Pearls are perhaps the most unique and mysterious of all precious gems. An organic stone formed when an irritant such as a grain of sand enters a mollusc's shell, pearls have long been the choice of queens and fashionistas; coveted for their purity and lustre.
In the GCC, pearling represents a historical legacy that stretches back more than 8,000 years. In October 2019, archaeologists in Abu Dhabi discovered what is thought to be the world's oldest natural pearl. Unearthed on Marawah Island, the faint pink 0.3-centimetre-long gem was carbon dated to the Neolithic period (5800-5600BC), making it an incredible eight centuries old.
From the late 19th century onwards, pearling was a source of economic wealth for the UAE as a leading producer and exporter of the iridescent gem. In the 1920s, however, Japan revolutionised the industry with the introduction of the cultured pearl and, following the onset of the Second World War in 1939, our homegrown industry declined dramatically. When oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, the pearl was all but forgotten.
Today, despite the world’s top producers and exporters of cultured pearls being famously tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing industry value, the general consensus is that there is significant economic opportunity to be had. In 2017, veteran pearl trader Andy Müller valued the global industry at $400 million… and rising.
Japan’s highly sought-after cultured pearl industry suffered a serious setback earlier this year following the unexpected death of more than 20 million akoya pearl oysters. This is expected to negatively impact sales potential over the next few years with a three to four-year timeline required to produce a single cultured pearl. This is good news for other pearl-producing markets, including our fledgling industry here in the UAE.
A sustainable history
Unlike oil, pearls are both sustainable and everlasting and the pearling tradition represents a combination of our social, cultural and economic roots. Pearls harvested from the Arabian Gulf have always been renowned for their superior quality and purity. They were even referenced by Roman scholar and naval commander Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History, in which he cited pearls from the Arabian Gulf as the most perfect and exquisite of all he had seen. Their superiority was similarly asserted by the Greek, Egyptian, Arab, Chinese and Japanese dynastic civilizations.
Prior to the recent discovery on Marawah Island, the oldest-known pearls from the UAE came from a Neolithic-era archeological site in Umm Al Quwain and a Neolithic cemetery in Sharjah. Collectively, this trio of important finds provides yet more evidence that pearling was an integral part of the UAE’s cultural and economic history.
Cultural heritage revival
Preserving the UAE’s incredible cultural heritage is something that we must take responsibility for as a community. It is imperative that we treasure it for our children and for future generations.
In 2005, I founded Suwaidi Pearls with a mission to breathe new life into our country’s pearling legacy. The region’s first cultured pearl farm, located in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, we offer tours that take visitors through the history of the pearl trade, and operate a commercial business sending pearls to customers around the world.
My commitment to reviving the pearl trade has been a labour of love. I inherited this passion from my grandfather, Mohammed Bin Abdulla Al Suwaidi. Born in 1902 and one of the last traditional professional pearl divers, his deep love for the industry was rooted in the daily routine set against the backdrop of the natural beauty of the sea and coast.
He remembered a time when pearling involved the whole community and provided an economic ecosystem that could support entire villages. It was also deeply symbolic of the spirit of community co-operation and collaboration.
Visitors to the UAE, particularly those from the cooler climes of Northern Europe, have a real desire to explore Arabia’s rich past and take in all its beauty and mystery – and the pearl is at the heart of this.
They want to relive a part of history and are interested in tangible experiences. Simply going to a museum to admire artefacts and look at black and white photographs is interesting, but what people yearn for today are real experiences: the atmosphere, the smells, the feeling and the sights.
The pearling experience
Visitors also want to invest time and tourism spend in experiences that are kind to the environment, and our brand of eco-tourism is growing incredibly fast. When visitors come to the farm, they are struck by the realism and authenticity of the area and how we work.
Modelled on the popularity of a desert safari, we have created a marine safari using traditional dhow boats. We show visitors what pearl fishing entails, from growing and nurturing oysters to grading each pearl for quality. The resulting experience is a blend of history, culture and ecology, and this has proved to be an incredibly successful marketing tool.
Around 80 per cent of our visitors also invest in pearls from the UAE, either by purchasing finished pieces of jewellery or taking raw pearls home to be set to their own design. I would truly love to see more Emiratis visit our pearl farm to experience the local tradition and engage with this important aspect of our heritage.Currently, Suwaidi Pearls is the only pearl farm in operation in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, we aren’t able to compete with the export capabilities of other established cultured pearl-producing countries – a situation that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago when the UAE, and the region, was a global pearling force to be reckoned with.
Currently, Suwaidi Pearls is the only pearl farm in operation in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, we aren’t able to compete with the export capabilities of other established cultured pearl-producing countries – a situation that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago when the UAE, and the region, was a global pearling force to be reckoned with.
Although a revival is underway, it is only just the beginning. Our facility is small and there is only so much demand we can handle. As a result, there is definitely scope for more cultured pearl farms in the region.
Re-examining economic potential
There was a lull in pearl sales between the 1940s and the mid-2000s, when demand for cultured pearls superseded natural pearls and they became the preferred choice for jewellers and private international collectors.
From a purely economic viewpoint, pearls are, and always have had the potential to be, big business, and are once more reclaiming their mystique. From celebrity endorsement to this season’s catwalk accessory, pearls are very much in vogue.
In 1901, 90 per cent of the world’s pearl trade originated here in the Gulf, yet today we struggle to account for one per cent of global sales with Asia, Polynesia and Australia leading global trade.
I see no reason why we cannot reclaim regional dominance and benefit from the enormous potential for yield if we put a well thought-through strategy in place. The UAE is world-leading for travel, trade and logistics, and is perfectly situated for export activity.
With increased local and regional interest and investment from government entities and private individuals, we could rebuild a sustainable and organic economic ecosystem to comfortably see us through the next 100 years.
A true and lasting pearling renaissance can only be achieved with determination, investment and education. It is critical that we encourage more people to become involved in the trade and help spread their knowledge and enthusiasm – and showcase it to the world.
If we re-prioritise pearls from an economic opportunity standpoint, then I believe that the possibilities are endless. The UAE’s legacy as the home of pearls must be fully embraced if we are to once again accede to the industry’s global pinnacle.
For more information, please visit www.suwaidipearls.com