#JOM! A real gem

While rare elsewhere, natural pearls prised from seabed oysters by divers are the only variety produced in the Gulf kingdom, which is fiercely proud of its pearling tradition.

Bahrain, a tiny island-state neighbouring Qatar, is the sole country worldwide to have banned the cultivation of artificial pearls, which have flooded the market since the 1920s.

Faten Mattar, who works at a family-run jewellery shop, says it can take up to five years to complete one strand of a necklace by sourcing pearls directly from divers.

"We can't mass produce," she says, admitting it is "a challenge".

Larger pieces, which can go for up to US$25,000, may take more than a decade to complete.

But no two natural pearls being identical, Mattar says, is part of the appeal.

"Each person who owns or gets a piece of jewellery that contains natural pearls knows no one else has the same."

Mattar is one of the first women to work in a family business that was established more than two centuries ago, making it one of the oldest in Bahrain.

"One of our goals is to make pearls more attainable for everyone, so we created different lines instead of having just big pieces," she explains, mentioning designs for men, as well as daily jewellery for a younger crowd.


Like other Arab Gulf states, Bahrain's economy before the discovery of oil relied on pearl harvesting.

Bahraini free-divers would spend months aboard traditional dhows, the wooden sailboats that have plied Gulf waters for centuries, to capture pearls prized by the region's royal families, as well as European fashion houses.

But the natural pearl trade crashed after the Great Depression of the '30s and the development in Japan of cultured pearls, artificially propagated in freshwater mussels, which are cheaper and easier to produce.

Muharraq, in Bahrain's north, is home to "the last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling", according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, with a heritage site featuring oyster beds and a fortress where dhows used to set off.

Today, young gemologists at the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (Danat), nestled among the capital Manama's skyscrapers, scrutinise pearls using modern machinery or the naked eye.

Examining a pearl through an X-ray machine can detect "growth lines" that distinguish natural pearls from cultured ones.

Created in 2017, Danat appraises pearls at the request of merchants and individuals.

"You'd be surprised by how many clients come to Danat that have inherited pieces and are then shocked to know that the jewellery contains cultured pearls," says Noora Jamsheer, who heads the research centre.

Apart from appraisal, Danat also monitors conditions in the water where natural pearls are harvested.

"We have a research team that is continuously going to the field, researching and collecting data such as water temperature, water quality and salinity to determine and study the impact of these factors," Noora says.

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