This kingdom of golden islands in the Arabian Gulf draws many for its wealth of history and ancient wonder; others come for the shopping, with gold and silk and jewels all beckoning; and still others come to experience a nation which is modern yet comfortable in its traditions, and offers an enchanting blend of east and west.
Looking For Pearls in Manama
Long before diamond became a girl’s best friend, the most cherished gem in any woman’s collection was the pearl. Delicate, alluring and strangely captivating, the pearl was coveted by kings and queens. For thousands of years, it has been the object of intrigue, lust, and intricate plots – and for much of history, the most beautiful and coveted pearls have come from the oyster beds of the island kingdom of Bahrain, in the Gulf of Persia.
Bahrain’s long association with pearls is the result of its amazingly fortuitous position. Located on the largest island in the Persian Gulf archipelago, the kingdom is blessed with over 400 square miles of oyster beds in the surrounding waters. Records show that as early as 5, 000 years ago, fishermen were diving for pearls here. Some of the most priceless pearls in royal collections around the world were first pried from oysters in Bahraini waters and in its heyday, over a thousand ships were sent out to hunt for the pearls. Though Bahrain’s glory days as the biggest producer of pearls are past, it is still the world’s biggest pearl market and thus a very good place to go pearl shopping!
Buying Pearls in Manama
For a visitor to the capital city of Manama, the best place to go pearl shopping is the Manama Souq in the old part of town. Like all souqs in the Middle East, there is a certain ‘Arabian Nights’ quality about the place, with its narrow streets cast in shadow, its shops crowded with exotic wares and the shopkeepers haggling over sweet tea and cigarettes. In between the shops selling the magnificent gold jewellery which gives it its name, there are numerous shops displaying equally stunning pearl studded jewellery.
In addition to the jewellery pieces, a shopper can also browse and buy unset pearls, which come in shades ranging from the purest white to deepest ebony black and in sizes ranging from as small as seeds to as large as marbles. Most shops still display the pearls against ruby-red backgrounds, which show off their wares and recall the red leather purses pearl fishermen once used to store their precious harvest.
Bahrain takes fierce pride in its pearl heritage, and rightly so. For centuries, the pearls from its oyster beds have been considered the best in the world, unrivalled in their luster and exquisite colours. Even though Bahrain no longer produces pearls in any quantity, the local pride in the country’s pearl heritage is such that Bahraini law forbids the sale of cultured pearls on the island. All the pearls you’ll see in the stores are natural – and expensive.
The Price of a Pearl
In today’s world of ten dollar cultured pearl necklaces, it can be hard to imagine just how rare and precious the natural pearl was. Before Kokichi Mikimoto found a way of producing cultured pearls, all the pearls in the world were natural pearls, collected by divers from the deep oceans. Pearls were so expensive only the nobility and the fabulously rich could afford them. History is full of stories illustrating the pearls’ value: Cleopatra famously won a bet to give the most expensive dinner in history by dissolving a single pearl in and drinking it, and the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one pearl.
All that changed with the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1930s. The new, mass-produced cultured akoya pearls from Japan (and later the Pacific, China and other regions) sent pearl prices into a downward spiral. Today, even the moderately well-off can afford to wear pearls and over 95% of all pearls sold are cultured rather than natural.
For those who prefer natural pearls however, being very rich is still a perquisite. Due to the the effects of pollution on the oyster beds and the declining number of pearl divers, natural pearls are incredibly rare today. The only way to find one was, and still is, by sheer luck – a pearl diver needs to go through dozens, even hundreds of oysters before finding a single pearl. Since each pearl is unique in shape and colour, and is deliberately left in its natural state, finding enough pearls to make a matched set can represent literally thousands of hours of searching. Little wonder then that a rope of natural pearls can cost millions of dollars. For those who can afford it however, Bahrain is the only place left in the world where you’ll find natural pearls as the standard offering.
Diving for Pearls
The cultured pearl’s rise to dominance could have been a disaster for Bahrain’s pearl industry. Fortunately, just as cultured pearls were flooding the market, oil was discovered beneath the island’s sands. Bahrain’s new oil industry ushered in a new era of prosperity and many of the pearl workers retired, or became oil workers. Others made the transition from producing the pearls to marketing it and today, despite the changes over the last century, Bahrain has successfully kept its reputation for only handling only the highest grade pearls.
As for pearl diving – what with the pollution from thousands of ships plying the Gulf, indiscriminate over fishing of oysters, and of no economic value, pearl diving is no longer common in Bahrain, except as a hobby or a tourist activity. For visitors interested in visiting the oyster beds, there are tours available. Realistically, it’s unlikely a casual search will turn up a pearl – but if by sheer luck you manage to find a pearl, you are allowed to keep it!