By Marten Youssef, Staff Reporter
Published: December 01, 2007, 01:14
Abu Dhabi: Over the years thousands of people dived into the shallow depths of the Arabian Gulf searching for a treasure tucked away in the rugged shells of oysters.
Divers lived in dire conditions and risked their lives for the slight chance of a fortune being discovered in this tiny creature.
Pearls have been a symbol of wealth for centuries.
No region has produced more natural pearls than the Gulf.
"The oldest known natural pearl was found here in the Gulf and archaeologists say it is 7,000 years old," said Abdullah Al Muaini, head of the gemstone unit at the Dubai Central Laboratory.
The warm, shallow waters of the Gulf produced some of the world's most sought-after natural pearls.
"Our pearls were sold to Europeans and Asians until the 1960s when oil was discovered and Japan began to harvest oysters, mass producing pearls that looked as natural as ours, but at a fraction of the price," Al Muaini said.
"Pearling was an incredible asset for our economy. So many people were reliant on pearldiving for their livelihoods," he said.
Stories about pearldiving became legends, part of the folklore; books were written about the dedication to pearling. "All that withered away and the chapter was closed for what many people thought was definite," Al Muaini said.
Gay Gahan, a pearl and jewellery enthusiast and collector dedicated to reviving the pearl industry, said the unique thing about the pearl is that it takes as long as nine years to form.
"Your average buyer doesn't know these things and can't tell the difference between a pearl from Tahiti or a pearl from China," said Gahan.
The process of making a pearl has changed drastically since companies have figured out a way to manipulate the oyster either genetically or physically.
"Long before techniques were discovered to produce a round pearl, the oyster yielded all kinds of shapes. You inserted a tiny ball into the shell of the oyster around which it wraps a material called nacre, creating the pearl."
He said today there are hardly any natural pearls. "What we have today are cultured pearls. This is the process where a foreign body is encased by the oyster's nacre.
"That is often a thin coating and can take years for the oyster to produce. You cannot tell the depth of the nacre without an X-ray," said Gahan.
For the average consumer, the depth of the pearl is irrelevant. "It is the size that counts."
A group of jewellers, enthusiasts and collectors is now committed to bringing the shine back to the pearl industry.
Nobody probably knows more about pearling and the pearl industry than Khalid Al Sayegh. Born into a family of jewellers, Al Sayegh inherited the passion for pearls when he was just 13.
"When I was very young, I visited the late Shaikh Zayed several times to present him with some of the finest pearls. He would marvel at them. I remember him asking lots of questions and he became quite passionate about the pearling industry. Today, we are helping to fulfil the legacy he started," Al Sayegh said.
At 34, Al Sayegh is a founder of the International Pearl Revival Committee.
He financed the first International Pearl Seminar and Summit last month.
The four-day event in Abu Dhabi included delegations of world-renowned jewellers, gemologists, marine biologists, historians, educators and enthusiasts.
"Before we can speak to the public about pearls we needed to think together with the brightest minds about the future of pearling and the industry. We need to work together. I believe we must walk before we can run and this is only the first of many conferences to come," Al Sayegh said.
The delegates were flown to an island in the Gulf to get a glimpse and to reignite the image of pearling as it once was. This visit took the delegates to the island of Delma, 200 kilometres northwest of Abu Dhabi, to the pearl museum and the harbour where dhows ventured out to look for pearls.
"It's mind-boggling to imagine that people made fortunes on these shores," said Daniele Naveau, Managing Director of the Robert Wan Tahiti Jewellery, as she watched a dhow coming into te Delma Harbour.
The controversy over natural versus cultured pearls, and the layman's inability to distinguish between them is what motivates Naveau to pursue a standardisation system in which pearls would be graded, certified and valuated.
"The challenge with that is that you have China, which is able to produce thousands of pearls at such a fast rate. It usually takes us years to harvest our pearls whereas in China they have somehow been able to make as much 70 pearls from one oyster.
"They have clearly genetically modified the oysters to be able to change the colours and shapes of the pearls as well. And there is no international framework to guide them so they can really keep on doing what they want to do and that is hurting the industry and the culture of pearls," Naveau said.
Her company is on a small island off the coast of Tahiti.
"What makes Tahitian pearls so sought-after is that the conditions in which they are cultured allow the oysters to produce the most beautiful round shapes with incredibly deep colours," Naveau said.
One man who believes that the UAE has an industry for natural pearls is archaeologist Fat'hi Abdullah. Born and raised in Egypt, Abdullah has worked in Iraq and Syria. He came to Delma in 1993 and since then he has been dedicated to reviving thepearling industry.
"It is not a question of if it will be revived, it's a question of when," Abdullah said.