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Title: The Book of the Pearl

Author: George Frederick Kunz

Charles Hugh Stevenson

Release date: September 26, 2020 [eBook #63299]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Richard Tonsing, Chris Curnow, and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at (This
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The cover image was created by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.




Orient pearls fit for a queen
Will I give thy love to win,
And a shell to keep them in.
The Faithful Shepherdess (1611)
Copyright, 1908, by
The Century Co.
Published October, 1908



  Introduction xv
I Pearls among the Ancients 3
II Medieval and Modern History of Pearls 15
III Origin of Pearls 35
IV Structure and Forms of Pearls 51
V Sources of Pearls 65
VI The Pearl Fisheries of the Persian Gulf 85
VII East African Pearl Fisheries 153
VIII Pearl Fisheries of the British Isles 159
IX Pearl Fisheries of the South Sea Islands 189
X Pearl Fisheries of Venezuela 225
XI Pearl-Culture and Pearl-Farming 285
XII Mystical and Medicinal Properties of Pearls 301
XIII Values and Commerce of Pearls 319
XIV Treatment and Care of Pearls 375
XV Pearls as Used in Ornaments and Decoration 403
XVI Famous Pearls and Collections 449
XVII The Aboriginal Use of Pearls, and Their Discovery in Mounds and Graves 485
  Bibliography 517
  Index 541


The Czarina of Russia Frontispiece
Ancient Chinese crown with pearls. Ancient Chinese pearl rosary. Chinese priests keeping guard over the tombs of the kings, in Mukden, where the crowns are preserved 4
Grecian pearl and gold necklace 8
Front cover of Ashburnham manuscript of the Four Gospels 16
Francis I, King of France, 1494–1547. Isabelle de Valois 19
  (From photographs by A. Giraudon)  
Maria Theresa (1717–1780), Queen of Hungary 24
Facsimile of title-page of decrees of Venetian Senate regulating the wearing of pearls 27
Lady Abinger. Mrs. Adair. Baroness de Forest. Hon. Mrs. Renard Gréville. Marchioness of Lansdowne. Lady Londonderry. Lady Wimborne 30
  (From photographs, copyright by Lafayette, Ltd., London)  
Venezuela shell. Panama shell 36
Shells from Venezuela with attached pearls. Exterior view of same. X-ray photograph of shell, printed through exterior of shell and showing encysted pearls 39
Mexican pearl-oyster with adherent pearl. Group of encysted pearls in shell of Australian pearl-oyster. Mexican pearl-oyster with encysted fish. Group of encysted pearls (oriental). Reverse of same group, showing outline of the individual pearls 42
Cross section of an irregular pearl, magnified 80 diameters. Cross sections of pearls, magnified 30 diameters. Thin section of mother-of-pearl, magnified, showing sponge borings which traversed the pearl shell. Structure of conch pearl produced by fracturing, magnified 80 diameters 53
Pearls from common clam of eastern coast of America. Pearl “nuggets” from the Mississippi Valley. Wing pearls from the Mississippi Valley. Dog-tooth pearls from the Mississippi Valley 55
xActual sizes of pearls from ⅛ grain to 160 grains 57
Brooches made of petal, dog-tooth, and wing pearls 58
Gray pearls in the possession of an American lady and brooch from Tiffany & Co.’s exhibit, Paris Exposition, 1900 60
Shell of pearl-oyster with attached pearl 68
Pinna or wing shell. Pearl-oyster of Ceylon 72
Shell and pearls of the common conch 76
Cargo boat in pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf. Huts of mats and palm leaves, the homes of the pearl fishermen at Menamah, Bahrein Islands, Persian Gulf 87
Agha Mohammed (1666–1725). Shah Sulaiman (1647–1694) 88
Arab pearl-divers at work in the Persian Gulf 90
His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Ali, Shah of Persia 94
The “Prince of Pearls”; the late Rana of Dholpur in his pearl regalia 101
The late Maharajah of Patiala 108
Facsimiles of notices of pearl-fishing at Marichchikadde, in English and Cingalese 110–111
Unloading oysters from the vessels into the kottus at Marichchikadde, Ceylon. The pearling fleet on the shore at Marichchikadde, Ceylon. Hindu workmen preparing to drill pearls, Marichchikadde, Ceylon 115
Indian pearl merchants ready for business. Children of Persian pearl dealers 120
Street scene in Marichchikadde, the pearling camp of Ceylon. Return of the fleet from the pearl reefs to Marichchikadde, Ceylon 126
Pearls presented by the Imam of Muscat to President Van Buren 131
Necklace and earrings from the treasury of the Emir of Bohkara 136
Carved “Jerusalem Shell” from the Red Sea 142
Cap of State, from looting of summer palace, Pekin, in 1860 145
Fishing for the awabi (abalone) shells at Wada-no-hara, Japan 148
  (From “The Burlington Art Magazine”)  
Old print showing four methods of catching pearl-bearing mollusks 160
Madame Norischkine née Straudman. Duchesse Elizabeth (Constantin).
(From a photograph by Ch. Bergamasco, St. Petersburg) (From a photograph by A. Pasetti, St. Petersburg)
Daughter of General Sobelieff, first Countess Beauharnais
Scotch pearl rivers 167
Great Cameo Pearl 170
xiDowager Czarina of Russia. Grand Duchess Vladimir.
(From a photograph by Ch. Bergamasco, St. Petersburg)
Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna
Miter of Patriarch Nikon 176
Panagia or ornament worn on the breast of a bishop in Russia 180
Russian Boyard ladies of the seventeenth century, showing caps and other ornaments of pearls 184
Pearl-divers of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Settlement of pearl fishermen at Hiqueru, Tuamotu Archipelago 197
Pearling boats at Hiqueru, Tuamotu Archipelago. Australian pearl-diver (armored) coming up from the depths 204
Opening pearl-oysters and searching for pearls, off the coast of Australia. Grading, weighing, and packing mother-of-pearl, off the coast of Australia 213
Moro boats, used among the pearl islands of the Malay Archipelago. Raft used for pearl-fishing in the Malay Archipelago 216
Pearling village, with youthful fishermen, Sulu Islands. Japanese diver in Dutch East Indies, come up to “blow” for a few minutes 220
Gray pearls from Lower California, and diamonds 228
Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II 237
The Adams gold vase 248
Negro pearling camp, on bank of an Arkansas river. Group of Arkansas pearl fishermen 254
Brooch, Renaissance style, set with baroque pearls, from American streams 259
Brooches and rings of fresh-water pearls from Wisconsin and Tennessee 262
Pearl-bearing unios 266
Pearling scene on White River, Arkansas. Pearling camp on upper Mississippi River 270
The evolution of buttons, made from Mississippi shells 275
Necklace of fresh-water pearls 276
Shell of pearl-bearing abalone 280
Shell of Dipsas plicatus, with attached metal figures of Buddha coated with nacre. Shell of Dipsas plicatus, with attached porcelain beads coated with nacre 286
Artificial rearing-ponds for the development of pearl-oysters on the Island of Espiritŭ Santo, Gulf of California. Trays containing small pearl-oysters prepared for placing at the bottom of artificial rearing-ponds 291
Japanese legend of the dragon and the pearl, idealized in Jade 302
Russian eikon of the Madonna 312
xiiPectoral cross of Constantine IX, Monomachus (1000–1054 A.D.) 321
Great pearl necklace of the French crown jewels 332
The Siamese Prince in full regalia 336
Half-pearls: lots of three different sizes. Brooch of half-pearls and onyx, United States, 1860 343
Pearl nose rings, Baroda, India. East Indian earring of strings of pearls and table diamonds. Grape pendants. Oriental pearls 345
Necklace containing 126,000 seed-pearls, Louis XVI period 346
Seed-pearls and gold; Chinese ornaments of the nineteenth century. Complete set of seed-pearl jewelry in original case 357
Persian princess and ladies in waiting 364
Facsimiles of the title-page and last leaf of an enactment abolishing duty on pearls, English Parliament, 1732 368
Pearl drilling 376
Pearl stringing 383
Necklace of seed-pearls, United States, Civil War period 389
Mother-of-pearl shell from Tahiti 390
Ladies’ sewing case and scissors inlaid with half-pearls; watches incrusted with half-pearls; snuff-box, ivory inlaid with fresh-water pearls; miniature surrounded by half-pearls 395
Evolution of a seed-pearl brooch. Seed-pearls, Indian strings. White horsehair for stringing 396
Facsimile of letter of M. Gaston Mogeaud, Director of the Louvre 398
Madame Thiers’s pearl necklace, bequeathed to the Louvre Museum, Paris 398
  (From a photograph by A. Giraudon)  
Antique ornaments of pearls 404
Tyszkiewizc bronze statuette of Aphrodite 407
Pearl earrings from Herculaneum and Pompeii 408
Antique pearl ornaments 410
East Indian necklace of pearls, table diamonds, glass beads, gold and enamel 413
Crown of Reccesvinthus and other Gothic crowns of the seventh century 416
  (From a photograph by A. Giraudon)  
Her Majesty, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India 418
  (From a photograph by W. & D. Downey, London)  
Crown of St. Edward 424
  (From “The English Regalia,” published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, Ltd., London)  
xiiiThe Empress Dowager of China 431
Pearl ornaments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 434
Margherita, Dowager Queen of Italy 439
Collection of black pearls belonging to an American lady 440
Señora Carmen Romero Rubio de Diaz, wife of President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico 442
  (From a photograph by Valleto & Co., Mexico)  
Jade jar inlaid with pearls set with fine gold. Japanese decoration set with pearls 444
Gaikwar of Baroda, 1908 450
Mary, Queen of Scots 453
  (From “Portraits and Jewels of Mary Stuart,” published by James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow)  
Queen Elizabeth of England. Elizabeth of France 456
Pearl carpet or shawl of the Gaikwar of Baroda 460
The Hope pearl. Weighs 1800 grains 463
Her Grace, the Duchess of Marlborough 465
  (From a photograph by Lafayette, Ltd., London)  
The Madame Nordica collection of colored pearls 468
Grand pearl diadem of the French crown jewels 471
The Imperial Austrian crown 472
The Great Sévigné of the French crown jewels 474
Madame Nordica 476
Mrs. George J. Gould 480
Fresh-water pearls from Hopewell group of mounds, Ross County, Ohio 499
Fresh-water pearls from Hopewell group of mounds, Ross County, Ohio 510


The pearling regions in Ceylon and British India 129
Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the pearling center of the world 140
The pearling regions in Oceania and Malaysia 191
Venezuela and Panama, the principal pearling regions of South America 227
Gulf of California and the pearling territory of western Mexico 243


The preparation of this book has been a joint labor during the spare moments of the two authors, whose time has been occupied with subjects to which pearls are not wholly foreign—one as a gem expert, and the other in the fisheries branch of the American government. But for the views and expressions contained herein, they alone are personally responsible, and do not represent or speak for any interest whatever. For many years the writers have collected data on the subject of pearls, and have accumulated all the obtainable literature, not only the easily procurable books, but likewise manuscripts, copies of rare volumes, original edicts, and legislative enactments, thousands of newspaper clippings, and interesting illustrations, many of them unique, making probably the largest single collection of data in existence on this particular subject. It was deemed advisable to present the results of these studies and observations in one harmonious volume, rather than in two different publications. This publication is not a pioneer in an untrodden field. As may be seen from the appended bibliography, during the last two thousand years hundreds of persons have discussed pearls—mystically, historically, poetically, and learnedly. Among the older writers who stand out with special prominence in their respective periods are the encyclopedist Pliny, in the first century A.D.; Oviedo and Peter Martyr of the sixteenth century; the physician Anselmus De Boot, and that observant traveler and prince of jewelers, Tavernier, in the seventeenth century. It would be difficult to do justice to the many writers of the nineteenth century and of the present time; but probably most attention has been attracted by the writings of Hessling and Möbius of Germany; Kelaart, Streeter, Herdman, and Hornell of Great Britain; Filippi of Italy, and Seurat and Dubois of France. While the book is a joint work in the sense that each writer has contributed material to all of the chapters and has critically examined and approved the entire work, the senior author has more closely applied himself to the latter half of the text, covering antiquity values, commerce, wearing manipulation, treatment, famous collections, aboriginal use, and the illustrations, while the junior author has attended to the earlier half of the book, with reference to xvihistory, origin, sources, fisheries, culture, mystical properties, and the literature of the pearl.

The senior author has had exceptionally favorable opportunities to examine the precious objects contained in the various imperial and royal treasuries. Through the courtesy of the late Count Sipuigine, Court Chamberlain, and of the late General Philamanoff, custodian of the Ourejena Palata, he was permitted to critically examine the Russian crown jewels in the Summer Palace on the Neva, and in the Palata in the Kremlin, at Moscow, he examined the crowns and jewels of all the early czars. Through the courtesy of Baron von Theile, he was permitted to inspect carefully and in detail the wonderful jewels of the Austrian crown, which are beautifully ordered and arranged. The English and Saxon crown jewels were also seen under favorable conditions which permitted detailed examination, and the jewel collections of almost all the principal museums of Europe and America were carefully studied. As regards the literature of the subject, the senior author has gathered together the largest known existing collection of works treating of pearls and precious stones.

In covering so comprehensive a subject, many obligations have been incurred from individuals and officials, to whose courtesy and assistance is due much of the interest of this work. To list all of these is impossible, yet it would be ungrateful not to note the following: her Majesty Queen Margherita of Italy; his Royal Highness the Gaikwar of Baroda; to H. R. H. le Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria, of Munich; to the late Prince Sipuigine, then chamberlain of the Russian Imperial Appanages; to Sir Edward Robert Pearce Edgcumbe for data relative to fisheries of East Africa; Dr. H. C. Bumpus, director of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for many courtesies in regard to materials and illustrations; Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, director, Dr. Edward Robinson, assistant director, J. H. Buck, curator of Metal-work, and A. G. St. M. D’Hervilly, assistant curator of Paintings, all of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for numerous courtesies; Archer M. Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society and Museum in New York City; Dr. Bashford Dean, Prof. Friedrich Hirth, Chinese professor, Dr. Berthold Laufer, Prof. A. V. Williams Jackson, professor of Indo-Iranian languages, and Prof. M. H. Saville, all of Columbia University, New York City; J. Pierpont Morgan, for the right to publish the illustration of Ashburnham missal; Dr. W. Hayes Ward, Assyriologist; Dr. Charles S. Braddock, formerly Chief of Medical Inspection for the King of Siam; Robert Hoe, for the two plates of unique Persian illustrations from his manuscripts; Edmund Russell, for East Indian material; F. Cunliffe-Owen, the author of diplomatic subjects; Ten Broeck Morse; Walter xviiJoslyn; Stansbury Hagar; Henri de Morgan, explorer; Dr. Nathaniel L. Britton, director New York Botanical Garden, J. H. Lawles, and Ludwig Stross, for many courtesies; Miss M. de Barril and Miss Belle da Costa Greene, all of New York; Dr. Stewart W. Culin, of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences; the Contessa Casa Cortez, for Peruvian information, of Brooklyn; Dr. Charles B. Davenport, of the Carnegie Institution Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor; Arthur C. Parker, archæologist, State Museum, Albany, N. Y.; A. S. Clark, antiquarian, Peekskill, N. Y.; Dr. Richard Rathbun, assistant secretary, Dr. Cyrus Adler, curator, Dr. Otis S. Mason, curator of Ethnology, all of the Smithsonian Institution; Dr. S. W. Stratton, chief of the Bureau of Standards; Miss E. R. Scidmore; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, editor, National Geographic Magazine; Hon. William Eleroy Curtis; his Excellency Enrique C. Creel, Embajador de Mexico, and James T. Archbold, war correspondent, all of Washington, D. C.; Prof. W. P. Wilson, director Philadelphia Commercial Museum, Clarence B. Moore, Academy of Natural Sciences, and T. Louis Comparette, curator Numismatic Collection, U. S. Mint, all of Philadelphia; Prof. Henry Montgomery, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada; Dr. Warren K. Moorehead, archæologist, Andover, Mass.; H. D. Story, and Theo. M. Davis, curators of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.; Miss Mathilde Laigle of Wellesley College; Prof. F. W. Putnam and Alfred M. Tozzer, Peabody Museum of Archæology, Cambridge, Mass.; Prof. Edward S. Morse, Salem, Mass.; Dr. Hiram Bingham, Yale University; W. E. Frost, Providence, R. I.; Dr. Edgar J. Banks, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.; Hon. F. J. V. Skiff, director, for several photographs of museum material, and Dr. George A. Dorsey, curator of Anthropology of the Field Columbian Museum; Dr. A. R. Crook, curator of the Museum of Natural History, Springfield, Ill.; Richard Hermann, director Hermann Museum, Dubuque, Ia.; Charles Russell Orcutt, San Diego, Cal.; David I. Bushnell, St. Louis, Mo.; Dr. J. H. Stanton, Prairie du Chien, Wis.; Joe Gassett, Clinton, Tenn.; Prof. Wm. C. Mills, University of Ohio, Columbus, O., for material covering the new Ohio mound discoveries; Mrs. Marie Robinson Wright, author and South American traveler, New York City; Miss Helen Woolley of Judson College, Alabama; Prof. Dr. Eugene Hussak, Rio Janeiro; Hon. George E. Anderson, Consul General of the United States, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Señor L. E. Bonilla, Consul General of Colombia; Madam Zelia Nuttall, Coyoacan, Mexico; Prof. Waldstein, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England; Dr. O. F. Bell, assistant keeper Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Dr. Stephen W. Bushell, Chinese authority; Lady Christopher Johnston, Dr. William F. Petrie, University College, Dr. Charles xviiiHercules Read, director of the department of Archæology, British Museum, for illustrations and data; Cyril Davenport, antiquarian writer of the British Museum, for the illustration of the English crown, and crown information; to Sir John Evans, late veteran archæologist and writer; Thomas Tyrer, chemist, W. Talbot Ready, A. W. Feaveryear, E. Alfred Jones, author on metal-work, Edwin W. Streeter, all of London, England; Prof. H. P. Blackmore, curator Blackmore Museum, Salisbury, England; Dr. Thos. Gann, Harrogate, England; Prof. Arthur E. Shipley, Cambridge, England; Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, Labrador; T. W. Lyster, librarian of the National Library of Ireland, Prof. R. F. Scharff, director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, W. Forbes Hourie, all of Ireland; Mr. James Hornell, Dr. W. A. Herdmann, all on information concerning the Ceylon fisheries; Prof. James M. Milne, Belfast, Ireland; David MacGregor, Perth, Scotland; Joseph Baer & Co., Frankfurt, Germany; Herrn C. W. Kesseller, Idar, Germany; Prof. Dr. Carl Sapper, University of Tübingen, Germany; Geheimrath Prof. Dr. Max Bauer, University of Marburg, Germany; Herrn Prof. Dr. Hofer, director Biologische Versuchsstation, Munich; Herrn Ernst Gideon Bek, Pforzheim, Germany; Hon. Albert H. Michelsen, American Consul at Turin; Sabbatino De Angelis, of Naples, Italy; Mons. Alphonse Falco, of the Chambre Syndicale Pierres Précieuses of Paris; Prof. A. Lacroix, Musée Histoire Naturale, Paris; Mons. Georges Pellisier, Paris; Sr. Gaston J. Vives, La Paz, Mexico; Prof. R. Dubois, Faculté des Sciences, University of Lyons, France; Prof. P. Candias, director of the National Museum, Athens, Greece; Prof. G. A. F. Molengraaff, University of Delft, Holland; the late Prof. Dr. Furtwängler of Munich; Dr. Otto Leiner, Custus Landes-Museum at Constanz, Baden; Herrn Dr. A. B. Meyer, Herrn Carl Marfels, Berlin; Prof. Dr. H. Schumacher, University of Bonn; Geheimrath C. F. Hintze, Breslau; Herrn R. Friedlaender & Sohn, Berlin; Herrn Reg.-Rath Dr. W. von Seidlitz, Dresden; Dr. R. Jacobi, director König Zoologichen Museum, Dresden, Germany; his Excellency Dr. Szalaz, director Hungarian National Museum; Dr. S. Radischi, director National Industrial Museum of Budapest; and to Herrn A. B. Bachrach, Budapest, Hungary; Frau Melanie Glazer, of Prague, and Herrn V. Fric, Prague, Bohemia; Herrn Prof. Dr. F. Heger, Custus Imperial Archæological Collection, Vienna; Herrn H. von Willer and Herrn Max Zirner, of Vienna; Herrn Leopold Weininger, the artisan goldsmith of Austria, for many courtesies; Prof. W. Vernadskij, University of Moscow; Mons. C. Faberje, Joaillier de la Cour, St. Petersburg, Russia; his Excellency Baron P. Meyerdorff, assistant director, Musée des Antiques, Ermitage Impériale, St. Petersburg, for important xixdata and illustrations; his Excellency N. J. Moore, Premier, Western Australia; Dr. K. Van Dort, engineer of Bankok, Siam; Dr. J. Henry Burkill, of the India Museum, Calcutta, India; Alphaeus E. Williams, manager of the De Beers Mine, Kimberley; Capt. E. L. Steever, District Governor of Jolo, Philippine Islands; Dr. T. Nishikawa, Zoölogical Institute; K. Mikimoto, both of Tokio, Japan; Dr. S. M. Zwemer of Bahrein, Persian Gulf; Mr. Hugh Millman of Thursday Island, Australia; Julius D. Dreher, American Consul at Tahiti, Society Islands; and not least, by any means, the uniform promptness and completeness with which the officials of the British Colonial Service have responded to the many inquiries which the writers have addressed to them.

The Authors.
September, 1908.


The richest merchandise of all, and the most soveraigne commoditie throughout the whole world, are these pearles.

Pliny, Historia naturalis.
Lib. IX, c. 35.

Perfected by nature and requiring no art to enhance their beauty, pearls were naturally the earliest gems known to prehistoric man. Probably the members of some fish-eating tribe—maybe of the coast of India or bordering an Asiatic river—while opening mollusks for food, were attracted by their luster. And as man’s estimation of beauty developed, he found in them the means of satisfying that fondness for personal decoration so characteristic of half-naked savages, which has its counterpart amid the wealth and fashion of the present day.

Pearls seem to be peculiarly suggestive of oriental luxury and magnificence. It is in the East that they have been especially loved, enhancing the charms of Asiatic beauty and adding splendor to barbaric courts celebrated for their display of costume. From their possession of the rich pearl resources it is natural that the people of India and of Persia should have early found beauty and value in these jewels, and should have been among the first to collect them in large quantities. And no oriental divinity, no object of veneration has been without this ornament; no poetical production has lacked this symbol of purity and chastity.

In a personal memorandum, Dr. A. V. Williams Jackson, professor of Indo-Iranian languages in Columbia University, states that it is generally supposed that the Vedas, the oldest sacred books of the Brahmans, contain several allusions to pearl decorations a millennium or 4more before the Christian era, as the word krisana and its derivatives—which occur a half dozen times in the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas—are generally translated as signifying “pearl.” Even if this interpretation of the term be called into question on the ground that the Hindus of the Panjab were not well acquainted with the sea, there can be little or no doubt that the Atharvaveda, at least five hundred years before the Christian era, alludes to an amulet made of pearls and used as a sort of talisman in a hymn[1] of magic formulas.

Those two great epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, refer to pearls. The Ramayana speaks of a necklace of twenty-seven pearls, and has pearl drillers to accompany a great military expedition.[2] An old myth recounts the offerings made by the elements as gifts worthy of the deity: the air offered the rainbow, the fire a meteor, the earth a ruby, and the sea a pearl. The rainbow formed a halo about the god, the meteor served as a lamp, the ruby decorated the forehead, and the pearl was worn upon the heart.

The literature of Hinduism frequently associates the pearl with Krishna, the eighth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, the most popular god of Hindu worship. One legend credits its discovery to the adorable Krishna, who drew it from the depths of the sea to adorn his daughter Pandaïa on her nuptial day. Another version makes the pearl a trophy of the victory of Krishna over the monster Pankagna, and it was used by the victor as a decoration for his bride.

In the classic period of Sanskrit literature, about the first century of the Christian era, there were abundant references to pearls, generally called mukta (literally “the pure”); and there are dozens of words for pearl necklaces, circlets, strings, and ornamental festoons, particularly in the dramas of Kalidasa—the Hindu Shakspere, who lived about the third century A.D.—and of his successors.

In the Mahavansa and the Dipavansa, the ancient chronicle histories of Ceylon in the Pali language, are several early Cingalese records of pearl production and estimation.[3] The Mahavansa lists pearls among the native products sent from Ceylon about 550 B.C., King Wijayo sending his father-in-law gifts of pearls and chanks to the value of two lacs of rupees; and notes that about 300 B.C., several varieties of Ceylon pearls were carried as presents by an embassy to India.

Ancient Chinese crown with pearls

Ancient Chinese pearl rosary

Chinese priests keeping guard over the tombs of the kings, in Mukden, where the crowns are preserved

5In the ancient civilization of China, pearls were likewise esteemed; this is evidenced by the frequent mention of them in traditional history, their employment in the veneration of idols, and as tribute by foreign princes to the emperor. One of the very earliest of books, the Shu King (dating from about 2350–625 B.C.), notes that, in the twenty-third century B.C., Yü received as tribute oyster pearls from the river Hwai, and from the province of King Kau he received “strings of pearls that were not quite round.”[4] That ancient Chinese dictionary, the Nh’ya, originating thirty centuries ago, speaks of them as precious jewels found in the province of Shen-si on the western frontier.

Many fantastic theories regarding pearls are to be found in ancient Chinese literature. Some writers credited them as originating in the brain of the fabled dragon; others noted that they were especially abundant during the reign of illustrious emperors, and they were used as amulets and charms against fire and other disasters. Curious allusions were made to pearls so brilliant that they were visible at a distance of nearly a thousand yards, or that rice could be cooked by the light from them. And one found about the beginning of the Christian era, near Yangchow-fu, in the province of Kiang-su, was reported so lustrous as to be visible in the dark at a distance of three miles.

In Persia, the popularity of pearls seems to date from a very early period. Professor Jackson states that if they are not mentioned in the extant fragments of the ancient Zoroastrian literature, the Avesta and the Pahlavi, or by the Middle Persian books from the seventh century B.C. to the ninth century A.D., it is probably a mere accident, due to the character of the work or to the fragmentary condition of the literature; for pearls were well known during that entire period, and seem to be indicated in extant sculptures. The coin and the gem portraits of Persian queens commonly show ear-pendants of these. The remains of a magnificent necklace of pearls and other gems were recently found by J. de Morgan in the sarcophagus of an Achæmenid princess exhumed at Susa or Shushan, the winter residence of the kings of Persia. This necklace, perhaps the most ancient pearl ornament still in existence, dates certainly from not later than the fourth century B.C., and is now preserved in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre.[5] Even if we had no other evidence, it would be natural to assume that the knowledge of pearls was as wide-spread among the Iranians in antiquity as it was among the Hindus, since the Persian Gulf, like the Indian Ocean, has been famous for its fisheries from ancient times.

In the ruins of Babylon no pearls have been found; indeed, it would be surprising if they could survive for so many ages in the relatively moist soil which contains much saltpeter. Inlays of mother-of-pearl and decorations of this material have been secured from the ruins of Bismaya, which Dr. Edgar J. Banks refers to about 4500 B.C.

6There is likewise little evidence that pearls were extensively employed by the ancient Assyrians, notwithstanding that excavations at Nineveh and Nimrud have furnished much information regarding their ornaments; and the collars, bracelets, sword-hilts, etc., wrought in gold and ornamented with gems, show that the jewelers’ art had made much progress. This is not wholly trustworthy as determining the relative abundance; for being of organic or non-mineral origin, pearls would not have survived the burial for thousands of years so well as the crystal gems. An inscription on the Nineveh Obelisk, which states, according to Sir Henry Rawlinson, that in the ninth year of his reign Temenbar received, as “tribute of the kings of the Chaldees, gold, silver, gems, and pearls,”[6] shows that the sea-born gems were highly valued there.

The mother-of-pearl shell was in use as an ornament in ancient Egypt certainly as early as the sixth dynasty (circa 3200 B.C.), the period of the Tanis Sphinx. In a recent letter from Luxor, where he is studying the ruins of ancient Thebes, Dr. James T. Dennis states that he has found several of these shells bearing cartouches of that period; and in the “pan-bearing graves” of the twelfth dynasty (2500 B.C.), the shell occurred not only complete, but cut in roughly circular or oblong angular blocks and strung on chains with beads of carnelian, pottery, etc.

So far as can be determined from the representations of ancient Egyptian costumes, pearls do not seem to have been employed to any great extent in their decoration. The necklaces, earrings, and other jewels found in the tombs, which are composed largely of gold set with crystal gems, contain the remains of a few pearls, but give no indication that they were numerous. In fact, no evidence exists that they were used extensively before the Persian conquest in the fifth century B.C.; and probably it was not until the time of the Ptolemies that there began the lavish abundance which characterized the court of Alexandria at the height of her power.

The authorities differ in regard to the mention of pearls in ancient Hebrew literature; although in the Authorized Version of the Old Testament, this significance has been given to the word gabîsh in Job xxviii. 18, where the value of wisdom is contrasted with that of gabîsh. Some writers claim that this word refers to rock crystal. Other authorities are of the opinion that the word peninim in Lam. iv. 7, which has been translated as “rubies,” actually signifies pearls. In Gen. ii. 12, Prof. Paul Haupt has proposed to render shoham stones by pearls, since the Hebrew word translated “onyx,” if connected with the Assyrian sându, might mean “the gray gem.” It does not 7appear that they entered into the decorations of the Tabernacle and the Temple, or were largely employed in the paraphernalia of the synagogue.

In the New Testament, however, there are numerous references to the estimation in which pearls were held. In his teachings, Christ repeatedly referred to them as typifying something most precious: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matt. xiii. 45, 46); and in “casting pearls before swine,” in that great Sermon on the Mount (Matt. vii. 6). In picturing the glories of the Heavenly City, St. John made the twelve gates of pearls (Rev. xxi. 21); and what could better serve as portals through the walls of precious stones?

In the Talmud, pearls are frequently mentioned, and usually as signifying something beautiful or very costly, as “a pearl that is worth thousands of zuzim” (Baba Batra, 146a); a “pearl that has no price” (Yerushalmi, ix. 12d); the coats which God made for Adam and Eve were “as beautiful as pearls” (Gen. R. xx. 12), and the manna was “as white as a pearl” (Yoma, 75a). Their purchase formed one of the exceptions to the law of Ona’ah (overcharge), for the reason that two matched pearls greatly exceeded the value of each one separately (Baba Mezi’a, iv. 8).

The high value attached to pearls by the ancient Hebrews is illustrated by a beautiful Rabbinical story in which only one object in nature is ranked above them. On approaching Egypt, Abraham hid Sarah in a chest, that foreign eyes might not behold her beauty. When he reached the place for paying custom dues, the collectors said, “Pay us the custom”; and he replied, “I will pay your custom.” They said to him, “Thou carriest clothes”; and he stated, “I will pay for clothes.” Then they said to him, “Thou carriest gold”; and he answered, “I will pay for gold.” On this they said to him, “Surely thou bearest the finest silk”; and he replied, “I will pay custom for the finest silk.” Then said they, “Truly it must be pearls that thou takest with thee”; and he answered, “I will pay for pearls.” Seeing that they could name nothing of value for which the patriarch was not willing to pay custom, they said, “It cannot be but that thou open the box and let us see what is within.” So the chest was opened, and the land was illumined by the luster of Sarah’s beauty.[7]

The love which the early Arabs bore to pearls is evidenced by the references to them in the Koran, and especially the figurative description given of Paradise. The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits 8of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable luster, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls.[8]

The estimation of pearls among the art-loving Greeks may be traced to the time of Homer, who appears to have alluded to them under the name τρίγληνα (triple drops or beads) in his description of Juno; in the Iliad, XIV, 183:

In three bright drops,
Her glittering gems suspended from her ears.

and in the Odyssey, XVIII, 298:

Earrings bright
With triple drops that cast a trembling light.

Classical designs of Juno usually show the three pear-shaped pearls pendent from her ears. The ancient Greeks probably obtained their pearls from the East through the medium of Phenician traders, and a survival of the word τρίγληνα seems to exist in the Welsh glain (bead), the name having been carried to Britain by the same traders, who exchanged textiles, glass beads, etc., for tin and salt.

The Persian wars in the fifth century B.C., doubtless extended the acquaintance which the Greeks had with pearls, as well as with other oriental products, and increased their popularity. One of the earliest of the Greek writers to mention pearls specifically appears to have been Theophrastus (372–287 B.C.), the disciple and successor of Aristotle, who referred to them under the name μαργαρίτης (margarites), probably derived from some oriental word like the Sanskrit maracata or the Persian mirwareed. He stated that pearls were produced by shell-fish resembling the pinna, only smaller, and were used in making necklaces of great value. In Pliny’s “Historia naturalis,” that great storehouse of classical learning, reference is made to many other writers—mostly Greeks—who treated of gems; but virtually all of these writings have disappeared, except fragments from Theophrastus, Chares of Mytilene, and Isidorus of Charace.


Of about third century B.C.

Now in Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

9From Greece admiration for pearls quickly extended to Rome, where they were known under the Greek word margaritæ. However, a more common name for this gem in Rome was unio, which Pliny explained by saying that each pearl was unique and unlike any other one. The conclusion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330–395 A.D.), that it was because each one was found singly in a shell,[9] seems scarcely correct. Claude de Saumaise, the French classical scholar, thought that the common name for an onion was transferred to the pearl, owing to its laminated construction.[10] According to Pliny, the Romans used the word unio to distinguish a large perfect pearl from the smaller and less attractive ones, which were called margaritæ.[11]

It was not until the Mithridatic Wars (88–63 B.C.) and the conquests by Pompey that pearls were very abundant and popular in Rome, the great treasures of the East enriching the victorious army and through it the aristocracy of the republic. In those greatest spectacular functions the world has ever known—the triumphal processions of the conquering Romans—pearls had a prominent part. Pliny records that in great Pompey’s triumphal procession in 61 B.C. were borne thirty-three crowns of pearls and numerous pearl ornaments, including a portrait of the victor, and a shrine dedicated to the muses, adorned with the same gems.[12]

The luxuries of Mithridates, the treasures of Alexandria, the riches of the Orient were poured into the lap of victory-fattened Rome. From that time the pearl reigned supreme, not only in the enormous prices given for single specimens, but also in the great abundance in possession of the degenerate descendants of the victorious Romans. The interior of the temple of Venus was decorated with pearls. The dress of the wealthy was so pearl-bedecked that Pliny exclaimed in irony: “It is not sufficient for them to wear pearls, but they must trample and walk over them”;[13] and the women wore pearls even in the still hours of the night, so that in their sleep they might be conscious of possessing the beautiful gems.[14]

It is related that the voluptuous Caligula (12–41 A.D.)—he who raised his favorite horse Incitatus to the consulship—decorated that horse with a pearl necklace, and that he himself wore slippers embroidered with pearls; and the tyrannical Nero (37–68 A.D.), not content with having his scepter and throne of pearls, provided the actors in his theater with masks and scepters decorated with them. Thus wrote the observant Philo, the envoy of the Jews to the Emperor Caligula: “The couches upon which the Romans recline at their repasts shine with gold and pearls; they are splendid with purple coverings interwoven with pearls and gold.”

Yet not all the men of Rome were enthusiastic over the beautiful “gems of the sea, which resemble milk and snow,” as the poet Manlius 10called them. Even then, as now, there were some faultfinders. The immortal Cæsar interdicted their use by women beneath a certain rank; Martial and Tibullus inveighed against them; the witty Horace directed his stinging shafts of satire against the extravagance. Referring to a woman named Gellia, Martial wrote: “By no gods or goddesses does she swear, but by her pearls. These she embraces and kisses. These she calls her brothers and sisters. She loves them more dearly than her two sons. Should she by some chance lose them, the miserable woman would not survive an hour.”[15] Hear what stern old Seneca had to say: “Pearls offer themselves to my view. Simply one for each ear? No! The lobes of our ladies have attained a special capacity for supporting a great number. Two pearls alongside of each other, with a third suspended above, now form a single earring! The crazy fools seem to think that their husbands are not sufficiently tormented unless they wear the value of an inheritance in each ear!”[16]

The prices reported for some choice ones at that time seem fabulous. It is recorded by Suetonius, that the Roman general, Vitellius, paid the expenses of a military campaign with the proceeds of one pearl from his mother’s ears: “Atque ex aure matris detractum unionem pigneraverit ad itineris impensas.” In his “Historia naturalis,” Pliny says that in the first century A.D., they ranked first in value among all precious things,[17] and reports sixty million sestertii[18] as the value of the two famous pearls—“the singular and only jewels of the world and even nature’s wonder”—which Cleopatra wore at the celebrated banquet to Mark Antony. And Suetonius[19] places at six million sestertii the value of the one presented by Julius Cæsar as a tribute of love to Servilia, the mother of Brutus, who thus wore

The spoils of nations in an ear,
Changed to the treasure of a shell.

Or, as St. Jerome expressed it in his “Vita Pauli Eremitæ”:

Uno filo villarum insunt pretia.

