Before the discovery of oil in the 1930s, most of the Gulf countries depended mainly on pearl diving.
In a jewelry store in the Bahraini capital, Manama, customers look at trinkets or place their orders, realizing that they will only be left with natural pearls, the only ones allowed to be produced in the Gulf kingdom, which is keen to capitalize on this ancient tradition.
Bracelets, necklaces, cufflinks and leather goods, all encrusted with natural pearls, are on display in the small shop owned by the Matar family, one of Bahrain’s oldest trading families.
Store manager Faten Matar is proud that she belongs to “the first generation to include women” during the two hundred years of her family’s involvement in this field, and she gives advice to customers who sometimes request designs that they saw on the Instagram application. Twenty-two years ago, her father opened the store to “revive” a tradition that had been neglected for years.
“One of our goals today is to make pearls more attractive to the general public,” Faten asserts, as it is seen as an ancient luxury. “We have small jewelry that can be worn on a daily basis and leather collections for the younger ones and even for men,” she says.
Before the discovery of oil in the 1930s, most of the Gulf countries depended mainly on pearl diving. On board wooden sailboats, divers have been sailing for months to extract from the seabed this precious stone, which is very popular with the royal families of the region as well as with luxury brands in Europe such as Cartier.
In the thirties, the natural pearl market collapsed due to the economic crisis in Europe and the competition with cultured (industrial) pearls in Japan, which is cheaper and easier to produce.
We can’t produce in large quantities.
Like its neighbours, Bahrain’s economy has since developed thanks to oil, but the kingdom is proud to be the only country that has banned the cultivation of artificial pearls.
Faten Matar confirms that “for us, this is a challenge because we cannot produce large quantities,” but for customers, especially in the Gulf region, “it is what makes these pearls more wonderful and unique,” holding in her hands a brooch pin studded with similar small pearls, but each One of which is “unique”.
She points out that “every woman or man who owns or receives a piece of jewelry encrusted with a natural pearl knows that no one has the same piece,” pointing out that making a necklace with matching stones may then take “four to five years or even more,” knowing that their prices range from From 500 to more than 25 thousand euros.
Bahrain includes a historical site that includes a small port, an old market, and the homes of ancient families involved in the pearl trade. It is considered “the last complete example of the cultural tradition of pearls,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which included this site on its list of world heritage.
However, Manama not only intends to preserve this memory, but also wants to make it its distinctive brand. Amidst the skyscrapers of the capital, the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gems (Danat) is located, which is one of the rare laboratories in the world specialized in pearl analysis.
The impact of climate change
In a hall equipped with very advanced machines, young gemologists in white shirts examine pearls with the naked eye or under a microscope.
Fatima Al-Mahmoud, who holds a degree in physics and gemology, supervises the x-ray of a pearl.
The young woman explains that the aim of this examination is to find “lines of natural growth” that allow determining the authenticity of the pearl, pointing her finger to irregular circles on the radiological image of the pearl displayed on a screen. This expert feels a great passion for natural pearls and points out that new technologies make it “a science in constant development.”
The Danat Institute, which was established in 2017, receives pearls from wealthy merchants or individuals who wish to examine them.
“You can’t imagine how many people were surprised after realizing they had inherited artificial pearls,” says Noura Jamsheer, head of the institute.
Jamsheer asserts that the institute’s experts are also conducting “ongoing research on the ground” to determine the impact of climate change “on pearls, their number, and the quality of oysters,” expressing her particular concern about “the temperature and quality of the water.”