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Pearls of the Arabian Gulf

It was in October 2006 as I was reading the Gulf News that I happened to find out about an auction. An article said that Christie’s was bringing a collection of jewelry to be displayed at the Emirates Towers Hotel for two days. After this brief showing the collection would be packed up and flown to Europe where each piece was to be sold at auction in Geneva three weeks later.

Christie’s was English and dealt only in top of the line art and antiques. As far as I knew, this was the company’s first foray into Dubai, dipping its toe into the waters of the Arabian Gulf to check the temperature. It was a sign of the times. Dubai was booming and Christie’s wanted to explore this affluent, potentially lucrative new market before some rival company got the same idea.

Even more interesting than Christie’s tentative move was information about the jewelry the company was bringing to display. Apparently some royal house that wished to remain anonymous was cleaning out the attic or garage or enormous walk-in safe or Swiss bank vault (or whatever else would be the royal equivalent) and disposing of a few unwanted possessions that they probably had forgotten they even owned. To be among these cast-offs was the Gulf Pearl Set. Because of its significance to the region it was to be the featured highlight of the Christie’s display. This set, composed of a necklace, bracelet, earrings and ring, was made of diamonds and pearls. The pearls had originated from the Arabian Gulf.

I knew something about the pearling trade of the region, how its pearls had been famous since biblical times, how pearling had been the life-blood of Bahrain especially but also Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other emirates. And I knew that when the trade had collapsed, the whole area fell into desperate poverty. But that was a long ago and Dubai is not a place that dwells on the past. Who would want to remember the bad old days? Dubai never looks back, only fast forward into the glass and steel future. So in all my time in Dubai I had never seen genuine Gulf pearls.

Now was my chance.

The first day of the Christie’s viewing I missed. I was too busy. On top of everything else I wound up doing a long and involved lameness exam and then there was a scratched cornea and after that a colic. On the second day I had much better luck. The Emirates Towers ballroom opened at eleven a.m. By then the racing stables were quiet, the horses fed and with no emergencies I could safely get away. But I’d been at the training tracks since five and I was dirty, covered in sand and sweat (a lot of it horse sweat rubbed off on me) so first I had to make a detour to the villa to shower and change.

At last, wearing a nice blouse, I carefully placed my pristine, freshly ladylike self on the seat of my only mode of transport which was my vet truck. So surrounded by stomach tubes, extension cords, hoof testers and suture kits I headed off on my quest to see the Gulf Pearl Set.

Once I got parked at the Emirates Towers I paused only long enough to sign the Christie’s clipboard at the door before hurrying into the ballroom. Though my mission had been crystal clear in my mind, from the moment I stepped on to the deep carpet I was lost and befuddled. There were glass cases emitting the flash of precious gems everywhere I turned. The vast room was cool and very quiet. Apart from the Christie’s personnel I seemed to be the only person there.

I wandered past row upon row of watches, bracelets and brooches until eventually I looked up. There, in the middle of the room illuminated and elevated above the others was a glass case that contained an elaborate necklace. It shone like some sort of Holy Grail and I made for it like a moth drawn to a flame.

As I approached I was greeted by a Christie’s expert. He may have assumed that I represented someone important and been sent as a scout. Otherwise why else would I be there? Little did he know! In any case, he had nothing to do at that particular moment other than chat with me. Yes, he confirmed, this was indeed the Gulf Pearl Set and yes, the necklace was the dominant element. Then, to my surprise, he happily unlocked the glass case and brought it out so I could get a closer look.

The necklace was stunning and utterly extravagant with multiple rows of diamonds and matched pearls. Most breath-taking of all were the series of large graduated teardrop-shaped pearls that hung from the bottom. Their creamy glow contrasted with the icy brilliance of the diamonds. The man explained that this particularly beautiful cream colour was common among pearls found in the Arabian Gulf and that the extraordinarily deep luster was due to the fact that these pearls were natural or “wild,” not cultured.

Cultured pearls, the pearls we know today, are created by inserting a nucleus or bead made of glass, metal, plastic or shell into an oyster and then removing it in a couple of years after the oyster has had a chance to coat this object with a few layers of secretion or “nacre”.

Before the process for culturing pearls was developed the only pearls that existed were those found inside wild oysters that were collected from the seabed by men who dove for them. Not every wild oyster contained a pearl for pearls were the result of the reaction to a chance irritant, a minute piece of grit or a tiny parasite that had somehow made its way inside the oyster’s protective shell and which the oyster then walled off in self-defense and coated in layer after layer of nacre. Starting from such a tiny, almost microscopic beginning it took many, many years for a natural pearl to grow. Large pearls were the work of several decades. Pearls the size of those found in the Gulf Pearl necklace were extremely rare. And because natural, wild pearls were composed of only the oyster’s translucent nacre right through to the very centre they had a depth of luster that couldn’t be equaled by their cultured rivals.