We are told by Ælius Lampridius that an ambassador once brought to Alexander Severus two remarkably large and heavy pearls for the empress. The emperor offered them for sale, and as no purchaser was found, he had them hung in the ears of the statue of Venus, saying: “If the empress should have such pearls, she would give a bad example 11to the other women, by wearing an ornament of so much value that no one could pay for it.”

The word “margarita” was used symbolically to designate the most cherished object; for instance, a favorite child. In an inscription published by Fabretti, p. 44, No. 253, the word margaritio has the same significance. (Sex. Bruttidio juveni margaritioni carissimo, vixit annis II mensibus VII, diebus XVIII.)[20]

While the ancient writers were familiar with the pearl itself, they knew little of the fisheries, and related many curious stories which had come to Athens and Rome. Pliny and Ælianus quoted from Megasthenes that the pearl-oysters lived in communities like swarms of bees, and were governed by one remarkable for its size and great age, and which was wonderfully expert in keeping its subjects out of danger, and that the fishermen endeavored first to catch this one, so that the others might easily be secured. Procopius, one of the most entertaining of the old Byzantine chroniclers, wrote of social relations between the pearl-oysters and the sharks, and of methods of inducing the growth of pearls.

The principal fisheries of antiquity were in the Persian Gulf, on the coasts of Ceylon and India, and in the Red Sea. The pearls referred to in ancient Chinese literature appear to have been taken from the rivers and ponds of that country, while those in Cochin China and Japan seem to have come from the adjoining seas. The pearls were distributed among the nations in control of the fisheries, and from them, other people received collections, either as presents, in conquest, or by way of trade. History makes no mention of pearls having been obtained elsewhere than in the Orient up to the time of Julius Cæsar, when small quantities of inexpensive ones were collected in Britain by the invading Romans. And in the first century A.D., Pliny states that small reddish pearls were found about Italy and in the Bosphorus Straits near Constantinople.

A number of specimens of pearls of the artistic Greeks and of the luxurious Romans are yet in existence, and some of these are in a fairly good state of preservation. A notable and interesting example is a superb Greek necklace of pearls and gold, referred to the third century B.C., and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Several earrings now in that museum, in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, and in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, are shown in this book. Some of these may have decorated ears that listened to the comedies of Aristophanes, the tragedies of Euripides, the philosophies of Plato, or the oratory of Demosthenes. A number of classic statues have the ears pierced 12for earrings, notably the Venus de Medici now in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, Florence; and a magnificent pair of half-pearls is said to have decorated the Venus of the Pantheon in Rome.[21] Pearl grape earrings are shown on the artistic intaglio by Aspasios, representing the bust of the Athene Parthenos of Phidias, which has been in the Gemmen Münzen Cabinet at Vienna since 1669.

The beautiful Tyszkiewicz bronze statuette of Aphrodite was acquired in 1900 by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and has even yet a pearl in a fairly good state of preservation suspended from each ear by a spiral thread of gold which passes quite through the gem and also through the lobe of the ear. This statuette has been described as “the most beautiful bronze Venus known.”[22] Professor Froehner considers that it belongs nearer to the period of Phidias (circa 500–430 B.C.) than to that of Praxiteles (circa 400–336 B.C.); but Dr. Edward Robinson does not concur in this opinion, and refers it to the Hellenic period (circa 330–146 B.C.).

However, considering the very large accumulations, relatively few pearls of antiquity now remain, and none of these is of great ornamental value. Those in archæological collections and art museums are more or less decayed through the ravages of time and accident to which they have been subjected. While coins, gold jewelry, crystal gems, etc., of ancient civilizations are relatively numerous, the less durable pearls have not survived the many centuries of pillage, waste, and burial in the earth.

A well-known instance of this decay is found in the Stilicho pearls, which owe their prominence to the incident of their long burial. The daughters of this famous Roman general, who were successively betrothed to the Emperor Honorius, died in 407 A.D., and were buried with their pearls and ornaments. In 1526, or more than eleven centuries afterward, in excavating for an extension of St. Peter’s, the tomb was opened, and the ornaments were found in fair condition, except the pearls, which were as lusterless and dead as a wreath of last year’s flowers.



I’ll set thee in a shower of gold, and hail
Rich pearls upon thee.
Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, sc. 5.

The popularity of pearls in Rome has its counterpart in the Empire of the East at Byzantium or Constantinople on its development in wealth and luxury after becoming the capital of that empire in 330 A.D. Owing to its control of the trade between Asia and Europe, and the influence of oriental taste and fashion, enormous collections were made; and for centuries after Rome had been pillaged, this capital was the focus of all the arts, and pearls were the favorite ornaments. The famous mosaic in the sanctuary of San Vitale at Ravenna, shows Justinian (483–565) with his head covered with a jeweled cap, and the Empress Theodora wearing a tiara encircled by three rows of pearls, and strings of pearls depend therefrom almost to the waist. In many instances the decorations of the emperors excelled even those of the most profligate of Roman rulers. An examination of the coins, from those of Arcadius in 395 to the last dribble of a long line of obscure rulers when the city was captured and pillaged by Venetian and Latin adventurers in 1204, shows in the form of diadems, collars, necklaces, etc., the great quantity of pearls worn by them. The oldest existing crown in use at the present time, the Hungarian crown of St. Stephen, which is radiant with pearls, is of Byzantine workmanship.

Outside of Constantinople, the demand and fashion for pearls did not cease with the downfall of the Roman Empire and the spoliation of Rome in the fifth century. The treasures accumulated there, and the gems and jewels, were carried away by the conquering Goths and scattered among the great territorial lords of western and northern Europe.

In the ancient cities of Gaul, in Toulouse and Narbonne, the Ostrogoth and the Visigoth kings collected enormous treasures. The citadel 16of Carcassonne held magnificent spoils brought from the sacking of Rome in 410 by Alaric, king of the Ostrogoths, consisting in part of jewels from the Temple, these having been carried to Rome after the spoliation of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Several beautiful objects of this and somewhat later periods are yet in existence, notably the Visigothic crowns and crosses, in the Musée de l’Hôtel de Cluny, Paris, the most beautiful of which are probably the crown and the cross of Reccesvinthus.[23]

Even as the treasures of Rome were despoiled by the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, so, later, their collections were depleted by the military operations of the Franks, when Narbonne was pillaged; when Toulouse was sacked by Clovis, or Chlodowig, in 507; when the churches of Barcelona and Toledo were despoiled by Childebert in 531 and 542; and by various expeditions in succeeding years.

The military triumphs of the Franks placed them in the highest rank among the peoples of Europe, in the sixth and seventh centuries, in the possession of treasures of jewels which enriched their palaces and great churches. And the taste which the triumphs of war had developed was maintained by the trade carried on by the Jewish and Syrian merchants. The inhabitants of Gaul were extremely fond of objects of art, of rich costumes, and of personal decorations; and the courts of some of the early kings rivaled in magnificence those of oriental monarchs. Especially was this true during the reign of King Dagobert (628–638), who competed in splendor with the rulers of Persia and India. His skilful jeweler, Eligius (588–659), was raised to the bishopric of Noyon, and eventually—under the name of St. Eloi—became one of the most popular saints in Gaul. Under direction of this artistic bishop, the ancient churches received shrines, vestments, and reliquaries superbly decorated with pearls and other gems. Indeed, for several centuries following the time of Eligius, the greatest treasures of jewels seem to have been collected in the churches.

The use of gems in enriching regalia, vestments, and reliquaries in Europe, advanced greatly during the reign of Charlemagne (768–814); and princes and bishops competed with each other in the magnificence of their gifts to the churches, sacrificing their laical jewels for the sacred treasures. Few of the great ornaments of Charlemagne’s time are now in existence in the original form. Doubtless the most remarkable pieces are the sacred regalia of the great emperor, preserved among the imperial treasures in Vienna.


From the ninth century. One quarter of the actual dimensions.

Owned by J. Pierpont Morgan, Esq.

17An artistic use for pearls at that time was in the rich and elegant bindings of the splendidly written missals and chronicles, finished in the highest degree of excellence and at vast expense. An artist might devote his whole life to completing a single manuscript, so great was the detail and so exquisite the finish. Vasari states that Julio Clovio devoted nine years to painting twenty-six miniatures in the Breviary of the Virgin now in the royal library at Naples. The library at Rouen has a large missal on which a monk of St. Andoen is said to have labored for thirty years. These books were among the most valued possessions of the churches, and their bindings were enriched with gold and pearls and colored stones. The wealthy churches had many such volumes; Gregory of Tours states that from Barcelona in 531 A.D. Childebert brought twenty “evangeliorum capsas” of pure gold set with gems. Several of these superbly bound volumes are yet in existence, in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice; in the treasury of the cathedral at Milan; among the imperial Russian collections in the Ourejenaya Palata at Moscow, etc.; and they furnish probably the most reliable examples of artistic jewel work of the Dark Ages.

The most remarkable specimen of these books in America is doubtless the Ashburnham manuscript of the Four Gospels, now owned by J. Pierpont Morgan, Esq., which affords an interesting example of the jeweler’s art. For many centuries it belonged to the Abbey of the Noble Canonesses, founded, in 834, at Lindau, on Lake Constance. After an extended examination, Mr. Alexander Nesbit concluded that the rich cover of the manuscript was probably made between 896 and 899 by order of Emperor Arnulf of the Carolingian dynasty. Most of the ninety-eight pearls appear to be from fresh water, and probably all of them were obtained from the rivers of Europe. This is one of the few remaining pieces of the magnificent ecclesiastical jeweling of that period.

After the death of Charlemagne, internal dissensions, separations and the division of the Empire into the nations of Europe, annihilated commerce, oppressed the people, and impoverished the arts. In the ninth century, the Normans pillaged many of the palaces and churches in Angoulême, Tours, Orléans, Rouen, and Paris, and destroyed or carried away large treasures. The tenth and the eleventh centuries were indeed the Dark Ages in respect to the cultivation of the arts; yet even during that period the churches of western Europe received many gems from penitent and fear-stricken subjects. The heart of man, filled with the love of God, laid its earthly treasure upon the altar in exchange for heavenly consolation. Pious faith dedicated pearls to the glorification of the ritual; altars, statues, and images of the saints, priestly vestments, and sacred vessels, were surcharged with them. The great museums and the imperial collections contain some beautiful and highly venerated objects of this nature.

In the meantime pearls of small size and of fair luster had been collected in the rivers of Scotland, Ireland, and France, the headwaters 18of the Danube, and in the countries north thereof. In England, as noted in the preceding chapter, they were obtained by Cæsar’s invading legions, who carried many to Rome. Ancient coins indicate that pearls formed the principal ornament of the simple crowns worn by the early kings of Britain previous to Alfred the Great.

The river pearls were not so beautiful as oriental ones; but, owing to the ease with which they were obtained, they were employed more extensively and especially in ecclesiastical decorations, the principal use for pearls from the eighth to the eleventh century. Apparently authentic specimens of fresh-water pearls of an early period are the four now in the coronation spoon of the English regalia, which is attributed to the twelfth century.

From the most ancient times until the overthrow of the Roman Empire, practically the only use for pearls was ornamental; but after the eighth century there developed a new employment for these as well as for other gems. Natural history was little studied in Europe from the ninth to the fourteenth century, except for the effect which its subjects had in medicine and magic, which were closely allied. Largely through Arabic influence, the practice of medicine had developed into administering most whimsical remedies, among which gems, and especially pearls, played a prominent part, and belief in the influence of these was as strong as in that of the heavenly bodies. For this application, large demands had arisen for pearls, which seem to have been prescribed for nearly every ill to which the flesh was heir. On account of their cheapness, the small ones—seed-pearls—were used principally; though larger ones were preferred by persons who could afford them. While many of these so-called medicinal pearls were obtained from the Orient, most of them were secured from the home streams in the north of Europe and in the British Isles.

After the decadence of Roman power in the East, the rulers of India and Persia, through their control of the fisheries, again accumulated enormous quantities of pearls. All of the early travelers to those countries were astonished at the lavish display of these gems in decorative costume.

The manuscript of Renaudot’s two Mohammedans, who visited India and China in the ninth century, notes that the kings of the Indies were rich in ornaments, “yet pearls are what they most esteem, and their value surpasses that of all other jewels; they hoard them up in their treasures with their most precious things. The grandees of the court, the great officers and captains, wear the like jewels in their collars.”[24]


Louvre, Paris


By Pantoia de la Cruz, Prado Museum, Madrid

19Inventories of some of the oriental collections of later times seem to be extravagant fiction rather than veritable history. In that interesting book dictated in a Genoese prison to Rusticiano da Pisa, accounts are given by Marco Polo of great treasures seen by the first Europeans to penetrate into China. He describes the king of Malabar as wearing suspended about his neck a string of 104 large pearls and rubies of great value, which he used as a rosary. Likewise on his legs were anklets and on his toes were rings, all thickly set with costly pearls, the whole “worth more than a city’s ransom. And ’tis no wonder he hath great store of such gear; for they are found in his kingdom. No one is permitted to remove therefrom a pearl weighing more than half a saggio. The king desires to reserve all such to himself, and so the quantity he has is almost incredible.”[25]

Later travelers give wonderful descriptions of this excessive passion for pearls. Literature is full of this appreciation, and of the part which these gems played in the affairs of the Orientals. Who has not dwelt with delight upon those imperishable legends such as are embodied in the Arabian Nights, of the pearl voyages by Sindbad the Sailor, of the wonderful treasure chests, and of the superb necklaces adorning the beautiful black-eyed women!

The returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the development of the knightly orders, had much to do with spreading through Europe a fondness for pearls in personal decoration. Those who, like Chaucer’s knight, had been with Peter, King of Cyprus, at the capture and plunder when “Alexandria was won,” returned to their homes with riches of pearls and gold and precious stones. And learning much relative to decorative art from Moorish craftsmen, the jewelers of western Europe set these in designs not always crude and ineffective.

Although they were well known and valued, pearls do not seem to have been much used in England before the twelfth century, as the Anglo-Saxons were not an especially art-loving people. The word itself is of foreign derivation and occurs in a similar form in all modern languages, both Romance and Teutonic; perle, French and German; perla, Italian, Portuguese, Provençal, Spanish, and Swedish; paarl, Danish and Dutch. Its origin is doubtful. Some philologists consider it Teutonic and the diminutive of beere, a berry; Claude de Saumaise derives it from pirula, the diminutive of pirum, a sphere; while Diez and many others refer it to pira or to the medieval Latin pirula, in allusion to the pear shape frequently assumed by the pearl.[26]

20The word pearl seems to have come into general use in the English language about the fourteenth century. In Wyclif’s translation of the Scriptures (about 1360), he commonly used the word margarite or margaritis, whereas Tyndale’s translation (1526) in similar places used the word perle. Tyndale translated Matt. xiii. 46: “When he had founde one precious pearle”; Wyclif used “oo preciouse margarite.” Also in Matt. vii. 6, Tyndale wrote, “Nether caste ye youre pearles before swyne”; yet Wyclif used “margaritis,” although twenty years later he expressed it “putten precious perlis to hoggis.” Langland’s Piers Plowman (1362), XI, 9, wrote this: “Noli mittere Margeri perles Among hogges.” The oldest English version of Mandeville’s Travels, written about 1400, contained the expression: “The fyn Perl congeles and wexes gret of the dew of hevene”; but in 1447, Bokenham’s “Seyntys” stated: “A margerye perle aftyr the phylosophyr Growyth on a shelle of lytyl pryhs”; and Knight de la Tour (about 1450) stated: “The sowle is the precious marguarite unto God.”

The word is given “perle” in the earliest manuscripts of those old epic poems of the fourteenth century, “Pearl” and “Cleanness,” which have caused so much learned theological discussion and which testify to the great love and esteem in which the gem was held. The first stanza of “Pearl” we quote from Gollancz’s rendition:

Pearl! fair enow for princes’ pleasance,
so deftly set in gold so pure,—
from orient lands I durst avouch,
ne’er saw I a gem its peer,—
so round, so comely-shaped withal,
so small, with sides so smooth,—
where’er I judged of radiant gems,
I placed my pearl supreme.[27]

The fourteenth-century manuscript in the British Museum gives this as follows:

Perle plesaunte to prynces paye,
To clanly clos in gold so clere,
Oute of oryent I hardyly saye,
Ne proved I never her precios pere,—
So rounde, so reken in uche a raye,
So smal, so smothe her sydez were,—
Queresoever I jugged gemmez gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.

21And from a modern rendering of “Cleanness” we quote:

The pearl is praised wherever gems are seen,
though it be not the dearest by way of merchandise.
Why is the pearl so prized, save for its purity,
that wins praise for it above all white stones?
It shineth so bright; it is so round of shape;
without fault or stain; if it be truly a pearl.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries throughout Europe pearls were very fashionable as personal ornaments, and were worn in enormous quantities; the dresses of men as well as of women were decorated and embroidered with them, and they were noted in nearly every account of a festive occasion, whether it were a marriage, a brilliant tourney, the consecration of a bishop, or the celebration of a victory in battle.

The faceting of crystal gems was not known at that time, and those dependent on artifice for their beauty were not much sought after. Although the diamond had been known from the eighth century, it was not generally treasured as an ornament, and not until long after the invention of cutting in regular facets—about 1450—did it attain its great popularity.

In the Dark Ages, it was customary for princes and great nobles to carry their valuables about with them even on the battle-fields; first, in order to have them always in possession, and second, on account of the mysterious power they attributed to precious stones. Since jewels constituted a large portion of their portable wealth, nobles and knights went into battle superbly arrayed. In this manner the treasures were easily lost and destroyed; consequently, relatively few of the personal ornaments of that period are preserved to the present time.

Among the greatest lovers of pearls in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were the members of the ducal house of Burgundy, and especially Philip the Bold (1342–1404), Philip the Good (1396–1467), and Charles the Bold (1433–77), and some of the gems which they owned are even now treasured in Austria, Spain, and Italy. When Duke Charles the Bold, in the year 1473, attended the Diet of Treves, accompanied by his five thousand splendidly equipped horsemen, he was attired in cloth of gold garnished with pearls, which were valued at 200,000 golden florins.[28] We are told that “almost a sea of pearls” was on view at the marriage of George the Rich with Hedwig, the daughter of Casimir III of Poland, at Landshut, in 1475. Among the many ornaments was a pearl chaplet valued at 50,000 florins which 22Duke George wore on his hat, and also a clasp worth 6000 florins.[29] Members of the related houses of Anjou and Valois also held great collections. Nor in this account should we omit some of the English sovereigns, including especially Richard II (1366–1400), one of the greatest dandies of his day.

During the fifteenth century, enormous quantities of pearls were worn by persons of rank and fashion. A remarkable 1483 portrait of Margaret, wife of James III of Scotland, which is now preserved at Hampton Court, shows her wearing such wonderful pearl ornaments that she might well be called Margaret from her decorations. As this queen was praised for her beauty, we fear the artist has scarcely done justice to her appearance; or possibly since that period tastes have changed as to what on a throne passes for beauty. Her head-dress is undoubtedly the most remarkable pearl decoration which we have seen of that century.

The uxorious and sumptuous Henry VIII of England (1491–1547) spent much of the great wealth accumulated by his penurious father, Henry VII, in enriching the appearance of his semi-barbaric court. In this reign, the spoliation of the Catholic cathedrals and churches contributed many pearls to the royal treasury; and onward from that time, they were prominently displayed among the ornaments of the women of rank in England. Most of the portraits of Henry’s wives show great quantities of these gems; many of them with settings doubtless designed by artistic Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543); and during the succeeding reigns the women near the throne were commonly depicted with elaborate pearl decorations.

The cold, unflattering portraits by Holbein of the court celebrities of that period, not only of the gracious women and of the dandified men, but of the clergy as well, show the prominence of pearls. Note his portrait of Jane Seymour, of Anne of Cleves, of Christina of Denmark, and the pearl-incrusted miter of Archbishop Warham of Canterbury.

An interesting story is told of Sir Thomas More, the learned chancellor of Henry VIII, showing his view of the great display of jewels which distinguished the period in which he lived:

His sonne John’s wife often had requested her father-in-law, Sir Thomas, to buy her a billiment sett with pearles. He had often put her off with many pretty slights; but at last, for her importunity, he provided her one. Instead of pearles, he caused white peaze to be sett, so that at his next coming home, his daughter-in-law demanded her jewel. “Ay, marry, daughter, I have not forgotten thee!” So out of his studie he sent for a box, and solemnlie delivered 23it to her. When she, with great joy, lookt for her billiment, she found, far from her expectation, a billiment of peaze; and so she almost wept for verie griefe.[30]

Meanwhile, in the yet unknown America, pearls were highly prized, and their magic charm had taken an irresistible hold on aborigines and on the more highly civilized inhabitants of Mexico and Peru. In Mexico the palaces of Montezuma were studded with pearls and emeralds, and the Aztec kings possessed pearls of inestimable value. That they had been collected elsewhere for a long time is evidenced by the large quantities in the recently opened mounds of the Ohio Valley, which rank among the ancient works of man in America. As in the Old World, so in the New, they had been used as decoration for the gods and for the temples, as well as for men and women.

The principal immediate effect of Columbus’s discovery and of the commercial intercourse with the New World, was the great wealth of pearls which enriched the Spanish traders. The natives were found in possession of rich fisheries on the coast of Venezuela, and somewhat later on the Pacific coast of Panama and Mexico, whence Eldorado adventurers returned to Spain with such large collections that—using an old chronicler’s expression—“they were to every man like chaff.” For many years America was best known in Seville, Cadiz, and some other ports of Europe, as the land whence the pearls came. Until the development of the mines in Mexico and Peru, the value of the pearls exceeded that of all other exports combined. Humboldt states that till 1530 these averaged in value more than 800,000 piastres yearly.[31] And throughout the sixteenth century the American fisheries—prosecuted by the Spaniards with the help of native labor—furnished Europe with large quantities, the records for one year showing imports of “697 pounds’ weight” into Seville alone.

For two centuries following the discovery of America, extravagance in personal decoration was almost unlimited at the European courts, and the pearls exceeded in quantity that of all other gems. Enormous numbers were worn by persons of rank and fortune. This is apparent, not only from the antiquarian records and the historical accounts, but also in the paintings and engravings of that time; portraits of the Hapsburgs, the Valois, the Medicis, the Borgias, the Tudors, and the Stuarts show great quantities of pearls, and relatively few other gems.

Probably the largest treasures were in possession of the Hapsburg 24family, which furnished so many sovereigns to the Holy Roman Empire, to Austria, and to Spain, and which, by descent through Maria Theresa, continued to rule the Holy Roman Empire until its abolition in 1806, and has since ruled Austria and Hungary.

A number of superb pieces of jewelry owned centuries ago by members of this illustrious family are yet in existence; notably the buckle of Charles V, and especially the imperial crown of Austria, made in 1602 by order of Rudolph II.[32]

Two great women of that period are noted for their passion for pearls, Catharine de’ Medici (1519–89), and Elizabeth of England (1533–1603). It requires but a glance at almost any of their portraits, wherein they are represented wearing elaborate pearl ornaments, to see to what an extent they carried this fondness. And many other women were not far behind them, among whom were Mary Stuart, Marie de’ Medici, and Henrietta Maria. And not only by the women, but by the men also, pearls were worn to what now seems an extravagant extent. Nearly all the portraits of Francis I (1494–1547), Henry II (1519–59), Charles IX (1550–74), and Henry III (1551–89) of France; of James I (1566–1625), and of Charles I (1600–49) of England, and likewise of other celebrities, show a great pear-shaped pearl in one ear. Many portraits also show pearls on the hats, cloaks, gloves, etc.

When the Duke of Buckingham went to Paris in 1625, to bring over Henrietta Maria to be queen to Charles I, he had, according to an account in the “Antiquarian Repertory,” in addition to twenty-six other suits, “a rich suit of purple satin, embroidered all over with rich orient pearls, the cloak made after the Spanish mode, with all things suitable, the value whereof will be twenty thousand pounds, and this, it is thought, shall be for the wedding day at Paris.”

In the rich and prosperous cities of southern Europe, pearls were no less popular. From its share of the spoils of the Byzantine Empire, after its partition in 1204, pearls and other riches were plentiful in Venice, and they were increased by the rapidly developing trade with the Orient. In the rival maritime cities, Genoa and Pisa, the gem was equally popular; and likewise in Florence “the Beautiful.” When Hercule d’Este sought Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) in marriage for his son, her father, Pope Alexander VI, plunging both hands in a box filled with pearls, said: “All these are for her! I desire that in all Italy she shall be the princess with the most beautiful pearls and with the greatest number.”[33]

Separated by three centuries of time and by the intervening simplicities of puritanism and democracy, it is difficult for us to appreciate the passion for pearls in Europe at that period, which may well be called the Pearl Age.

Kaiserin Marie Therese. Geb. 13, May 1717 - Gest. 29, November 1780.


By Martin de Mytens, 1742

25The sumptuary laws which prevailed at different times in France, England, Germany, and other countries, did not overlook this extravagance; and an entire volume might be devoted to the efforts to curb the excessive use. In France they were probably most stringent during the reign of Philip IV (1285–1314), of Louis XI (1461–83), of Charles IX (1560–74), of Henry III (1574–89), and of Louis XIII (1610–43). In Germany almost every city had its special restrictions. A sumptuary law of Ulm, in 1345, provided that no married woman or maiden, either among the patricians or the artisans, should wear pearls on her dresses; and another, in 1411, restricted them to “one pearl chaplet,” and this should not exceed twelve loth (half ounce) in weight. A Frankish sumptuary law of 1479 provided that ordinary nobles serving a knight at a tourney should not wear any pearl ornaments, embroidered or otherwise, excepting one string around the cap or hat. The regulations decreed by the Diet of Worms, in 1495, set forth that the citizens who were not of noble birth, and nobles who were not knights, must withhold from the use of gold and pearls. A similar provision was enacted by the Diet of Freiburg in 1498, and likewise by the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, which permitted the wives of nobles four silk dresses, but without pearls. In the sumptuary law of Duke John George of Saxony, April 23, 1612, we read: “the nobility are not allowed to wear any dresses of gold or silver, or garnished with pearls; neither shall the professors and doctors of the universities, nor their wives, wear any gold, silver or pearls for fringes, or any chains of pearls, or caps, neck ornaments, shoes, slippers, shawls, pins, etc., with gold or silver or with pearls.” Beadles, burgomasters, and those connected with the law-courts were forbidden to wear chains of pearls and ornaments of precious stones on their dresses, caps, etc., or slippers or chaplets with pearls.

Probably in no place were these laws more stringent than in the art-loving republic of Venice from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. This seems remarkable in view of the fact that this city was largely dependent for its wealth and prominence on commerce with the East, of which pearls constituted a prominent item.

The earliest Venetian restriction that we have found regarding pearls was made in 1299; when, in a decree determining the maximum number of guests at a marriage ceremony and the extent of the bridal trousseau, the grand council of the republic provided that no one but the bride should wear pearl decorations, and she should be permitted only one girdle of them on her wedding dress. This enactment was modified in 1306, but numerous other restrictions were substituted, 26notably in 1334, 1340, 1360, 1497, and 1562. These differed in many particulars: some forbade ornaments or trimmings of pearls, gold, or silver on the dresses of any women except a member of the Doge’s family; and other enactments required that, after a definite period of married life, no woman should be permitted to wear pearls of any kind. But an examination of the documents and of the paintings of that period shows that these decrees had little effect, and the luxury of the “Queen of the Adriatic” in the use of pearls at the most brilliant epoch in her history is aptly reproduced in the portraits by Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, the great Titian, Tintoretto, Paul Veronese, and other artists of the highest rank. In the engraving by Hendrik Goltzius of a marriage at Venice in 1584, not one of the many women present seems to be without her necklace and earrings of pearls, and some of them have several necklaces.[34] And the same appears true of the principal female figures in Jost Amman’s noted engraving, “The Espousal of the Sea,” executed in 1565.[35]

As preservation of the republic became more difficult with declining resources and with the continued growth of dazzling splendor, a resolution in the Senate, dated July 8, 1599, set forth that “the use and price of pearls has become so excessive and increases to such an extent from day to day, that if some remedy is not provided, it will cause injury, disorders, and notable inconvenience to public and private well-being, as each one of this council in his wisdom can very easily appreciate.” And then it was enacted: “That, without repealing the other regulations which absolutely prohibit the wearing of pearls, it shall be expressly enjoined that any woman, whether of noble birth or a simple citizen, or of any other condition, who shall reside in this our city for one year (except her Serenity the Dogaressa and her daughters and her daughters-in-law who live in the palace), after the expiration of fifteen years from the day of her first marriage, shall lay aside the string of pearls around her neck and shall not wear or use, either upon her neck or upon any other part of her person, this string or any other kind of pearls or anything which imitates pearls, neither in this city nor in any other city or place within our dominion, under the irremissible penalty of two hundred ducats.”

And yet ten years later, on May 5, 1609, another law enacted in the Senate stated:

Although in the year 1599 this council decided with great wisdom that married women should be permitted to wear pearls for only fifteen years after their first marriage, nevertheless it is very evident that the desired end has not been attained, and the extravagance has continued up to the present time 27and still continues with the gravest injury to private persons. Therefore, as it is necessary to remedy, by a new provision, not only this considerable incommodity, but also to prevent in the future the introduction into the city of a greater quantity of pearls than are found here at present, it is enacted, that married women as well as those who shall marry in the future (except the Serene Dogaressa and her daughters and her daughters-in-law living in the palace) of whatever grade and condition they may be, who have resided in this city for one year, cannot wear pearls of any kind except for ten years immediately following the day of their first marriage; and after that period they must lay aside these pearls which they are forbidden to wear on any part of their persons, at home or abroad, and as well in this as in the other cities, lands, and other places of our dominion, under the penalty of two hundred ducats. And if the husband of the offending wife is a noble, he shall be proclaimed in the greater council and declared a debtor to the office of the governors of the revenue in the sum of twenty-five ducats for each fine; and if he is a citizen or of any other condition, besides the penalty of two hundred ducats and the fine of twenty-five ducats above mentioned, he shall be banished for three years from Venice and the Duchy, and the same for each offence. And pearls or anything which imitates pearls, shall be forbidden to all other women, men and boys or girls of every age and condition at all times and in all places, under the same penalty of two hundred ducats. In the future no one shall in any manner bring pearls to this city as merchandise, under the penalty of their seizure and forfeiture. And the merchant shall be imprisoned for five consecutive years; and if he flees, he shall be banished from the city and district of Venice and from all other cities, lands, and places of our dominion for eight consecutive years.... And all who at present have pearls to sell are required to deposit a list of them with the sumptuary office, so as to avoid all fraud which could be practiced in this matter.

PARTI PRESE NELL ECCELLENTISS Conseglio di Pregadi. 1599. Adi 8. Luglio, & 1609. 5. Maggio. In materia di Perle. Stampata per Antonio Pinelli, Stampator Ducale. A S. Maria Formosa, in Cale del Mondo Novo.

A copy of the title-page of this enactment is presented above.

The decrees and edicts were not confined to Venice, or to Italy, France, or Germany; they made their appearance quite generally throughout western and northern Europe and the interdictions of the 28civil authorities were strengthened by the voice of the bishops and other clergy, especially in the imperial cities of southern Germany. Yet the united authority of church and state was ineffectual in stemming the tide of fashion and personal fancy, and whether or not pearls should be worn became one of the much discussed questions of that period.

To the question, “Whether the statute and regulation of Bishop Tudertinus, who had excommunicated all women who wore pearls, was binding,” Joannes Guidius replied that many denied that this was so, and made the subtle defense that “the women had not accepted it and all had worn pearls, and it was considered that such a law was binding only when it was accepted by those for whom it was intended.”[36]

And as to the validity of the statutes requiring that women should not wear more than a definite number of pearls, he decided that “such a statute is valid and in itself good. And if the question is put whether every woman who infringes incurs the penalty, an answer may be gathered from the sayings of the doctors, who distinguish between married and unmarried women. They consider that an unmarried woman is obliged to obey the statute and regulation or to incur the penalty. But as to a married woman, if her husband approves, she should obey the statute; if, however, the husband objects, then the wife ought to wish to obey the statute, but in effect she should rather obey her husband, for she is most immediately and strongly bound to do this.”[37] Aided by such ingenious opinions as these, the women continued to follow their own inclinations notwithstanding the opposition of church and state.

Other fine distinctions were drawn by the lawyers of that day regarding ownership of gems under certain conditions. For instance, it was decided that pearls given by a father to his unmarried daughter remained her property after marriage because “they are given for a reason, namely to induce a marriage”; yet “pearls handed to a wife by her husband are not considered as her property, but must be given to his heirs, since it is supposed that they were given only for her adornment. The same holds good as respects pearls handed to a daughter-in-law by her father-in-law.”[38]

However, the greed of fashion, which law-makers and bishops could not arrest, was gradually satiated; and, influenced probably by the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, more simple taste prevailed in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

In the meantime, improvements in cutting and polishing had greatly increased the beauty and popularity of diamonds and other crystal 29gems, and this adversely affected the demand for pearls. Furthermore, cleverly fashioned imitations manufactured at a low cost also served to decrease the relative rank and fashion of the sea-born gems. In the eighteenth century, pearls were relatively scarce; the resources of the American seas were largely exhausted, likewise the Ceylon and Red Sea fisheries were not to be depended on, and practically the entire supply came from the Persian Gulf, with a few from European rivers and the waters of China. As a result, although they continued to be prized by connoisseurs, pearls were not so extensively sought after by the rank and file of jewel purchasers.

It should be noted, however, that from the most ancient times, the princes of India and of Persia have had their pick and choice of the output from Ceylon and the Persian Gulf; and the largest single collections of the Western world have never equaled the possessions of some of those rulers. Some Indian princes have loaded themselves with thousands of pearls, and individual ornaments have been valued not only by oriental, but by European experts, at several millions of dollars.

The great diamond resources of Brazil were discovered in 1727, and after a few years these came on the market at the rate of 140,000 carats annually. At that time ladies of rank did not esteem diamonds so highly as pearls. This distinction was accentuated by Lord Hervey in his account of the coronation, in 1727, of George II and his consort Caroline, who wore not only the great pearl necklace inherited from Queen Anne, but “had on her head and shoulders all the pearls she could borrow of the ladies of quality at one end of the town, and on her petticoat all the diamonds she could hire of the Jews and jewelers at the other; so that the appearance and the truth of her finery was a mixture of magnificence and meanness not unlike the éclat of royalty in many other particulars, when it comes to be nicely considered and its source traced to what money hires or flattery lends.”[39] In a portrait of Charlotte (1744–1818), wife of George III, the pearls and diamonds appear equally popular.

On the entry of the British into possession of Ceylon in 1796, the fisheries of that country were resumed with great success after thirty years of idleness, resulting in very large outputs for several seasons. But owing to exhaustion of the areas, they were soon reduced, and the yield became small and uncertain.

About 1845, pearls came on the market from the Tuamotu Archipelago and other South Sea islands, and the industry was revived on the Mexican coast. The pearls from these localities are noted for their range of coloration, and particularly for the very dark shades, 30black or greenish black being especially prominent. But the fashion, and thus, necessarily, the demand, had always been for white and yellow pearls; consequently, these black ones were of little value in the markets until about ten years later, when they became fashionable in Europe largely through their popularity with Empress Eugénie of France, then at the height of her power. To this queen, pearls owe much of their high rank in fashion in the nineteenth century; and on her head they were royal gems royally worn, as appears from Winterhalter’s portrait of her, showing her magnificent necklace.

The discovery of the resources on the Australian coast about 1865, and the development of the fishery there for mother-of-pearl, resulted in many large white pearls coming from that coast. The search was confined to the relatively shoal waters, until the introduction of diving-suits about 1880. The use of these facilitated a considerable extension of the fisheries not only on the Australian coast, but also in Mexico, the Malay Archipelago, several of the South Sea islands, and some minor localities.

In America, few jewels were worn previous to the Civil War, owing to the absence of great wealth and to the simplicity of taste in personal decorations. The rapid increase in wealth and luxury, on the termination of that war, resulted in a great demand for gems, and the most brilliant and showy ones were selected, especially diamonds. This demand was the more readily supplied by the discovery of the South African mines, with their great yield from 1870 to the present time. So popular did that gem become that many a young man invested his first earnings in a “brilliant,” and an enormous diamond in the shirt-front became the caricatured emblem of a prosperous hotel clerk.

But in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in Europe, as well as in America and elsewhere where gems are worn, luxury found in pearls a refinement, associated with richness and beauty, exceeding that of diamonds and other crystal gems, and in the last few years they have taken the highest rank among jewels. This change in fashion and the increase in wealth among the people developed vastly greater demands and consequently very much higher prices. These have resulted in greatly extending the field of search, and during the last two or three decades many new territories have been brought into production.

By far the most important of these new regions is the Mississippi Valley in America, the pearl resources of which were made known about a score of years ago. As the exploitation developed, the gems from these streams added very largely to the supply, especially of the baroque or irregular pearls, which have increased greatly in fashion in the last ten years.


