National treasure

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

The pearl trade employed most Bahrainis and although its economic importance has long since waned, pearls still play an important part in Bahrain today. CD Traveller gives you the lowdown on the Kingdom’s national icon

Regardless of whether you’re in Bahrain for a short stop over or infinitely longer, you can’t fail to miss the Pearl Monument – one of the Kingdom’s most recognizable symbols. Six dhow sails are depicted, representing the six countries of the Gulf. At the summit of the monument is a pearl – an element which unites the countries in their heritage. But it is Bahraini natural pearls that are considered to be the finest in existence.


The past
In the pre oil days, pearls were the primary source of income for the locals and the tiny island was the main trader of the rare commodity, supplying 80 per cent of the world’s market. A British naval survey from the early 19th century revealed that some 30,000 divers were employed on 4,200 boats.
Foraging for pearls for up to a couple of minutes without breathing apparatus was often tough, dangerous work for the divers, especially when sharks arrived to keep them company! Bahraini breath hold divers wore leather finger guards to protect their fingers from the jagged edges of the coral reefs and were equipped with special knives to cut the oysters from the seabed, as well as ropes and baskets to put the oysters in. The divers’ apparel is on display over at the Bahrain National Museum – an excellent place to learn more about the pearl diving industry.
The pearling journey (called Al ghawa al kabir) typically took from three to four months, usually June-October of every year when the waters were warm, and whole communities came to the shore to see off their men folk who were renowned for their courage and stamina. However, in the first half of last century two major events changed everything. The discovery of oil in the 1930s altered the fate of Bahrain with many pearl divers becoming employed in the burgeoning petroleum industry. The decline of the pearl trade accelerated as Japanese businessmen began farming cultured pearls (created by placing a shell bead inside an oyster manually), and selling them at a small faction of what a Bahraini pearl cost. This effectively killed off the local industry and the trade that had been passed on from father to son since before the pyramids were built, was decimated.

Bahrain - Pearl Diving-300

The present
While Bahrain’s economy is no longer based on pearling in particular, natural pearls are still collected from the island’s oyster beds and adventurous travellers can even dive for their own. Although a number of oyster beds close to shore have been damaged or destroyed by oil spillage and land reclamation, more than 1,000sqkm of fertile oyster beds still flourish in the warm waters further afield. The depths of the pearl oysters is typically between five and 20 metres, so visitors don’t need to be diving pros to have a go. The chance of finding oyster shells containing pearls is rated as high as 60 per cent and only in Bahrain are divers allowed to hunt for pearls and keep what they find.
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Purchasing pearls
Those who don’t want to get wet, but still dream of picking up some pearls can do so at the Gold City. Despite its name, the arcade is home to plenty of pearl shops for Islamic tradition holds pearls in high regard. Indeed the Koran speaks of pearls as one of the great rewards found in paradise and the gem has become a symbol of perfection; thought to signify faith, charity and innocence and to enhance the integrity of the wearer.
A pearl’s worth can be determined by its luster; if you can see a reflection of your face clearly by gazing in the pearl, then it’s a high quality luster. The superior lustre of Bahraini pearls is believed to be caused by the sweet water springs that bubble up through the seabed.
The ‘classic’ piece of pearl jewellery is of course the pearl necklace. Expect to pay around BD60-70 for a necklace, with loose pearls costing in the region of BD30. Small discounts maybe negotiable but for the most part – despite the souk like atmosphere that prevails – prices for pearl jewellery are fixed. Whether you opt for earrings or barter over a bracelet, pearls require more ‘TLC’ than other gemstones owing to being softer and therefore more susceptible to scratches. Substances such as hair spray and perfume can cloud the brilliance of pearls so it’s a good idea to apply any cosmetics before you put on your pearls. Because of their delicacy, pearls should be stored separately – wrap them in soft cloth before placing them in a pouch or jewellery box.

Anyone purchasing pearls can rest assured that they are the real deal. Cultured pearls are banned from the Bahrain market in an effort to preserve the Kingdom’s heritage (all imported pearls are tested at the Gemstone and Pearl testing Laboratory at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry) and shop keepers and won’t risk their licence to flog you artificial, imported ones.

Top cultured pearls might appear identical to natural pearls and easier on the wallet, but essentially a cultured pearl is nothing more than a piece of plastic.

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