As far back as archaeologists and historians can perceive, humans have consistently adorned themselves. At first, this was done with hides, leather and plant materials. However, as technology advanced, a new age in adornment dawned – the excavation of precious gems. Taking into account humanity’s obsession with all things under-the-sea, it’s really no surprise that the oldest gemstone in the world is the iridescent pearl. But just how far back does our obsession with these seemingly mystical treasures from the deep go?
An Ancient Industry
Archaeologists now surmise that diving for pearls may have in fact been happening as far back as 7000 years ago, particularly off the coast of what is now known as the UAE. Similarly, the earliest evidence of pearls being worn as adornment (currently on display in the Louvre) dates back to 520BC and belonged to a Persian princess who was laid to rest with her pearl jewelry. In a world with such limited technology, it’s really fascinating how civilizations went about gathering these precious gems from the sea.
Pearl trading seems to have reached wide-spread popularity by the 1100s, particularly within the Roman empire. With the rise of booming trade posts, the pearl industry became incredibly demanding and the collection of pearls became far more rigorous. For hundreds of years, most seawater pearls were retrieved by native or slave divers who worked in extremely harsh and hazardous conditions. Having only traditional tools to rely on meant that only the strongest and most enduring divers could tackle the undertaking with any long-term success.
Dives during this time were organized around a few rudimental pieces of equipment and preparations. For example, divers would use turtle shell clips and wax to plug their noses and ears, as well as grease their bodies to retain heat under water. They would then use baskets that were tied to the boat on one end and the fishing net on the other to gather extracted oysters. In some parts of the world, divers would even collect them under their armpits or in their mouths.
For deeper dives, pearl hunters would tie stones to their bodies in order to submerge to far greater depths on a single breath (sometimes up to 100m). This exposed them to sharks, being swept away on shifting tides, having their vision permanently impaired or even drowning. Because of these stakes, it’s no wonder that the pearls found were extremely rare and highly sought-after. For a deeper dive into some great literature about the earlier days of pearl hunting, we can highly recommend reading John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5308.The_Pearl or Julia Johnson’s “The Pearl Diver” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1609136.The_Pearl_Diver
The Steward of Creation
Today, nobody dives for pearls in a commercial capacity anymore. You’ll find some tourist activities centered around diving for these but previous generations of pearl hunters have destroyed most of the pearl-making oyster population. This is why a wild grown pearl is almost impossible to find. This has encouraged the rise of pearl farming https://namaka-jewelry.com/blogs/news/the-immaculate-conception-grafting-process-in-pearl-farming in the last century, which has made these gems far more accessible without affecting their raw beauty, natural luster, and romantic charm.
That being said, cultivating and harvesting pearls is certainly not an easy task and it isn’t one that can be automated by technology. Patience and diligence are required by a dedicated pearl farmer, who could be carefully tending an oyster for up to 7 years in order to produce a sizeable pearl! Just ask Franck Tehaamatai, who has been one of Tahiti’s most renowned and respected pearl farmers since 1994. Not to mention that his farm is also the supplier of all the magnificent cultured pearls you’ll find in Namaka Jewelry displays. You can read more about Franck and the origins of the Namaka brand here https://namaka-jewelry.com/blogs/news/namaka-origins-franck-tehaamatai
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