAT scrutinizes pearls with the gemological X-ray machine that helps them detect growth lines that distinguish natural pearls from their cultured counterparts Image: Courtesy DANAT

Traditionally, diving expeditions involve groups of six, with proceeds from pearl sales divided among the crew by the captain. However, new-age divers opt for solo ventures, retaining full ownership of their catches and profits. They often pay the boat captain for transportation services, maintaining independence in their pearling activities. Alslaise explains, "While the dives typically last around 3 hours, the entire day is dedicated to the expedition, including breaks between dives. Unlike modern divers, traditional divers didn't require decompression stops as they practiced free-diving, likely resulting in higher daily catches. Moreover, the significance lies not merely in the quantity of oysters obtained but also in the patience and attentiveness exercised during the shucking process. Even with experience, shucking oysters demands careful attention; a catch gathered in an hour may require two and a half hours to open. We uphold a proverb—it's not about who collected the oysters, but who shucked them—to highlight the profound importance of the shucking process over the act of diving itself.”

Five types of oysters are harvested in Bahrain. The main one is Pinctada Radiata, known for producing Basra pearls, which are akin to the Japanese Akoya oysters (Pinctada Fucata) due to their striking similarity. Additionally, there are Pinctada Nigra/Maculata, Pinctada Margaritifera (the largest and only found in depths exceeding 15 m), Pteria penguin (winged pearl oyster, also rare and inhabiting deep waters), and Pinna Bicolor (known for yielding mainly brown pearls and thus less sought after by divers). The rarest pearl named BabaLulu was discovered by Alslaise in 2020, measuring about 7.5 mm. Each diving expedition permits the collection of up to 60 oysters, a quantity ample for the likelihood of discovering a pearl. While registering the pearl at the DANAT lab is not obligatory, it is worth considering, particularly when a discovery surpasses the 5 mm benchmark, significantly enhancing its value. Matter highlights, “Today, Bahrain's protected natural reserves play a crucial role in preserving pearl diving sustainably. Since 1972, Bahrain has stood out as one of the few countries globally to prohibit the sale of cultured pearls. Moreover, the government has established a state-of-the-art pearl testing laboratory to authenticate natural pearls. Through investments in institutions like the DANAT, renowned for its expertise in testing and researching natural pearls, Bahrain reaffirms its enduring commitment to the legacy of pearl diving."

At the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (DANAT), a new generation of gemologists is carrying the torch of the historic pearl trade. DANAT, which has examined over 10 million pearls since its inception, is now a leading authority in testing and certification, solidifying Bahrain's reputation as a hub for pearl trading. Crafting a single natural pearl necklace can take up to five years—a testament to the rarity and value of these gems. Larger pieces, fetching up to $25,000, may require over a decade to complete. Yet, the allure lies in their individuality: No two natural pearls are alike, guaranteeing a one-of-a-kind possession. Using a blend of cutting-edge technology and time-honoured tradition, DANAT scrutinises pearls, with the naked eye or an X-ray machine. An X-ray machine helps them detect 'growth lines' that discern naturally formed pearls from their cultured counterparts.

How Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's 'pearl capital'Five types of oysters are harvested in Bahrain; Pinctada Radiata, Pinctada Nigra, Pinctada Margaritifera, Pteria penguin and Pinna Bicolor Image: Courtesy DANAT

Noora Jamsheer, CEO of DANAT, says, “The pearling process evolved over time to cater for the changes in the industry. While previously the process was driven by the pearl merchants who cumulated divers and went to the pearl beds to extract oysters and stayed at sea for a couple of months, today the process is different. Divers will work on collecting the pearls in sizeable lots and then they will offer the pearls to the pearl-buying houses in Bahrain." While natural pearls generally command a higher price tag than their cultured counterparts, the overall range is vast. On average, expect to find pearls on the market anywhere between $300 and $1,500, though exceptional specimens can reach much higher figures.

Jamsheer reveals: “The price of natural pearls is informally set in the market between divers and merchants. There are several factors that impact the value of natural pearls: Size, colour, quality of lustre, quality of surface and origin. Divers who choose to sell their pearls unsorted in a lot will have to sell the pearls at a discount because the buyer is purchasing the entire lot which could include pearls that they do not work with. Other divers segregate pearls into categories to optimise valuation. In general, bigger pearls are sold separately from smaller pearls. Once a pearl reaches a particular value, it will be sold individually. While one natural pearl that is 2 mm in diameter might be $10, a natural pearl that is 20 mm in diameter might be valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Bahrain is poised to reclaim its title as the world's ‘pearl capital’ by offering a unique adventure: The chance for visitors to become their own pearl hunters. Experienced multilingual guides fluent in Arabic, Russian, or English lead the way. All necessary equipment, refreshments, and a pearl diving license are included. Pearl diving in Bahrain goes beyond typical vacations, allowing travellers to potentially return home with a one-of-a-kind souvenir: A pearl found firsthand in the depths of the Arabian Gulf. Alslaise says, "With over a decade of guiding pearl diving tours, I find immense joy in witnessing the awe on the faces of tourists as they uncover a beautiful pearl. Engaging in pearl diving is a truly magical endeavour; rather than seeking the pearl, it finds you—an encounter that resonates deeply with divers."



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