31Notwithstanding the popular idea that pearls are scarce owing to depletion of the fisheries, they are doubtless produced in greater quantities at present than ever before in the history of the world. True, they were more plentiful in Rome after the Persian conquest, and in Spain immediately following the exploitation of tropical America; but it is highly probable that in no equal period have the entire fisheries of the world yielded greater quantities than in the five years from 1903 to 1907 inclusive. Certain individual fisheries are now less productive than at the height of their prosperity; those in the Red Sea do not compare favorably with their condition in ancient times, the European resources are nearly exhausted, the supplies from the Venezuelan coast do not equal those obtained early in the sixteenth century, the yield from Mexico is not so extensive as twenty-five years ago, and the same is true of some other regions. On the other hand, the great fisheries of Persia and Ceylon are yet very prosperous, the Ceylon fishery of 1905 surpassing all records, and the number of minor pearling regions has largely increased.

The present value of pearls—which has advanced enormously since 1893—is due to the extended markets and the increased wealth and fashion in Western countries, rather than to diminished fisheries. The oriental demand still consumes the bulk of the Persian and Indian output, and the vast increase in wealth among the middle classes in America, Europe, and elsewhere, has increased the demand tenfold over that of a century ago. While women no longer appear ornamented from head to foot as in the sixteenth century, pearls are in the highest fashion, and the woman of rank and wealth usually prizes first among her jewels her necklace of pearls.



Heaven-born and cradled in the deep blue sea, it is the purest of gems and the most precious.

S. M. Zwemer.

The origin of pearls has been a fruitful subject of speculation and discussion among naturalists of all ages, and has provoked many curious explanations. Most of the early views—universally accepted during those centuries when tradition had more influence than observation and experiment—have no standing among naturalists at the present time. And although much information has been gained as to the conditions accompanying their growth, and many theories are entertained, each with some basis in observed fact, science does not yet speak with conclusive and unquestioned authority as to the precise manner of their origin and development.

Owing to the chaste and subdued beauty of pearls, it is not strange that poets of many countries have founded their origin in tears—tears of angels, of water-nymphs, of the lovely and devoted. Sir Walter Scott in “The Bridal of Triermain” refers to—

The pearls that long have slept,
These were tears by Naiads wept.

In one of his most lovely and consoling thoughts, Shakspere says:

The liquid drops of tears that you have shed,
Shall come again, transform’d to orient pearl,
Advantaging their loan with interest
Of ten times double gain of happiness.

And we quote from Rückert’s “Edelstein und Perlen”:

I was the Angel, who of old bowed down
From Heaven to earth and shed that tear, O Pearl,
From which thou wert first-fashioned in thy shell.
36To thee I gave that longing in thy shell,
Which guided thee and caused thee to escape,
O Pearl, from the bewitching sirens’ song.

In luster they so closely resemble the limpid, sparkling dewdrop as it first receives the sun’s rays, that the ancients very naturally conceived that pearls are formed from drops of dew or rain. The usual legend is, that at certain seasons of the year, the pearl-oysters rise to the surface of the water in the morning, and there open their shells and imbibe the dewdrops; these, aided by the breath of the air and the warmth of the sunlight, are, in the course of time, transformed into lustrous pearls; but if the air and the sunlight are not received in sufficient quantities, the pearls do not attain perfection and are faulty in form, color, and luster. However remarkable and even absurd this may seem at present, it appears to have been universally accepted for centuries by the most learned men of Europe as well as by primitive people who delight in the mystical and fantastic. This opinion was recorded in the Sanskrit books of the Brahmans and in other oriental literature. The classical and medieval writings of Europe contain numerous references to it; and it is found even yet in the traditions and folk-lore of some peoples.

In the first century A.D., Pliny wrote in his “Historia naturalis,” according to Dr. Philemon Holland’s quaint translation:

The fruit of these shell fishes are the Pearles, better or worse, great or small, according to the qualitie and quantitie of the dew which they received. For if the dew were pure and cleare which went into them, then are the Pearles white, faire, and Orient; but if grosse and troubled, the Pearles likewise are dimme, foule, and duskish; pale they are, if the weather were close, darke and threatening raine in the time of their conception. Whereby (no doubt) it is apparent and plaine, that they participate more of the aire and sky, than of the water and the sea; for according as the morning is faire, so are they cleere: but otherwise, if it were misty and cloudy, they also will be thicke and muddy in colour. If they may have their full time and season to feed, the Pearles likewise will thrive and grow bigge: but if in the time it chance to lighten, then they close their shells together, and for want of nourishment are kept hungrie and fasting, and so the pearles keepe at a stay and prosper not accordingly. But if it thunder withall, then suddenly they shut hard at once, and breed only those excrescences which be called Physemata, like unto bladders puft up and hooved with wind, no corporal substance at all: and these are the abortive & untimely fruits of these shell fishes.[40]


(Margaritifera margaritifera mazatlanica)

With pearls attached


(Margaritifera radiata)

Showing growth of pearls

37Pliny’s views were probably derived from the ancient authorities of his time, particularly from Megasthenes, Chares of Mytilene, and Isidorus of Charace; and these curious fictions were incorporated by subsequent writers and influenced popular opinion for many centuries. With scarcely a single exception, every recorded theory from the first century B.C. to the fifteenth century evidences a belief in dew-formed pearls.

This theory is referred to by Thomas Moore in his well-known lines:

And precious the tear as that rain from the sky,
Which turns into pearls as it falls in the sea.

The Spanish-Hebrew traveler Benjamin of Tudela, in his “Masaoth” in Persia (from 1160 to 1173), wrote: “In these places pearls are found, made by the wonderful artifice of nature: for on the four and twentieth day of the month Nisan, a certain dew falleth into the waters, which being sucked in by the oysters, they immediately sink to the bottom of the sea; afterwards, about the middle of the month Tisri, men descend to the bottom of the sea, and, by the help of cords, these men bringing up the oysters in great quantities from thence, open and take out of them the pearls.”[41]

From the “Bustan,” one of the most popular works of Sadi, the Persian poet (1190–1291 A.D.), Davie quotes:

From the cloud there descended a droplet of rain;
’Twas ashamed when it saw the expanse of the main,
Saying: “Who may I be, where the sea has its run?
If the sea has existence, I, truly, have none!”
Since in its own eyes the drop humble appeared,
In its bosom, a shell with its life the drop reared;
The sky brought the work with success to a close,
And a famed royal pearl from the rain-drop arose.
Because it was humble it excellence gained;
Patiently waiting till success was attained.

Even the usually well-informed William Camden (1551–1623), in whose honor the Camden Historical Society of England was named, accepted the theory of dew-formed pearls. He stated that the river Conway in Wales “breeds a kind of shells, which being pregnated with dew, produce pearl.”[42] Also, speaking of the Irt in county Cumberland, England, he said: “In this brook, the shell-fish, eagerly sucking in the dew, conceive and bring forth pearls, or (to use the poet’s word) shell berries (Baccas concheas).”[43]

A recent letter from the American consul at Aden indicates that this 38view is held even yet by the Arabs of that region. In giving their explanation for the present scarcity in the Red Sea, he states: “There is a belief among them that a pearl is formed from a drop of rain caught in the mouth of the pearl-oyster, which by some chemical process after a time turns into a pearl; and as there has been very little rain in that region for several years past, there are few pearls.”

So firmly established throughout Europe was the belief in dew-formed pearls, that its non-acceptance by the native Indians of America excited the commiseration of the Italian historian Peter Martyr, in his “De Orbe Novo,” one of the very first books on America, published in 1517. He states: “But that they [pearls of Margarita Island on the present coast of Venezuela] become white by the clearnesse of the morning dewe, or waxe yelowe in troubled weather, or otherwise that they seeme to rejoice in fayre weather and dear ayre, or contrary-wise, to be as it were astonished and dymme in thunder and tempests, with such other, the perfect knowledge hereof is not to be looked for at the hands of these unlearned men, which handle the matter but grossly and enquire no further than occasion serveth.”[44] Peter Martyr was distinguished for his learning, was an instructor at the court of Spain at the height of its power, and came in contact with the most enlightened men of Europe, consequently it may be assumed that he reflected the best opinions of his time.

It was not long before the aborigines of America were not alone in discrediting the views which had prevailed in Europe for more than fifteen hundred years. That practical old sailor Sir Richard Hawkins concluded that this must be “some old philosopher’s conceit, for it can not be made probable how the dew should come into the oyster.”[45] A similar view is expressed by Urbain Chauveton in his edition of Girolamo Benzoni’s “Historia del Mondo Nuovo,” published at Geneva in 1578. From his reference to pearl-oysters on the Venezuelan coast, we translate:

Shells from Venezuela (Margaritifera radiata) with attached pearls

Exterior view of same

X-ray photograph of shell, printed through exterior of shell and showing encysted pearls

39Around the island of Cubagua and elsewhere on the eastern coast, are sandy places where the pearl-oysters grow. They produce their eggs in very large quantities and likewise pearls at the same time. But it is necessary to have patience to let them grow and mature to perfection. They are soft at the beginning like the roe of fish; and as the mollusk gradually grows, they grow also and slowly harden. Sometimes many are found in one shell, which are hard and small, like gravel. Persons who have seen them while fishing say that they are soft as long as they are in the sea, and that the hardness comes to them only when they are out of the water. Pliny says as much, speaking of the Orientals in Book IX, of his Natural History, ch. 35. But as to that author and Albert the Great and other writers upon the generation of pearls, who have said that the oysters conceive them by means of the dew which they suck in, and that according as the dew is clear or cloudy the pearls also are translucent or dark, etc., etc.,—all this is a little difficult to believe; for daily observation shows that all the pearls found in the same shell are not of the same excellence, nor of the same form, the same perfection of color, nor the same size, as they would or must be if they were conceived by the dew all at one time. Besides this, in many of the islands the Indians go fishing for them in ten or twelve fathoms depth, and in some cases they are so firmly attached to the rocks in the sea that they can be wrenched off only by main strength. Would it not be difficult for them to inhale the quintessence of the air there? It seems then that it is the germ and the most noble part of the eggs of the oyster which are converted into pearls rather than any other thing; and the diversities of size, color, and other qualities, proceed from the fact that some are more advanced than others, as we see eggs in the body of the hen.[46]

The old theory of dew-formed pearls was illustrated even as late as 1684 on a medal struck in honor of Elena Piscopia of the Corraro family of Venice. This bore an oyster-shell open and receiving drops of dew, and underneath was engraved the motto “Rore divino” (By divine dew). Even yet one hears occasionally from out-of-the-way places—as in the instance reported by the American consul at Aden—of pearls formed from rain or dew, notwithstanding that there seems to exist absolutely no justification for it in scientific zoölogy.

Probably the most popular theory entertained from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century was that pearls were formed from the eggs of the oyster. This was intimated by Chauveton in the quotation above given, and it was also referred to by many naturalists.

In an interesting letter, dated Dec. 1, 1673, and giving as his authority the testimony of an eye-witness, “Henricus Arnoldi, an ingenious and veracious Dane,” Christopher Sandius wrote: “Pearl shells in Norway do breed in sweet waters; their shells are like mussels, but larger; the fish is like an oyster, it produces clusters of eggs; these, when ripe, are cast out and become like those that cast them; but sometimes it appears that one or two of these eggs stick fast to the side of the matrix, and are not voided with the rest. These are fed by the oyster against her will and they do grow, according to the length of time, into pearls of different bigness.”[47] This possibly hit the mark with greater accuracy than the observations of the “ingenious and veracious Dane” warranted, for he seems to have had quite a different idea as to the manner in which the pearls are “fed by the oyster against 40her will” from those generally entertained by naturalists at the present time.

However, Oliver Goldsmith settled the matter by declaring briefly: “Whether pearls be a disease or an accident in the animal is scarce worth enquiry.”[48] Thus it seems that notwithstanding all that had been written and the extended attention given to the subject, theory prevailed to the almost complete exclusion of practical investigation, with little intelligent advance over Topsy’s “’spect they just growed.”

Owing, doubtless, to the scarcity of pearl-bearing mollusks in their vicinities, naturalists of Europe were somewhat slow in giving attention to the origin of pearls. This is further accounted for by the fact that the gems occur more frequently in old and diseased shells than in the choice specimens which have naturally attracted the notice of conchologists.

One of the first of the original observations made on this subject was that by Rondelet, who, in 1554, advanced the idea that pearls are diseased concretions occurring in the mollusca, similar to the morbid calculi in the mammalia.[49]

The first writer to intimate the similarity in structural material or substance between pearls and the interior of the shell in which they are formed, appears to have been Anselmus de Boot (circa 1600), who wrote that the pearls “are generated in the body of the creature of the same humour of which the shell is formed; ... for whenever the little creature is ill and hath not strength enough to belch up or expel this humour which sticketh in the body, it becometh the rudiments of the pearl; to which new humour, being added and assimilated into the same nature, begets a new skin, the continued addition of which generates a pearl.”[50] The Portuguese traveler, Pedro Teixeira (1608), stated: “I hold it for certain that pearls are born of and formed of the very matter of the shell and of nothing else. This is supported by the great resemblance of the pearl and the oyster-shell in substance and color. Further, whatever oyster contains pearls has the flesh unsound and almost rotten in the parts where the pearls are produced, and those oysters that have no pearls are sound and clean fleshed.”[51]

Somewhat more than one hundred years later, this theory was confirmed by investigations made by the famous physicist Réaumur (1683–1757). Microscopic examination of cross sections of pearls show that they are built up of concentric laminæ similar, except in curvature, to those forming the nacreous portion of the shell. In a 41paper published by the French Academy of Science in 1717,[52] Réaumur noted this condition, and suggested that pearls are misplaced pieces of organized shell, and are formed from a secretion which overflows from the shell-forming organ or from a ruptured vessel connected therewith, and that the rupture or overflow is ordinarily produced by the intrusion of some foreign or irritating substance.

Sir Edwin Arnold calls attention to this theory in his beautiful lines:

Know you, perchance, how that poor formless wretch—
The Oyster—gems his shallow moonlit chalice?
Where the shell irks him, or the sea-sand frets,
He sheds this lovely lustre on his grief.

In pursuance of this idea, we find, in 1761, the Swedish naturalist Linnæus, “the father of natural history,” experimenting in the artificial production of pearls by the introduction of foreign bodies in the shell, and meeting with some degree of success. His discovery was rated so highly that it has been announced by some writers as the reason why the great naturalist received the patent of nobility, which is generally supposed to have been the reward for his services to science.

It seems that Linnæus’s discovery but verified the old saying that there is nothing new under the sun, for later it was announced[53] that in China—where so many inventions have originated—this idea had been put to practical account for centuries preceding, and the crafty Chinaman had succeeded in producing not only small pearly objects, but even images of Buddha, with which to awe the disciples of that deified teacher.

The method consisted in slightly opening or boring through the shell of the living mollusk and introducing against the soft body a small piece of nacre, molded metal, or other foreign matter. The irritation causes the formation of pearly layers about the foreign body, resulting, in the course of months or of years, in a pearl-like growth. While these have some value as objects of curiosity or of slight beauty, they are not choice pearls, nor for that matter were those produced by Linnæus.

It will be observed that the theory of Réaumur, and also that of Linnæus, required the intrusion of some hard substance, such as a grain of sand, a particle of shell, etc., to constitute a nucleus of the pearl; and this is the accepted explanation at the present time as to the origin of many of the baroque or irregular pearls, and likewise the pearly “blisters” and excrescences attached to the shell. But not so as to the 42choice or gem pearls, those beautiful symmetrical objects of great luster which are usually referred to in speaking of pearls.

Examinations of many of these have failed, except in rare instances, to reveal a foreign nucleus of sand or similar inorganic substance. In searching many fresh-water mussels, Sir Everard Home frequently met with small pearls in the ovarium, and he further noticed that these, as well as oriental pearls, when split into halves, often showed a brilliant cell in the center, about equal in size to the ova of the same mollusk. From these observations, in 1826 he deduced his “abortive ova” theory, and announced:

A pearl is formed upon the external surface of an ovum, which, having been blighted, does not pass with the others into the oviduct, but remains attached to its pedicle in the ovarium, and in the following season receives a coat of nacre at the same time that the internal surface of the shell receives its annual supply. This conclusion is verified by some pearls being spherical, others having a pyramidal form, from the pedicle having received a coat of nacre as well as the ovum.[54]

Naturalists generally accepted these conclusions, that pearls originate in pathological secretions formed, either as the result of the intrusion of hard substances, or by the encysting or covering of ova or other objects of internal origin; and there was no important cleavage of opinion until the development of the parasitic theory, as a result of the researches of the Italian naturalist Filippi, and those following his line of investigations. This theory is not severely in conflict with those of Réaumur, Linnæus, Home, etc., but relates principally to the identity of the irritating or stimulating substance which forms the nucleus of the pearl.

In examining a species of fresh-water mussel, the Anodonta cygnea, occurring in ponds near Turin, and especially the many small pearly formations therein, Filippi observed that these were associated with the presence of a trematode or parasitic worm, which he named Distomum duplicatum, and which appears to be closely allied to the parasite which causes the fatal “rot” or distemper in sheep. Under the microscope, the smallest and presumably the youngest of these pearls showed organic nuclei which appeared undoubtedly to be the remnants of the trematode. In Anodonta from other regions, which were not infested with the distoma, pearls were very rarely found by Filippi. In a paper,[55] published in 1852, containing a summary of his observations, he concluded that a leading, if not the principal, cause of pearl-formation in those mussels was the parasite above noted; and in later papers[56] he included such other forms as Atax ypsilophorus within the list of parasitic agencies which might excite the pearl-forming secretions, comparing their action to that of the formation of plant-galls.

Mexican pearl-oyster (Margaritifera margaritifera mazatlanica) with adherent pearl

Group of encysted pearls in shell of Australian pearl-oyster (Margaritifera maxima)

American Museum of Natural History

Mexican pearl-oyster (Margaritifera margaritifera mazatlanica) with encysted fish

American Museum of Natural History

Group of encysted pearls (Oriental)

Reverse of same group, showing outline of the individual pearls

43The discovery of the parasitic origin of pearls was extended to the pearl-oysters and to other parasites by Küchenmeister[57] in 1856, by Möbius[58] in 1857, and by several other investigators. Prominent among these were E. F. Kelaart and his assistant Humbert, who, in 1859[59] disclosed the important relation which the presence of vermean parasites bears to the origin of pearls in the Ceylon oysters. These naturalists found “in addition to the Filaria and Cercaria, three other parasitical worms infesting the viscera and other parts of the pearl-oyster. We both agree that these worms play an important part in the formation of pearls.” Dr. Kelaart likewise found eggs from the ovarium of the oyster coated with nacre and forming pearls, and also suggested that the silicious internal skeletons of microscopic diatoms might possibly permeate the mantle and become the nuclei of pearls. Unfortunately, Dr. Kelaart’s investigations were terminated by his death a few months thereafter.

In 1871, Garner ascribed the occurrence of pearls in the common English mussel (Mytilus edulis) to the presence of distomid larvæ.[60] Giard,[61] and other French zoölogists, made similar discoveries in the case of Donax and some other bivalves. In 1901, Raphael Dubois confirmed the observations of Garner, associating the production of pearls in the edible mussels on the French coasts with the presence of larvæ of a parasite, to which he gave the name of Distomum margaritarum, and boldly announced: “La plus belle perle n’est donc, en définitive, que le brillant sarcophage d’un ver.”[62]

Prof. H. L. Jameson, in 1902, disclosed the relation which exists between pearls in English mussels (Mytilus) and the larvæ of Distomum somateriæ.[63] The life history of this trematode, as revealed by Dr. Jameson, is especially interesting from a biological standpoint, since it is entertained by three hosts at different times: the first host is a member of the duck family; the second is the Tapes clam (Tapes decussatus), or perhaps the common cockle (Cardium edule), which incloses 44the first larval stage, and the third is the edible mussel, in which the second larval stage of the parasite stimulates the formation of pearls. At the Brighton Aquarium and the Fish Hatchery at Kiel, Dr. Jameson claims to have succeeded in artificially inoculating perfectly healthy mussels with these parasites by associating them with infested mollusks, and thereby producing small pearls.

From Dr. Jameson’s interesting paper we abridge the following account of the manner in which the pearls are developed. The trematode enters Mytilus edulis as a tailless cercaria, and at first may often be found between the mantle and the shell. The larvæ, after a while, enter the connective tissue of the mantle, where they come to rest, assuming a spherical form, visible to the naked eye as little yellowish spots about one half millimeter in diameter. At first the worm occupies only a space lined by connective-tissue fibrils, but soon the tissues of the host give rise to an epithelial layer, which lines the space and ultimately becomes the pearl-sac. If the trematode larva completes its maximum possible term of life, it dies, and the tissues of the body break down to form a structureless mass which retains the form of the parasite, owing to the rigid cuticle. In this mass arise one or more centers of calcification, and the precipitation of carbonate of lime goes on until the whole larva is converted into a nodule with calcospheritic structure. The granular matter surrounding the worm, if present, also undergoes calcification. The epithelium of the sac then begins to shed a cuticle of conchiolin, and from this point the growth of the pearl probably takes place on the same lines and at the same rate as the thickening of the shell.[64]

Fully as remarkable as the observations of Dr. Jameson are the results claimed by Professor Dubois in experimenting with a species of pearl-oyster (M. vulgaris) from the Gulf of Gabes on the coast of Tunis, where they are almost devoid of pearls, a thousand or more shells yielding on an average only one pearl. Conveying these to the coast of France in 1903, he there associated them with a species of trematode-infested mussel (Mytilus gallo-provincialis), and after a short period they became so infested that every three oysters yielded an average of two pearls.[65] This claim has not been without criticism; but who ever knew scientists to agree?

In the pearl-oyster of the Gambier Islands (M. margaritifera cumingi), Dr. L. G. Seurat found that the origin of pearls was due to irritation caused by the embryo of a worm of the genus Tylocephalum, the life of which is completed in the eagle-ray, a fish which feeds on the pearl-oyster.[66]

45In 1903, Prof. W. A. Herdman, who, at the instance of the colonial government, and with the assistance of Mr. James Hornell, examined the pearl-oyster resources of Ceylon, announced: “We have found, as Kelaart did, that in the Ceylon pearl-oyster there are several different kinds of worms commonly occurring as parasites, and we shall, I think, be able to show that Cestodes, Trematodes, and Nematodes may all be concerned in pearl formation. Unlike the case of the European mussels, however, we find that in Ceylon the most important cause is a larval Cestode of the Tetrarhynchus form.”[67]

In his investigation of the Placuna oyster in 1905, Mr. James Hornell found that the origin of pearls was due to minute larva of the same stage and species as that which causes the pearls in the Gulf of Manar oyster.[68]

The spherical larvæ of this tapeworm sometimes occur in great abundance, and there is evidence of forty having been found in a single pearl-oyster. Mr. Hornell states that the living worm does not induce pearl formation, this occurring only when death overtakes it while in certain parts of the oyster. As a consequence, pearls are more numerous in oysters which have been long infected, where the worms are older and more liable to die. This parasitic worm has been traced from the pearl-oyster to the trigger-fishes, which eat the pearl-oysters, and thence into certain large fish-eating rays, where it becomes sexually mature and produces embryos which enter the pearl-oyster and begin a new cycle of life-phases.

It seems, therefore, that the latest conclusions of science appear entirely favorable to the parasitic theory as explaining at least one, and probably the most important, of the causes for the formation of pearls; and that some truth exists in the statement that the most beautiful pearl is only the brilliant sarcophagus of a worm. This morphological change is not peculiar to mollusks, for in most animal bodies a cyst is formed about in-wandering larvæ. Fortunately for lovers of the beautiful, in the pearl-oysters the character of the cyst-wall follows that of the interior lining of the shell, and not only simulates, but far surpasses it in luster.

While the theory that pearls are caused by the intrusion of some unusual substance has the evidence of actual demonstration in many instances, and is unquestionably true to a large extent, yet microscopic examination of some pearls suggests the theory that a foreign substance is not always essential to their formation, and that they may originate in calcareous concretions of minute size, termed “calcospherules.” 46As regards their origin, Professor Herdman classifies pearls into three sorts: (1) “Ampullar pearls,” which are not formed within closed sacs of the shell-secreting epithelium like the others, but lie in pockets or ampullæ of the epidermis. The nuclei may be sand-grains or any other foreign particles introduced through breaking or perforation of the shell. (2) “Muscle pearls,” which are analogous to gallstones, formed around calcospherules at or near the insertion of the muscles. And (3) “Cyst pearls,” in which concentric layers of nacre are deposited on cysts containing parasitic worms in the connective tissue of the mantle and within the soft tissues of the body.[69]

Even a particle of earth, clay, or mud may form the nucleus of a pearl. This was illustrated a few years ago in a fine button-shaped pearl, which was accidentally broken under normal usage and was found to consist of a hard lump of white clay surrounded by a relatively thin coating of nacre. More remarkable yet are the cases in which a minute fish, a crayfish, or the frustule of a diatom has formed the nucleus.

Several instances have been described by Woodward, Gunther, Putnam, Stearns, and others, where small fish have penetrated between the mantle and the shell of the mollusk, and the latter has resented the intrusion by covering the intruder with a pearly coating. In two or three instances the secretion occurred in so short a time that the fish suffered no appreciable decomposition, and its species is readily identified by observation through the nacreous layer. Among the remarkable specimens of this nature which have come under our observation are two very curious shells received in March, 1907, from the Mexican fisheries. One of these specimens shows an encysted fish, so quickly covered and so perfectly preserved that even the scales and small bones are in evidence; indeed, one can almost detect the gloss on the scales of the fish; and in the other—with a remarkable comet-like appearance—a piece of ribbed seaweed is apparently the object covered.

From the foregoing, it appears that the pearl is not a product of health associated with undisturbed conditions, but results from a derangement in the normal state of the mollusk. Unable to resist, to rid itself of the opposing evil, it exercises the powers given to it by a beneficent Creator and converts the pain into perfection, the grief into glory. Nature has many instances of the humble and lowly raised to high degree, but none more strikingly beautiful than this. One of the lowest of earth’s creatures, suffering a misfortune, furnishes a wonderful lesson upon the uses of pain and adversity by converting its affliction into a precious gem symbolical of all that is pure and 47beautiful. As written by a forgotten poet: “Forasmuch as the pearl is a product of life, which from an inward trouble and from a fault produces purity and perfection, it is preferred; for in nothing does God so much delight as in tenderness and lustre born of trouble and repentance.” As the great Persian poet Hafiz says:

Learn from yon orient shell to love thy foe,
And store with pearls the wound that brings thee woe.


“This maskellez perle that boght is dere,
The joueler gef fore alle hys gold,
Is lyke the reme of hevenes clere”;
So sayde the fader of folde and flode,
“For hit is wermlez, clene and clere,
And endelez rounde and blythe of mode,
And commune to all that ryghtwys were.”
Fourteenth-century mss. of “Pearl,”
in the British Museum.

As Kadir Munshi says, “pearls have no pedigree”; their beauty is not to be traced to their origin, but exists wholly in the excellence of the surroundings in which they develop.

The pearl-bearing mollusks are luxurious creatures, and for the purpose of protecting their delicate bodies they cover the interior of their shells with a smooth lustrous material, dyed with rainbow hues, and possessing a beautiful but subdued opalescence. No matter how foul, how coral covered, or overgrown with sponges or seaweeds the exterior may be, all is clean and beautiful within. This material is nacre or mother-of-pearl. It consists ordinarily of an accumulation of extremely thin semi-transparent films or laminæ of a granular organic substance called conchiolin, with the interstices filled with calcareous matter. The nacre decreases in thickness from the hinge toward the lip of the shell, and terminates a short distance from the extreme edge.

Next to the nacre is the middle layer or the shell proper. In species of Margaritifera, this stratum is commonly formed of layers of calcareous prisms arranged vertically to the shell surface. External to this middle or prismatic layer is the epidermis or periostracum, the rough outer coating of varying shades, usually yellow or brown. Where the waves are rough, and the bottom hard and rocky, this covering is thick and heavy, to afford greater protection; but where the waters are smooth and gentle, and the bottom free from rocks, Nature—never working in vain—furnishes only thin sides and slight defense. As is the case with the nacre, the prismatic layer and the periostracum decrease 52in thickness from the hinge to the edge, and the inside lip of the shell shows the gradual union of the three superimposed layers. The two outer layers are formed by the thick edge of the mantle, the remaining portion—or nearly the entire surface—of this organ secretes the nacral layer.

Not only is the interior of the shell made lustrous and beautiful, but this tendency is exerted toward all objects that come in contact with the soft body of the mollusk, either by intrusion simply within the shell, or deeply within the organs and tissues of the animal itself. All foreign bodies—such as small parasites, diatoms, minute pebbles, etc.,—irritate the tender tissues of the mollusk, and stimulate the pearly formation which in course of time covers them. At first the nacreous covering is very thin; but with added layer after layer the thickness is enhanced, and the size of the object increases as long as it remains undisturbed and the mollusk is in healthful growth.

Chemically considered, aside from the nucleus, the structure of pearls is identical in composition with that of the nacre of the shell in which they are formed. Analyses have shown that those from the fresh-water mussels of England and Scotland, and from the pearl-oysters of Australia and of Ceylon, have nearly identical composition in the proportion of about 5.94 per cent. of organic matter, 2.34 of water, and 91.72 per cent. of carbonate of lime.[70] The specific gravity ranges from nearly 2 to about 2.75, increasing with the deposit of the nacreous coatings. The following summary by Von Hessling[71] shows the results of certain determinations of specific gravity:

Authority Specific Gravity Note
Muschenbroet 2.750 at moderate temperature
Brisson 2.684 at 14° Réaumur
Möbius 2.686 4 fine pearls, weighing 2.396 gms.
Möbius 2.650 24 pearls, weighing 6.221 gms.
Möbius 2.336 63 brown pearls from Mazatlan, weighing 4.849 gms.
Voit 2.722 Bavarian pearls, 3316 carats, medium quality
Voit 2.616 Bavarian pearls, 3⅝ carats, finer quality
Voit 2.724 Bavarian pearls, 1¾ carats, very fine
Voit 2.578 Bavarian pearls, gray, with some luster
Voit 2.765 Bavarian pearls, brown, ranking between good & black
Voit 2.238 Bavarian pearls, poor black pearls, impure

Cross section of an irregular pearl, magnified 80 diameters

Cross sections of pearls, magnified 30 diameters

Thin section of mother-of-pearl, magnified, showing sponge borings which traversed the pearl shell

Structure of conch pearl produced by fracturing, magnified 80 diameters

54The distinctive characteristic, the great beauty of a true pearl, is its luster or orient, which is a subdued iridescence, rather than the glittering brilliance of the diamond; and unless the shelly growth be lustrous it does not rank as a gem pearl, no matter how perfect its form or beautiful its color. This luster is due to the structural arrangement of the surface as well as to the quality of the material. The nacreous material forming true pearls, and likewise mother-of-pearl, is commonly deposited in irregular tenuous layers, very thin and very small in area compared with the surface of the pearl. These laminæ overlap one another, the surfaces are microscopically crumpled and corrugated, and the edges form serrated outlines. The greater the angle which the laminæ form with the surface, the closer will be these serrated outlines, and where the plane of the exterior lamina is parallel with the plane of the surface the lines are not present. This arrangement causes the waves of light to be reflected from different levels on the surface, just as in a soap bubble, and the minute prisms split the rays up into their colored constituents, producing the chromatic or iridescent effect.

The cause is wholly mechanical, and an impression of the surface made in very fine wax shows a similar iridescence. Also, if a piece of mother-of-pearl be immersed in acid until the surface lime or shelly matter is dissolved, the pellucid membrane shows the iridescence until it is so compressed that the corrugations are reduced. About two score years ago an Englishman invented steel buttons with similar minute corrugations producing pearly effect, but the manufacture was unprofitable, owing, principally, to their liability to tarnish.

In the shells of some mollusks—as the edible oysters (Ostrea) or the giant clam (Tridacna),—there is almost a total absence of the crumpled corrugated laminæ, and, consequently, there is little luster. In others the nacre is of better quality, resulting in superior orient, and it probably reaches its highest degree of perfection in the pearl-oyster (Margaritifera).

As the curvature of the surface of pearls is greater, and the minute striæ are more numerous, than in ordinary mother-of-pearl, it follows that the iridescence is likewise greater.

Superior nacre is more or less translucent, depending on its quality; and to the iridescence of the outer laminæ is added that of many interior ones, so that the luster is vastly increased. The position of the pearl within the shell may greatly affect the quality of the material and, consequently, the orient. The choicest are commonly found within the soft parts of the animal, and those of poorer quality are at the edges of the mantle, or within the fibers of the adductor muscle of bivalves.

The structure of pearls may be studied by examining thin cross sections under the microscope, or by transmitted polarized light. It appears that ordinarily a pearl is made up of many independent laminæ superimposed one upon another “like the layers of an onion,” or, 55rather, resembling the leaves near the upper part of a well formed cabbage. When subjected to sufficient heat, the laminæ separate from each other, as do shells of edible oysters and similar mollusks under like conditions. When broken by a hammer, a pearl may exhibit this laminated formation. If not split directly through the center, the central section may retain the spherical form; and as this commonly remains attached to one of the parts, its concave impression appears in the other portion of the broken pearl. The outer laminæ of many pearls may be removed with a fair prospect of finding a good subjacent surface, and this may be continued until the size is greatly reduced. These laminæ are not always similar in color or luster.

However, not all pearls are laminated in this manner. Instead of superimposed layers, some of them exhibit a crystalline form, composed of beautiful prismatic crystals radiating from the center to the circumference. In at least one oriental pearl examined, these crystals were in well defined arcs, and were further separated into concentric rings of different degrees of thickness, depth of color, and distance apart. Another specimen—a Scotch pearl—combined in separate layers both the laminated form and the crystalline structure.

Dr. Harley points out that some crystalline pearls apparently originate in mere coalescences of mineral particles, rather than in well defined nuclei.[72] Microscopic sections of crystalline pearls convey the idea that the prisms branch and interlace with one another, and also that in some instances they are of fusiform shape. However, these appearances seem to be due simply to the cross sections having cut the prisms at different angles.

Pearls showing these types were exhibited at a meeting of the Royal Society of London, June 8, 1887. That exhibit also contained a section of a west Australian pearl of curiously complex crystalline formation; instead of one central starting-point, it had more than a dozen scattered about, from which the crystalline prisms radiated in all directions.

Since the three superimposed layers of the shell are secreted by separate parts of the mantle, viz., the nacre by the general surface, the prismatic layer by the inner edge, and the epidermis by the outer edge, it follows that if a pearl in course of formation is moved from one of these distinctive portions of the palial organ to another, the nature of its laminæ changes. Thus, if a pearl formed on the broad surface of the mantle is moved in some way to the inner edge of that organ, it may be covered with a prismatic layer; if then moved to the outer edge it may receive a lamina of epidermis, and then by changing again to the broad surface of the mantle it receives further coats of nacre.


Pearls from common clam (Venus mercenaria) of eastern coast of America

Pearl “nuggets” from the Mississippi Valley

Wing pearls from the Mississippi Valley

Dog-tooth pearls from the Mississippi Valley

57The structure of pearls from univalve mollusks, such as the conch, the abalone, etc., as well as those from some bivalves, as the Pinna, for instance, differs from that of the true pearls formed in species of Margaritifera. Instead of the alternate layers of conchiolin and of carbonate of lime, many of these have an alveolar structure. When greatly magnified, the surface of a Pinna pearl appears to be formed of very small polygones, which, as decalcification shows, are the bases of small pyramids radiating from the nucleus. The walls of these pyramids are formed of conchiolin, and they are filled with carbonate of lime of a prismatic crystalline structure. This is simply a modification of the parallel laminæ in the Margaritifera pearls, for, as Dubois points out, in some sections we can see portions where the alveolar formation has proceeded for a time coincidentally with the lamellar form.

Pearls are affected by acids and fetid gases, and may be calcined on exposure to heat. Their solubility in vinegar was referred to by the Roman architect Vitruvius (“De Architectura,” L. viii. c. 3) and also by Pausanias, a Greek geographer in the second century (“Hellados Periegesis,” L. viii, c. 18); but it seems that there could be little foundation for Pliny’s well-known anecdote in which Cleopatra is credited with dissolving a magnificent pearl in vinegar and drinking it—“the ransom of a kingdom at a draught”—to the health of her lover Antony.[73] It is no more easy to dissolve a pearl in vinegar than it is to dissolve a pearl-button—for the composition is similar, and one may easily experiment for himself as to the difficulty in doing this. Not only does it take many days to dissolve in cold vinegar the mineral elements of a pearl of fair size, but even with boiling vinegar it requires several hours to extract the mineral matter from one four or five grains in weight, the acid penetrating to the interior very slowly. And in neither case can the pearl be made to disappear, for even after the carbonate of lime has dissolved, the organic matrix of animal matter—which is insoluble in vinegar—retains almost the identical shape, size, and appearance as before. If the pearl is first pulverized, it becomes readily soluble in vinegar, and might be thus drunk as a lover’s potion, but it would scarcely prove a bonne bouche.

Pearls assume an almost infinite variety of forms, due largely to the shapes of the nuclei, and also to their positions within the mollusk. The most usual—and, fortunately, also the most valuable—is the spherical, resulting from a very minute or a round body as a nucleus and the uniform addition of nacre on all sides. Of course, spherical pearls can result only where they are quite free from other hard substances; 58consequently they originate only in the soft parts of the mollusk and not by the fixation of some nucleus to the interior surface of the shell.