Moreover, in cultured pearls shape is largely determined by the shape of the nucleus inserted into the oyster. Round pearls these days seem perfectly ordinary to us but it wasn’t always so. Natural pearls being the result of chance creation came in all shapes and sizes. Perfectly round examples such as those found in the top rows of this Gulf Pearl necklace were happy exceptions, not the rule. What came to the surface in the diver’s basket was completely unpredictable, just the luck of the draw. Collecting together the beauties for the Gulf Pearl Set would have been a feat of perseverance and dedication. It would have taken many years of patient searching and plenty of money to find and buy pearls that harmonized so magnificently in size, shape, colour and quality.

Tentatively, I touched one of the fabulous teardrop-shaped pearls of the necklace and was surprised that it was very light. The pearl was so large and yet there seemed to be no substance to it. Yes, I was told, this was the way it should be. Nacre is very light. It is only cultured pearls that sometimes have weight. If they do it comes from their artificial cores. Especially if the nucleus is glass or metal then the pearl will seem heavy.

At last the man returned the necklace to the glass case which he carefully locked. Somehow, under the lights once again, the necklace seemed to grow even larger, to become more dynamic to my eyes, the diamonds bristling with energy, the creamy curved pearls softly glowing like distant and mysterious moons. I noticed that in the corner of the case stood a wineglass filled with water. It was to provide humidity explained the man. Pearls are creations of the sea and easily desiccated. Dryness is the enemy. For this reason, he instructed me, pearls should never be stored in cotton since it wicks away water robbing pearls of moisture.

I lingered in front of the glass case quietly lost in thought. I could marvel at these wonderful pearls with all the innocence of an outsider. I could admire their beauty and appreciate them as relics of the past with untainted enjoyment. For me the history was purely academic. I didn’t live it. But I wondered about the people native to this region. After everything that had happened, was there any romance left in pearls? Or were there only painful memories?

For at least two thousand years life for those who lived along the coast of the Arabian Gulf revolved around pearls. As surely as the sun rose and set, so did the pearling trade follow its natural rhythm. In May each year the men took to the pearling boats and headed out to the oyster beds. There they stayed for months living on the small open decks and diving for pearls all day under the broiling sun. It was grueling work.

The season for pearling finished in September and then the boats pulled up anchor and sailed for their home ports. Anxiously waiting on shore were the families of the men on board. Also anxiously waiting, pacing the shoreline with impatience and milling around the town, were hordes of foreign traders from every corner of the world who had converged to buy pearls. The return of the boats touched off a feeding frenzy of fierce competition among them as the pearl harvest was sorted and inspected.

By the 1920’s the pearling business seemed as strong as it ever had been. Pearling fleets were being expanded and more divers recruited. Although Dubai did not have as many boats as some of its neighbours in many ways it served as a hub for the business and trade. In fact, its entire economy hinged on pearling in one way or another.

Then, one September Dubai’s pearling boats returned to a town that was as dead as a doorknob. The families of the crew were there on shore to greet them as always but the foreign traders were not. None of them had come and nobody knew why.

I wonder what it must have been like in the bleak days that followed to walk through the empty sand alleys of Dubai past the high walls of coral-stone courtyard houses and along the lines of palm frond huts and feel the atmosphere of bewilderment and anxiety. People would have been waiting to be paid – the captains, the divers, the boat builders, even the shopkeepers and suppliers in the souk. This was an industry that operated on credit. At the end of the season when the pearl harvest was sold everyone was paid. And then those people paid their debts and those people paid their debts and so on down the line. But the pearl harvest hadn’t been sold because no one had come to buy. There wasn’t any money. I’m sure nobody would have known what to do.

Perhaps comforting rumours sprang up that explained everything. Maybe they wondered if there was a war that had prevented the foreign traders from traveling. Surely the traders were simply delayed because this war had forced them to take a longer, more difficult travel route. Or perhaps there had been a big earthquake that had disrupted the route. Perhaps there was a plague of some sort in Europe and the traders were too ill to come.

All anybody would really have known in Dubai and in the other towns of the Arabian Gulf was that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

In time news did arrive - and it was almost beyond comprehension, worse than they could ever have dreamed.

Unbeknownst to the people of the Arabian Gulf, far away in the country of Japan a man named Mikimoto and some of his compatriots had been trying to discover how to make pearls grow in oysters on purpose, how to farm pearls. They had succeeded. And in 1928, they had just harvested their first small commercial crop. These cultured pearls were in essence pearls made to order. They could be grown in that highly desirable perfectly round shape, they could be grown to uniform size, quantities could be planned in advance and harvested to schedule. There was no dangerous diving to find them. And, in comparison to the natural, wild pearls of the Arabian Gulf, they were selling dirt cheap. If cultured pearls were the future then there was no reason to pay a king’s ransom for natural, wild pearls. And hence no reason for traders to travel to the Arabian Gulf at all.

