ABU DHABI — Faraj al-Muhairbi, 75, is the last of the natural pearl divers who in the early 20th century generated more than 90 percent of the income of what is now the United Arab Emirates.
“There used to be many pearl oysters on the seabed around 80 km away. I could dive for only 1 1/2 minutes but was able to get oysters quickly,” said al-Muhairbi in the Abu Dhabi village of Sila.
Pastoral Arabs roamed the deserts in winter and became fishermen for four months from May, looking for pearls. “There was a day when I dived 350 times from sunrise to sunset,” al-Muhairbi said.
He was still young when he noticed a change in local life. In the latter half of the 1930s, his father told him that many pearls were being supplied by a country that al-Muhairbi had never heard of. He later learned the country was Japan.
Even though a natural pearl of sufficient value could only be found in one in 1,000 oysters, al-Muhairbi continued to dive. But pearl fishing almost died out in the 1950s.
“I talked with my parents about how natural pearls were losing their value due to Japan’s pearl culture technology and the global depression,” al-Muhairbi said. He and others like him moved to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to work in the oil industry.
In 1893, in the middle of the Meiji Era when the Japanese government was actively trying to promote industrialization, Kokichi Mikimoto in Toba, Mie Prefecture, succeeded in culturing the world’s first semicircular pearl by implanting oysters.
Mikimoto, who was 35 at the time, continued his research and succeeded in culturing a round pearl in 1905.
Mikimoto opened a pearl accessory store in Tokyo’s Ginza district and exhibited his pearls at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, winning global fame.
Experts said the only way a cultured pearl differed from a natural one was the artificial “nucleus” at its heart, but there was otherwise no difference in the structure. Thus, a globally recognized “Japan brand” was born.
Al-Muhairbi, who is enjoying a quiet retirement, heard in 2008 that cultured pearls had finally been produced in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah after repeated attempts that failed due to a lack of technology.
On a visit to a pearl oyster farm run by Abdulla al-Suwaidi, 35, al-Muhairbi saw a pearl taken from an oyster and was struck by its yellowish glow. It was as large as a natural pearl.
Al-Suwaidi started culturing pearls in Ras Al Khaimah in 2005 with Daiji Imura, 44, a former pearl dealer from Ise, Mie Prefecture. He happened to meet Imura when he was looking for a cultured pearl necklace to present to his wife on their first wedding anniversary. Al-Suwaidi was working in Japan at the time.
Pearl production was declining in Japan due to deteriorating sea conditions and Imura was looking at Ras Al Khaimah, which is rich in natural oysters. The two men launched a farm using joint investment, introducing Japanese technology to the rich waters.
“I hope our business will provide a spark for Japan’s pearl culturing industry to revitalize itself,” Imura said.
“There has been a misunderstanding here that cultured pearls are plastic imitations. It is my duty to correct this misunderstanding,” al-Suwaidi said, adding he hopes pearl culturing eventually helps bridge Japan with his country, where there is resentment among the elderly for the lost livelihoods pearl divers suffered with the rise in popularity of Japan’s cultured pearls.
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