The perfectly spherical pearls range in weight from a small fraction of a grain to three hundred grains or more, but it is very, very rare that one of choice luster weighs more than one hundred grains. The largest of which we have any specific information was that among the French crown jewels as early as the time of Napoleon, an egg-shaped pearl, weighing 337 grains. The largest pearl known to Pliny in the first century A.D. weighed “half a Roman ounce and one scruple over,” or 234½ grains Troy. These very large ones, weighing in excess of one hundred grains, are called “paragons.” The small pearls—weighing less than half a grain each—are known as “seed-pearls.” The very small ones, weighing less than 125 of a grain, are called “dust-pearls.” These are too small to be of economic value as ornaments.

Slight departures from the perfect sphere, result in egg shapes, pear shapes, drop shapes, pendeloque, button shapes, etc. Some of these are valued quite as highly at the present time as the spherical pearls, and many of the most highly prized pearls in the world are of other than spherical form. Indeed, pearls of this kind are found of larger size than the perfectly round pearls. The egg-shaped pearl,[74] called “la Régente,”—one of the French crown jewels sold in May, 1887—weighed, as stated above, 337 grains. The great pear pearl described by Tavernier—“the largest ever discovered”—weighed about 500 grains. A button pearl received from Panama in 1906 weighed 216 grains.

Wider departures from the spherical form result in cylindrical, conical, top-shaped, etc. Some pearls present the appearance of having been turned in a lathe with intricate tooling. Remarkable examples of these “turned pearls” have been found, competing in their circular perfection with the best work of a jeweler’s lathe.

Many standard varieties of non-spherical, but normally shaped pearls, are recognized by the fishermen and the jewelers. For instance, in the nomenclature of the American fishermen, bouton, or button pearls are divided into “haystacks” and “turtle-backs,” according to the height of the projection. Also, certain imperfections result in distinguishing names: “bird’s-eye” refers to a pearl having a little imperfection on the best surface; “ring-arounds” have a dark or discolored ring about them; and “strawberries” have numerous minute projections on the surface.

During its growth, a spherical pearl may come in contact with a foreign body, such as grit or a vegetable film, and the additional nacral layers envelop the adjacent matter until it is entirely concealed within the pearl, its position being recognized only by the excrescence on one side, and, with continued increase in size, even this may be almost overcome.


59Sometimes double, triple, or multiple pearls are formed; each of these may have a separate nucleus and grow independently for a time until they adjoin each other; continuing to grow, they become so united as to form a connected mass. The “Southern Cross” is a remarkable example of this. It appears to consist of seven nearly spherical pearls attached to one another in a straight line, and one projecting from each side of the second in the row, thus forming a Roman cross.[75]

A few years ago, near Sharks Bay, on the coast of western Australia, a cluster was found containing about 150 pearls closely compacted. This cluster measured about one and a half inches in length, three quarters of an inch in breadth, and half an inch in thickness.

When a growing pearl is very near to the nacreous lining of the shell, the pressure between the two hard substances results in a rupture of the pearl-forming sac and the epithelial layer of the shell, and the pearl comes in actual contact with the nacre. The pearl gradually becomes attached to the shell, and the under portion is prevented from growing further; the upper or exposed surface receives other layers, resulting in the formation of a bouton. As the shell around the pearl continues to grow, it gradually closes about, and almost wholly conceals the pearl. Since it is constantly wasting away on the exterior surface as it grows on the interior, it follows that in time the shell passes the pearl quite through to the outside, where it rapidly decays. Thus the oyster virtually forces the annoying intruder directly through the wall of its house instead of by way of the open door, and magically closes the breach with its marvelous masonry.

These embedded pearls are generally faulty and of diminished luster, but in the aggregate, large quantities of imperfect ones, and especially half and quarter pearls, are secured in this manner. Sometimes—particularly in the Australian fisheries—large pearls are thus found, weighing twenty, forty, sixty, and even eighty grains; and when the faulty outside layers of nacre are removed, a subjacent surface of fine luster may possibly be revealed. In bivalves, these adherent pearls are commonly in the deep or lower valve, except in those unusual cases where the mollusks have been lying in a reverse position. At the fisheries, the surfaces of the shells are carefully inspected for evidence of pearly nodules, and these are broken open in search for encysted objects. Cutters of mother-of-pearl occasionally find embedded pearls of this kind which have escaped the vigilant eyes of the fishermen.

60We read of an instance in an important paper treating of the jeweling trade of Birmingham: “A few years since [the paper was written in 1866] a small lot of shells was brought to Birmingham, which either from ignorance or mistake had not been cleared of the pearls at the fishery. A considerable number were found and sold, and one especially was sold by the man who had bought the shell for working into buttons, for £40. The purchaser, we believe, resold the same for a profit of £160; and we have heard that it was afterward held in Paris for sale at £800.”

A choice gem which was found in New York, in October, 1905, in an Australian shell, sold finally for $1200.

The intrusion and continued presence of grains of sand or similar material between the mantle and the shell causes the formation of nacre over the foreign body, resulting in a chicot (blister pearl), or possibly a quarter or a half-pearl. The growth of a chicot sometimes results from the mollusk covering a choice pearl which has become loosened from the soft tissues and adheres to the shell, as above cited. Hence, it is sometimes desirable to break a chicot to secure its more valuable inclosure. In the account of his interesting pearling experiences on the Australian coast, Henry Taunton states: “During the first season’s shelling at Roebuck Bay, we came across an old worm-eaten shell containing a large blister, which was removed in the usual manner by punching a ring of minute holes around its base; a slight tap was then sufficient to detach it. For many weeks it was untouched, no one caring to risk opening it, for if filled with black ooze, which is frequently the case, it would be of little value. At last, baffled in his attempt to solve the problem, and emboldened by an overdose of ‘square face,’ the skipper gave it a smart blow with a hammer, which cracked it open, and out rolled a huge pearl, nearly perfect, and weighing eighty grains. A few specks and discolorations were removed by a skilful ‘pearl-faker,’ and it was sold in London for £1500.”[76]

Blister pearls are also caused by the defensive or protective action of the mollusk in resisting the intrusion of some animal, as a boring sponge or a burrowing worm, which has begun to penetrate the outer layers of the shell. This stimulation causes the mollusk to pile nacreous material upon the spot, thus making a substantial mound closely resembling a segment of a large pearl. This walling-out of intruders is not the result of intelligent forethought or of instinct, analogous to the repairing of a damaged web by a spider, or the retunneling of a collapsed gallery by ants; it is a pathological rather than an intelligent action.


From the Upper Mississippi Valley

61When the nucleus of a pearl is large and very irregular, it necessarily follows that the deposited nacre roughly assumes the irregular outline of the inclosed object. This is strikingly shown in pearls covering a minute fish, a crayfish, or a small crab. Several specimens have been found in which the species could be identified by examination through the nacreous coating.

In the American Unios there is a strong tendency to produce elongated pearls near the hinge of the shell, which are consequently known as “hinge pearls.” The occurrence and form of these suggest that their origin may not be due to nuclei, but that they result from an excess of carbonate of lime in the water, and that the animal stores a surplus of nacre in this convenient form. There are several standard forms of these hinge pearls. Many are elongated or dog-toothed, some are hammer-shaped, others resemble the wings of birds, the petals of flowers, the bodies of fish, and various other objects. A large percentage of the pearls found in Unios of the Mississippi Valley are of these types.

Some irregular pearls or baroques are very large, weighing an ounce or more. A well-known example is the Hope pearl, described on page 463, which weighs three ounces. These monster pearls sometimes assume odd shapes, such as clasped hands, the body of a man, lion, or other animal, etc.

Although baroques may have a pearly luster, they are not highly prized unless unusually attractive, and they have little permanent value, apart from their estimation in the eyes of admirers of the curious and unique. They are used largely in l’art nouveau, and in forming odd and fanciful objects of jewelry, the designer taking advantage of the resemblance which they bear to common objects of every-day life, and by additions of gold and other ornaments completing the form which nature had merely suggested.

Some remarkable examples of baroque mountings have been produced, and a few are to be found in most of the large pearl collections. In a single case in the Imperial Treasury at Vienna are baroques forming the principal parts or figures of a horse, stag, lamb, tortoise, lizard, cock, dragon, butterfly, gondola, hippopotamus, female bust, and three mermaids. Other well-known collections are those of the royal family of Saxony in the Grüne Gewölbe at Dresden; those in the Palace of Rosenberg at Copenhagen; in the Waddesden (Rothschild) collection of the British Museum; among the jewels in the Louvre in Paris; with the treasures of the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice; and in the museum of the University of Moscow.

A remarkable pearl-like ornament more common in Asia than in the Occident, is the coque de perle, which is an oval section of the globose whorl of the Indian nautilus. The exterior or convex surface is highly 62lustrous, but the material is very thin. It is commonly provided with a suitable filling or backing of putty or cement to impart solidity, and is used like a blister pearl. Sometimes two perfectly matched coques de perle are filled and cemented together, giving the appearance of an abnormally large oblong or nearly spherical pearl.

The color of pearls has no connection with the luster. In general it is the same as that of the shell in which they are formed. Black pearls are found in the black shells of Mexico, and pink pearls in the pink-hued Strombus of the Bahamas. Ceylon pearls are seldom of any other color than white, and Sharks Bays are almost invariably quite yellow or straw-colored, while those of Venezuela are commonly yellowish tinged. But from other localities, pearls simulate every tint of the rainbow, as well as white and black. The most common, as well as the most desirable ordinarily, is white, or rather, silvery or moonlight glint,—“la gran Margherita,” as Dante calls it; but yellow, pink, and black are numerous. They may also be piebald—a portion white and the rest pink or brown or black. Some years ago there was on the market a large bean-shaped pearl of great luster, one half of which was white and the other quite black, the dividing-line being sharply defined in the plane of the greatest circumference. The pearls from Mexico, the South Sea islands, and the American rivers are especially noted for their great variety of coloration, covering every known tint and shade, and requiring such a master as Théophile Gautier to do justice to them.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the coloration of pearls. When the old idea of dew formation prevailed, it was considered that white pearls were formed in fair weather, and the dark ones when the weather was cloudy. It was further considered that the color was influenced by the depth of the water in which they grew: that in deep water they were white, but where it was so shallow that the sunlight easily penetrated, the pearls were more likely to be dark in color. Tavernier curiously explained that the black pearls of Panama and Mexico owed their color to the black mud in which the pearl-oysters of those localities lived, and that Persian Gulf pearls were more inclined to yellow than those of Ceylon, owing to the greater putrefaction of the flesh before they were removed therefrom.[77] Two centuries ago the color of a pearl was attributed to that of the central nucleus, and it was concluded that if the nucleus was dark, the pearl would be of a similar hue.[78] This theory has also been upset, for pearls are found white on the exterior and quite dark within, and also with these conditions reversed.


63The color of a pearl is determined by that of the conchiolin, as appears from its remaining unchanged after decalcification. While generally it is the same as that of the mother-of-pearl at the corresponding point of the shell in which it is formed, there are many exceptions to this, and the reasons for the varying tints and colors are probably to be found in the changes in position of the pearl, the ingredients of the water, the health of the mollusk, accidents of various kinds, etc. These factors will be referred to later in discussing the pearls from different mollusks and regions; but in general it is no more easy to explain the colors of pearls than it is to say why one rose is white and another is yellow.

Medieval writers had much to say regarding unripe or immature pearls, likening them to eggs in the body of a hen, which follow a uniform rate of growth; and this idea is not entirely absent even in contemporaneous writings. However, it is an interesting fact that the humble mollusks, like the five wise virgins with prepared lamps, keep their gems perfect in beauty and luster at all times. It matters not whether the pearl be removed when it is only the size of a pinhead or not until it reaches that of a marble, it is at all times a complete, a ripe, a perfect pearl, and the largest surpasses the smallest only in the characteristics and properties which are incidental to size. Imparting perfection and completion every day, every moment, the mollusk utilizes the added time simply in enlarging its beautiful work.

Although art has made wonderful progress in that direction, the pearl, like truth, is not easily imitated. There is as much difference between the ubiquitous imitations and the perfect gem as there is between a chromolithograph and a silvery Corot, or between the effects of cosmetics and the freshness of youth. While to the unskilled, or under superficial inspection, the false has some of the properties of the genuine, it is only necessary to place them side by side to make the difference apparent. However clever the imitation may be in color, in form, and in density, it always lacks in richness, in sweetness, and in blended iridescence.



Rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house, as your pearl in your foul oyster.

As You Like It, Act V, sc. 4.

In geographic range, the sources of pearls are widely distributed, each one of the six continents yielding its quota; but the places where profitable fisheries are prosecuted are restricted in area. First in point of value, and possibly of antiquity also, are the fisheries of the Persian Gulf, giving employment ordinarily to thirty thousand or more divers. The yield in the likewise ancient fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar is uncertain, but sometimes remarkably large. The Red Sea resources are now of slight importance compared with their extent in the time of the Ptolemies. Other Asiatic fisheries are in the Gulf of Aden, about Mergui Archipelago, on the coast of China, Japan, Korea, and Siam, and also in the rivers of China, Manchuria, and Siberia.

Aside from those produced in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the pearl fisheries of Africa are of small extent. Some reefs exist on the lower coast of the German East African territory and also in Portuguese East Africa, but they have not been thoroughly exploited.

In most of the inshore waters of Australasia pearls may be secured; the fisheries are most extensive on the northern coast of Australia, in the Sulu Archipelago, and about the Dutch East Indies. Tuamotu Archipelago, Gambier, Fiji, and Penrhyn are prominent in the South Pacific Ocean.

In the seas of Europe few pearls have been found, but the rivers have yielded many; and although the resources have been greatly impaired, many beautiful gems are yet found there.

South America contributes the important reefs on the coast of Venezuela—the land of unrest and revolutions, whose fisheries were first exploited by Columbus. Other South American countries in which pearls are collected are Panama, Ecuador, Peru, etc. In 66North America, pearls are found in the pearl-oyster of the Gulf of California, the abalone of the Pacific coast, the queen conch of the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Unios of most of the rivers, especially those of the Mississippi Valley.

Since pearly concretions partake of the characteristics of the shell within which they are formed, it follows that practically all species of mollusks whose shells have a well-developed nacreous lining yield pearls to a greater or less extent. But the number of these species is relatively small. They belong chiefly to the Margaritiferæ, or pearl-oyster family of the sea, and to the Unionidæ, or family of fresh-water mussels. Pearls occur also in some univalves, but not so abundantly as in bivalves of the families mentioned. Broadly stated, we may hope to find pearls within any mollusk whose shell possesses a nacreous surface; and it is useless to search for them in shells whose interior is dull and opaque, such as the edible oyster for instance.

The great bulk of the pearls on the market, and likewise those of the highest quality, are from the Margaritiferæ, which are widely distributed about tropical waters. Although these mollusks are spoken of as pearl-oysters, they are not related in any way to the edible oysters (Ostrea) of America and Europe.[79] The flesh is fat and glutinous, and so rank in flavor as to be almost unfit for food, although eaten at times by the poorer fishermen in lieu of better fare. The origin of the name is doubtless due to the fact that in the somewhat circular form of the shell they resemble oysters rather than the elongated mussels of Europe, to which they are more nearly related in anatomy. Also in that—like their namesakes—they are monomyarian, having only one adductor muscle.

The two valves or sides of the pearl-oyster shell are nearly similar in shape and almost equal in size; whereas in the edible oysters one valve is thin and somewhat flat, while the other is thicker, larger, and highly convex. In the latter, also, the hinge, or umbo, is an angular beak; but in the pearl-oysters the umbo is prolonged by so-called ears or wings into a straight line the length of which is nearly equal to the breadth of the shell.

The byssus, or bunch of fibers, by which pearl-oysters attach themselves to the bottom indicates their relationship to the mussels. The possession of a small foot and somewhat extended migratory powers—at 67least in the first years of growth—also distinguish them from the sedentary edible oysters. But from an economic point of view, the principal difference is the possession of a thick, nacreous, interior lining in the shells of pearl-oysters, which is wholly lacking in the edible species. Like their namesakes, the pearl-oysters are exceedingly fertile, a single specimen numbering its annual increase by millions.

Commercially considered, the pearl-oysters are roughly divisible into two groups, (1) those fished exclusively for the pearls which they contain, and (2) those whose shells are so thick as to give them sufficient value to warrant their capture independently of the yield of pearls. The best examples of the first group are the pearl-oysters of Ceylon and of Venezuela, and to a less extent those of the Persian Gulf, the coast of Japan, and of Sharks Bay, on the Australian coast. Of the second group, the pearl-oysters of Torres Straits and of the Malay Archipelago are the most prominent members. Between these two groups are the many species and varieties whose shells and pearls are more evenly divided with respect to value, including those of Mexico, Panama, the Red Sea, the South Sea islands, etc.

Some conchologists recognize a large number of species of Margaritiferæ, while other authorities consider many of these as local variations of the same species. There is much difference in the size, color, and markings of the shells in different localities, owing to varying geographical and physical conditions. The distinction of species and the nomenclature herein adopted are those of Dr. H. L. Jameson, who has recently revised and rearranged the collection of shells belonging to this family in the British Museum of Natural History,[80] and to whom we are indebted for descriptive notes relative to several of the species.

The greatest pearl-producer in the family of pearl-oysters is the Margaritifera vulgaris of the Gulf of Manaar and the Persian Gulf, and to a much less extent of the Red Sea. It occurs in various other inshore waters of the Indian Ocean, and about the Malay Archipelago and the coast of Australia and New Guinea, although it is not the principal pearl-oyster of those waters. An interesting account of its immigration into the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal was given by Vassel in 1896.[81]

This species is quite small, averaging two and a half inches in diameter in Ceylon waters, and somewhat more in the Persian Gulf, 68whence large quantities of the shell are exported under the name of “Lingah shell.” The Ceylon variety has the nacreous lining almost uniformly white over the entire surface, only the lip having a slightly pinkish ground color. The exterior is marked by seven or eight reddish brown radial bands on a pale yellow ground. In addition to its greater size, the Persian variety is darker, and the lip of the shell has a reddish tinge.

For centuries the Margaritifera vulgaris has sustained the great pearl fisheries of Ceylon, India, and Persia, and at present yields the bulk of pearls on the market, especially the seed-pearls and also those of medium size. It produces relatively few large ones, rarely exceeding twelve grains in weight. These pearls are commonly silvery white, and for their size command the highest prices, because of their beautiful form and superior luster. Excepting the Venezuelan species, this is the only pearl-oyster which at present supports extensive fisheries exclusively for pearls; in the fisheries for all other species the value of the shells furnishes considerable revenue, and in some localities this represents several times as much as the income from the pearls.

Ranking next to Margaritifera vulgaris in extent of pearl production is the Margaritifera margaritifera, which is widely distributed about the tropical inshore waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is very much larger than the Lingah oyster, good specimens measuring seven or eight inches in diameter, and the nacreous interior is usually of a darker color. In addition to its yield of pearls, the shell of this species is of value in the mother-of-pearl trade, and contributes largely to the economic results of the fisheries. Indeed, in several regions the shell is of more value than the pearls, which represent only an incidental yield. As Jameson notes, the color and markings of the shell, though extremely variable, generally suffice to distinguish this species. The ground color of the exterior ranges through various shades from yellowish brown to very dark brown. Its characteristic markings consist of from ten to eighteen radial rows of white and yellow spots, running from the umbo, or hinge, to the margin.

Several varieties of Margaritifera margaritifera are recognized. The type species occurs along the north coast of Australia, from Brisbane on the east to Sharks Bay on the west; on the New Guinea coast; at Formosa; and about many of the islands of the Pacific. The well-known “black lip shell” of Australian waters is of this species; it shows a greenish black on the margin of the nacre. The yield of this is very small compared with that of the large pearl-oyster of Australia.


(Margaritifera margaritifera mazatlanica)

From Costa Rica

69The Margaritifera margaritifera occurs on the eastern coast of Arabia in two varieties, which differ somewhat from the type species. These have been designated by Jameson as M. margaritifera persica and M. margaritifera erythræensis. These are much larger than the Lingah shell of the Persian Gulf, but are smaller than the Australian species. The percentage of pearls in them is less than in the Lingah species, but from a commercial point of view this is to some extent offset by the greater value of the shell. The M. m. persica is more numerous in the gulf than the M. m. erythræensis, and large quantities of the shell are marketed in Europe. Formerly the shipments were made principally by way of Bombay, hence the shell is known in the mother-of-pearl trade as “Bombay shell.” The exterior is of a light grayish or greenish brown color, with yellowish white radial bands. The nacre has a slightly roseate tint, and the margin is greenish yellow. The pearls found herein are more yellowish in color and attain a larger size than those from the Lingah oyster.

The M. m. erythræensis occurs also in the Red Sea and along the shores of the Arabian Sea. Among mother-of-pearl dealers it is known as “Egyptian shell” or “Alexandria shell,” owing to the fact that prior to the opening of the Suez Canal shipments were commonly made by way of Alexandria. The color of the nacre is darker than that of its related variety in the Persian Gulf. In the trade, three grades of this shell are recognized, classed according to the shade of color. The lightest comes from Massowah and near the southern end of the Red Sea, and the darkest from farther north, in the vicinity of Jiddah and Suakim.

The islands of the southern Pacific, and of eastern Polynesia especially, yield another variety of M. margaritifera, to which the name M. m. cumingi has been given. The nacre is of a dark metallic green, and in the mother-of-pearl trade the shell is designated as “black-edged.” It attains a large size, only slightly smaller than the large Australian species; many individual specimens measure ten inches in diameter, and weigh six or seven pounds for the two valves. Belonging to this variety are those oysters whose shells are known in the markets of Europe and America as “Tahiti,” “Gambier,” and “Auckland” shells, the name designating the port of shipment.

Yet another subspecies, the M. m. mazatlanica, occurs on the coasts of Panama and Mexico, and especially in the Gulf of California. This is likewise green-edged, and the exterior color is yellow or light brown. This shell has been marketed in quantities since 1850, and is known in the mother-of-pearl trade as “Panama shell.” It is smaller than the Australian species, specimens rarely exceeding eight inches in diameter. It yields a large percentage of the black pearls that have been so fashionable in the last fifty years.

Since 1870, the largest pearls have been found mainly in a very 70large species of pearl-oyster, Margaritifera maxima, obtained off the north and west coasts of Australia, among the Sulu Islands, and elsewhere in the Malay Archipelago. In the fisheries for this species, the mother-of-pearl is the principal object sought, and the pearls are obtained incidentally. It is the largest of all the members of this family, reaching in exceptional cases twelve or thirteen inches in diameter, and weighing upward of twelve pounds; while the Ceylon oyster rarely exceeds four ounces in weight. So marked is this difference, that the Australian species is often designated the “mother-of-pearl oyster,” and the Ceylon species the “pearl-oyster.” Jameson notes that it differs from the Margaritifera margaritifera, its nearest competitor in size, in its much longer hinge, its shape, its lesser convexity, and in its color and markings. As described by him, the color ranges from pale yellowish brown to deep brown, with traces of radial markings of dark brown, green, or red in the umbonal area. In its marginal region, the shell is marked by a series of circumferential lines about one third of a millimeter apart.

Several geographical varieties of this species are recognized in the mother-of-pearl trade, differing principally in the coloring of the interior surface. The chief commercial varieties are “Sydney” or “Queensland,” “Port Darwin,” “West Australian,” “New Guinea,” “Manila,” “Macassar,” and “Mergui.” The nacre of those from the Australian coast is almost uniformly silvery white. That of the “Manila shell” is characterized by a broad golden border surrounding the silvery white nacre. The “Macassar shell” lacks the golden border of the “Manila shell,” and is similar in its uniform whiteness to the “Sydney shell,” but its iridescence is much greater.

The Margaritifera carcharium, from Sharks Bay, on the coast of Australia, yields yellow pearls and small quantities of mother-of-pearl. This species is small—three or four inches in diameter. The color is grayish or greenish yellow, with several somewhat indistinct radial bands of brownish green. The nacre has a yellowish green tint, with a margin of pale yellow, with brown markings.

In the West Indies and on the Atlantic coast of tropical America, especially the coast of Venezuela, occurs the Margaritifera radiata. This species is quite small, and seems to be closely allied to the Ceylon oyster. Like the latter, the nacreous interior is rich and brilliant, but owing to its small size, the shell is wholly valueless as mother-of-pearl. The principal and almost the only fishery for this species is on the Venezuelan coast, in the vicinity of Margarita Island, the islands of Cubagua, and Coche.

The coast of Japan yields the Margaritifera martensi, which occurs among the numerous islands in the southern part of the empire, but 71does not extend beyond 40° north latitude. This species is likewise small, and closely resembles the pearl-oyster of Ceylon, from which it differs principally in coloration. As noted by Jameson, brown and white predominate in the exterior coloring, and the interior of the lip is marbled with yellow ocher and chocolate brown, instead of pink, as in the Ceylon shell.

There are numerous other species of pearl-oysters, but they are of slight economic importance, and do not support fisheries of value.

As only a small percentage of the individual mollusks contain pearls, it follows that vast quantities are destroyed without any return whatever, and handling them merely adds to the expense of the industry, as well as reduces the resources of the reefs. This could be obviated if it were possible, without opening them, to determine the individual mollusks containing pearls.

Among the several methods proposed for this purpose, especially interesting is the use of X-rays, which was suggested by Raphael Dubois of Lyons, France, in 1901.[82] The shells of some pearl-oysters—those of Ceylon and of Venezuela for instance—are relatively thin, and it was thought that by the means of the rays the presence of pearls could be ascertained, and non-pearl-bearers could be saved from opening, and be returned to the reefs without injury. Although the calcareous shell partly interrupts the radiations, it is not difficult to recognize the presence of large pearls.

The theory has never been found practical in application, owing largely to the rough and irregular exterior of the shell and the small size of the pearls. The presence of the larger pearls may be ascertained by this method; but it is exceedingly probable that a very large percentage of the small ones, and especially the seed-pearls, would be overlooked. Furthermore, if in their sixth year oysters contain no pearls, the probability of appearance therein later is very small, and little benefit would result from their return to the water. As to saving the trouble of opening the non-pearl-bearing mollusks, labor in the pearling regions is usually inexpensive, and this cost is far more than offset by the reasonable certainty of securing practically all the small as well as the large pearls by the present method of operation. Owing to the greater thickness and the economic value of the large pearl-oysters—as those of Australia or of Mexico, for instance—the application of X-rays to them is obviously impractical. However, when pearl-oyster culture becomes a highly developed industry, with personal ownership in those mollusks returned to the water, some method such as this might be of great value.

Pearls are yielded by various species of Unionidæ or Naiades occurring 72in the rivers of America, Scotland, Saxony, Bavaria, Norway, Sweden, Russia, France, China, etc. These mollusks exist exclusively in the fresh-water streams, lakes, and ponds, and quickly die when submerged in salt water. The Unionidæ are of particular interest in America, as it is here that this group is most abundant, and nearly every stream east of the Rocky Mountains contains more or less of them. The Mississippi basin abounds in Unios, or “clams,” as they are known to the fishermen of that region, and furnishes about 400 of the 1000 recognized species of this important family.

The Unios are most abundant in clear, running water, where the bottom is gravelly or sandy. The interiors of the shells are iridescent, and vary greatly in tint, exhibiting many delicate shades of color from silvery white to straw color, pink, purple, brown, etc.

About five hundred species of American fresh-water mussels have been recognized by conchologists. Many of these differ from one another so very slightly that they are scarcely distinguishable from an examination of the shells themselves, or even from the descriptions, and a detailed index to the complete list is of little economic importance. The professional fishermen and the shell-buyers take the trouble to name only the species with which they deal, which includes only about twenty-five species, all of which are margaritiferous, though some to a greater extent than others. In the pearling regions a popular nomenclature exists, the names given by the fishermen having reference to the shape, color, etc.

The niggerhead (Quadrula ebena) is the most numerous in the Mississippi, and it is extensively used in button manufacture. The thick shell of this species is almost round, with a black outer surface and a pearly white interior. At maturity it averages about four inches in diameter and four ounces in weight. Owing to its uniform whiteness and the flatness of its surface, it is well adapted to button manufacture, and for this purpose more than twenty thousand tons are taken in the Mississippi Valley every year. When the fishery originated, the niggerhead was very abundant in some places, and especially between La Crosse and Burlington. From a single bed near New Boston, Illinois, measuring about 200 acres in area, 7500 tons, or about 70,000,000 individual shells, were removed in three years. In 1897, a bed of 320 acres near Muscatine furnished 500 tons, or about 4,750,000 shells. This species occasionally yields valuable pearls.

Two species of Unios, Quadrula undulata and Q. plicata, are known among the fishermen as “three-ridges.” The former is also known as the “blue-point” from the fact that the sharp edge is usually tinged faint blue on the inside. Although not the best for button manufacture, the shells yield the greatest number of pearls.

PINNA OR WING SHELL (Pinna seminuda)

One third natural size

PEARL-OYSTER OF CEYLON (Margaritifera vulgaris)

Natural size

73A species somewhat similar to the niggerhead is the bullhead (Pleurobema æsopus). This shell is thick and opaque, the nacre is not so iridescent as that of the niggerhead, nor does it yield pearls of such good quality. These two species are not evenly distributed over the bottom of the streams, but occur in great patches or beds, sometimes several feet in thickness and covering many hundreds of acres. Some of the beds are several miles in length, and they may be separated by twenty or thirty miles in which the mollusks are so scarce that profitable fishing can not be made; but usually the reefs are smaller and more closely situated.

The sand shells (Lampsilis)—of which there are several species—do not occur in large beds, but are scattered over the sandy beaches and sloping mud-banks. In shape they are narrow and long, adults measuring five or six inches in length. Owing to the small waste in cutting, due to uniformity in thickness, these shells are sold to button manufacturers for more than the niggerhead, which in turn is more valuable than the bullhead.

The buckhorn (Tritigonia verrucosa) is very long and narrow; on the dark brown exterior it is rough, as is the horn from which it takes its name, while the interior shows a beautiful display of colors. This is not found in beds, but lies scattered among other species. It sells at a relatively high price—usually in excess of $20 per ton—for button manufacture.

Another species is the butterfly (Plagiola securis), which is very prettily marked on the outside with faintly colored dotted stripes of varying length. Over a background of dark yellow run black stripes to the outer edge of the shell, with dark dots between the stripes. The shell is small and thick, and like the sand shell and the buckhorn, is found in small quantities. Owing to the beauty and permanency of its luster, this shell is in demand for button manufacture, and its pearls are often very beautiful.

Other well-known species are the pancake (Lampsilis alatus), the maple-leaf (Quadrula wardi), and hackle-back (Symphynota complanata). On the Atlantic seaboard, the principal species in which pearls have been found are Unio complanata; the Alasmodon arcuata, which has hinge teeth, and a species of Anodon. Pearls from the Unio complanata are usually smaller but more lustrous than those from either of the other species.

Among the many fresh-water mussels are found some remarkable conditions of animal life. Probably the most curious is the parasitic stage of certain species. When hatched from the egg, each one of these is provided with hooks or spines, by means of which it attaches itself to the gills or fins of a swimming fish and becomes embedded 74therein. After confinement in this cyst for a period of two months or more, the small mollusk works its way out and falls to the bottom of the river or pond, where its development continues along lines more conventional to molluscan life.

In most of the species of Unios the sexes are separate; but it has been determined that in some the individuals are provided with both sets of sexual organs. It is claimed by some naturalists that certain species may change from one sex to another; yet this does not seem to have been positively established.

Not the least interesting of the habits of the Unios is the manner in which they “walk,” bushels of them changing their habitation in a few hours. The shell opens slightly and the muscular tongue-like “foot” is thrust out, and by pressure of this on the bottom, the mollusk is propelled in a jerky, jumpy movement with more speed than one would suppose possible for the apparently inert creature.

The number of eggs produced by an individual in one season ranges from a few hundred in some species to many millions in others, as in the Quadrula heros, for instance. Most of the fresh-water mollusks are of slow growth, reaching maturity in six or eight years, and it is believed that if undisturbed they live to be from fifteen to fifty years old; indeed, some writers credit them with attaining an age of one hundred years.

While outwardly there is no positive indication of the existence of pearls, they are relatively scarce in young mollusks, and likewise in those having a normal, healthy appearance, with smooth exterior free from blemishes, and they are found generally in the older, irregular, and deformed shells, which bear excrescences and the marks of having parasites. However, some of the choicest pearls have come from shells relatively young and apparently in perfect condition.

It has been pointed out that with the fresh-water Unios there are three indications on which the fishermen to some extent rely for determining the presence of pearls from the outward aspects of the shell. There are, first, the thread or elevated ridge extending from the vertex to the edge; second, the kidney-shape of the shell, and third, the contortion of both valves toward the middle plane of the mollusk.

A single mollusk may contain several small pearls,—more than one hundred have been found,—but in such cases usually none has commercial value. Ordinarily only one is found in the examination of very many shells. Of these objects it may be truthfully said that “many are found, but few are chosen,” few that are of first quality or are worthy of a fine necklace. In many instances, several pounds of cheap pearls would be gladly exchanged for a choice gem weighing an equal number of grains.

75On the Atlantic seaboard of America, the Anodontas, or “mussels,” as they are known locally, are more numerous than the Unios. They prefer the still waters of the ponds and lakes, rather than the swift currents of the streams. The shell is much thinner than that of the Unios, and it is usually not so brilliant in color and iridescence; consequently the pearly concretions obtained from them are less lustrous.

The rivers of Europe, and of Asia also, contain numbers of pearl-bearing mussels. In many localities the yield of pearls has at times attracted attention and produced much profit, though probably never equaling the present extent of the Mississippi River finds. The principal pearl-bearer of Europe is the Unio margaritifera, the shell of which has been of some local importance in the manufacture of pearl buttons. In Great Britain it is known as the pearl-mussel; in France as the moule or huître perlière; in Germany as perlenmuschel; in Belgium as paarl mossel de rivieren; in Denmark as perle-skiael; in Sweden as perlmussla; in Russia as schemtschuschuaja rakavina, and in Finland as simpsuckan cuosi. The Unio margaritifera likewise exists in Siberia, and possibly elsewhere in Asia. Other species of Unio exist there and in Mongolia, Manchuria, etc., as, for instance, U. mongolicus, U. dahuricus, etc. A leading species in eastern China, the Dipsas plicatus, has long been extensively employed in the artificial production of pearly objects or culture pearls.[83] Unio pearls show less uniformity of tints than those derived from the pearl-oysters. They present an extended series of shades, corresponding to those on the interior of the shells, from almost perfect white through various tints of cream, pink, yellow, bright red, blue, green, russet, and brown. The metallic shades are numerous, especially the steels and the coppers.

Most of the members of the Mytilidæ family, which includes the marine mussels, are of slight luster; and the pearly concretions found in them are of the grade known as “druggists’ pearls,” so-called because, formerly, they were used in a powdered form in astringent and other medicines. However, some of these mussels on the European coast yield pearls that are fairly lustrous. The white and the pink are most numerous, but purple, red, bronze, and yellow are by no means uncommon.

A few pearls are also obtained from the sea-wings or wing-shells (Pinna), the silkworms of the sea, found in the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the southern coast of America, and elsewhere. These shells are narrow at the umbo, or hinge, long, and fan-shaped; they are generally brittle, and present a horn-like appearance. The interior is commonly of a silvery reddish or orange-colored hue, and this tint is imparted to the pearls. The most characteristic feature of the Pinna is the thick rope of silky fibers, from four to ten, 76and sometimes twenty or more inches in length, constituting the byssus, a remarkable provision by means of which it anchors itself to the bottom and thus outrides the storm. Formerly the byssus was gathered in Sicily, washed in soap and water, dried, corded, and fabricated into gloves and similar articles of a fine texture. The finished garments were of a beautiful golden brown color, resembling the burnished gold on the backs of some splendid flies or beetles.

The yield of Pinna pearls is very small. A few are obtained from the Mediterranean, especially on the Adriatic coast. These are usually rose-tinted or reddish in color, but of diminished orient, and inferior in size. Pinna pearls are also reported from the Isle of Pines and from New Caledonia, where they are commonly very dark, almost black in color.

The window-glass shell (Placuna placenta), the vitre chinoise of some writers, yields a few small, irregularly shaped pearls of a dull leaden color. It occurs in the inshore waters of the Indian and the southwestern Pacific oceans; fisheries are prosecuted in Tablegram Lake, near Trincomali, on the northeast coast of Ceylon; on the coast of Borneo, especially at Pados Bay, and to a less extent in some other localities. This mollusk is quite distinct from the true pearl-oyster, and in adult life is devoid of the byssus, living on the muddy bottom of the shallow waters. The shell is almost circular, the right valve is quite flat, and the left only slightly convex. It is remarkable for its transparency, especially in the first year of growth, when the beating of the heart of the mollusk is visible through it. Reaching maturity in about two years, the shell becomes white and translucent, resembling pressed isinglass somewhat in its texture. It then measures about six or seven inches in length, and nearly the same in width. The outside is rough; the interior is glazed over and has a subdued pearly luster. It is so thin and transparent that with a strong light very coarse print can be read through it. It is commonly used in the East Indies as a substitute for glass in windows, admitting a soft mellow light into the room. For this purpose it is usually cut into small rectangular or diamond-shaped pieces, about five or six square inches in area, and these are inserted into sash frames. It forms a good economical substitute for glass, not only in windows of native residences, but also in lanterns and the like.