In the blink of an eye a way of life that had flourished for thousands of years was dead. Overnight the vibrant, prosperous sheikhdoms scattered along the edge of the Arabian Gulf became destitute for there was no way to escape this sudden predicament, no solution to a catastrophe that had blind-sided them. Mere day-to-day survival of the population immediately became the overwhelming priority. Food. The rice that was imported from India – how would they pay for it now?

Added to the shock must have been a strange sense of isolation and abandonment, even betrayal. They had been dropped cold. If there had been a warning they hadn’t understood it for who could have imagined such a thing even if anybody had tried to tell them. Now, suddenly they weren’t important anymore. Nobody came, nobody cared. The world had abruptly forgotten them, just turned its back. For Bahrain, the real powerhouse of pearling, the come-down must have been especially bitter and it never forgave the insult. To this day the sale of cultured pearls is illegal in that country.

Even Dubai, with its strategic natural harbour and its concerted efforts to develop trade, was henceforth to be considered nothing more than a poor, backward fishing village, obscure and uninteresting, not even worth a dot on the map.

This state of poverty lasted for over twenty years. With no light at the end of the tunnel there must have been a terrible feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness and monotony. The past was gone forever. This was the strange new normal. For two thousand years they had been proud pearlers. What were they now? Nothing, nobody. How would they ever change this life of grim subsistence?

Then, in the 1950’s, out of the blue, something happened. Oil was discovered in the region. For places like Qatar and Abu Dhabi it was a sudden salvation. They were rich again. Other sheikhdoms were not so lucky. Some had only a little oil and some had none at all.

For Dubai it was a long wait. Oil was finally discovered off its coastline in the 1960’s but in meagre reserves. Dubai always knew that whatever money oil might bring would be limited. They would have to make the most of it. And they did. Dubai built a deep sea port, the only one in the region, which brought revenue to the emirate. Money went into roads and hospitals and schools. Then airport expansions. And finally, by the year 2006, the year in which I stood in the luxurious ballroom of the Emirates Tower Hotel, skyscrapers.

As I looked at the Gulf Pearl Set I wondered how much of the pearling catastrophe was still remembered. More than that, I wondered how much of the experience was ingrained consciously or unconsciously in the personality of the Gulf states. A great deal, I thought. I knew that Westerners often found the people of the Arabian Gulf to be arrogant and difficult to know. They felt that they were aloof and unfriendly and suspicious. Perhaps they were. And if they were who could blame them. Now they have oil. When you have something everyone wants then the whole world competes to be your best friend. But what happens when that changes? The people of the Arabian Gulf know the answer to that question better than anybody.

By now the ballroom was no longer deserted. There were serious agents and prospective buyers arriving. Soon they would be inspecting the Gulf Pearl Set, the necklace, the bracelet, the earrings and ring with cool and critical professional eyes, not the star-struck eyes of a horse vet who had trespassed where she didn’t belong. In short, I didn’t want to be in the way. So I thanked the Christie’s expert for all his time and patience and said goodbye. Naturally, being the professional he was, he replied that it was nothing, that the pleasure had all been his.

I took a long parting glance at that spectacular constellation of pearls and diamonds before making my way back past all the other jewelry and out of the ballroom.

Already my imagination was on fire. Within a few days I began scribbling out ideas. The poem I would ultimately write would not be about the Gulf Pearl Set exactly but would revolve around the fate of a single pearl. I called it the Pearl of Dubai. In real life no such pearl existed; there is no actual Pearl of Dubai. However, the name does exist as an expression. To say that something is “the Pearl of Dubai” is to mark it out as special, beautiful, unique, something eclipsing all others.

The poem’s story was about the pearling boats of old, about a pearl diver, the pearl he brings up from the bottom of the sea and ultimately about his family’s destiny in modern Dubai entwined with this pearl.

Life went on and time passed. I was busy scribbling in my spare moments and meanwhile, half a world away, the Gulf Pearl Set was sold in Geneva. The buyer, like the seller, remained anonymous. The price was four million dollars.

So, after surfacing briefly into the spotlight of public attention during its weeks with Christie’s, the Gulf Pearl Set again disappeared from view. It might stay hidden for fifty or a hundred years. Who knew? Maybe it would stay hidden forever. I’d never get the chance to see it again, of that much I was sure. But I was glad that the paths of the Gulf Pearl Set and myself had crossed however briefly, that the two completely different worlds that we each inhabited had been melded into one for a fragment of time. And I was glad that in its own way, by serving as the inspiration for “The Pearl of Dubai”, the Gulf Pearl Set so unexpectedly brought pleasure to a few people who never knew it even existed. Above all, those pearls and my happy quest to see them brought pleasure to me.


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