On Emirates? glittering coast, pearl trade lives on

Ras al-Khaimah: Before the discovery of oil transformed the Gulf
into one of the world´s wealthiest regions, the fortunes of its
people depended on pearling — a tradition that Abdullah al-Suwaidi
hopes to revive.Many Emirati families can trace their ancestry to a
time when they were involved in the pearl trade, which served as
the foundation of their modern-day wealth.Although diving for the
treasures is no longer necessary in an era where they can be
cultured, Suwaidi said that after the death of his grandfather he
felt “socially, culturally and historically” responsible for
passing the knowledge on.”I lived and grew up around my
grandfather,” the 45-year-old told AFP.”He taught me a lot about
pearl diving… because of my continuous stream of questions and
requests for more information and stories of adventure.”Suwaidi
Pearls is the only commercial pearl farm in the United Arab
Emirates, at a time of increasing awareness of cultural traditions,
such as falconry and camel racing, and efforts to promote and
preserve them. Last month, Abu Dhabi authorities announced that the
world´s oldest natural pearl had been discovered two years ago
just off the capital at Marawah Island and would be displayed for
the first time at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the local outpost of the
famous Paris museum.The 8,000-year-old pearl was hailed as proof
that the objects have been traded along the coastline since
Neolithic times.”The fact that it is the oldest known pearl in the
world is an important reminder of the antiquity of pearling and the
deep connection that exists between the UAE people and the rich
resources of the sea,” said Peter Magee, head of the Department of
Culture and Tourism´s archeology section. “Pearling was a major
economic activity through large periods of UAE history,” he said.
“From the 15th century onwards, the pearls from the waters of the
UAE were prized possessions in Europe and throughout
Asia.”Suwaidi´s pearl farm lies off the coast of his hometown
Al-Rams in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, situated against
a backdrop of mangroves, with camels grazing near the waterline on
one side and mountains rising up on the other. The oysters live in
cages suspended from buoys that float close to the shore.After
being “seeded”, some 60 percent will produce pearls, compared with
just one in 100 among wild oysters. But it is the same place where
Suwaidi as a young boy would accompany his grandfather to dive for
the sea´s natural treasures and it is that tradition which
captivates him to this day.No one dives commercially for pearls
anymore but some people like Suwaidi still do it for the love of it
and to show tourists how it is done.Aboard a traditional dhow, the
same vessel that Arab pearl divers of the past would set sail in
for months at a time, Suwaidi changes from his traditional Emirati
dress to an all-cotton black diving suit, or shamshool.Feet first,
he jumps into the water to demonstrate how his ancestors would pick
up oysters off the seabed.He sinks to the seafloor — weighed down
by a rock attached to a rope — where he starts to gather and pick
up oysters and place them in a basket hanging from his neck. Once
done, between one and two minutes, he tugs at the rope, and his
assistant pulls him up to the surface. His tools are simple: a sea
rock that hangs off his foot to weigh him down, a nose plug or
ftaim, and a basket.The pearl industry once underpinned the economy
of the UAE but the trade collapsed in the 1930s with the advent of
Japanese cultured pearls and as global conflicts made them an
unaffordable luxury. “Cultured pearls were easier to produce and
cheaper, thus devaluing the once prized status of the UAE´s
pearls,” Magee said.Instead, the Gulf nations turned to the oil
industry, which dominates their economies to this day. While
Suwaidi does sell his pearls to local and international designers,
he says the venture is not merely aimed at making money. A pearl´s
value depends on its size, shape, colour — white, cream, grey,
yellow, blue, lavender — lustre, surface and nacre quality.They
can be sold for anywhere between 200 AED ($55) and 50,000 AED
($13,612), according to Suwaidi. Round pearls tend to be most
valuable, but pear, oval and irregular shaped ones are also sought
after.He hopes to keep the tradition alive by sharing pearling
skills with the next generation of Emiratis, as well as the
tourists who make the trek to his farm where he works alongside
some 20 employees. “When people come to the UAE, they want to see
something they haven´t seen anywhere else. Pearling is a main
(cultural) factor,” he said, adding that it also had a light
environmental footprint.
Source: FS – All-News2-Economy
On Emirates? glittering coast, pearl trade lives on