(Strombus gigas)

Of Florida and the West Indies

77The giant clam (Tridacna gigas) of tropical waters yields a few large opal-white symmetrical pearls, with faint luster and of little value. The transversely oval shell of the Tridacna, with its great squamous ribs, is probably the largest and heaviest in existence, single pairs weighing upward of 500 pounds. It is found in tropical seas, and especially in the Indian Ocean. It is much used for ornament, particularly for fountain-basins, and for bénitiers, or holy-water fonts. A beautiful pair used as bénitiers in the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris is said to have been a gift of the Republic of Venice to Francis I. There seems to be no established fishery for this mollusk, and the pearls very rarely come on the market. About four years ago in New York City an effort was made to market one weighing about 200 grains. The owner represented that it was a “cocoanut pearl,” and offered to sell it for $2000; whereas its actual value was probably not over $10 or $20, and that only for a museum collection.

Pearls of slight luster also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black, or black. The white ones—which so nearly resemble ivory buttons as readily to pass for them at a casual glance—are of little value; but fine dark ones have retailed at from $10 to $100 each. There is little demand for them, for unless the color is very good, they possess slight beauty, lacking the orient peculiar to choice pearls. Pearls have also been reported from the edible clam of the Pacific coast of America.

Shelly concretions are found in the edible oyster of America (Ostrea virginica), as well as in that of Europe (O. edulis); but these are commonly objects of personal interest or of local curiosity, rather than of artistic or commercial value, as they are lacking in luster and iridescence. Most of them are dull or opal-white, some are purple, and a few are white on one side and purple on the other. As many as fifty of these formations have been found in a single oyster. Sometimes they are of odd appearance, suggesting the human eye or face, and recently one was found which bore a striking resemblance to a human skull. Notwithstanding many news items to the contrary, it is doubtful whether the choicest pearl from an edible oyster would sell for as high as $20 on its own merits; professional shuckers have opened thousands of bushels of oysters without finding one which would sell for ten cents.

Among univalves, the most prominent pearl-producer is probably the common conch or great conch (Strombus gigas) of the West Indies and the Florida coast, which secretes beautiful pink pearls of considerable value. This is one of the largest of the univalve shells, some individuals measuring twelve inches in length, and weighing five or six pounds. The graceful curves and the delicate tints of lovely pink color make it exceedingly attractive. The conch abounds in the waters of the West Indies, especially in the Bahamas, where many 78thousands are annually taken for the shell, which forms quite an article of commerce. The flesh is esteemed as food and is also used for bait; and it is particularly in preparing for these purposes that the pearls are found, as no established fisheries exist for the pearls alone.

The ear-shells or abalones (Haliotidæ) found on the coasts of California, Japan, New Zealand, and other localities in the Pacific, secrete pearly concretions, sometimes with fine luster, but usually of small value. These shells resemble in general outline the form of the human ear. Distinguishing characteristics are the flatly-spiral bowl-like shape, and the regular series of holes in the back near the distal margin, for the admission of water to the respiratory organs. The holes are on the left side and parallel with the columellar lip, and those nearest the apex close up as the shell increases in size. The shells are rough externally, but beautifully nacreous within. In variety and intensity of coloring, the nacre is superior to that of the pearl-oysters, but it is not so harmonious, and it does not form so thick and flat a layer.

Abalone pearls are especially interesting on account of their brilliant and unusual colors. Green predominates, but blue and yellow also occur. Although commonly very small, some of the well formed ones exceed seventy-five grains in weight, and those of irregular shape may be very much larger. The ear-shells also produce many irregular pearly masses. Although these are without an established commercial value, their beautiful greenish or bluish tints adapt them for artistic jeweled objects, such as the body of a fly or of a beetle.

Similar concretions are found in species of turbos and turbinella, especially the Indian chank (Turbinella rapa), which yields pink and pale red pearls. The pearly nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) yields a few yellowish pearls, especially those taken in Australian waters; but from the paper nautilus—“the sea-born sailor of his shell canoe”—no pearls are obtained, owing to the non-lustrous nature of the shell.

In bygone days, especially in Asia, and also to some extent in Europe, pearls were credited as coming from many non-molluscan sources. The Rabbis had the idea that they came also from fish, as noted in the story of a tailor who was rewarded by finding a pearl in one which he bought (Gen. R. xi. 5). The Raganighantu of Narahari, a Kashmir physician of about 1240 A.D., reported them as coming from bamboos, cocoanuts, heads of elephants, bears, serpents, whales, fish, etc.;[84] although it conceded that these were deficient in luster, which is recognized as the characteristic feature of pearls. We understand, therefore, that this use of the word signifies only 79hard concretions of a spherical form. In the apology for his book, prison-bound Bunyan wrote:

A pearl may in a toad’s head dwell,
And may be found in an oyster shell.

The crystal gems—the diamonds, rubies, etc.—are practically unlimited in their longevity, existing thousands of years unchanged in condition. Except those which have been discovered by man, the earth contains about as many as it ever did, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that in course of time a considerable percentage of the total will be discovered. But in the seas as well as in the rivers, the longevity of pearls is greatly restricted, and

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear[85]

to run their course of existence and decay unseen and unknown. Perishable while in the seas, almost as cereals and fruits on land, the harvest must be gathered with promptness or it is wasted. And it seems probable that only a small percentage of the beautiful gems produced in the waters have gladdened the sight of man.

With considerable hesitancy we have attempted to estimate the number of persons employed in the pearl fisheries of the world, and the aggregate local value of their catch. For two or three regions, this is not a matter of great difficulty. For instance, the divers employed in the Ceylon fishery are numbered each season, and the auction sales of their catch furnish a reasonably satisfactory basis for determining the value of the output. Likewise in Australia, Venezuela, and some minor localities, the fishermen are numbered; but the reports are less satisfactory as to the value of the pearls. In the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Gulf of California, and the islands of the Pacific, where pearl-diving is a profession and a regular source of livelihood, the number of employees is fairly constant. But in the rivers and ponds of America, as well as of Europe and of Asia, where neither experience nor costly equipment is required for the industry, and pearls to the value of very many thousands of dollars are obtained by men, women, and even children, on pleasure bent, as well as in the widely fluctuating professional fisheries, the problem is far more difficult.

Contending with these many difficulties, we venture to present the following estimate of the number of persons employed in the pearl fisheries of the world, and the value of the output in 1906.

Localities. Fishermen No. Pearls Local Values. Shells Local Values.
  Persian Gulf 35,000 $4,000,000 $110,000
  Ceylon[86] 18,500 1,200,000 40,000
  India 1,250 100,000 95,000
  Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, etc.[87] 3,000 200,000 150,000
  China, Japan, Siberia, etc. 20,000 400,000 50,000

  Total 77,750 $5,900,000 $445,000
  British Isles 200 15,000  
  Continent of Europe 1,000 100,000 3,000

  Total 1,200 $115,000 $3,000
Islands of the Pacific:      
  South Sea islands 4,500 125,000 500,000
  Australian coast[88] 6,250 450,000 1,200,000
  Malay Archipelago 5,000 300,000 800,000

  Total 15,750 $875,000 $2,500,000
  United States rivers 8,500 650,000 350,000
  Venezuela 1,900 275,000 10,000
  Mexico 1,250 210,000 200,000
  Panama 400 40,000 75,000
  Miscellaneous 1,000 75,000 25,000

  Total 13,050 $1,250,000 $660,000

  Grand total 107,750 $8,140,000 $3,608,000

Our returns do not represent the annual output of pearls in the values best known to gem buyers. The difference in price between pearls in the fisherman’s hands in the Persian Gulf or at the Pacific islands, and that for which they are exchanged over the counters in New York or Paris, is nearly as great as the difference in value of wool on the sheep’s back and of the same material woven into fashionable fabrics. For each dollar received by the fisherman, the retail buyer probably pays three; and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the pearls herein represented probably sold ultimately for an aggregate of $24,420,000.

This summary falls far short in giving a correct idea of the importance of the pearl fisheries in furnishing a livelihood to humanity; for it takes no consideration of that great body of men who contribute incidentally to the prosecution of the fisheries, such as shell-openers, 81pearl-washers, watchmen, cooks, laborers, etc. In the Ceylon pearl fishery of 1906, for instance, our estimate shows 18,500 fishermen; but there were 40,000 persons engaged at the pearl camp alone, and many others were given employment in boat-building, supplying provisions, selling the pearls, etc., and this does not include the wives and children depending on the industry for sustenance. Indeed, it seems not unreasonable to estimate that instead of only the 18,500 fishermen, 85,000 persons were in a large measure dependent for their livelihood on the Ceylon fishery in 1906.

Estimated on the same basis, we have a total of 500,000 persons depending largely on the pearl fisheries of the world for their support. Thus we see that pearl buyers and pearl wearers not only gratify a commendable admiration for the beautiful, but contribute largely to the economic balance whereby one class of humanity either sustains or is dependent upon another, even though these classes be so widely separated as the crown of Russia from the half-starved diver of the tropical seas. How strange is the providence of God, who, by granting the pearl to the poor Arab, the Tamil of India, the South Sea Islander, and the forgotten Selang of Mergui, makes the greatest and wealthiest in the world contribute to their support.



Dear as the wet diver to the eyes
Of his pale wife, who waits and weeps on shore,
By sands of Bahrein in the Persian Gulf;
Plunging all day in the blue waves; at night,
Having made up his toll of precious pearls,
Rejoins her in their hut upon the shore.
Sir Edwin Arnold.

The pearl fisheries of the Persian Gulf are the most famous and valuable in the world, and have been prosecuted for more than two thousand years. A translation by that eminent Assyriologist, Jules Oppert, of a cuneiform inscription on a broken obelisk, erected presumably by a king of Nineveh, seems to indicate a very early origin for these fisheries.[89] Professor Oppert’s translation is:

In the sea of the changeable winds (i.e., the Persian Gulf),
his merchants fished for pearls;
In the sea where the North Star culminates,
they fished for yellow amber.

The earliest writing of Europeans on the East refer to these fisheries. An account of them was given by the Greek writer Megasthenes, who accompanied Seleucus Nicator, the Macedonian general, in his Asiatic conquests, about 307 B.C. Shortly afterward they were noted by the Greek historian, Isidorus of Charace, in his account of the Parthian Empire. Extracts from Nearchus preserved by Arrian also mention them. Ptolemy speaks of the pearl fisheries which existed from time immemorial at Tylos, the Roman name for the present Island of Bahrein. These resources were well known in the days of Pliny. In his “Historia Naturalis,” Book IX, ch. 35, he says: “But the most perfect and exquisite [pearls] of all others be they that are gotten about Arabia, within the Persian Gulf.”[90] Pliny states also 86(Book VI, ch. 25) that Catifa (El Katiff), on the Arabian coast opposite Bahrein, was the center of an important fishery.

In the ninth century these fisheries were noted by Massoudi, one of the earliest Arabian geographers.[91] In the latter part of the twelfth century they were visited and described by the Spanish-Hebrew traveler, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela.[92] The Arabian traveler, Ibn Batuta, wrote of them about 1336.[93] In 1508 they were noted in the account of Lodovico Barthema’s expedition to the Island of Ormus. According to him:

At three days’ journey from this island they fished the largest pearls which are found in the world; and whoever wishes to know about it, behold! There are certain fishermen who go there in small boats and cast into the water two large stones attached to ropes, one at the bow, the other at the stern of each boat to stay it in place. Then one of the fishermen hangs a sack from his neck, attaches a large stone to his feet, and descends to the bottom—about fifteen paces under water, where he remains as long as he can, searching for oysters which bear pearls, and puts as many as he finds into his sack. When he can remain no longer, he casts off the stone attached to his feet, and ascends by one of the ropes fastened to the boat. There are so many connected with the business that you will often see 300 of these little boats which come from many countries.[94]

Shortly following the visit of Barthema, the Portuguese under Albuquerque took possession of the principal ports of the Persian Gulf, and they imposed heavy taxes on the pearl fishery throughout the century of their retention. While under their jurisdiction, the fisheries were visited and described by J. H. van Linschoten in 1596, who wrote:

The principall and the best that are found in all the Orientall Countries, and the right Orientall pearles, are between Ormus and Bassora in the straights, or Sinus Persicus, in the places called Bareyn, Catiffa, Julfar, Camaron, and other places in the said Sinus Persicus, from whence they are brought into Ormus. The king of Portingale hath also his factor in Bareyn, that stayeth there onlie for the fishing of pearles. There is great trafficke used with them, as well in Ormus as in Goa.[95]

Cargo boat in pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf

Huts of mats and palm leaves, the homes of the pearl fishermen at Menamah, Bahrein Islands, Persian Gulf

87This was the Ormus where the treasures of the Orient were gathered in abundance, the half-way house between the East and the West, making it one of the greatest emporia of the world. So renowned was its wealth and commerce that it was a saying among the Portuguese, were the whole world a golden ring, Ormus would be the jeweled signet. It was built on an island, supported a population of 40,000 persons, and was particularly well situated as a distributing point for the pearls, which enriched the argosies of Portugal, and contributed so largely to

the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Show’rs on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

which Milton celebrates in “Paradise Lost.” This wonderful Ormus, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries one of the wealthiest places in the world, is now only a fishing village of less than a hundred huts.

It was at Ormus, nearly a century later, in 1670, that the shrewd old jewel merchant, Tavernier, whose acquaintance with gems doubtless equaled that of any man of his time, saw what he called “the most beautiful pearl in the world”; not so much for its size, for it weighed only 48¼ grains, nor for its regularity in form, but because of its most wonderful luster.[96]

In describing the fisheries, which had been retaken by the Persians in 1622, Tavernier wrote in 1670, according to Ball’s translation:

There is a pearl fishery round the island of Bahren, in the Persian Gulf. It belongs to the King of Persia, and there is a good fortress there, where a garrison of 300 men is kept.... When the Portuguese held Hormuz [Ormus] and Muscat, each boat which went to fish was obliged to take out a license from them, which cost fifteen abassis [$5.45], and many brigantines were maintained there, to sink those who were unwilling to take out licenses. But since the Arabs have retaken Muscat, and the Portuguese are no longer supreme in the Gulf, every man who fishes pays to the King of Persia only five abassis, whether his fishing is successful or not. The merchant also pays the king something small for every 1,000 oysters. The second pearl fishery is opposite Bahren, on the coast of Arabia Felix, close to the town of El Katif, which, with all the neighboring country, belongs to an Arab prince.[97]

During the century following Tavernier’s time, the fisheries were vigorously prosecuted, owing to the impoverished condition of the reefs in India and America, and to the large demand for pearls, not only by the Oriental courts, but by the wealth and fashion of Europe. Except for the last four years, when the Ceylon fishery was very productive, throughout the eighteenth century the Persian Gulf was almost the only important source of supply for pearls. For several years following the reopening of the Ceylon fishery in 1796, that region 88diverted some of the attention which the Persian waters had been receiving, but it was not long before these regained their ascendancy.

In 1838, Lieutenant J. R. Wellsted, an officer in the British India service, reported that the fisheries of the gulf employed 4300 boats, manned by somewhat more than 30,000 men.[98] Of these boats, 3500 were from the Island of Bahrein, 100 from the Persian coast, and the remaining 700 from the Pirate Coast situated between Bahrein and the entrance to the Gulf of Oman. Lieutenant Wellsted estimated the value of the pearls secured annually as approximately £400,000, which is somewhat less than the average value of the output in recent years.

Twenty-seven years later, according to Sir Lewis Pelly,[99] who was in the Indian service from 1851 to 1877, there were 1500 boats at Bahrein, and the annual return from the whole fishery was £400,000, the same as previously reported by Wellsted. In 1879, the value of the output was estimated at £600,000 by the British Resident, Colonel Ross, and at £800,000 by Captain L. E. Durand, of the British Protectorate of the Persian Gulf. Owing to the increased market value, the average output in the last five years has amounted to approximately four million dollars annually. This refers to the local value only, which is greatly increased by the time the pearls leave the markets in Bombay and Bagdad.

The Persian Gulf is nearly 600 miles long, with an average width of somewhat more than 100 miles. The Strait of Ormus—thirty to sixty miles wide—connects it with the Gulf of Oman, which opens directly into the Arabian Sea. The depth of water rarely exceeds thirty fathoms. Oyster reefs are well distributed throughout the gulf, and are in greatest abundance on the Arab side between the 24th and 27th degrees of north latitude and the 50th and 54th degrees of east longitude, at a distance of from a few hundred yards to sixty miles from the shore, and especially in the vicinity of the Bahrein Islands. The oysters are scattered over level areas of coral rock and sand, with depths ranging from two to eighteen fathoms.[100] The divers rarely descend in deeper water than twelve fathoms, notwithstanding that valuable pearls are apparently obtainable at greater depths.

Although the British Protectorate extends over the Persian Gulf, insuring the peaceful prosecution of the fisheries and the settlement of intertribal contentions by the government resident, the fisheries are under the regulations of the maritime Arab sheiks. The restrictions imposed by these, however, are principally with a view to collecting a revenue from each boat employed. The total amount realized thereby is unknown, but there is good reason for supposing that it is considerable.

AGHA MOHAMMED (1666–1725)

Founder of the present Persian dynasty

From a Persian manuscript in the library of Robert Hoe, Esq.

SHAH SULAIMAN (1647–1694)

From a Persian manuscript in the library of Robert Hoe, Esq.

89The fisheries are carried on during the greater part of every year, presenting a strong contrast to the Ceylon fishery, which is prosecuted usually less than forty days, and in only about one year in three on an average. This is especially remarkable when it is considered that no particular care is taken of the Persian reefs and, except for certain tribal restrictions, the fishermen may work whenever and wherever they choose. Owing to the extended area over which the fishing is prosecuted and the existence of undisturbed breeding-oysters in the deeper waters, the reefs are not readily exhausted, notwithstanding the tens of millions of mollusks annually removed therefrom.

The fisheries are at their height from June to September, when nearly every person on the coast is interested in some capacity, if not in fishing, at least in furnishing supplies, cleaning shells, buying pearls, etc. In April and May the water on the deep banks is so cold that the fishermen confine their efforts to the more shallow areas. During the winter months, the cold weather and the northwesterly gales interfere with the work, except such as is prosecuted in the smaller bays and inlets.

The pearling operations are financed mostly by Indian bunnias, or traders, principally from Bombay, who furnish capital for equipment, supplies of food, etc., and who purchase the pearls in gross lots. These men bear very hard on the fishermen, furnishing the supplies and buying the pearls almost at their own prices; and the poor divers who explore the depths and secure the pearls derive from their exertions little more than the crudest necessaries of life, and are usually in debt to the traders.

The actual fishing operations are carried on mainly by the maritime tribes of Hasa and Oman, including those on the Pirate Coast. The inhabitants of the Bahrein Islands and the adjacent shores have been devoted to pearling from time immemorial; but the Wahabis of the Pirate Coast—the Ichthyophagi of Ptolemy’s time—have more recently, under the persuasive influence of British gunboats and magazine-rifles, substituted pearling for their two-century inherited life of fanatical piracy. Referring to these people in his quaint sketches of Persia eighty years ago, Sir John Malcolm wrote: “Their occupation is piracy, and their delight murder, and to make it worse they give you the most pious reasons for every villainy they commit. They abide by the letter of the sacred volume, rejecting all commentaries and traditions. If you are their captive and offer all to save your life, they say, “No! It is written in the Koran that it is not lawful to plunder the living; but we are not prohibited from stripping the dead. So 90saying they knock you on the head.”[101] Most of the Wahabi pearlers congregate in the mat-hut settlements of Dobai, Abu Thubi, and Ras-el-Kheima, located at the mouths of creeks which form fairly good harbors for the small boats. The Batina coast also furnishes some pearl fishermen, these coming principally from Fujaira, Shenas, Sohar, Suaik, and Sib.

The headquarters for the pearling fleet are at Bahrein Island, the largest of the insular group bearing the same name, the islets of Moharrek, Sitrah, and Nissan completing the group. This is the early home of Chaldean civilization, and one of the traditional sources of the Phenicians, and whence came that fish-god who—according to the Babylonian myth—bore the ark over the deluge. This island, the center of the greatest pearl fishery in the world, is half way down on the southern side of the Persian Gulf, and twenty miles from the mainland of “Araby the blest.” It is about twenty-eight miles in length, and ten in width at the widest part. The population approximates 60,000, all Moslems, except about 100 Banyan traders from Sindh, India. The northern half of the island is described as of great beauty, being a garden of pomegranate, lemon, citron, and quince-trees, and especially the magnificent date-palms, with numerous springs furnishing an abundance of excellent fresh water. The principal settlement, Manama, with about 10,000 inhabitants, is poorly built, the houses consisting mostly of huts of mats and palm leaves; yet it presents a better appearance than any other settlement along this coast.

The one great industry, and the center of all interest throughout this region, is the pearl fishery. The present conditions are precisely as Palgrave wrote in 1863: “It is from the sea, not from the land, that the natives subsist; and it is also mainly on the sea that they dwell, passing amid its waters the one half of the year in search of pearls, the other half in fishery or trade. Hence their real homes are the countless boats which stud the placid pool, or stand drawn up in long black lines on the shore, while little care is taken to ornament their land houses, the abodes of their wives and children at most, and the unsightly strong boxes of their treasures. ‘We are all, from the highest to the lowest, slaves of one master—Pearl,’ said Mohammed bin Thanee to me one evening; nor was the expression out of place. All thought, all conversation, all employment, turns on that one subject; everything else is merely by-game, and below even secondary consideration.”[102]


91According to recent returns, the Persian Gulf fisheries employ about 3500 boats,[103] large and small, of which 1200 of the best are owned at Bahrein, 700 on the coast of El Hassa from El Katar to Kuweit, and the remaining 1600 are from various parts of the gulf, and especially from the Pirate Coast east of El Katar. They measure from one to fifty tons. The smaller ones, with three to fifteen men each, work near the shores; the larger, carrying fifteen to thirty men, fish over the whole gulf, remaining out for weeks at a time. These craft are very picturesque with their artistic rigs and spoon-shaped sails, and when the fishery is at its height the scene is one of rare interest. The boats from Bahrein are of excellent construction made by native workmen using local materials, with home-woven sailcloth and rigging of twisted date-fiber. Each of the larger ones usually evidences a lingering trace of Semitic influence in its kubait, or figurehead, covered with skin of the sheep or goat sacrificed in the launching ceremonies.[104] The boats from El Hassa and the Pirate Coast are usually smaller and less substantial than those from Bahrein, the fishermen from the latter place far surpassing those of the mainland in civilization and industrial wealth.

The fleet is manned by approximately 35,000 fishermen. In addition to the nakhoda, or captain, who is often the owner of the boat, the crew consists of ghoas or divers, who are mainly Arabs and Sedees, and sebs, or rope-tenders, who are usually Bedouins or Persians and attend the divers and perform other duties. Many Hindus from India, and flat-nosed, sable-hued Negroes from the east coast of Africa find employment here. On each of the larger boats is a general utility man, known as el musully, literally the “prayer-man,” who, in addition to various other duties, relieves those sebs who stop to pray.

Among the fishermen are all types and classes to be met with in this part of the world, with the usual contingent of the lame, the halt, and the blind. There are a number of fishermen who have been maimed and mutilated by shark bites. A surprisingly large number of men who have become totally blind engage in diving, and they usually do fairly well where the oysters are abundant on the reefs. And one or two unfortunate divers are reported who continue the work even though handicapped by the loss both of a leg and of eyesight, this interfering less with their diving than with their movements on land.

The fishery in this region owes absolutely nothing to modern civilization in the method of securing the pearls from the depth of the sea; it is carried on to-day practically as it was six hundred years ago, and probably has been without important variation for two thousand years. 92Aside from a loin-cloth, the diver is devoid of clothing except that rarely, early in the season when polypi abound, he is enveloped in a cotton overall as a protection. Over each finger and thumb he wears a shield or stall (khubaat, or finger-hat), about two inches long, made of flexible leather, to protect the fingers from the sharp shells and coral-growths. As each fisherman usually wears out at least two sets of these shields each season, it will be seen that a very large quantity of them is required to supply the entire fleet.

The divers use stones on which they descend feet foremost. Although this is less spectacular than the method of diving practised by the natives of the South Sea islands, it enables the fisherman to reach the bottom more speedily and with far less effort. The diving-stones range in weight from thirty to fifty pounds each, depending largely on the depth of water and the weight of the fisherman. They are somewhat oval in shape, and have one end perforated to admit a rope. Immediately above the attachment is formed a loop, resembling a stirrup, to receive the diver’s foot. When prepared for the day’s work, each stone is suspended by a stout rope over outriggers projecting from the side of the boat, and by a slip-knot is temporarily held four and a half or five feet below the surface of the water. A very stout diver may have a stone affixed to his waist to overcome his greater buoyancy. Usually two divers use one stone together and descend alternately. Each one has an attendant in the boat who assists him in ascending, and looks after the ropes, baskets of shells, etc.

In preparing for descent, the fisherman takes hold of the rope from which the diving stone is suspended, puts one foot in the loop just above the stone and places the other foot in the rim of a net basket, eighteen inches wide, made of coir rope. When ready, he signals his attendant, inhales several good breaths, closes his nostrils with a fitaam or nostril-clasp of flexible horn attached to a cord around his neck, raises his body somewhat above the surface to give force to the descent, releases the slip-knot retaining the stone, and sinks rapidly to the bottom. Immediately disengaging his foot from the stone, he throws himself in a stooping position on the ground and collects as many oysters as possible during the fifty seconds or more in which he is able to remain under water. When near his limit of endurance, he hastily gives a signal jerk to the rope attached to the basket, and the watchful attendant hauls him up as speedily as possible, the diver frequently quickening the ascent by hand over hand movement up the rope. When near the surface, he lets go of the rope and with his arms close to his body pops above the surface puffing and blowing. The contents of the net bag are emptied into a large basket by the attendant, and the dead shells and other refuse are separated from the live 93oysters and thrown back into the sea, the diver having worked too rapidly at the bottom to discriminate closely as to what he gathered.

In the meantime, the stone has been drawn up and suspended by the slip-knot in its customary position and the diving partner is resting at the surface preparatory to descending. Thus, diving alternately at intervals of five or six minutes, each fisherman descends thirty or forty times in an ordinary day’s work. The number of oysters gathered at each descent depends on such conditions as their abundance, the depth and clearness of the water, etc. It ranges from none to fifty or more, but ordinarily ten or twelve is a good average. As the men commonly work on shares, the shells brought up by each diver or by each pair of divers are kept separate.

The best type of Arab divers are very careful of themselves, drying the body thoroughly with towels on coming out of the water, taking intervals of rest during the day’s work; and even while in the water between dives they may enjoy the luxury of a cheroot or pipe, or possibly a cigarette may pass from mouth to mouth of several men.

When pursuing their work, the divers are abstemious. After devotions at sunrise and a light breakfast of perhaps dates or rice and coffee, they begin fishing. About noon they knock off for coffee, prayers, and an hour’s siesta, and then resume work for several hours. When the day’s work is over and they have faced Meccaward with the customary prayers, they rest and eat a substantial meal, commonly of dates and fish roasted over a charcoal fire.

In equal depths the Arab fishermen remain under water longer than those of India who resort to the Ceylon fishery, but this is partly counterbalanced by the latter descending somewhat more frequently. When preparing for a lengthy dive, the fisherman imbibes large quantities of air, opening his mouth and inhaling large volumes.

The length of time a diver remains submerged in the average depth of seven or eight fathoms rarely exceeds sixty seconds, although some may remain seventy, eighty, and even ninety seconds on special occasion. A fully substantiated instance is reported from Manaar of an Arab diver having remained 109 seconds in seven fathoms of water. This occurred April 13, 1887, and was witnessed and reported[105] by Captain James Donnan, the inspector of the fishery. Wellsted reports[106] a diving contest in the Persian Gulf in which only one man, of the hundreds who competed, remained down 110 seconds; the depth, however, is not noted.

There are numerous reports of much longer stays than these; indeed, 94a study of the published evidence bearing upon the subject furnishes surprising results. Ribeiro wrote, in 1685, that a diver could remain below while two credos were repeated: “Il s’y tient l’espace de deux credo.[107] In his interesting account of the Ceylon fishery, Percival stated that the usual length of time for divers to remain under water “does not much exceed two minutes, yet there are instances known of divers who could remain four or even five minutes, which was the case with a Caffre boy the last year I visited the fishery. The longest instance ever known was of a diver who came from Anjango in 1797, and who absolutely remained under water full six minutes.”[108] Le Beck says, that in 1797, he saw a diver from Karikal remain down for the space of seven minutes.[109] The merchant traveler, Jean Chardin, reported in 1711 that the divers remain up to seven and a half minutes under water: “Les plongeurs qui pêchent les perles sont quelquefois jusqu’à demi-quart-d’heure sous l’eau.[110]

In 1667, the Royal Society of London addressed an inquiry on this subject to Sir Philiberto Vernatti, the British Resident at Batavia in the East Indies. Vernatti’s reply gave certain details regarding the Ceylon fishery, but did not touch upon the length of diving because, as he stated, he could not “meet with any one that can satisfy me, and being unsatisfied myself, I cannot nor will obtrude anything upon you which may hereafter prove fabulous; but shall still serve you with truth.”[111] Two years later, and presumably after investigation, Vernatti reported: “The greatest length of time that pearl-divers in these parts can continue under water is about a quarter of an hour; and that by no other means than custom; for pearl-diving lasts not above six weeks, and the divers stay a great while longer at the end of the season than at the beginning.”[112]

Photograph, Underwood & Underwood, N. Y.


Wearing the Kajar crown

95The anatomist Diemerbroeck relates[113] the case of a pearl diver who, under his own observation, remained half an hour at a time under water while pursuing his work; and this was seriously adopted without comment by John Mason Goode in his “Study of Medicine.”[114] Ibn Batuta, “the Doctor of Tangier,” wrote about 1336 that “some remain down an hour, others two hours, others less.”[115] A still earlier writer, Jouchanan ibn Masouiah,[116] in his book on stones, states that “the diver, when he dives, places upon his nose a masfâsa lest water should enter into him, and breathes through the fissure, and remains under water for half an hour.” According to Sebaldus Rau[117] this masfâsa was an article resembling a hood or cap, which the diver placed over his nose. It was made of some impervious material and had a projection so long that it reached to the surface of the water. The same writer believes that this object was alluded to by Aristotle (“De part. animal.,” Lib. II, c. 16), where he likens the trunk of the elephant to the instrument used by certain divers for aiding their respiration, so that they could remain longer in the water and draw in air from above the surface.[118] And here we cease pursuit of further records, lest our faith in recorded testimony be too severely tested.[119]

A superficial inspection of the above evidence, from the one or two hours noted by Ibn Batuta about the year 1336, to the half an hour of Diemerbroeck in 1672, the quarter of an hour of Vernatti in 1669, the seven and one half minutes of Chardin in 1711, the six minutes of Percival in 1803, to the 110 seconds of the present time, seems to indicate very clearly a gradual but somewhat remarkable decrease in the ability of the Asiatic divers, and that the pearl fishermen of the present day are very different creatures from their ancestors. And especially is this so when it is considered that the above records are not isolated reports selected for the particular purpose of showing a decrease in the length of diving; on the contrary they are authoritative and representative publications of their respective periods. We do not recall having seen in any report issued previous to 1675, an intimation that the limit of time was less than ten minutes.

However, a careful consideration of the subject leads to the belief that there has been no serious decrease in the length of time that the Arab and Indian divers remain under water, and that either the writers were misinformed or that the individual cases reported were extremely exceptional. Ibn Batuta’s instance of one to two hours 96could easily be caused by a mistake in copying Arabic manuscript, or in the translation. The case related by Diemerbroeck in which a pearl diver remained submerged half an hour, is more perplexing, especially as the physician reports that this was done under his own observation. The numerous reports of five or six minutes may have been based on a very exceptional case.

These statements are viewed as highly incredible by men who have spent scores of years at the fisheries. A man may remain submerged for several minutes, but the conditions are vastly different from the activities of pearl-gathering at a depth of ten fathoms, where the pressure of the water is nearly thirty pounds to the square inch, and the slightest exercise is fatiguing. Unless the time is taken by a watch, it is easy to overestimate the stay; the seconds pass very slowly when one is waiting momentarily for the appearance of the diver’s head above the water, and certainly to the nearly exhausted fisherman with straining chest and palpitating heart, the last few seconds must seem extremely long indeed. An instance is noted in which an Arab diver remained submerged seventy-one seconds, and on his reappearance, naïvely inquired if he had not been down ten minutes. It seems doubtful whether the 110 seconds herein noted has been greatly exceeded, in recent years at least, by Arab or Indian divers, who do not appear to equal the semi-amphibious natives of the South Sea islands in their exploits.

One of the most curious features of the pearling industry is the manner in which the fishermen secure supplies of drinking water. In the vicinity of Bahrein, numerous fresh-water springs exist at the bottom of the gulf in depths of two or three fathoms, and the fishermen dive into the depth of the salt water down to where the fresh water is springing forth and there fill a skin or other suitable receptacle which they bring to the surface. By running a pipe down near the bottom in the vicinity of one of these springs, an abundance of fresh water may be pumped into the boat.

Three species—or at least three varieties—of pearl-bearing oysters are obtained in the Persian Gulf. These are known locally as mahar, sudaifee, and zinni. Of these, the mahar or Lingah oyster, which corresponds to the Ceylon pearl-oyster, yields the greatest quantity of pearls, and those of the finest quality. It measures three or three and a half inches in diameter, and is found in deeper water than the others. The sudaifee and the zinni, which are larger, yield pearls in much smaller quantities than the mahar.

On large boats, which remain out for two or three weeks at a time, the oysters are left on deck overnight, and the following morning they are opened by means of a curved knife (miflaket), four or five inches 97in length. The smaller boats working near shore convey the catch to the land for the opening and searching for pearls.

The Persian Gulf pearls are commonly not so white as those from Ceylon, but they are found of larger size, and it is believed in Asia that they retain their luster for a greater length of time. Many of the Persian Gulf pearls, especially those from sudaifee and zinni shells, have a distinctly yellow color. Tavernier made a curious explanation of this. He stated:

As for the pearls tending to yellow, the color is due to the fact that the fishermen sell the oysters in heaps, and the merchants awaiting sometimes up to 14 or 15 days till the shells open of themselves, in order to extract the pearls, some of these oysters lose their water during this time, decay, and become putrid, and the pearls become yellow by contact. This is so true that in all oysters which have retained their water, the pearls are always white. They are allowed to open of themselves, because if they are opened by force, as we open our oysters in the shell, the pearls may be damaged and broken. The oysters of the Manar Strait open of themselves, 5 or 6 days sooner than those of the Gulf of Persia, because the heat is much greater at Manar, which is at the tenth degree of North latitude, while the island of Bahrein is at about the twenty-seventh. And consequently among the pearls which come from Manar there are few yellow ones found.[120]

Tavernier was more familiar with the pearls themselves than with the methods of the fishery. The yellow color is not due to contact with the putrefactive flesh, and is independent of the manner of opening. In fact, if putrefaction caused the yellow color, this shade would be far more prevalent in the Manaar or Ceylon pearls than in those from Bahrein, for practically all of the Ceylon oysters are permitted to putrefy, whereas only a portion of those in the Persian Gulf are opened in this manner. Furthermore, notwithstanding that it is nearer the equator, the heat at Manaar during the pearling season is not to be compared with that at Bahrein when the season is at its height, for the Persian Gulf during July and August is notorious as one of the hottest places on the globe.

While the great bulk of the pearls are either white or yellowish, these fisheries yield a few pink, bluish, gray, and occasionally even black pearls. These unusual colors are not especially prized. A curious and remarkably detailed story has gone the rounds in which the qualities of Persian and Ceylon pearls are compared, to the disparagement of the latter, and during the last hundred years few accounts have been published of this fishery without recording it. We notice it first in Morier’s “Journey through Persia in 1808 and 1809,”[121] but 98possibly it antedated that report. The statement is that the pearls of Ceylon peel off, while those of Persia are as “firm as the rock on which they grow”; and though they lose in color and luster one per cent. annually for fifty years, they still lose less than those of Ceylon, and at the expiration of the fifty years they cease to diminish in appearance.

The pearl output in the Persian Gulf at the present time appears from the official returns to exceed four million dollars annually at local valuation. The exports in 1903 were reported at £827,447, and in 1904, £1,077,241. It is generally understood that all of the pearls are not entered in the official figures, and the valuations in the markets of Asia and Europe are greatly in excess of these amounts. The profits of the fishery are divided among a great number of persons. A large percentage goes to the shrewd bunnias from India, who finance the fishery operations, and who, by all sorts of tricks connected with advances of supplies, valuation of the catch, etc., manage to make a very good thing out of the business. It is nothing unusual for the valuation of a lot of pearls to double and even treble after leaving the hands of the fishermen.

