Pearl diving is a little-understood practice that seems almost quaint by modern-day standards, but that nevertheless remains incredibly important to the jewelry industry. This is true even in places like Dubai, which most people would no longer associate with pearl diving at all – if they ever did in the first place.
The fact is, however, that pearl diving was a massive industry in the UAE long before it became the darling of Russian oligarchs and Indian playboys. The industry was at its height at the turn of the 20th century, although by the 1920s, it had all but vanished.
The reasons for this were myriad but could largely be attributed to the onset of the Great Depression, the birth of the much more lucrative oil industry in the region, and the perfection of cultured-pearl practices by the Japanese in 1916.
Despite its decline as an industry, however, pearling is an integral part of the history of the UAE – and a fascinating one at that.
From dodging sharks and jellyfish to forgoing the use of any diving equipment, let’s take a look at the six most fascinating things about pearling that many people are unaware of.
Pearlers Used Almost No Equipment
These days, it’s difficult to imagine descending into the ocean without some sort of equipment. Even freedivers, who forgo breathing apparatus, tend to use cutting-edge flippers to assist in their rapid descent and ascent, as well as goggles in order to see clearly.
UAE pearlers, by contrast, used a vanishingly small amount of equipment – and certainly didn’t have access to goggles or flippers. Most divers used only four things to assist in their dive:
- Fattam. This nose-clip, typically fashioned from a turtle shell, helped to clip the diver’s nose shut and prevent water from flooding their nostrils.
- Yeda. This rope tethered the diver to the dhow (a small boat) that he was diving from and allowed his partner to pull him back up when he was finished.
- Dyeen. A small woven bag where the collected oysters were placed to keep them secure.
- A small stone was tied around the ankle. This would counteract the diver’s natural buoyancy and ensure that he sank to the bottom.
Diving Was Seasonal
For a place as renowned for beautiful weather as the UAE, you’d expect that something like pearl diving was a year-round practice. But actually, it was only practiced during the warmer summer and autumn months (June-September), when the water was not only a more tolerable temperature but also much clearer.
The high visibility obviously made it easier to find oysters containing pearls, but it also made shark attacks much less likely (as most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity).
Pearl Diving Practices Hardly Changed Over 7000 Years
Most industries see massive changes to their operations with the advent of new technologies. Not so with pearl diving; the practice maintained a tradition that stretched back all the way to antiquity, with archaeologists believing that pearl divers had dived the Arabian Gulf as far back as the Bronze Age.
The equipment detailed above reflects this storied and unchanging pearling tradition. All of the equipment used would have been possible to manufacture throughout most of recorded history, and experts believe that pearling practices could have remained completely unchanged since at least the 9th century CE.
Similarly, the techniques used – from employing a buddy system to the use of a stone weight and a rope to re-ascend – have been in use for as long as Arabs have dived the Gulf. When the pearling industry died out in the 1920s, more was lost than a source of income – a very way of life was consigned to the history books forever.
UAE Pearls Were Sought After Over The Known World
Before cultured pearls were widely introduced in the late 1910s, naturally-occurring pearls were much prized for their beauty and relative rarity. That meant that the richest and most powerful patricians and merchants of antiquity would pay vast sums for a good pearl – and that they appeared the world over.
UAE pearls were, it has been suggested, found in such far-flung places as Venice, Rome, Scandinavia, and even India and Sri Lanka. Many people still favor naturally-occurring pearls precisely for their rarity.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi Partially Owe Their Existence To Pearling
Cities are not born in a vacuum. There must be some draw in order for people to consider settling in a particular area, and that draw is often related to a natural resource that can be found nearby.
For the UAE cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, that natural resource was pearls. Because of their proximity to the Arabian Gulf, they made great launching spots for the dhows that would head out to the best pearling beds. Dubai got its start as a fishing village in the 18th century; Abu Dhabi dates back to the 17th century and was used as a staging point for pearl divers.
Japanese Innovation Destroyed The UAE Pearling Industry
Cultured pearls were no new thing in 1916 – in China, in fact, they had been culturing pearls since the 9th century – but nobody managed to refine the practice to the degree that Mikimoto Kokichi did.
This enterprising Japanese businessman, using research passed along from a British biologist, was able to apply for a patent for the process in the 1910s. He was granted the patent in 1916 and quickly set about producing commercial crops.
The ability to reliably produce cultured pearls on an industrial scale shattered the pearling industry across the world. In the UAE, its effect was initially devastating. As time wore on, however, many were glad to have exited a profession that was strenuous, unreliable, and often dangerous.
Are The Days of Pearling Over in the UAE? Not Quite!
Though the UAE is not really renowned for its pearling in the modern age, the fact is that the practice remains an integral and fascinating part of the country’s history. And so prized were the Arabian Gulf pearls, the industry is increasingly making a comeback to account for the huge demand for them.
So who knows? Perhaps in a few years’ time, people will be donning their dyeen and yeda and heading back to the pristine seabed of the Arabian Gulf.