In 1922, while extracting meats for fish bait from James River clams in South Dakota, John Latendresse’s father found a 7 mm pink pearl that was so beautiful he did what was then customary with fine specimens of this organic gem: He presented it to his fiancée in an engagement ring.
“Pearls were as much the nuptial gem in those days as diamonds are now,” says Latendresse, a pearl farmer in Tennessee. “The jewelry industry seems to have developed amnesia about the close association of pearls with love and marriage.”
Except for India, where Hindu brides still routinely receive pearls for good luck, and the Arab world, where pearls are still venerated, this memory loss seems universal. Nowhere is it more acute than in America. Maurice Shire, a New York gem dealer who started as a pearl buyer, remembers being told by pre-war pearl farmer Rene Boivin that at the turn of the century, pearls accounted for 80% of all sales in America’s finer jewelry stores.
Most of those pearls came from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and adjoining Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Mannar off Sri Lanka’s west coast and in various spots in Australia’s coastal waters. All of these varieties were known collectively as “oriental pearls.”
It is fitting that the main source by far of oriental pearls—the Persian Gulf—is found in the midst of the Islamic world. Although they have enjoyed more than 2,000 years of esteem (Pliny the Second wrote in the first century A.D. that pearls were the most valuable things known), regard for oriental pearls seems to have reached its zenith in the Moslem world.
A Gift from God
To give you some idea of the value accorded to oriental pearls in Indian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Christian and, finally, Moslem civilization, consider the following: Pearls worn by Cleopatra at a banquet for Marc Antony were worth nearly 1.9 million ounces of silver. Given the pearl’s worth to the ancients, it is theorized that the discovery of pearls (most likely freshwater ones) in what is now Scotland convinced Julius Caesar to colonize the British Isles.
But material value is only part of the pearl story. Pearl annals reveal this gem long held exalted spiritual status. Just as real the famous words of Jesus Christ in the book of Matthew: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant searching for beautiful pearls, who, finding one at great cost, sells all his possessions to buy it.”
Equating pearls with wisdom and purity, a constant in the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—finds its culminating expression in Islamic mysticism. There, God’s first creation was the pearl, a gesture that earned this gem a ranking rivaled only by emerald (whose color is frequently likened in the Koran to the greenery of paradise). “Moslems see the pearl as a special gift from God,” explains an American gem dealer who sold oriental pearls to Arab shieks in the 1950s. “So growing them artificially was for man to play God, a rather blasphemous thing in Islam.”
(Oriental pearls are produced when tiny parasitic worms which have bored through the oyster shell and taken up residence in the mollusk’s interior are enveloped in and disintegrated by concentric layers of a pearly secretion called nacre. Cultured pearls are produced when a non-disintegrating bead, which serves as a nucleus, is intentionally inserted into an oyster along with a tiny piece of mantle tissue that secretes a nacre-producing pearl sac around the intruder.)
Such reverence helps to explain decidedly hostile Moslem attitudes towards cultured pearls when they were introduced in the 1920s. Instead of admiring them as the realization of an age-old dream to produce pearls on demand, they were abhorred as the gemological equivalent of the anti-Christ. Thus it was forbidden, and in many places is still frowned on, to own them.
Attitudes of Moslems toward cultured pearls are relaxed enough today that growing of non-nucleated pearls is tolerated on the Persian Gulf island of Kish. Nevertheless, Arab and Iranian connoisseurs still pay prices for fine oriental pearls that can be twice what they are anywhere else.
However, these sums are a fraction of what they were 60 years ago before the blackest day in the 2,000 years of recorded oriental pearl history. That was the day in early 1930 when the value of oriental pearls plunged 85% overnight.
Casualty of Modern Life
The pearl market crash was precipitated by the flood of hard-to-detect cultured pearls into Europe—many of them sold as natural. After a long court fight in the late 1920s waged by natural pearl dealers against sellers of the new artificial-grown pearls for misrepresentation, such pearls had to be sold as “cultured.” But, as Maurice Shire says, “It was a hollow victory. The confused public greeted the outcome with indifference.”
The stock market crash of 1929 didn’t improve matters. As sales of fine jewelry plummeted, and dealers were left with large stocks of unsold oriental pearls, their bank grew jittery. The final straw came when the Bank of France learned it was giving its customers multiple notes on pearls as they sold from dealer to dealer.
Early in 1930, writes Paris pearl dealer Leonard Rosenthal in his 1949 autobiography “The Pearl Hunter,” the banks stopped financing oriental pearl dealers altogether. By the next day, the international pearl market was a shambles as news of this action inspired domino-like halts of bank financing to natural pearl dealers in London and New York. The oriental pearl market has never recovered from this debacle.
The discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf also spelled doom for the oriental pearl. In 1907, noted Rosenthal, “Eighty per cent of the very fine pearls came … from the Persian Gulf,” where pearl fishing was the major industry. When during the 1950s the Persian Gulf was transformed from a pearl to an oil economy, it ended pearl fishing there.
But even before the shift to oil, the Gulf’s pearls had long been imperiled. In his 1986 book, “Pearls: Natural, Cultured and Imitation,” Alexander Farr reports that due to over-fishing, the Gulf’s pearl-fishing fleet shrank from around 3,500 boats in 1900 to fewer than 600 by the end of World War II. Pollution caused by oil drilling only finished off the Gulf as the most treasured pearl-relative waters of all time. “Today,” says Maurice Shire, “the estate goods market is the only source for oriental pearls.”
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The oriental pearls shown in the header image are courtesy of Ralph Esmerian, New York.