While many of the gulf pearls—and especially of the small seed-pearls—go to Bagdad, the great bulk of them are sold to representatives of Hindu and Arab merchants of Bombay for shipment to that city, which to the Bahrein fisherman is the heart of the outside world. Few of the pearls go directly into Arabia or Persia, as the certain sale in the larger Bombay market is preferable to a sometimes higher but less regular price in other markets. Indeed, pearls may usually be purchased at a less cost in India than a stranger would be obliged to pay at Bahrein. The Bombay merchants “sow the earth with Orient pearl,” dealing direct with London, Paris and Berlin, and with the oriental jewelers. Most of the yellow pearls find oriental purchasers, with whose dark complexions they harmonize better than the silvery white ones. They are also more popular because of a belief existing throughout the East that they are less likely to lose their luster with the lapse of years.

The shell of the pearl-oysters is not used locally, but large quantities are exported to Europe for manufacture. Although it is the smallest and cheapest produced in the gulf, yet, owing to the enormous quantity taken for their pearls, the shell of the mahar (Margaritifera vulgaris) constitutes the bulk of the exports. Formerly most of the shipments were made from the harbor of Lingah, hence it is known in the markets of Europe as “Lingah shell.” But in the last three or four years, much of it has been transported to Europe via Bander Abbas and Bushire. A German firm at Bahrein is extensively employed in exporting this shell, and several Indian merchants are also engaged in 99the trade. The total exports in 1906 amounted to 3262 tons, valued at $26,408 according to the port returns, but worth about $135,000 in Europe. Very large quantities are received in London, and over 2500 tons have been offered at auction in a single year. This shell is very small, averaging about three inches in diameter and about one and a half ounces in weight. It is the cheapest of all mother-of-pearl. The best quality sells in London for ten to twenty shillings per hundredweight, but the ordinary grade is worth usually less than nine shillings, and sometimes as low as three shillings per hundredweight. America formerly imported it, but few lots have been received since the exploitation of the Mississippi shell about fifteen years ago.

The shell of the larger species of pearl-oysters in the Persian Gulf is worth considerably more than the “Lingah shell,” selling in Europe for £12 to £60 per ton, yet manufacturers consider it as furnishing only poor qualities of mother-of-pearl. Several hundred tons are exported annually. It measures six or seven inches in diameter and is used principally in making cheap grades of buttons.


Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below.
Dryden, All for Love, Prologue.

Second in extent to those of Persia only, are the intermittent and uncertain pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar. This is an arm of the Indian Ocean, from 65 to 150 miles in width, separating the island of Ceylon from the southernmost part of India. The pearl-oyster banks—known locally as paars—are situated off the northwest coast of Ceylon and also in the vicinity of Tuticorin on the Madras coast of the mainland. The Ceylon fisheries are under the control of the colonial government of the British Empire, and those of the mainland are monopolized by the Madras government. Notwithstanding the fact that they are outside of the three-mile limit established as the bound of national jurisdiction, exclusive privileges are exercised over these fisheries by the respective governments,[122] and poaching vessels are liable to seizure and punishment.

Though possibly not so ancient as those of Persia, the Ceylon pearl fisheries are of great antiquity. References to them occur in Cingalese 100records dating from 550 B.C. Pliny, Ptolemy, Strabo, and other ancient writers speak of their importance.

The “Periplus of the Erythræan”—written about the end of the second century A.D.—refers to these fisheries, and states that, owing to the dangers involved, it was customary to employ convicts therein. In the days of the “Arabian Nights,” under the name “Serendib,” this was the scene of the pearling adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, and the reputation of the valuable pearl resources is reflected in those wonderful tales.

The first extensive description we have of the Gulf of Manaar fisheries was given by the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who visited the region about 1294. He wrote:

The pearl fishers take their vessels, great and small, and proceed into the gulf where they stop from the beginning of April till the middle of May. They go first to a place called Bettelar, and then go 60 miles into the Gulf. Here they cast anchor and shift from their large vessels into small boats. You must know that the many merchants who go divide into various companies, and each of these must engage a number of men on wages, hiring them for April and half of May. Of all the produce they have first to pay the king, as his royalty, the tenth part. And they must also pay those men who charm the great fishes to prevent them from injuring the divers whilst engaged in seeking pearls under water, one-twentieth of all that they take. These fish-charmers are termined Abraiaman; and their charm holds good for that day only, for at night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will. These Abraiaman know also how to charm beasts and birds and every living thing. When the men have got into the small boats they jump into the water and dive to the bottom, which may be at a depth of from 4 to 12 fathoms, and there they remain as long as they are able. And there they find the shells that contain the pearls, and those they put into a net bag tied round the waist, and mount up to the surface with them, and then dive anew. When they can’t hold their breath any longer they come up again, and after a little down they go once more, and so they go on all day. These shells are in fashion like oysters or sea-hoods. And in these shells are found pearls, great and small, of every kind, sticking in the flesh of the shell-fish. In this manner pearls are fished in great quantities, for thence in fact come the pearls which are spread all over the world. And I can tell you the King of that State hath a very great receipt and treasure from his dues upon those pearls.[123]

That quaint old missionary bishop, Friar Jordanus, in his “Mirabilia Descripta, or the Wonders of the East” (circa 1330), reports that “more than 8000 boats” were sometimes employed for three months continually in these fisheries, which were then prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the Cingalese kings of Kandy, and that the quantity of pearls taken was “astounding and almost incredible.”[124]


101This number of boats seems entirely too large, especially in view of the fact that Jordanus secured his information at second hand; but it leaves the impression that the fisheries of that period were of great importance.

When the Portuguese, attracted by the wealth of its resources, obtained control of this region about 1510, they exacted from the local rulers an annual tribute in pearls and spices. Later they conducted the fisheries on their own account, permitting the native fishermen to retain one fourth of the catch as compensation for their work, and dividing the remainder into three equal portions, for the king, the church, and the soldiers, respectively.

Linschoten, who visited India about 1590, leaves this interesting account of the fishery at that time:

“There are also other fishings for pearle, as between the Iland of Seylon, and the Cape de Comoriin, where great numbers are yearlie found, for that the King of Portingale hath a captaine there with soldiers that looketh unto it; they have yearlie at the least above 3 or 4 thousand duckers [divers], yt live onlie by fishing for pearles, and so maintaine themselves.” He describes the methods of fishing, which appear to be similar to those of the present time, and adds: “When they have made an end of the day’s fishing, all the fishers with the captaine, soldiers, laborers and watchmen for the king, goe together, and taking all the pearls [pearl-oysters] that are caught that day they divide them into certaine heaps, that is, one part for the king, another part for the captaine and soldiers, the third part for the Jesuits, because they have their Cloyster in that place, and brought the countrie first into the Christian faith, and the last part for the Fishers, which is done with Justice and Equalitie. This fishing is done in the Summer tyme, and there passeth not any yeare but that divers Fishers are drowned by the Cape de Comoriin (which is called the King’s fishing) and manie devoured by fishes, so that when the fishing is done there is great and pitiful noyse and cry of women and children heard. Yet the next yeare they must do the same work againe, for that they have no other means to live, as also for that they are partlie compelled thereunto by the Portingales, but most part because of the gaine.”[125]

The best description we have seen of the Ceylon fisheries at the time of the Portuguese occupation, is that of Caesar Frederick, a Venetian trader, who referred to the period from 1563 to 1581. Frederick reported, according to Hickocke’s translation in the Hakluyt edition:

102The sea that lieth between the coast which descendeth from Cao Comori, to the lowe land of Chilao, and from Island Zeilan, they call the fishing of Pearles, which fishing they make every yeare, beginning in March or April, and it lasteth fiftie dayes, but they doe not fishe every yeere in one place, but one yeere in one place, and another yeere in another place of the same sea. When the time of this fishing draweth neere, they send very good Divers, that goe to discover where the greatest heapes of Oisters bee under water, and right agaynst that place where greatest store of Oisters bee, there they make or plant a village with houses and a Bazaro, which standeth as long as the fishing time lasteth, and it is furnished with all things necessarie, and nowe and then it is neere unto places that are inhabited, and other times farre off, according to the place where they fishe. The fishermen are all Christians of the countrey, and who so will may goe to fishing, paying a certain dutie to the king of Portugall, and to the Churches of the Friers of Saint Paule, which are in that coast. All the while that they are fishing, there are three or foure Fustes armed to defend the Fishermen from Rovers. It was my chance to bee there one time in my passage, and I saw the order that they used in fishing, which is this. There are three or foure Barkes that make consort together, which are like to our litle Pilot boates, and a little lesse, there goe seven or eight men in a boate: and I have seene in a morning a great number of them goe out, and anker in fifteene or eighteene fadome of water, which is the ordinarie depth of all that coast. When they are at anker, they cast a rope into the sea, and at the end of the rope, they make fast a great stone, and then there is readie a man that hath his nose and his eares well stopped, and annointed with oyle, and a basket about his necke, or under his left arme, then he goeth downe by the rope to the bottome of the Sea, and as fast as he can hee filleth the basket, and when it is full, he shaketh the rope, and his fellows that are in the Barke hale him up with the basket: and in such wise they go one by one untill they have laden their barke with oysters, and at evening they come to the village, and then every company maketh their mountaine or heape of oysters one distant from another, in such wise that you shall see a great long rowe of mountaines or heapes of oysters, and they are not touched until such time as the fishing bee ended, and at the ende of the fishing every companie sitteth round about their mountaine or heape of oysters, and fall to opening of them, which they may easilie doe because they bee dead, drie and brittle: and if every oyster had pearles in them, it would be a very good purchase, but there are very many that have no pearles in them: when the fishing is ended, then they see whether it bee a good gathering or a badde: there are certaine expert in the pearles whom they call Chitini, which set and make the price of pearles according to their carracts [carats or weight], beautie, and goodnesse, making foure sorts of them. The first sort bee the round pearles, and they bee called Aia of Portugale, because the Portugales doe buy them. The second sorte which are not round, are called Aia of Bengala. The third sort which are not so good as the second, they call Aia of Canara, that is to say, the kingdome of Bezeneger. The fourth and last sort, which are the least and worst sort, are called Aia of Cambaia. Thus the price being set, there are 103merchants of every countrey which are readie with their money in their handes, so that in a fewe dayes all is brought up at the prises set according to the goodnesse and caracts of the pearles.[126]

A remarkable instance of the immutability of custom in the Orient is found in the fact that, except in a few minor particulars, Frederick’s account, written more than three centuries ago, could serve as a description of the methods of the fisheries in recent years. The industry was then very extensive, as appears from an account shortly afterward (about 1608) by Pedro Teixeira, who reported[127] that from 400 to 500 boats were employed, and from 50,000 to 60,000 persons resorted to the fishery.

In 1658, possession of Ceylon and India passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch, who for a time continued the pearl fisheries after the manner practised by their predecessors; but owing to contentions as to the details of management, they soon resorted to leasing them each year to the highest bidder, or to several bidders, for a definite money payment. The successful bidders prosecuted the industry in the same manner as the government had previously done, employing the same native fishermen and compensating them with one fourth of the oysters secured. Under the Dutch rule the fisheries were very unprofitable, and particularly so during the last seventy years of their authority. There was practically no fishing from 1732 to 1746, and there was also a suspension—but not entirely from lack of oysters or of pearls—from 1768 until the territory passed into the control of the British in 1796.

The colonial government of the British Empire continued the Dutch policy of leasing, only restricting the limits of territory and season for fishing. Many objections were found to this method. It was difficult to regulate the business properly, and there were no reliable means of determining its proceeds and conditions. At length in 1835, the government began to operate the fishery on its own account, as the Portuguese had done two hundred years before, allowing the fishermen one fourth of the oysters taken by them and selling the remaining three fourths for the benefit of the treasury. In this way the full value of the resources was realized without mystery, deception, or concealment, and the plan worked satisfactorily for all concerned.

Owing, presumably, to the long period in which they had lain undisturbed, the Ceylon oyster reefs were in excellent condition at the beginning of British rule. In 1796 the government derived a revenue 104of Rs.1,100,000 therefrom, and in 1797 the revenue was Rs.1,400,000; these two years were by far the most productive during the first century of British occupation.

Several very interesting reports on the industry were prepared about that time. Especially to be noted among these were the accounts by Henry J. LeBeck in 1798;[128] by Robert Percival in 1803;[129] and by James Cordiner in 1807,[130] to which reference is made for detailed accounts of the fisheries of that period.

The Ceylon fishery was prosecuted about every other year from 1799 to 1809, and the annual returns ranged from £15,022 in 1801 to £84,257 in 1808. From 1810 to 1813, inclusive, there was a blank so far as receipts were concerned. In 1814 the fishery was very good, bringing in a revenue of £105,187. With the exception of very slight returns in 1815, 1816, and 1820, no oysters were then obtained until 1828. Excepting 1832 and 1834, the industry was prosecuted each year from 1828 to 1837, the revenue to the government averaging about £30,000 annually. Then came a long blank of seventeen years, for there was no fishing from 1838 to 1854, and likewise from 1864 to 1873. Indeed, so depleted had the beds throughout the Gulf of Manaar become in 1866, that serious consideration was given to the possibilities of securing seed oysters from the Persian Gulf for restocking the reefs; but fortunately this was rendered unnecessary by the discovery soon afterward of a few oysters on several reefs on both the Ceylon and the Malabar coasts.

From 1855 to 1863, and also from 1874 to 1881, the returns were only ordinary, the highest being £51,017 in 1863, and £59,868 in 1881,—the best year since 1814; and during these two periods fishing was entirely omitted in nearly one half the seasons. There were five lean years from 1882 to 1886, and the 1887 fishery was only fair, with a yield of £39,609. But the returns for 1888 were large, amounting to £80,424; and those for 1891 were even greater, being £96,370, representing a yield of 44,311,441 oysters. No oysters were caught from 1892 to 1902, inclusive. In 1903, the fishery was profitable, yielding 41,180,137 oysters, and the share of the government amounted to £55,303; and in 1904 the yield was almost the same, being 41,039,085 oysters and a revenue of £71,050 to the government.

In 1905 occurred the greatest fishery in the modern history of Ceylon. The season extended from February 20 until April 21, giving forty-seven working days, exclusive of Sundays and five days of bad 105weather, the longest period in over half a century.[131] The boats employed numbered 318, with 4991 divers and 4894 attendant manduks. The yield of oysters exceeded all records, amounting to 81,580,716 in number, or nearly twice as many as in any previous year within the period of British occupation. The prices at which these sold ranged from Rs.24 to Rs.124 per thousand, with an average of Rs.48.89 for the entire season. The government received Rs.2,510,727 as its share of the revenue, which was twice as much as in any previous year since the British have been in control, and doubtless the largest received by any government in the history of the industry. The oysters falling to the share of the divers must have sold for at least Rs.1,255,363 (since 1881 the divers have received one third of the catch as their compensation, instead of one fourth). The profits of the merchants, who purchased and opened the government oysters as well as those of the divers, doubtless amounted to fully as much, making a total of Rs.5,021,453, or nearly $2,000,000 as a low estimate of the local value of the pearls secured at Ceylon in 1905.

Owing to the great success in 1905, an enormous number of persons flocked to the camp at the beginning of the season in 1906. Employment was given to 473 boats, the largest number on record, and over 8600 divers were engaged, with an equal number of attendants. Owing to unfavorable weather and the great quantity of oysters removed in 1905, the catch in 1906 was less than in that record year, amounting to 67,150,641 in number, from the sale of which Rs.1,376,746 was realized. The prices covered a wide range. For the large Cheval oysters, even Rs.276, Rs.291, and Rs.309 per 1000 were received. The inferior, stunted oysters from the Muttuvaratu paar ranged from Rs.20 to Rs.41 per 1000, and even at these prices many buyers sustained losses. On the other hand considerable money was made by the buyers of those from Cheval, in which some very large and beautiful pearls were found.

The results of the 1907 fishery were surprisingly good, excellent prices being obtained. The proceeds from the sale of two thirds of the 21,000,000 oysters amounted to Rs.1,040,000, or just under $350,000. The fishery lasted thirty-six working days. Only 173 boats were used, as it was considered that a fleet of this size is fully as large as can be employed advantageously to the greatest satisfaction of all interested.

According to the compilations of the colonial secretary’s office, the gross revenue to the government from 1796 to 1907, inclusive, 106amounted to £2,098,830. If to this be added the fishermen’s share and the merchants’ compensation, we have a total of about £4,200,000 or $21,000,000 as the local value of the pearls produced in Ceylon during the period of British occupation. The value of these in the markets of Asia and Europe was undoubtedly very much greater.

In many respects the Ceylon pearl fisheries are the most interesting in the world. Owing to their ready accessibility and thorough organization, they are far better known than any others. Reliable data exist as to the number of oysters taken during each season since 1854, and it is possible to estimate roughly the pearls obtained therefrom. Throughout the 112 years of British occupation, and previously to some extent under the successive rule of the Cingalese kings, of the Portuguese, and of the Dutch, for centuries, the reefs were annually examined by official inspectors, and fishing was permitted only in those years when they appeared in satisfactory condition.

A noticeable feature of these fisheries is their uncertainty, a prosperous season being followed by an absence of fishing sometimes extending over ten years or more. This is not of recent development. Over eight hundred years ago a total cessation of yield for a considerable period was recorded[132] by Albyrouni, who served under Mahmud of Ghazni. He stated that, in the eleventh century, the oysters which formerly existed in the Gulf of Serendib (Ceylon) disappeared simultaneously with the appearance of a fishery at Sofala in the country of the Zends, where previously the existence of pearls had been unknown; hence it was conjectured that the pearl-oysters of Serendib had migrated to Sofala.

In the 249 years since Ceylon passed from the dominion of the Portuguese in 1658, there have been only sixty-nine years in which the pearl fisheries were prosecuted. During the last century there were only thirty-six regularly authorized fisheries. Enormous quantities of oysters have appeared on the reefs, giving rise to hopes of great results, only to end in disappointment, owing to their complete disappearance. In the fall of 1887, for instance, examination of one of the reefs revealed an enormous quantity of oysters, covering an area five miles in length by one and a half miles in width, with “600 to 700 oysters to the square yard” in places. It was estimated by the inspection officials that there were 164,000,000 oysters, which exceeded the total number taken in the preceding sixty years, and which should have yielded several million dollars’ worth of pearls in the following season, according to the usual returns. But some months later not an oyster was to be found on this large reef, the great host presumably having been destroyed by action of the sea. Numerous reasons are 107assigned for the failure of promising reefs. Those most frequently heard are that the currents sweep the oysters away, that they are devoured by predaceous enemies, that they are covered by the shifting bottom, or that they voluntarily move to new grounds.

The oysters are found in well-known and permanently located banks or paars in the upper end of the Gulf of Manaar, in the wide shallow plateau off the northwest end of the island and directly south of Adams Bridge. The hard calcrete bottom is formed mostly of sand combined with organic remains in a compact mass and with more or less coral and shell deposits. The density of the water, as determined by Professor Herdman (to whose important and valuable report[133] we are indebted for much information), is fairly constant at 1.023, and the temperature has a normal range of from 82° to 86° F. during the greater part of the year. The charts and records refer to about twenty paars, but most of these have never yielded extensively, either to the English or to the Dutch. In the aggregate, they cover an area fifty miles in length and twenty miles in width. Most of them are from five to twenty miles from the shore, and at a depth of five to ten fathoms. The principal paars are Cheval, Madaragam, Periya, Muttuvaratu, Karativu, Vankalai, Chilaw, and Condatchy. Only three have afforded profitable fisheries in recent years, i. e.: Cheval, Madaragam and Muttuvaratu.

The other paars are of practically no economic value at the present time. They become populated with tens of millions of oysters, which mysteriously disappear before they are old enough for gathering. Especially is this true of the Periya paar, which is about fifteen miles from the shore, and runs eleven miles north and south, varying from one to two miles in width. Frequently this is found covered with young oysters, which almost invariably disappear before the next inspection, owing, probably, to their being covered by the shifting bottom caused by the southwest monsoon. The natives call this the “Mother paar,” under the impression that these oysters migrate to the other paars.

The Ceylon government has given very careful attention to all matters affecting the prosperity of the pearl resources. It has maintained a “Pearl Fishery Establishment,” consisting of a superintendent, an inspector and numerous divers, attendants, and sailors. The inspector examines the paars, determines when and to what extent they should be fished, and directs the operations. The superintendent conducts the work on shore, divides and sells the oysters, etc. The expense of this establishment has approximated $40,000 per annum when there has been a fishery, and about $22,500 without fishery expenses.

108It has been decided by naturalists that Ceylon oysters less than four years old produce very few marketable pearls; in the fifth, and again in the sixth year the value of the yield doubles, and in the seventh it is supposed to increase fourfold. Beyond that age there appears to be little increase, and there is the risk of the oysters dying, and of the pearls deteriorating or becoming lost. Eight years seems to be the natural limit of life. While experience has shown that the most profitable period for taking the pearl-oysters is when they are from five to seven years old, the mollusks are liable to disappear, especially after the fifth year, and the danger of waiting too long is as great as that of beginning too early. The fishing on any particular bank is determined by various circumstances and conditions, and is permitted only after careful examination.

The different beds are inspected from time to time, and no fishing is permitted until the condition of the pearl-oysters on the particular reef thrown open seems to warrant the most valuable returns. In the examination of a bed apparently in suitable condition, several thousand oysters—usually eight or ten thousand—are taken up and the pearls found therein are examined and valued. If they average Rs.25 or Rs.30 per thousand oysters, profitable results may be expected, provided there is a sufficient quantity of oysters on the bed. This method of determining the fishery is very ancient. Tavernier wrote, about 1650, “before they fish, they try whether it will turn to any account by sending seven or eight boats to bring 1000 oysters each, which they open, and if the oysters per 1000 yield five fanos or above, they then know the fishing will turn to account.”[134] And much the same method was described by Ribeiro in 1685.

When it has been decided to hold a fishery, public notice is given by advertisement, stating which of the many paars or reefs will be open, and the estimated quantity of oysters to be removed, the number of boats that will be given employment, and the date for beginning the season and the length of time it will probably last. This notice is usually given in December preceding the fishery, and it is the signal for preparation by tens of thousands of persons in this part of Asia, and especially on the Madras and the Malabar coasts of India, and on the coast of Arabia. The fishermen, the merchants, and the multitude of artisans, mechanics, and laborers who contribute to the industry, set their homes and business in order so that they may attend. We give the notice issued in 1907, both in Cingalese and in English.[135]


109Early in February the area to be gleaned is again examined, the limits of the oysters are charted and buoyed off, the number that may be obtained is estimated as accurately as possible, and valuation samples are collected. Several thousand oysters are taken up, the pearls are removed, examined, and valued by uninterested experts, and the results are published, so that prospective buyers may have a reliable idea as to their value. Otherwise this would not be possible until the merchants had washed some of their own purchases, which ordinarily would not be for a week or ten days after the opening of the season.

The fishery usually begins late in February or early in March, as the sea is then relatively calm, the currents least perceptible, and there is less danger of storms. It is prosecuted from a temporary settlement or camp on the sandy shore at a place conveniently near the reefs. The important fisheries of the five years ending in 1907, were centered at the improvised settlement known as Marichchikadde. Although prosecuted from the coast of Ceylon, relatively few Cingalese attend compared with the large numbers who assemble from India, Arabia, and elsewhere.

A week or two before the opening of the season, the boats begin to arrive, sometimes fifty or more in a single day, laden with men, women and children, and in many cases with the materials for their huts. In a short time the erstwhile desolate beach becomes populated with thousands of persons from all over the Indian littoral, and there is the noisy traffic of congregated humanity, and a confusion of tongues where before only the sound of the ocean waves was heard. Beside the eight or ten thousand fishermen, most of whom are Moormen, Tamils, and Arabs, there are pearl merchants—mainly Chetties and Moormen, boat repairers and other mechanics, provision dealers, priests, pawnbrokers, government officials, koddu-counters, clerks, boat guards, a police force of 200 officials, coolies, domestic servants, with numbers of women and children. And for the entertainment of these, and to obtain a share of the wealth from the sea, there are jugglers, fakirs, gamblers, beggars, female dancers, loose characters, with every allurement that appeals to the sons of Brahma, Buddha or Mohammed. Natives from the seaport towns of India are there in thousands; the slender-limbed and delicate-featured Cingalese with their scant attire and unique head-dress; energetic Arabs from the Persian Gulf; burly Moormen, sturdy Kandyans, outcast Veddahs, Chinese, Jews, Portuguese, Dutch, half-castes, the scum of the East and the riffraff of the Asiatic littoral, the whole making up a temporary city of forty thousand or more inhabitants.[136]

Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers,

Is hereby given that a Pearl Fishery will take place at Marichchukkaddi, in the Island of Ceylon, on or about February 20, 1907.

The Banks to be fished are—

The Karativu, Dutch Moderagam and Alanturai Pars, estimated to contain 21,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for twenty-one days with average loads of 10,000 each per day.

The Northwest and Mid-West Cheval, estimated to contain 2,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for two days with average loads of 10,000 oysters.

The Muttuvaratu Par, estimated to contain 8,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for eight days with average loads as before stated: each boat being fully manned with divers.

2. It is notified that fishing will begin on the first favourable day after February 19. Conditions governing the employment of divers will be issued separately.

3. Marichchukkaddi is on the mainland, eight miles by sea south of Sillavaturai, and supplies of good water and provisions can be obtained there.

4. The Fishery will be conducted on account of the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers, Ltd., and the oysters put up to sale in such lots as may be deemed expedient.


112A populous town springs up with well-planned and lighted streets and vast numbers of temporary abodes of all sorts, according to the means and the caste of the occupants, some of them just large enough for two or three persons to creep into. Although made mostly of poles, mats, cajans or plaited fronds of the cocoanut tree, they furnish ample shelter for the locality and season, the uncertainty of the fishery from year to year being sufficient argument against expensive and substantial buildings. Numerous wells and cisterns yield water for the use of all. Sanitary measures are strictly enforced, with a liberal use of disinfectants. At a considerable distance southward from the settlement are constructed the private toddis, or inclosures, for decomposing the oysters and washing the pearls therefrom. Nearer the camp or settlement itself are the police court, the jail, the bank, the post and telegraph offices, the auction room, the hospital and the cemetery—all to endure through a strenuous six weeks of toil and labor, of money-getting and gambling, and then the inhabitants “fold their tents like the Arabs, and silently steal away,” leaving the debris to the shore-birds and the jackals.

The fishing fleet consists of several hundred boats[137] of various rigs and sizes. These are interesting on account of their picturesque appearance and also their remarkable diversity of types in hull and rigging: there is the broad and roomy Jaffna dhoney, commonly painted black; the lugger-like Paumben boat; the very narrow and speedy canoes,—not unlike the single masted bugeyes of the Chesapeake region—from Kilakarai and neighboring villages, most noticeable owing to their great number and their bright colors—red, green, or yellow; the clumsy looking, single masted Tuticorin lighters, sharp sterned and copper bottomed, the largest boats in the fleet, ranging in capacity from twenty to forty tons each; and, most singular of all, the three masted great canoes from Adirampatnam and Muttupat on the Tanjore coast, pale blue in color and with curved prow. In addition to these standard types, added novelty is imparted by a few boats of design so odd and fantastic as would be conceived only by the mind of an oriental builder.

Reaching the camp at the beginning of the season, these boats are examined by the officials as to condition and equipment and, if found satisfactory, are registered and numbered. When the quantity of oysters to be removed is small, many more boats may arrive than is necessary or than can find profitable employment. Formerly when this occurred a lottery was held to determine those to be employed. More recently the officials have endeavored to engage all boats passing 113the inspection, although to do so might necessitate arranging the fleet into two divisions, each fishing on alternate days. In 1874, the boats were arranged in three divisions, the red, blue and green, with fifty boats in each; in 1879, and again in 1881, there were two divisions, the red and the blue; and likewise in 1880, in 1903 and in 1906 there were two, the red and the white divisions. Of the 318 boats employed in the 1905 fishery, 143 were from Kilakarai, seventy-four from Jaffna, thirty-five from Tuticorin, thirty-four from Paumben, nine from Manaar, six from Negapatam, five from Colombo, four each from Tondi and Kayalpatam, and one each from Devipatam, Adrapatam, Ammopatam, and Koddaipatam.

The number of persons on each boat ranges from about twelve to sixty-five, with an average for the entire fleet of about thirty-five men per boat. This includes the sammatti, or master, who represents the owner; the tindal, or pilot; the todai, or water-bailer, who is very necessary on these leaky craft, and who also takes charge of the food and drinking water; at times a government inspector or “boat guard”; and from five to thirty divers, with an equal number of manducks, or attendants.[138] The sammattis, tindals, and todais are nearly all from the coast of southern India. The “boat guards” or inspectors are natives of Ceylon, and are employed by the government to prevent the fishermen from opening the oysters. Most of the manducks are from the Indian coast.

Of the 4991 divers employed in 1905, 2649 were Moormen or Lubbais from Kilakarai, Tondi, etc., on the Madura coast; 923 were Arabs; 424 were Erukkalampiddi Moormen from Ceylon, and the remaining 995 were Tamils from Tuticorin, Rameswaram and elsewhere on the Madras coast, Malayalans from the Malabar coast, with small numbers from other localities on the Asiatic coasts.

Among the 8600 divers in 1906, were 4090 Arabs, the largest number of those people employed in recent years. In 1905 there were only 923 Arab divers, in 1904 only 238, and previously the number was much less. Some have worked on the Ceylon coast since 1887, but most of them are newly arrived from Bahrein and Kuweit, where they received their training as pearl-divers. They are very energetic and skilful fishermen, far surpassing the Tamils, coming early in the season and staying late, and working on many days when rough seas deter the Indian divers from venturing out.

The Erukkalampiddi divers of Ceylon are by no means so energetic or steady in work as the Arabs, and commonly desert the fishery before 114the close. The Tamil divers belong to the Parawa and Kadeiyar castes.

The season in the Ceylon fishery is very short, only about six or eight weeks at the most; and the holidays and storms usually reduce the number of actual working days to less than thirty. In no other pearl fishery of importance is the season less than four months in length, and in most of them it extends through more than half of the year. Owing to this restricted time, there is greater activity in the Ceylon fishery compared with the value of the output than in any other pearl fishery in the world.

Although the season is short, it is strenuous. Arising shortly after midnight, the thousands of fishermen breakfast, perform their devotions and prepare to get under way so as to reach the reefs about sunrise. There each boat takes its position on the ground allotted for the day’s work, and which has been marked in advance by buoys topped with flags; and shortly afterward, on a signal from the guard vessel, the diving commences. This is carried on in the same manner as already described for the Persian Gulf, except that the Indian divers do not use nose-clips, only compressing the nostrils with the fingers during the descent. Rarely do they descend to a greater depth than ten fathoms.

The divers work in pairs, each pair using a single diving stone in common, and descending alternately, precisely as in the Persian Gulf. It is remarkable what few changes have occurred in the methods of the fishery in the last six centuries; the description[139] of Marco Polo, who visited the region about 1294, and of writers somewhat more recent, indicating that, in the main features, it was then conducted in the same manner as at the present time.

An exception to the usual mode of diving is practised by the Malayalam fishermen, who, in some seasons—as in 1903, for instance—attend in large numbers from Travancore and northward on the Malabar coast. These men are rather low in skill and physical endurance.[140] They dive head foremost from a spring-board, and even with this assistance,—or possibly we should say, handicapped by this method,—they find the average depth of eight fathoms too great for them to work in with much comfort, rarely remaining under water longer than forty-five seconds.

The number of oysters secured on each visit to the bottom ranges from nothing to seventy-five or more, averaging between fifteen and fifty. This depends not only on the ability of the fishermen, but also on the abundance of oysters and the ease with which they may be collected. Sometimes they are held together in loose bunches of five to ten in each, and a diver can easily gather one hundred in the short length of time he remains submerged. In other localities they may be somewhat firmly attached individually to the bottom, so that some force is necessary to release them, thus reducing the possible quantity. Ordinarily one dive clears a space of several square yards.

Unloading oysters from the vessels into the kottus, at Marichchikadde, Ceylon

The pearling fleet on the shore at Marichchikadde, Ceylon

Hindu workmen preparing to drill pearls, Marichchikadde, Ceylon

115Since 1904, a steamer has been employed each season by the government for dredging oysters in connection with experiments in oyster-culture. The officer in charge of this work concludes that “dredging is economically a more sound method of fishing than is diving.”[141] This view is disputed by the superintendent of the fishery, who points out that the average catch by the steamer when dredging mature oysters only slightly exceeds that of an ordinary diving boat, and the cost of maintenance and operation is vastly greater.[142] A remarkable tribute to the skill of the nude divers, brought out by this discussion, is that, during some days when they were at work, the sea was too rough for dredging by the steamer, notwithstanding that she was a typical Grimsby or North Sea trawler of 150 tons measurement, built in 1896.[143]

A rough comparison of the Ceylon method of catching pearl-oysters with that practised by the American oyster-growers may not be uninteresting. On a basis of 400 to the bushel, the total Ceylon catch of 81,580,716 pearl-oysters in 1905 represents a trifle more than 200,000 bushels, or about the quantity annually produced by each of the half dozen leading oyster-growers of this country. Each one of these growers requires only about three steamers, at a total cost, maybe, of $25,000, and manned by twenty-five men; instead of one steamer at a cost of $25,000 and 318 diving boats manned by 10,000 men, which was the equipment in Ceylon. To be sure, the conditions under which the work is prosecuted are different—however, not so entirely unlike as might be supposed—and the American season is about six months long instead of the two months in Ceylon; but the comparison is presented simply as a suggestion of the possibilities of dredging on the Ceylon reefs.

Until 1885, one of the most novel features of the fishery was the employment of shark-charmers or “binders of sharks” (kadal-kotti in the Tamil language, hai-banda in Hindustani), whose presence was rendered necessary by the superstition of the Indian divers. The fishermen placed implicit reliance upon the alleged supernatural powers of these impostors, resembling in some respects that reposed in the “medicine men” by the American Indians, and would not dive without their supervision. It is unknown at what period the influence of these 116semi-priests developed, but at the time of Marco Polo’s visit about 1294, they were in the full bloom of their authority, receiving one twentieth of the total catch of oysters,[144] which amounted to a very considerable sum. It is probable that the number of shark-charmers was then quite large, some writers more recently referring to one for each boat. During the Portuguese occupation the number was reduced to twelve, and at the beginning of the British influence, it was further reduced to two.

Interesting descriptions have been given of the methods by which these men exercised their alleged powers. In 1807, Cordiner stated:

One goes out regularly in the head pilot’s boat. The other performs certain ceremonies on shore. He is stripped naked, and shut up in a room, where no person sees him from the period of the sailing of the boats until their return. He has before him a brass basin full of water, containing one male and one female fish made of silver. If any accident should happen from a shark at sea, it is believed that one of these fishes is seen to bite the other. The divers likewise believe that, if the conjurer should be dissatisfied, he has the power of making the sharks attack them, on which account he is sure of receiving liberal presents from all quarters.[145]

Amusing stories are told of the shrewdness displayed by these fellows in inventing explanations to redeem their credit when a fisherman became a victim of the sharks. These accounts are by men who evidently bore no good-will toward the shark-charmers, and it would be of interest to hear from the other side; but we have been unable to find any one who has appeared in print in their defense.

The British government, in its policy of noninterference with the superstitions or semi-religious customs of the natives, tolerated these seeming impostors, owing, probably, in a measure, to the fact that the superstitious belief in their necessity was favorable to the preservation of the resources, since it restricted poaching on the reefs. However, the government endeavored to prevent an extravagant misuse of the influence, and restricted the compensation of the shark-charmers to one oyster per day from each diver. Later, they were remunerated by the government, and were not allowed, under any pretense whatever, to demand, exact, or receive oysters or any other compensation from the boatmen, divers, or any other persons. And, finally, in 1885, the shark-charmers were done away with entirely, after having exacted their toll for upward of six centuries at least.

The dangers to which the Ceylon divers are exposed have been greatly exaggerated, and especially the risks from sharks. Poets tell 117how “the Ceylon pearler went all naked to the hungry shark,” and the struggle of the diver has been a favorite theme with sensational writers. As a matter of fact, the trouble from this source is very slight, and the occupation is less dangerous than that of most of the deep-water fisheries, not to be compared, for instance, with that of the winter haddock-fishery off the New England coast. Even in 1905, when 4991 divers and an equal number of assistants were employed in pearling, not a single fatal accident was reported, and although much rough weather prevailed, not a fishing boat was lost. In the important fishery of 1904, with 3049 divers, only one fatal accident occurred, this was an elderly Moorman, whose death at the bottom was apparently due either to apoplexy or to exhaustion from remaining under water too long.

The superintendent of the fishery reported that not a single shark was seen during the 1904 season.[146] According to the statement of Sir William Twynam, whose Ceylon pearl fishing experience and observation equal those of any European, he has never known of a diver being carried off by a shark, and has heard of only one case—“which was a very doubtful one.”[147] Prof. James Hornell, the inspector of pearl banks, reported in 1904: “During all the months I have spent upon the pearl banks during the last two years and a half I have never had a glimpse of a shark dangerous to man. Several times the boatmen have caught basking sharks of considerable size, but all were of a species that lives almost entirely upon small crustaceans.”[148] The late Mr. A. M. Ferguson wrote in 1887: “I think it is pretty certain that in the whole course of the Ceylon fisheries only two human beings have fallen victims to these fierce fishes.”[149]

The diving continues until a signal is given from the guard vessel about twelve or one o’clock, this time depending largely on the beginning of the sea breeze which roughens the water and interferes with the work, and likewise serves to speed the passage of the sail vessels to the shore. Occasionally the breeze is unfavorable, and the boatmen are obliged to row for miles, delaying their return in some instances until nightfall. Then the shore is lighted up to guide them to the landings, and extra precautions are maintained to prevent them from getting away with some of the oysters in the darkness.

It is claimed—and doubtless with much truth—that it is not unusual for the boatmen to take advantage of the time spent in reaching the shore to surreptitiously open many of the oysters and extract the pearls therefrom, throwing the refuse back into the sea. It would appear 118from some authorities that this is a general practice. One official—and probably the one in the best position to know—reported in 1905 that more than 15,000,000 oysters, or nearly one fifth of the enormous catch during that season, were illicitly opened.[150] However, this statement is strongly disputed by the superintendent of the fishery, who states:

As a matter of fact the opening of oysters that goes on in the boats is of a much more casual description than this. The divers occasionally pick out some of the best looking oysters that happen to be conspicuous, or some that open, and look inside them. It is quite possible that a valuable pearl might be found in this way, but the chances are against it. It is hardly likely that the divers would throw into the sea an enormous quantity of perfunctorily examined oysters in which they have a share and which contain pearls, while they were aware that immediately on landing they could get good prices for their shares.[151]

The government officials have endeavored to put a stop to whatever looting may exist, searching boats and occupants at the shore, revoking the license of any boat showing evidence of oysters having been opened or carrying knives or other appliances for that purpose. The fishermen are alleged to resort to all sorts of devices to secrete their illicit find of pearls, concealing them in the nose, ears, eyes, and other parts of the body, and even hiding them in parcels in the furled sails or attached to the embedded anchor. In some seasons—as in 1904 and 1905—the government employed a guard for each boat. But serious criticism has been made of the integrity of these guards, who, with compensation of only one rupee per diem, could scarcely be expected to resist the action of thirty or forty fishermen and report their doings, when by silence they would have much to gain, and “the guards simply add to the number of thieves on board” was reported by one superintendent.

Doubtless the most interesting sight in the Ceylon fishery is afforded by the return, about mid-afternoon, of the hundreds of novel, sail-spreading boats running before the wind and crowded with turbaned fishermen dressed in their few brilliant rags, and each anxious to be the first at the wave-washed beach, where they are welcomed by an equal if not greater number of officials, merchants, laborers, and camp followers, gathered on the shore to learn the result of the fishery. The fantastic appearance of the boats, the diversified costumes of the people, the general scene of animation, afford a view which for novelty is rarely equaled even in the picturesque Orient.

The average number of oysters brought in daily by each boat is 119about 10,000. Some days when the weather is unfavorable many of the boats return empty; on other days they may have 25,000 or more. In 1905 the maximum catch in one day for one boat was 29,990, while in 1904 a single boat brought in 37,675 oysters. The catch by the entire fleet one day in 1905 was 4,978,686 oysters, or an average of 16,485 for each of the 302 boats out on that occasion.

Each person taking part in the fishery receives as his compensation a definite portion of the oysters. By government regulations, published in 1855 and yet operative, each sammatti, tindal, and todai receives daily one dive of oysters from each diver in the boat to which they are respectively attached. In some instances the hire of the boat is paid for in cash—about Rs.1.50 per day from each diver,—but in most cases either one fifth or one sixth of each diver’s portion is devoted to this purpose. After these provisions have been made, each diver gives one third of his remaining portion to his manduck, retaining the balance for himself. The Moormen divers from Kilakarai commonly contribute one dive daily to the mosque of their native town,[152] in addition to the portions given to the sammatti, tindal, and todai. Previous to 1855, the Hindu temples of the Madras Presidency were allowed to operate a certain number of boats on their own account, but this led to so many abuses that it was abolished.

After the boats are run up on the firm, hard beach, all the oysters are removed by the crews of the boats into the government koddu or palisade, a large wattle-walled and palm-thatched inclosure with square pens, each bearing a number corresponding to that of each boat. This is done under close supervision to prevent a diversion of the oysters from the regular channels, which otherwise would be relatively easy among the animation and excitement caused by the thousands of persons about the landing-place.

Within the government inclosure, the oysters taken by each boat are divided by the fishermen themselves into three portions as nearly equal as possible. This applies not only to the oysters falling to the share of the divers and manducks, but also to those set apart for the sammatti, tindals, and todais, for hire of the boat and even for the Kilakarai mosque. An official indicates one of these as the share of the fishermen, who at once remove their portion from the inclosure through a narrow gate on the landward side. By this arrangement a satisfactory division of the oysters is secured and all cause for complaint or unfairness is removed. Previous to 1881, the fishermen received only one fourth of the catch as compensation for their work; but in that year their portion was increased to one third, at which it has since remained.

120As soon as the fishermen pass out of the government koddu with their quota, they are met by a crowd of natives eager to buy the oysters in small lots, and frequently at so many per rupee—ranging from eight to twelve ordinarily. This “outside market” is one of the many interesting features of the camp, for there are few persons on the shore who do not risk small sums in testing their fortunes in this lottery. And a wonderful lottery it is too, in which a man may risk a few coppers and win a prize worth hundreds of dollars. A poor Tamil once bought five oysters for half a rupee, and in one of them he found the largest pearl of the season. Any not sold among this eager, animated throng are at once marketed with a native buyer. The diver then hastens to immerse himself in one of the bathing tanks provided for the purpose. It is claimed that if this bath is omitted after immersion all the morning in the salt water of the gulf, the diver is liable to fall ill; and a sufficient supply of fresh water for this purpose is an important factor in the arrangement of the camp.

Owing to their sale in much smaller lots, or as we may say, at retail, the fishermen succeed in getting relatively high prices for their oysters, and their earnings exceed one half of the government’s share. In 1905 this amounted to probably £86,000, or an average of about $1350 for each of the 318 boats. However, some crews made very much more than this, with a corresponding decrease for the others. Although 1905 was a record year for large returns, even in an ordinary season pearl fishing is relatively profitable, as a skilled diver earns five or six times as much as a common laborer in Ceylon. The regulations particularly forbid the employment of divers for a monetary consideration instead of for a share of the oysters according to the established custom.

The remaining two thirds of the oysters in the koddu are the property of the government. These are combined and counted. At nine o’clock each evening they are sold at auction, and by noon of the following day all have been removed, and the inclosure is ready for the incoming catch.

At the auction the number of oysters to be sold that evening is announced, and bids are invited. Some one starts the bidding at, maybe, Rs.20 or 25, and this is advanced by successive bids until the limit appears to be reached, which may possibly be Rs.50 or 60. The successful bidder is permitted to take as many oysters in multiples of 1000 as he chooses; and after he is supplied, other merchants desiring them at that particular price are accommodated. If there is no further demand for them at that price, the bidding on the remaining oysters is begun precisely as at first, and when the maximum bid is reached, all merchants willing to give that amount are furnished with as many as they wish in multiples of 1000 as before. If this does not exhaust the oysters, the bidding on the remainder is started up again, and so on until all are sold.[153] No one knows at the time whether he is buying a fortune in gems or only worthless shells.

Indian pearl merchants ready for business

Children of Persian pearl dealers

121The prices at which the oysters are sold at auction may differ greatly from the estimated valuation of the samples secured in the February examination. For instance, in 1905 the valuation of the South Madaragam oysters was Rs.17.86 per 1000, yet the auction sales on the first day began at Rs.53 and went up to Rs.61 per 1000, or three times the valuation; and about the same general proportion of increase prevailed for the oysters from the remaining banks, a result of great advances in the market for pearls.

The auction prices for the different lots and from day to day are fairly constant. But the shrewd Indian merchants know their business well and keep in close touch with the yield, so that there are many variations in the selling price that are puzzling to the uninitiated. A somewhat higher estimation is placed on the oysters from certain banks, and also on those from rocky portions of a particular reef, owing to their reputation for yielding a larger percentage of pearls. The estimation of particular oysters varies to some extent according to the amount of adhering rock and coral growth. As already shown, the prices in 1906 covered the remarkable range of from Rs.20 to 309 per 1000. Superstitious belief in luck also has its influence, and a buyer may consider a certain day as unfavorable for him and abstain from bidding on that occasion; or considering a particular day as lucky, he may bid very high to secure a considerable portion of the sales.

The prices in different seasons vary greatly. In 1860, the average was Rs.134.23 per 1000, which was unprecedentedly large; the nearest to this was Rs.79.07 in 1874 and Rs.49 in 1905. In 1880, the average price per 1000 was only Rs.11, which was the lowest ever recorded. The records for individual days greatly exceed these limits. The highest figures at which oysters have sold on any one day was Rs.309 per 1000 in 1906, the equivalent for each oyster of 10½ cents in American money. In 1874, the price reached Rs.210 per 1000, and in 1905, the maximum price was Rs.124, or about 4¼ cents for each oyster.

The oyster-buyers are principally wealthy Chetties from Madura, Ramnad, Trichinopoli, Parambakudi, Tevakoddai, Paumben, Kumbhakonam, and other towns of southern India. These are quite different from the scantily clothed Naddukoddai Chetties so common in Ceylon. Many of them are fashionably dressed in semi-European 122costume, with walking-stick, patent leather boots, and other evidences of contact with Europe. Smaller quantities of oysters are purchased by Moormen of Kilakarai, Ramnad, Bombay, Adrampatam, Tondi, etc. A few oysters are also purchased by the Nadans or Chánár caste people of Perunali, Kamuti, and Karakal. Over 99 per cent. of the 50,346,601 oysters sold by the government in 1905 were secured by Indian buyers, and less than one per cent. by Cingalese. A few of the oysters—from two to five per cent.—are sent to Indian and Ceylon ports, but most of them are opened at the fishing camp.

The purchaser of only a small number of oysters may open them at once by means of a knife, and with his fingers and eyes search for the pearls. By this method very small pearls may be easily overlooked, and it is scarcely practicable in handling large quantities of oysters. These are removed to private inclosures known as toddis or tottis, situated some distance from the inhabited portions of the camp; where, exposed to the solar heat, they are permitted to putrefy, and the fleshy parts to be eaten by the swarms of big red-eyed bluebottle flies, and the residue is then repeatedly washed.

Shakspere may have had in view some such scene as this when he spoke of the “pearl in your foul oyster.” The lady who cherishes and adorns herself with a necklace of Ceylon pearls would be horrified were she to see and especially to smell the putrid mass from which her lustrous gems are evolved. The great quantity of repulsive bluebottle flies are so essential to success in releasing the pearls from the flesh, that a scarcity of them is looked upon as a misfortune to the merchants. However, except it may be at the beginning of a fishery, there is rarely ever a cause for complaint on this score, for commonly they are so numerous as to be a great plague to persons unaccustomed to them, covering everything, and rendering eating and drinking a difficult and unpleasant necessity, until darkness puts a stop to their activities. But the intolerable stench, impossible of description, the quintessence of millions of rotting oysters, fills the place, and makes existence a burden to those who have not acquired odor-proof nostrils. This animal decomposition seems almost harmless to health; indeed, the natives evidently thrive on it, and eat and sleep without apparent notice of the nauseous conditions. And yet vegetable decomposition in this region is usually followed by fatal results. Notwithstanding sanitary precautions and the usual quarantine camp and hospitals, cholera occasionally becomes epidemic and puts a stop to the fishery, as was the case in 1889; but this probably was due more to the violation of ordinary sanitary laws than to the decaying oysters.

In a large toddi the oysters are placed in a ballam, or a dug-out tank or trough, fifteen or twenty feet long and two or three feet deep, 123smooth on the inside so that pearls may not lodge in the crevices. This tank is covered with matting, and the toddi is closed up, sealed, and guarded for a week or ten days, when the fly maggots will have consumed practically all of the flesh tissues, leaving little else than the shells and pearls. The tank is then filled with sea water to float out the myriads of maggots. Several nude coolies squat along the sides to wash and remove the shells. The valves of each shell are separated, the outsides rubbed together to remove all lodgments for pearls, and the interior examined for attached or encysted pearls. The washers are kept under constant supervision by inspectors to prevent concealment of pearls; they are not permitted to remove their hands from the water except to take out the shells, and under no circumstances are they allowed to carry the hands to the mouth or to any other place in which pearls could be concealed.

After the shells have been removed, fresh supplies of water are added to wash the debris, which is turned over and over repeatedly, the dirty water being bailed out through sieves to prevent the loss of pearls. After thorough washings, every particle of the sarraku, or material at the bottom of the ballam, consisting of sand, broken pieces of shell, pearls, etc., is gathered up in a cotton cloth. Later the sarraku is spread out on cloths in the sun to dry, and the most conspicuous pearls are removed. When dry, the material is critically examined over and over again, and winnowed and rewinnowed, and after it seems that everything of value has been secured, the refuse is turned over to women and children, whose keen eyes and deft fingers pick out many masi-tul or dust-pearls; and even after the skill of these has been exhausted, the apparently worthless refuse has a market value among persons whose patience and skill meets with some reward. It is due largely to the extreme care in the search that so many seed-pearls are found in Ceylon.

And this leads to a discussion of what is commonly known in Ceylon as the “Dixon washing machine.” This is an invention of Mr. G. G. Dixon who constructed it at Marichchikadde in 1904 and 1905, at a total cost to the government of about Rs.162,000,[154] including all expenses incidental to the experiment. The machine involves two separate processes; the first consists in separating the shells from the soft portion of the oysters, and the second in recovering the pearls from the resultant sarraku after it has been dried. In 1905, about 5,000,000 oysters were put through this machine,[155] but with what result has not been announced.

The shells having pearls attached to the interior surface are turned 124over to skilled natives, who remove the valuable objects by breaking the shell with hammers, and then with files and other implements remove the irregular pieces of attached shell and otherwise improve the appearance.

In no fishery in the world is the average size of the pearls secured smaller, nor is the relative number greater than in that of Ceylon. It is rare that one is found weighing over ten grains, and the number weighing less than two grains is remarkable. For roundness and orient they are unsurpassed by those of any region. However, Ceylon pearls worth locally Rs.1000 ($400) are by no means abundant. The most valuable one found in the important fishery of 1904, is said to have been sold in the camp for Rs.2500. The fishery of 1905 yielded one weighing 76½ chevu, and valued at Rs.12,000.

The quantity of seed-pearls obtained in the Ceylon fishery exceeds that of any other—probably all other parts of the world. The very smallest—the masi-tul,—for which there is no use whatever in Europe, have an established value in India, being powdered for making chunam for chewing with betel. Those slightly larger,—tul pearls—for which also there is no market in Europe, are placed in the mouth of deceased Hindus of wealth, instead of the rice which is used by poorer people.

The great bulk of the Ceylon pearls are silvery white in color, but occasionally yellowish, pinkish, and even “black” pearls are found, although the so-called “black” pearls are really brown or slate-colored. In some seasons these are relatively numerous, as in 1887, for instance.

Notwithstanding the large product at the fishery camp, it is difficult to purchase single pearls or small quantities there at a reasonable price, the merchants objecting to breaking a mudichchu, or the lot resulting from washing a definite number of oysters.

The shells obtained in the Ceylon fisheries do not possess sufficient thickness of lustrous nacre for use as mother-of-pearl, and are mostly used for camp-filling. A few are burned and converted into chunam, i.e.: prepared lime for building purposes, or to be used by natives for chewing with the betel-nut. Forty or fifty years ago, before the large receipts of mother-of-pearl from Australia and the southern Pacific, there was a good market for the shell for button manufacture and the like, but since 1875 only the choicest have been used for this purpose, and these are worth only about $25 per ton delivered in Europe.

It will be observed that up to the close of the season of 1906, the Ceylon fisheries were operated by the colonial government as a state monopoly. In 1904, proposals were made to the British colonial office by a London syndicate with a view to leasing the fisheries for a term 125of years. The original suggestion was that they should be leased for thirty years in consideration of an annual rental of £13,000 or Rs.195,000, together with a share of the net profits after payment of a reasonable rate of interest on the investment; and later it was suggested that the rental be Rs.100,000 a year and twenty per cent. of the profits after seven per cent. on capital had been paid to the shareholders. But the government preferred a definite money payment without any rights to share in the profits realized; and after lengthy negotiations this was fixed at Rs.310,000 annually, with certain preliminary payments. Accordingly, on November 30, 1905, a preliminary agreement was executed between the crown agents for the colonies, acting on behalf of the government of Ceylon, and representatives of the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers, Limited. On February 27, 1906, this agreement was confirmed and made effective by special ordinance[156] of the governor and legislative council of Ceylon, and the crown agents were authorized to execute the lease as of January 1, 1906.

The principal financial terms of this lease required the company to purchase the expensive Dixon pearl-washing machine at a cost of Rs.120,000, which was Rs.42,000 less than it cost the government during the preceding two years; to purchase at a cost of Rs.62,501 the steamship Violet, which the government had used in its experimental oyster-culture; to reimburse the government each year the amount spent in policing, sanitation and hospital services at the fishery camp, which had in some individual seasons amounted to more than Rs.200,000; to expend each year from Rs.50,000 to Rs.150,000 in the development of pearl-oyster culture; and to pay an annual rental of Rs.315,000, a rate based roughly on the average return of the preceding twenty years, including the record year of 1905.

The company was authorized to take up the pearl-oysters by means of divers, or by steam dredges, or by such other mechanical means as might appear most advantageous, and to carry on such experiments with the immature oysters as appeared most conducive to the profitable working of the fisheries, provided they do nothing to make the resources less valuable at the expiration of the lease.

One of the most interesting features of the lease is that relating to the power of the colonial government to grant an exclusive right of fishing on the banks outside the three-mile limit. The question of this exclusive right arose in 1890, but was not conclusively determined. Fearing lest this authority did not exist, the terms in which the right of fishing was conveyed were carefully chosen by the attorney general to protect the government from liability “should any international 126question arise”;[157] and the government leased to the company “all the right or privilege which the lessors have hereto exercised and enjoyed of fishing for and taking pearl-oysters on the coasts of Ceylon between Talaimannar and Dutch Bay Point, to the intent that the company so far as the lessors can secure the same may have the exclusive right, liberty and authority to fish for, take and carry away pearl-oysters within the said limits.... But nothing in this lease shall be taken to make the lessors answerable in damages if owing to any cause beyond the control of the lessors the company is prevented from fully exercising and enjoying such exclusive right and privilege.”[158]

In the meantime, while the negotiations were in progress, there occurred the very profitable fishery of 1905, from which the colonial government derived a revenue of Rs.2,510,727, or approximately eight times the proposed annual rental; and before the lease was finally concluded occurred the fishery of 1906, with its revenue of Rs.1,376,746. While it is true that a succession of barren seasons prevailed from 1892 to 1902, yet, as the revenue in 1903 was Rs.829,548, and in 1904 it was Rs.1,065,751, there was, in the four years ending in 1906, a revenue to the government of Rs.5,782,772, or nearly as much as the total amount to be derived from the lease during the twenty years it was to run. These figures seemed to furnish strong reasons for retaining such a valuable source of revenue, with its possibilities of still greater expansion under the supervision and direction of specialists in the employ of the government.

Many of the inhabitants of Ceylon saw in this a decided objection to the lease, and there was a general feeling of indignation in the colony, with public meetings in protest, and the like. In reply to a memorial prepared at one of these meetings held in Colombo, Lord Elgin, the British secretary of state for the colonies, wrote under date of May 9, 1906:

The memorialists have protested against the lease on the double ground that a lease on any terms is contrary to the best interests of Ceylon, and that the rent agreed upon is “under existing circumstances wholly inadequate.” There must always be in cases of this kind a difference of opinion as to whether a fixed annual sum, with immunity from all expense and sundry other advantages, is or is not preferable to continuing to face all the risks for the sake of all the profits. In the present instance the lease appears to me to have been drafted with a sincere desire to safeguard to the utmost the property and interests of the Colony.

Street scene in Marichchikadde, the pearling camp of Ceylon

Return of the fleet from the pearl reefs to Marichchikadde, Ceylon

127It may be true that the development of the fishery upon a scientific system affords good prospect of a greater return in the future than has been obtained in the past, and affords at least the hope that the barren cycles which have been so common in the past will not recur to the same extent. But the operations necessary to that end are of a highly technical and experimental character, and I am very doubtful whether any machinery which could be set in motion by the Government would be suited to develop processes at once so doubtful and so delicate. In twenty years’ time the Colonial Government will receive back the fishery, not only intact, but in the most perfect state to which commercial enterprise and scientific methods can raise it, and, in the meanwhile, a regular and substantial payment is assured. Twenty years are no doubt a considerable period in the lifetime of individuals; but if within that time all the resources that science can contribute toward systematic development of the fisheries have been applied and thoroughly tested, the period will not, I think, be regarded as excessive or unfortunate in the history of a fishery which has lasted for more than two thousand years.[159]

The Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers, Limited, with a paid up capital of £165,000, has just entered into possession of its lease, and it is uncertain what changes will be made in the methods of the fishery or what measure of success will follow the attempts at pearl-oyster culture and the growth of pearls. The attention of the pearling interests of the world is now directed to the work of this company in the development of its magnificent leasehold, and it seems not unlikely that greater changes will be made in the methods of the industry during the ensuing decade than have occurred in the whole of the last ten centuries.[160]

A curious fishery, with the Placuna placenta for its object, exists in Tablegram Lake, a small bay in northeastern Ceylon adjacent to the magnificent harbor of Trincomali, which Nelson declared to be “the finest in the world.” At intervals during the nineteenth century, the Ceylon government leased the Tablegram Lake fishery to native bidders for a period of three consecutive years. In 1857, Dr. Kelaart visited the place and calculated that in the three years preceding, eighteen million oysters had been removed.[161] Owing to scarcity of the mollusk, no fisheries have existed since 1890, but from 1882 to 1890 they were regularly leased at an average of Rs.5000 for each term of three years. Prof. James Hornell, who made a careful examination in 1905, reported that if the business were carried on providently and systematically, “it should become the source of a fairly regular annual revenue to Government of from Rs.10,000 to Rs.12,000, possibly even more.”[162]

128The Placuna oysters are caught by Moormen divers, who are scarcely equal physically to the pearl fishery in the sea. They rarely descend more than four fathoms, and most of the work in Tablegram Bay is in less than two fathoms. Each diver returns with from one to five or more oysters, depending on their abundance, and receives one half of the catch as his share of the proceeds. Unlike the method in the pearl-oyster fishery of Ceylon, the Placuna oysters are opened while fresh, this work being performed by coolies, who are compensated at the rate of about Rs.3 per 1000.


There are two moments in a diver’s life:
One, when a beggar, he prepares to plunge;
Then, when a prince, he rises with his prize.
Robert Browning.

Notwithstanding the great fame of the pearl fisheries of India, those prosecuted within the limits of British India proper are of small extent. The only pearl resources within the empire are the rarely productive reefs on the Madras coast in the vicinity of Tuticorin, the relatively modern fisheries of Mergui Archipelago, and some small reefs of only local importance on the Malabar coast and in the Bombay presidency.

The celebrity of India in connection with the pearl fisheries has never rested on the extent of those within the territorial limits or under the control of this government. It originated in the fact that it is largely Indian capital which finances the fisheries of Ceylon and of the Persian Gulf; nearly all of the divers and others employed in Ceylon are from the coast of this empire, and most of the pearls are purchased by merchants of Bombay, Madura, Trichinopoli, and other large towns. Thus, from an economic and industrial point of view, the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, and to a less extent those of the Persian Gulf, have contributed to the fame and to the wealth of the Empire of India.

The pearl fisheries off Tuticorin in the Madras presidency have been referred to incidentally in the account of the fisheries of Ceylon. They are separated by only a few miles of water, and are prosecuted by the same fishermen and in precisely the same manner. Consequently, it is difficult to discuss them separately, especially in their early history and during the time that this part of the world was under the rule of the Portuguese and later of the Dutch.


The pearling regions in Ceylon and British India

The fisheries of the Madras coast compete in antiquity with those of Ceylon. Indeed, from the time of Ptolemy to the seventeenth century, the industry seems to have been prosecuted largely from the Madras side of the gulf, centering at Chayl or Coil on the sandy promontory of Ramnad. This place appears to be the Κόλχοι of Ptolemy, the Ramana Koil of the natives, as well as the Cael of the travelers of the Middle Ages. But during the last three hundred years, the 130Ceylon side has been the scene of the greatest pearling operations; and from the Madras coast, the fisheries have not been prosecuted except at long intervals, averaging once in fifteen or twenty years.

Owing to the scarcity of oysters and to other causes, the fishery was prosecuted on the Madras coast in only eight years of the whole period from 1768 to 1907. These years of productivity were 1822, 1830, 1860, 1861, 1882, 1889, 1890, and 1900; and even then the yield was relatively small. The largest was 15,874,500 oysters in 1860, from which the Madras government derived a revenue of Rs.250,276; and about half as many oysters were obtained in 1861 with a revenue of Rs.129,003. Numerous and prolonged experiments in conserving the reefs and in cultivating the oysters have been made without success. The reason usually given for the greater wealth of oysters on the Ceylon side is, that it is more sheltered from the strong currents which sweep down the Bay of Bengal into the Gulf of Manaar and impinge directly on the coast of the mainland.

The headquarters of the fishery are at Tuticorin, near to Madura, the Benares of the south, the holy “City of Sweetness” which the gods have delighted to honor from time immemorial. But the camp is commonly erected of palmyra and bamboo on the barren shore several miles distant from Tuticorin. The 1890 fishery was at Salápatturai, and that of 1900 at a place which received the mouth-filling name of Veerapandianpatanam.

The preparations for pearling at Tuticorin are similar to those on the Ceylon coast. In the autumn the reefs are examined by government inspectors, and if the conditions seem to warrant a fishery in the following spring, arrangements are made therefor and the proper notification issued. The announcement follows the general plan of that in Ceylon. The following, from the Fort St. George “Gazette,” Madras, January 16, 1900, is a copy of the notification preceding the last fishery which has occurred:

Notice is hereby given that a pearl fishery will take place at Veerapandianpatanam on or about the 12th March, 1900.

1. The bank to be fished is the Theradipulipudithapar, estimated to employ 100 boats for twenty days with average loads of 7,000 oysters per day.

2. It is therefore recommended that such boat owners and divers as may wish to be employed shall be at Tuticorin on or before the 1st of March next and anchor their boats abreast of the government flagstaff; the first day’s fishing will take place on the 12th of March, weather permitting.

3. The fishery will be conducted on account of Government, and the oysters put up for sale in such lots as may be deemed expedient.

4. The arrangements of the fishery will be the same as have been usual on similar occasions.


Now in the United States National Museum, Washington, D. C.

1315. Payments to be made in ready money in rupees or in Government of India notes. Checks on the Bank of Madras or Bank Agencies will be received on letters of credit being produced to warrant the drawing of such checks.

6. All particulars can be obtained on application to the Superintendent of Pearl Fisheries, Tuticorin.

Sd/—J. P. Bedford,
Tinnevelly Collector’s Office,
16th November 1899.

On the long sweep of desolate shore at a place convenient to the reefs, a temporary camp is erected, just as is done on the Ceylon coast. However, this camp is not nearly so large, only about one fourth or one fifth the size of that on the eastern side of the gulf. It resembles the larger one in the quarters for divers and merchants, the bazaars, the bungalows for the officials, the hospital, the sale and washing inclosures, etc.; in addition to these is the temporary Roman Catholic chapel.

The divers are mainly of the Parawa caste from Tuticorin, Pinnacoil, Pamban, etc. on the Madras coast. Although influenced by many Hindu superstitions, they are nominally Roman Catholics, as evidenced by the scapulars suspended from the neck, their ancestors having been converted and baptized through the zealous work of that prince of missionaries, St. Francis Xavier, in the sixteenth century. Even yet a chapel at Pinnacoil is held in special reverence by these people as a place where the saintly father preached. Professor Hornell writes that the present hereditary head of this caste is Don Gabriel de Croos Lazarus Motha Vaz, known officially as the Jati Talaiva More, or Jati Talaivan. He resides at Tuticorin, and is largely the intermediary between the government and the Parawa fishermen.

In the details of its prosecution, the Madras fishery differs in no important particular from that of Ceylon. The boats are manned and operated in precisely the same way; they fish in the morning only, taking advantage of the prevailing favorable winds; the divers carry the oysters into the government inclosure, and divide them into three equal lots, of which they receive one; the share of the government is auctioned daily, the divers disposing of theirs as they choose; and the oysters are rotted and washed in the same manner as in Ceylon.

In addition to the fishery for pearl-oysters at Tuticorin, two other species of pearl-producing mollusks are collected in the Madras presidency; one of these is a species of mussel (Mytilus smaragdinus, according to Dr. Edgar Thurston of the Madras Museum), which is collected from the estuary of the Sonnapore River near Berhampore; 132and the other is the Placuna placenta, found in many places in this presidency, and especially in Pulicat Lake and in the vicinity of Tuticorin.

The Sonnapore mussels, which are small and bright green in color, are found adhering to the masses of edible oysters in depths of ten or twelve feet of water. They are caught in a novel manner, as described in a letter from the acting collector of customs at Ganjam. Thrusting a long bamboo pole deep into the bottom of the reef, the fisherman dives down, and holding on to this bamboo, breaks off as large a mass of the oysters as he can bring to the surface in one hand, helping himself up the bamboo pole with the other. Removing the mussels from the mass, he opens them with a suitable knife and by running his thumbs and fingers over the flesh tissues, detects the pearls therein. These pearls are of very inferior quality and of little ornamental value. They are sold mostly for chunám and for placing in the mouth of deceased Hindus.

Along the west coast of India, in the Bombay presidency, a few pearls are found at various places, but the output is of slight value. The most important of these is off the coast of Nawanagar, on the south side of the Gulf of Cutch, where the true pearl-oyster is found.

According to the “Jamnagar Diwan,” the yearly value of the Nawanagar fisheries is about Rs.4000. This is smaller than formerly, as the reefs are in a depleted state; to give them a chance to recuperate, a close season was established in 1905. The oysters are found along a coast-line eighty miles in length extending from Mangra, near Jodya Bunder, to Pindera in the Gulf of Cutch, and also about the islands of Ajad, Chauk, Kalumbar, and Nora, which are also situated in the Cutch Gulf. They are not procured by diving, but are gathered off the rocks when the tide is out. During the monsoon, the collection is limited to eight days in the month; i.e., from the twelfth to the fifteenth of each half according to the Hindu calendar.

The fisheries are by law restricted exclusively to the waghers of ten villages, which are Varinar, Sashana, Sika, Balachedi, Jhakher, Sarmat, Bharana, Salaya, Chudesar, and Bedi. The collection of the pearls is left entirely to these men, who at Divala—the Hindu new year—bring all the pearls gathered by them to the durbar. There an estimate is made of their value, one fourth of which is paid to the waghers, and the pearls are turned over to the representatives of the state treasury for sale. This method of conducting the industry has been long established. In recent years the government experimented in farming out the revenue, but the old custom has been resumed in order to placate the native fishermen.

A few pearl-oysters are also found on the Ratnagiri coast below 133Bombay, and likewise at Kananur in the Malabar district. In 1901–1902, there was some local excitement about pearls found at Belapur and quantities were reported as collected; but since then little has been heard of the industry in that region.

Elsewhere on the west coast of India, pearls are obtained from the so-called “window-glass” shell, of the genus Placuna. The individual shells are flat, thin, and transparent, and are still used in Goa and vicinity as a substitute for glass in windows. This mollusk is abundant from Karachi, near the Baluchistan border, to the Kanara district south of Bombay; and wherever it occurs in any abundance it is collected for the sake of the small pearls found therein.

Of the fishery at Karachi, Mr. E. H. Aitken writes: “It is farmed out by Government for a good sum. In 1901, the amount realized was Rs.3650 for a period of three years; but the lessee lost heavily, and in 1904 the highest offer for a similar period of three years was Rs.1851. Pearls may be found in as many as ten to twenty per cent. of the mature mollusks.” Pearls are far more numerous in the Placuna than in the pearl-oysters, but few of them are of sufficient size or luster to be used as ornaments, ranking with the so-called medicinal pearls of Europe. They are much softer in texture than the pearls of the Margaritiferæ. The largest are commonly of irregular form, with the surface slightly botryoidal or like the “strawberry” pearls of the Mississippi. While not often used as ornaments, they are highly valued by the Hindus in calcined or powdered form for medicinal purposes, and especially to be chewed with the betel-nut, and are also used in the original form in funeral rites, a small quantity being placed in the mouth of a deceased person.

In the Mergui Archipelago, which is within the territory of lower Burma and under the jurisdiction of the government of British India, patches of pearl-oyster reefs are scattered over an area roughly computed at 11,000 square miles, taking 97° 40′ as the western boundary. They occur principally in the strong tidal passages among the islands. The bottom is formed largely of porphyritic granite interspersed with sand and thinly covered with corals, coral cups, the long whip-like black coral (Antipathes arborea), and other submarine animal and vegetable growths.[163] These constitute a home most favorable to the growth and development of molluscan life.

Of the several species of pearl-bearing mollusks occurring in the Mergui Archipelago, by far the most important is the “mok,” or large Australian pearl-oyster (Margaritifera maxima). The shell attains a maximum size of about thirteen inches in diameter, and the nacre is of a milky or silvery color. This species occurs in its two varieties of 134“golden lip” and “silver edge,” the former being in greater abundance. The “silver edge” shell is the more valuable owing to its uniformity of coloring, and the pearls found therein are of superior luster and orient.

The “pate goung,” or Lingah pearl-oyster (Margaritifera vulgaris), is similar to that of the Gulf of Manaar. It is circular in shape and measures about two and one half inches in diameter. The nacre is silvery, with slight yellowish tinge. Many of the pearls from this species are of a silvery color, but most of them are yellowish or golden. The fishery for this mollusk is of little importance compared with that for the larger pearl-oyster, which is the species referred to in Mergui when not otherwise mentioned.

The pearl fisheries of Mergui originated with the Selangs or Salangs, a nomadic race of maritime gipsies, the last remnants of whom live among the three thousand islands of this group. They are supposed to be of Malay descent; but their early history is unknown, and they are rapidly passing away in the conflict of existence with the neighboring peoples. Probably in no part of the world are the pearl fisheries prosecuted by a more primitive class of men. With their women and children, they live mainly in roomy dug-out boats; but during the southwest monsoon they erect temporary shelters on the shore, these consisting of a few frail sticks, supporting coverings of braided mats, and floors of bamboo strips.

They have few wants and derive a livelihood principally from gathering and bartering shells, pearls, cured thadecon, and nests of the sea-swallow (Collocalia). Within depths of six or eight fathoms they are fairly good divers, both the men and the women, but their physical endurance is slight. Their trade is mostly with Chinese merchants who visit them in small vessels. No information exists as to when the Selangs first found profit in searching for pearls; but it was probably many centuries ago, and for a long time they made contributions of them to the Buddhist rulers of Burma.

Shortly after the acquisition of Mergui Archipelago in 1826, representatives of the British government brought experienced divers from southern India to examine more fully the resources which the Selangs had made known; but as only seed-pearls were secured, the government concluded that they would yield an insignificant revenue, and the attempt to develop these resources was given up.[164]

However, the Selangs continued to fish in their primitive fashion; and as the market for the shell developed, the profits increased. But their wants were easily appeased, and the increased profits were counterbalanced by decreased activities. Old traders among the islands 135tell of the opportunities of those days when choice pearls could be obtained for a pinch of opium or for a few ounces of tobacco.

Far from the highways of the world, the Selangs remained undisturbed in their beautiful seas until nearly twenty years ago. Meanwhile, 800 miles distant, Singapore had arisen from a desert shore to the rank of a great seaport, and the headquarters for the pearl fishery of the Malay Archipelago and of the northwestern coast of Australia. In this fishery the vessels were well equipped and depended on the use of diving apparatus rather than on nude divers.

Beginning about 1888, some of these vessels made occasional visits to the Mergui pearl-oyster reefs, and usually with very profitable results. This was the first instance in which diving apparatus was successfully introduced on any part of the Asiatic coast from the Red Sea to Malacca Strait. So great was the profit that nearly every one on the lower coast of Burma with sufficient capital or credit hastened to obtain a boat and diving equipment. The success of some of these early ventures was remarkable, single pearls worth $3000, $5000, and even $10,000 each being secured. The reefs in the shoal waters were rapidly depleted, to the great disadvantage of the nude Selangs, who can do little in deep water.

With a view to deriving a revenue from these well-equipped vessels, the government of Burma in 1898 divided the 11,000 square miles of pearling territory into five definite areas known as “blocks.” The area within each of these blocks was surveyed, marked, and charted; and the financial commissioner from time to time determined as to each block whether licenses for pearl fishing should be issued, or whether the exclusive right therein should be leased. These leases were disposed of either by inviting tenders and granting the lease to any of the persons who might tender, or by public auction, as the financial commissioner might direct. By the terms of the lease, the lessee was obliged to register at the office of the deputy commissioner of finance the number of boats and pumps employed by him; to declare by letter, at the end of each month, the number, weight, and estimated value of all mother-of-pearl shell and pearls collected during the month, and to refrain from taking any mother-of-pearl measuring less than six inches from lip to hinge.

Outside the limits of blocks in which the exclusive pearl fishing was leased, licenses to use diving implements were granted in such number and on payment of such fees, not exceeding Rs.1000 per apparatus, as might from time to time be fixed, every such license expiring on June 30 next following the date on which it was granted, and no license was transferable.

The five blocks in which the Mergui pearling rights were leased are 136of large area, averaging somewhat over 2000 square miles each. The lessees customarily granted permits to subsidiary fishermen to operate in their respective blocks, on payment of a royalty, this ranging in amount from 12½ to 25 per cent. of the mother-of-pearl secured, and the pearls found were the absolute property of the fishermen.

Until 1900 the pearling rights were leased by blocks as above noted. Rights to catch trochus, green snail shells, and sea-slugs, were included in the lease. It was noticed that European pearlers always sublet the trochus and green snail rights, and it was decided to auction these separately; while as regards pearling proper the auction system was abolished in that year in favor of a system of licensing individual vessels for a fee of Rs.400 each. The right to collect pearls by nude diving was thought for some time to have been left free; but subsequently it was auctioned along with the rights to collect green snails, trochus and sea-slugs.

The following summary, compiled from data furnished by Mr. I. H. Burkill of the Indian Civil Service, shows the extent of the pearl and shell fisheries of Mergui for a series of years.

Year. No. of Pumps. Revenue from Pumps.
Revenue from Auction Rights.
Reported Value of Yield.
1904 70 28,000 22,500 149,239
1905 77 30,800 14,200 131,921
1906 80 32,000 15,300 124,798
1907 76 30,400 19,700  

The local headquarters of the industry are at Mergui, but most of the supplies are drawn from Maulmain and Rangoon, or from the more distant Singapore, where the industry is financed. The season extends from October to April or May, when the southwest monsoon begins and puts a stop to the fishery on this exposed coast.

The boats used are mostly of Burmese build. They measure from 25 to 35 feet in length, and 7 or 8 feet in width, and have 18 to 24 inches of draft, with curved or half-moon shaped keels, and with high square sterns. Owing to the very light draft and the amount of free-board, they are deficient in weatherly qualities; but are fast sailors before the wind and are easily rowed from place to place. For this reason they are especially suited to the industry in Mergui, because during the pearling season calms and light winds prevail and oars form the principal motive power, especially in the channels and passageways between the islands where the tides are frequently very swift.

If a number of boats are of the same ownership, a schooner of thirty to one hundred tons’ capacity is commonly provided as a floating station and base of supplies for them; the gathering of such a fleet presents an interesting sight, like a great white hen among her brood of chickens.


Necklace and earrings. Property of an American lady

137Most of the boats are from Mergui, and are chartered at a monthly rate of from Rs.105 to Rs.120 each, including a crew of four or five Burmans with their subsistence, consisting principally of rice and salted fish; the charterer is further required to pay each member of the crew four annas, or one rupee, for each day actually employed in operating the diving pump. In addition to these men, each boat carries one diver and an attendant, commonly known as “tender.” The boat is sailed or rowed by the crew, as directed by the diver; and while the latter is submerged, the boat and crew are under the supervision of the attendant.

The divers are the most important men in the fleet, for on their ability and efficiency depends the success of the enterprise. A very considerable portion of them are natives of the Philippine Islands, although many Japanese have been employed recently, and the number is increasing. The compensation is at the rate of £2 to £4 per month, and £20 for each ton of mother-of-pearl secured. The attendants are likewise mostly Manilamen, but many Malayans and Burmans are employed; the wages range from Rs.50 to Rs.80 per month, including provisions. The peculiar duties of the attendant are to help the diver into his dress, place the shoulder leads into position, screw on the helmet, and especially to receive and respond to signals and to direct the movements of the vessel in accordance therewith.

The scaphander, or diving dress, is composed of solid sheet rubber, covered on both sides with canvas. The head-piece is made of tinned copper, and is fitted with three glasses, one at the front and one on each side, so as to afford the diver as wide a view as is consistent with strength of construction. It has a valve by which he can regulate the pressure of the atmosphere. The dress has a double collar, the inner portion coming up around the neck, and the other hermetically fastened to the breastplate. The breastplate is likewise made of copper. The suit is connected with the air-pump by means of a stout rubber tube which enters the helmet, and through which air is supplied to the diver incased therein. This air-tube consists of three or four lengths—each of fifty feet—of light hose, commonly called “pipe.” This is buoyant so that it may be easily pulled along, and may not readily foul among the rocks. However, when working on very rough bottom with sharp-edged stones, the lower length is of stouter material in order to resist the chafing on the bottom. Before descending, the air-line is loosely coiled around the diver’s arm to prevent a sudden strain on it when it is tightened, and a signal-line is attached to his waist to enable him to communicate with the men above.

138In fishing, if the current is slight, the boat is permitted to drift therewith, and if there is little or no current, it is propelled by oars as may be required. The diver—fully dressed in the rubber suit with helmet, etc.,—goes overboard easily by means of a Jacob’s ladder of five or six rungs on the port side of the boat, and is lowered by an attendant, who gives close attention to the lines, the crew having manned the pump in the meantime. On reaching bottom, the diver walks along, following the course of the moving boat and swinging his shoulders from side to side to take in a wide vision in his search for oysters. In clear water he can discover them at a distance of twenty-five or thirty feet, even when fifteen fathoms below the surface; but sometimes the water is so clouded that it may be necessary for him to go almost on hands and knees to see them, and when the seaweeds are thick and high, he may locate them almost as much by feeling as by sight. Owing to this difficulty in seeing the oysters, the work is suspended in rough weather and for many days following. The catch is placed in a sack or basket of quarter inch rope, which is raised when filled, emptied, and returned to the bottom by means of a rope.

Finding the shell is by no means an easy matter, and much natural hunter-craft is necessary. Of a neutral color, it is not at all conspicuous as it lies on a gray coral bed, itself covered with coral or sponge or hidden in dense masses of gorgeous seaweeds. Still less visible is the shell on a muddy bottom, for there it embeds itself and exposes only half an inch or so of the “lip.” As the boat is impelled by the tide, the diver may have to walk rapidly in a swinging gait; and if he should stumble or fall while stooping to pick up the shell, recovery of balance may be difficult. He must be constantly on the alert and has many dangers to avoid. Sharks are numerous in these clear tropical waters; but although disaster sometimes results, they are timid, a stream of air bubbles from the sleeve of the dress sending them away in fright. More fruitful sources of danger are fouled air-pipes, broken pumps, falling into holes, and especially paralysis from recklessly deep diving.

When the diver wishes to come up, he closes the escape valve in his helmet; his dress fills and distends with air, causing a speedy return to the surface, and the tender hauls him alongside by means of the life-line. After “blowing” for a few minutes with the helmet removed, and usually enjoying the indispensable cigarette, he returns to the bottom.

When the Mergui reefs were first exploited by diving apparatus, the bulk of the shells were secured from depths of ten to twelve fathoms. These shallow reefs have been exhausted, temporarily, at 139least, and the divers now work in deeper water, fifteen, twenty, and even twenty-five fathoms, if the bottom is very uneven and rocky. Many shells are found in the depressions between the large boulders, which may be twenty or thirty feet deeper than the surrounding areas.

The oysters are opened by means of the long-bladed working-knife of the country, known as dah-she. The flesh is thrown into a large basket or washtub, where it is searched by the proprietor of the boat, who takes each piece between the hands and squeezes and feels through every part of it. After the flesh has been carefully examined, the sediment at the bottom of the tub is washed and panned to obtain those pearls which have fallen through the flesh tissues. The Mergui pearls are commonly of good color and luster, and compare favorably with those from the Sulu Archipelago or the Dutch East Indies.

The sea-green shell of the snail (Turbo marmoratus) is gathered in large quantities by the nude diving Selangs, who barter it to Chinese traders at the equivalent of Rs.8 or 10 per 100 in number. The flesh is also dried and disposed of to these traders under the name of thadecon, at about Rs.3 per viss of 3.33 pounds. This mollusk yields a few greenish yellow pearls.

In 1895, three pearl reefs were discovered off the Bassein coast in the district of Irawadi.[165] These proved fairly remunerative for one season and a portion of another, when they were abandoned.


Under the Ptolemies, and even long after—under the Califs—these were islands whose merchants were princes; but their bustle and glory have since departed from them, and they are now thinly inhabited by a race of miserable fishermen.

James Bruce (1790).

The Red Sea was one of the most ancient sources of pearls, furnishing these gems for centuries before the Christian era, and particularly during the reign of the Ptolemies. These pearls were alluded to by Strabo, Ælianus, and other classical writers. Although the prominence of the fisheries has suffered by comparison with those of Persia and Ceylon, the yield has been more or less extensive from the days of Solomon up to the present time.

Of the several pearl-yielding mollusks in the Red Sea and on the 140southeast coast of Arabia, the largest and best known is that called “sadof” by the Arabs, and which has been identified by Jameson as Margaritifera m. erythræensis. This is closely related to the large species in the Persian Gulf. It is commonly four or five inches in diameter, and in exceptional instances attains a diameter of eight inches and a weight of three pounds or more. In addition to its size, it is distinguished by a dark green coloring about the edges, and a more or less greenish tint over the nacreous interior surface; this color is darker in the vicinity of Jiddah and Suakin than at the southern end of the sea, or in the Gulf of Aden. This species occurs singly rather than congregated in beds or reefs. Although it is found in depths of fifteen fathoms or more, most of the fishing is in less than five fathoms of water.

Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the pearling center of the world

The “sadof” yields pearls only rarely, and is sought principally for 141the shells, which afford good qualities of mother-of-pearl, the pearls furnishing an additional but always looked-for profit to the regular source of income. As in other regions, there is no constant relation between the value of the pearls and the quantity of mollusks taken. The oysters of some reefs are comparatively rich in certain years; while in other seasons or on other reefs the mollusks may be numerous but yield very few pearls.

The second species of importance in the Red Sea is similar to the Lingah oyster and is known to the Arabs as “bulbul.” This is much smaller than the “sadof,” averaging less than three inches in diameter. It is collected for the pearls exclusively, the shells being too small for industrial use; but only 3 or 4 per cent. of the individuals yield pearls.

It is claimed by writers of authority that it is the red Pinna pearl from this sea that is referred to in the Scriptures under the name peninim as the most precious product, and which has been translated as rubies.[166] The shell is extremely fragile, and the nacreous interior is white tinged with a beautiful red. It is of little importance in the commercial fisheries of the Red Sea at the present time.

The “sadof” is more scattered and less numerous than the “bulbul”; and in order to save much useless diving, it is customary to inspect the bottom before descending. Therefore, operations are largely restricted to calm weather, when the water is sufficiently clear to enable the divers to sight the individual oysters on the bottom. In recent years, water-telescopes have been used to assist in locating them. The most popular form consists of a tin can with a sheet of glass inserted in the bottom. The glazed end of the tin is submerged several inches below the surface, affording a far-reaching and much clearer vision. In this fishery the divers work from small canoes (uri), each manned by two men, one of whom rows while the other leans over the bow and searches for the oysters. When one is sighted, he dives into the water for it, and then returns to the boat to resume the search.

The pearling season begins commonly in March or April, and continues until about the end of May; it is renewed in the autumn, continuing through September and October.[167] The vessels employed are of two varieties: dhows carrying from twenty to eighty men each, and the much smaller sambuks or sail-boats without decks, each with from six to twenty-five men, most of whom are Negro slaves. Many of the large vessels are from the Persian Gulf. The sambuks are owned principally by Zobeid Bedouins inhabiting the coast between Jiddah and Yambo, and also the islands near the southern end of the 142sea, which are very hot-beds of pearls, shells, religious frenzy and half famished Arabs and Negro slaves.

The “bulbul” oysters are taken in nearly the same manner as in the Persian Gulf. When the vessel is located over the reef, each diver descends, commonly with a short stick of iron or hard wood, with which he releases the oysters within reach; placing them in a sack, he is pulled up by an attendant when his breath is nearly exhausted.

The fisheries are prosecuted along both sides of the Red Sea and in the channels among the islands, from the Gulf of Akabah to Bab-el-Mandeb. They are especially extensive among the Dahlak Islands on the coast of the Italian colony Eritrea, where the population is largely supported by them. This was the center of the industry during the time of the Ptolemies and in the early Christian era. The fisheries are also important in the vicinity of Jiddah, the port of entrance for Mecca and Medina, holiest places of Islam. They likewise exist near Kosseir at the northern end of the sea, and at Suakin, Massawa, the Farsan Islands, and Loheia, near the lower end. They are carried on by Arabs, who succeed in evading efforts at control on the part of the local governments. Even on the African side, the Arab fishermen predominate, for the native Egyptian has never evinced much fondness for venturing on the sea.

On the southeast coast of Arabia, pearl fishermen are to be found at the various harbors from Aden to Muscat. Their fantastic dhows are met with in the harbor of Makalla, and also in that of Shehr. On the Oman coast, the ports of Sur and of sun-scorched Muscat do a considerable pearling business, not only locally but to the Sokotra Islands, and even on the coast of East Africa and Zanzibar, the trading baggalas adding pearling and illicit slave-trading to their many sources of income. A number of these traders, each with an instinct for pearls equal to that of a trained hound for game, visit the fishing centers at intervals, and exchange needful commodities for pearls and shells.

The Arab pearl-divers of the Red Sea have been noted for the depths to which they can descend. Lieutenant J. R. Wellsted, of the Indian Navy, who had unusual facilities for acquaintance with their exploits, reported that in the Persian Gulf the fishermen rarely descended beyond eleven or twelve fathoms, and even then they exhibited signs of exhaustion; but that in the Red Sea they go down twice that depth. Among the most noted of these divers of the last century was old Serúr, who attracted the notice of many travelers. Lieutenant Wellsted states that he saw him descend repeatedly to twenty-five fathoms without the slightest evidence of distress; that he frequently dived in thirty fathoms, and is reported to have brought up mud from the bottom at a depth of thirty-five fathoms, which is about the record, the pressure of the water being nearly 90 pounds to the square inch. His sons were also remarkably expert; one of them when scarcely thirteen years of age would descend to a depth of twenty-five fathoms.[168]


In the collection of Dr. Bashford Dean

143An interesting story of an Arab’s diving ability is told by Lieutenant Wellsted: “In 1827, we were cruising in the sloop Ternate on the pearl banks. Whilst becalmed and drifting slowly along with the current, several of the officers and men were looking over the side at our Arab pilot, who had been amusing himself in diving for oysters. After several attempts, his search proved unsuccessful. ‘Since I cannot get oysters I will now,’ said he, ‘dive for and catch fish.’ All ridiculed the idea. He went down again, and great was our astonishment to see him, after a short time, rise to the surface with a small rock-fish in each hand. His own explanation of the feat was, that as he seated himself at the bottom, the fish came around and nibbled at his skin. Watching his opportunity, he seized and secured his prey by thrusting his thumb and forefinger into their expanded gills.”[169]

Owing to the character of the fishery and the lack of government supervision, it is extremely difficult to determine accurately the extent of this industry in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. All over this coast extends the influence of the Hindu traders, who finance the fisheries and purchase most of the catch. The pearls are sent mostly to Bombay, and are not reported in the official returns of the Red Sea ports. The fishermen are suspicious of outside inquiries, and are far from anxious to impart reliable information. Probably the best estimates of the catch are to be obtained from Bombay merchants, from whom A. Perazzoli learned in 1898 that pearls to the value of 2,000,000 lire ($400,000) were carried from the Red Sea to Bombay each year.[170] In the last four or five years the output has been smaller than usual, owing to disturbed political conditions.

The annual product of “Egyptian” and “Bombay” shells in these fisheries is usually upward of 1000 tons, worth from $100 to $600 per ton, according to quality. Most of these go to Austria and France, only about 200 tons reaching London each year. Owing to the dark color and the lack of thickness in the nacreous layer, they are scarcely suitable for anything else than button manufacture. Many of them are sent to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where they are cut into various shapes for crosses, crucifixes, wafer-boxes, beads, and nearly every conceivable article in which mother-of-pearl is 144manufactured. Many of the choicest shells are incised with scriptural or allegorical designs for sale to tourists as well as for export. The best of the engraved shells sell for $10 to $50, and the cheaper ones for less than $1 each. This industry is of great importance in Bethlehem, giving employment to a considerable percentage of the eight thousand inhabitants of the village.

Doubtless in no pearl fishery in the world are greater hardships endured than in the Red Sea and along the coast of the Arabian Gulf. In practically every other region, the industry is carried on under government supervision, and there is little opportunity for ill-treatment of the humbler fishermen. But the fanatics who control the fishery on the Arabian coast—untrammeled by authorities and responsible to none—show little consideration for the poor divers, and particularly for the unfortunate black slaves brought from the coast of Africa.

These pearl fishermen lead a very eventful life, the divers especially. They see some wonderful sights down below the surface-plant life and creeping things and enemies innumerable. Dropping from the sun-scorched surface down into the deep cool waters, everything shows “a sea change, into something rich and strange,” just as the eyes of the drowned man in Ariel’s song are turned into pearls and his bones into coral.

And there are enemies innumerable. The terrible sharks, prowling about near the bottom, prove a source of perpetual uneasiness, and in the aggregate many fishermen are eaten by these bloodthirsty tigers of the sea. There are horrible conflicts with devil-fish equaling that in Hugo’s “Toilers of the Sea.” The saw-fish is also a source of danger, particularly in the Arabian Gulf, and instances are reported in which divers have been cut in two by these animals, which sometimes attain a length of twelve or fifteen feet, and possess a saw five feet long and three inches broad, armed on each edge with teeth two inches in length. Another menacing peril is the giant clam (Tridacna gigas), a monster bivalve, whose shell measures two or three feet in diameter, and is firmly anchored to the bottom. This mollusk occurs on many of the Asiatic pearling grounds. Lying with the scalloped edges a foot or more apart, a foot or a hand of the diver may be accidentally inserted. When such a fate befalls a fisherman, the only escape is for him to amputate the member immediately. Once in a while on the pearling shores a native may be found who has been maimed in this manner, but usually the unfortunate man does not escape with his life.


Now in South Kensington Museum



Do churls
Know the worth of Orient pearls?
Give the gem which dims the moon
To the noblest or to none.
Emerson, Friendship.

It appears from ancient Chinese literature, noted in the first chapter of this book, that pearl fisheries have existed in the rivers of China for several thousand years. The Chinese also derived pearls from the sea, and especially from the coast of the province of Che-kiang. Little is known of the early fisheries, but the fragmentary literature contains so many allusions to pearls as to lead us to believe that they were of considerable extent and importance.

It is related that about 200 B.C., a pearl dealer at Shao-hing, an ancient city between Hang-chau and Ning-po, on the shore of Hang-chau Bay, furnished to the empress a pearl one inch in diameter, for which he received five hundred pieces of silver; and to an envious princess the same dealer sold a “four-inch pearl.” A hundred years later, the reigning emperor sent an agent to the coast to purchase “moon pearls,” the largest of which were two thirds of an inch in diameter.

In the tenth century A.D., Mingti, one of the most extravagant of the early monarchs, used so many pearls—not only in his personal decoration but on his equipage and retinue,—that after a formal procession the way would be rich in the jewels which dropped from the gorgeous cortège. About 1000 A.D., an embassy to the emperor brought as tribute an ornament composed of strings of pearls, and also 105 liang (8¾ lbs.) of the same gems unmounted.

An interesting story is told of “pearl-scattering” by an embassy to the Chinese court from a Malayan state about 1060. Following the customs of their country, the ambassadors knelt at the threshold of the audience chamber, and then advanced toward the throne, bearing a golden goblet filled with choice pearls and water-lilies wrought of gold. These they scattered upon the floor at the feet of the emperor; and the courtiers, hastening to pick them up, secured ten hang (15 oz.) of pearls.[171]

The Keh Chi King Yuen, a Chinese encyclopedia, describes a pearl fishery in the southern part of Kwang-tung province, in the department 146of Lien-chau and near the city of Hóhpú. Fishing began in the spring, and was preceded by conciliating the gods through certain sacrifices, in order that the weather might be propitious and that no disaster might be suffered through sharks and other agencies. The five sacrificial animals,—horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and fowls,—were presented; but ordinarily paper images of these were economically substituted, as equally acceptable to the Chinese rulers of destiny. In the details of the diving, the fishery resembled somewhat that prosecuted about the same period in the Gulf of Manaar. The diver was let down by a rope, and after collecting the mollusks and placing them in a basket, he was drawn up at a given signal. Much complaint was made that the divers would open the mollusks, extract the pearls and conceal them in the mouth before returning to the surface.

The business became so perilous and the loss so great, that about the beginning of the sixteenth century, according to the same encyclopedia, dredges were adopted. These at first were simple rakes; later large dredges were trailed along between two boats, by means of which great quantities of shells were gathered. So important was the industry that an officer was designated by the viceroy of Canton to collect a revenue therefrom. It does not appear that pearls have been collected in considerable numbers on this part of the Chinese coast for very many years, probably not since the advent of Europeans.

Pearls are yet found in the river mussels in all parts of eastern Asia, from Siberia to the Indian Ocean, and from the Himalayas to the Pacific. It is represented that they are not from the Unio margaritifera, the common river-mussel of Europe, but from other species, such as Unio mongolicus, U. dahuricus, Dipsas plicatus, etc. It is quite impossible to obtain a reliable estimate of the total number of persons employed, or the output of pearls in China, but these items are certainly very much larger than the average Occidental believes.

In the vicinity of Canton the Dipsas plicatus has been used for centuries by the Chinese in the production of artificial pearls, this industry giving employment to thousands of persons.[172]

The pearl-mussel fishery is of importance in Manchuria, where it has been carried on for hundreds of years, not only by the citizens, but by the military department on account of the government, and especially in the streams which flow into the Songari, a tributary of the Amur. Jacinth relates that in case of a deficit, the officers and subalterns were punished by a deduction from their pay, and also by corporal chastisement.[173] Witsen speaks of the pearls from the River Gan, a tributary of the Amur, and also from the islands of the Amur, the 147boundary river of Manchuria. Pearl fisheries were established at these places by the Russians nearly two centuries ago.[174]

Pearls become finer and more plentiful the further we penetrate into Manchuria; and they are numerous in the lake of Heikow or Hing-chou-men, “Black Lake” or “Gate of Precious Gems,” where they have long been exploited for the account of the emperor of China.

The occurrence of pearls in many parts of Asiatic Russia was noted by Von Hessling. In northern Siberia, according to Witsen, writing in 1705,[175] pearls were found in the waters about the town of Mangasea on the Turuchan; and Von Middendorf notes that they were found in the Tunguska River, which flows into the Yenisei. Whether, however, they come from the Unio margaritifera is considered doubtful by Von Middendorf. Witsen referred to their occurrence in the rivers and streams of Irkutsk and Onon, and this is confirmed by several writers of more recent times. Pallas says that the mussels found there are quite large, and speaks of the Ilim, which flows into the Angara, as another river where they occur.

Ancient books relating to Japan repeatedly allude to the occurrence of pearls on the coasts of that country. They are mentioned in the Nihonki, of the eighth century, the oldest Japanese history.

Tavernier wrote about 1670: “It is possible that of those who have written before me concerning pearls, none have recorded that some years back a fishery was discovered in a certain part of the coasts of Japan, and I have seen some of the pearls which the Dutch brought from thence. They were of very beautiful water, and some of them of large size, but all baroques. The Japanese do not esteem pearls. If they cared about them it is possible that by their means some banks might be discovered where finer ones would be obtained.”[176]

In 1727, Kaempfer wrote that pearls, called by the Japanese kainotamma or shell jewels, were found in oysters and other mollusks almost everywhere about Saikokf. Every person was at liberty to fish for them. Formerly the natives had little or no value for them, till they learned of their estimation by the Chinese, who were ready to pay good prices for them, their women being very proud of wearing necklaces and other ornaments of pearls. “The largest and finest pearls are found in the small sort of oysters, called akoja, which is not unlike the Persian pearl-oyster. These are found only in the seas about Satzuma and in the Gulf of Omura (Kiusiu). Some of the pearls weigh from four to five candareens[177] and these are sold for a hundred 148kobans each.[178] The inhabitants of the Loochoo Islands buy most of those about Satzuma, since they trade to that province. Those found on the Gulf of Omura are sold chiefly to the Chinese and Tunquinese, and it is computed that they buy for about 3000 taels[179] a year. This great profit occasioned the strict orders, which were made not long ago by the princes both of Satzuma and Omura, that for the future there should be no more of these oysters sold in the market with other oysters, as had been done formerly.”[180]

Kaempfer also noted that the Japanese obtained pearls from the yellow snail shell and from the taira gai (Placuna) in the Gulf of Arima, and especially from the awabi or abalone (Haliotis). This mollusk was much sought after for food, being taken in large quantities by the fishermen’s wives, “they being the best divers of the country.”[181]

Of the several species of pearl-oysters which occur in the coastal waters of Japan, the only one of importance at present is the Margaritifera martensi. While this occurs in very many localities, it is most numerous among the southern islands, where some fine pearls have been secured. The fishery for this species was quite extensive thirty or forty years ago, and the reefs were largely depleted. For nearly a score of years it has been used in growing culture pearls, an account of which is given on pages 292, 293.

A few pearls are obtained from several other bivalve mollusks in Japan. Among the collections of the present writers are pearls from Margaritifera martensi, collected at Bay Agu; from M. panasisæ, about the Liu-kiu Islands; from Pecten yezocusis, in Sokhaido; from Mytilus crasitesta, in the Inland Sea, and from North Japan, and from a species of Dipsas found in Lake Biwa.

While the pearl fisheries of Japan are not of great importance in any single locality, the distribution of the reefs is so extensive that the aggregate yield is considerable.

The awabi or ear-shell (Haliotis gigantea), found on the coast of Japan, Korea, etc., yields many pearly forms. This species is much smaller than the California abalones. It has a fairly smooth, nacreous surface, but its value is depreciated by the great size of the marginal perforations, which render useless for commercial purposes all of the shell external to the line of perforations. While its opalescent tints make it desirable for manufacturing into certain styles of buttons and buckles, its principal use is for inlaying work or marquetry, for which it is especially adapted, owing to its fineness of texture and beauty of coloring even when reduced to thin sheets.


149Probably the most interesting of the abalone fisheries is that on the shores of Quelpaerd Island, about sixty miles south of the Korean coast, which is prosecuted largely by the women. Dressed only in a scanty garment, these women swim out to the fishing grounds, distant several hundred yards in some cases, carrying with them a stout knife and a small sack suspended from a gourd. On reaching the reefs, they dive to the bottom—sometimes to a depth of six or eight fathoms—and by means of the knife, remove the abalones from the bottom and place them in the sack. They may remain out an hour, diving repeatedly until the sack is filled, when they swim back to the shore. Pearls are found only rarely; in one lot of one hundred shells, only five were found bearing pearls; two with three pearls each, two with two pearls each, and one with a single pearl. The flesh of this mollusk after it has been cleaned and dried, is quite popular as an article of diet. Although white when fresh, the color changes to a dark red. The pieces of dried flesh, in the form of flat reddish disks four or five inches in diameter, are fastened on slender sticks—about ten to each stick—and displayed in the grocery shops in Seul and other cities.

In the Gulf of Siam on the Asiatic coast, pearls are obtained from a small oyster with a thin shell, presumably a variety of the Lingah oyster. The beds have not yet been thoroughly exploited, as the Siamese do not especially value pearls, attributing some superstitious sentiments of ill luck to them. However, from time to time Chinese traders have bought them from the Malay divers and sold them at great profit in the Singapore market. The known beds occur chiefly in the northern part of the gulf, on the west coast, and extend in a narrow belt for a distance of about one hundred miles. The fishing is prosecuted by nude divers in shallow water. A recent letter from Dr. K. Van Dort, a mining engineer of Bangkok, Siam, states that in 1906 in six weeks, with the aid of half a dozen divers he was able to collect 720 grains’ weight of pearls, mostly small ones, but including one of 20 grains, one of 14 grains, two of 12 grains each, and seven over 9 grains in weight. He reports that the total value of the large ones in Bangkok was $1500, but the small ones could not be sold to any advantage, as they are little prized by the Siamese. The shells are of no commercial value, as they are too thin for industrial use other than for inlaid work. Some fine old specimens of marquetry in which these shells were used exist in the Buddhist temples at Bangkok. This art of inlaying is almost lost among the Siamese, and there is said to be only one man in the king’s palace who can lay any claims to proficiency in working mother-of-pearl shell.



The Islanders with fleecy curls,
Whose homes are compass’d by the Arabian waves;
By whom those shells which breed the orient pearls
Are dived and fish’d for in their green sea caves.
Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered.

The principal pearl fisheries of the coasts of Africa are those prosecuted in the Red Sea, between this continent and Asia. These have already been described in the preceding chapter, among the Asiatic fisheries; for, although situated between the two continents, they are prosecuted largely by Arabs rather than by natives of the western shores of the sea.

Other than those in the Red Sea, the only pearl resources in Africa which have received attention are on the eastern coast, south of the Gulf of Aden. Little information exists as to the origin of these fisheries. In a paper published by the Lisbon Geographical Society, January, 1903, Señor Ivens Ferranz states that, according to tradition, in remote times the Ibo Archipelago, on the northeast coast of Portuguese East Africa, was inhabited by a Semitic colony, which located there to fish for pearls, and these were carried through the Red Sea to King Solomon. He adds that there is little doubt that, after the great emigration which started from the Persian Gulf in 982 and founded Zanzibar, Kilwa, and Sofala on this coast, some Arabs engaged in fishing for pearls about the islands near Sofala.

In 1609 Joao dos Santos wrote that on the sandy sea bottom about the Bazaruto Islands, which are about 150 miles south of Sofala, there were many large oysters which bore pearls, and the natives fished for them by diving in practically the same manner as in the Persian Gulf.[182]

In a personal memorandum, Sir Robert Edgcumbe states that in the very early times of Portuguese exploitation on the eastern coast of Africa, pearl fishing was carried on in these waters. For a long period the tenure of power exerted by the Portuguese was of a feeble character; they practically occupied no position of importance on the 154mainland, but seized upon stations on the islands which offered decent harbors. Thus their chief settlements, such as Mozambique and Ibo, were on islands lying off the coast, and until recent years they made no serious attempt to occupy the mainland.

Arabs and Banyans carried on the commercial traffic of the country, as they still do, and they were more truly the masters of this coast than were the Portuguese, who were little more than nominal rulers. Trading to and from India in their small dhows, the Arabs and Banyans had full knowledge of the value of pearls, and undoubtedly secured all that were obtainable. But they observed no restrictions, and without doubt—for a time, at any rate—greatly impaired the productive power of the fisheries.

The principal pearl reefs of East Africa, so far as known at present, extend along the coast of the German East African territory from the Province of Uzaramo to the Rovuma River, the southern limit of that territory, and also into Portuguese East Africa as far south as Pemba Bay, a total distance of about 300 miles. Along much of this coast, there are islands lying from one to two miles off shore, and between these islands are barriers of reefs, which create a series of lagoons. In these lagoons, protected by the islands and the reefs from the influence of the surf formed by the Indian monsoons, there are large patches of coral rock and groups of living coral, which form excellent attachments for the pearl-oysters.

It is only recently that serious attention has been paid to these pearl resources, although year by year a considerable number of pearls have been collected by the natives and sold to Arabs and Banyans, who have sent them chiefly to India by way of Zanzibar. The natives of these parts are not very expert in diving, and they collect the oysters principally by wading out as far as they can at low tide. They do not wait for the mollusks to attain a proper age, and as a result they find few pearls of large size. Many parcels of pearls fished in this very elementary way pass through the custom-house, where they are subject to a small duty for export, and others are smuggled out of the country. Quantities of seed-pearls are sent to India, where they are used principally as a medicine and in cosmetics; and occasionally there are rumors that some choice pearls have been discovered.

In the German territory a concession of the fisheries was granted a few years ago to Dr. Aurel Schulz; and, although we are not in position to say what success he has met with, it is reported that he has secured a considerable number of pearls under four grains in weight, of fair shape and quality and of good marketable value.

A concession of the pearl fishery on the Portuguese coast north of Ibo has been granted to the East African Pearl Company. For this 155company an examination of the resources is now being made by Mr. James J. Simpson, acting under direction of Prof. W. A. Herdman, of the Liverpool University, the technical advisor of the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers.

At least four species of pearl-bearing mollusks exist here; these are Margaritifera vulgaris, M. margaritifera, Pinna nobilis, and a species of Perna, named in the order of their importance. A preliminary report of Mr. Simpson (supplied through the courtesy of Sir Robert Edgcumbe), states that among the Ibo Islands about one half of the bottom is sandy and the other half is covered with detached pieces of coral rock, groups of living corals, masses of nullipore, and expanses of fixed seaweed. On all of these in the shoal waters, there is such an abundance of pearl-oysters (M. vulgaris) that a single diver, by simply descending and bringing up a few in his hands each time, can secure about 200 in fifteen minutes. Oysters also occur singly on the sandy bottom, but not so abundantly. Within the three-year-old oysters there are many seed-pearls. It is evident that there has been an extensive removal of large oysters in recent years and that large pearls were then found; but the depredations of the natives now prevent the mollusks from attaining an age and size which render them useful as pearl-bearers.

Said Mr. Simpson in his report: “The women here play great havoc on the reefs by going out daily and collecting the pearl-oysters at low tide. All along the coast from Muliga Point to Arimba the shores are covered with shells. At one place we came across a heap of freshly-opened oysters which consisted of thirty or forty thousand at the lowest estimate; while an older heap contained between forty to sixty millions. Four women who were fishing on the reefs while we were there had over two thousand oysters in their baskets. Thus it is evident that immense quantities are annually destroyed. And the worst feature is that out of those destroyed, not one per cent. were over two years old.”

It is the intention of the East African Pearl Company, as soon as the investigation of the resources is completed, to police the fishing grounds so as to put an end to the removal of immature oysters, which yield only seed-pearls, and to permit them to attain maturity. In addition to this, it is their purpose to utilize the extensive beds of oysters lying in comparatively deep water, which are now inaccessible to the natives owing to their lack of diving skill.

Sir Robert Edgcumbe writes that it is impossible to say more at present than that these fisheries at one time bore a high repute, and that the oysters have continued to exist in multitudes though fished by the natives in the immature state; and there is every indication that if properly policed and worked in a scientific way these fisheries should 156once again become of much importance. The fact that the pearl-bearing oysters are found there in large quantities, notwithstanding that they have been poached without restriction by the natives, indicates that only proper management and policing are necessary to make them valuable and productive.

On the lower coast of Portuguese East Africa, pearl fishing has been of some local importance. The reefs are most extensive about the Bazaruto Islands, previously referred to as about 150 miles south of Sofala. In 1888, when famine prevailed on this coast, the inhabitants of this archipelago, of both sexes and of all ages, fished for the large pearl-oysters (known locally as mapalo), selling their catch at Chiloane to Asiatic traders, who gave them a handful of rice for a large basket of the mollusks. It was estimated that during two months of that year, pearls to the value of eighty contos ($83,500) were taken.[183] In 1889 three British subjects attempted to renew the fishery by using dredges, but without success, owing, it is said, to the great weight of the implements.

The Kafirs of Bazaruto continue to fish irregularly, but their catch is not of importance. These pearls are carried by traders to Zanzibar, Muscat, and Bombay. The American consul writes that some years ago the Portuguese government granted a concession to a company of American fishermen to exploit the Bazaruto reefs, but the attempt to work the concession failed through “bad management, lack of funds, heavy expenses, and political difficulties,” a combination apparently sufficient to wreck a similar attempt in the most favorable locality.

The American consul at Tamatave states that in 1907 the government of Madagascar awarded two grants for pearl fisheries, covering the entire western coast, a distance of one thousand miles, excepting two hundred miles, for which two grants were given in 1906. Apparently no effort was made to develop the earlier grants; the later ones may be operated, perhaps jointly. These concessions are personal, and may not be sold or transferred without the governor-general’s consent. The use of divers, machinery, dredges, and other apparatus, and the building of necessary stations are allowed, if there be no interference with navigation, fishing, or coast travel. An annual tax is to be paid, with a stated increase each year, and revised according to the success of the enterprise. A report must be sent yearly to the governor-general. The grants may be revoked if work is not begun within a stated period; if the work is needlessly abandoned during one year, or if the tax is not paid. Whenever the interests of the colony or of the public service require it, the privilege may be withdrawn without indemnity.



And Britain’s ancient shores great pearls produce.
Marbodus (circa 1070).

The occurrence of pearls in the British Isles was known two thousand years ago, and frequent references to them were made in Roman writings of the first and second centuries of the Christian era.

In his “Lives of the Cæsars,” the biographer Suetonius, after speaking of the admiration which Julius Cæsar had for pearls, states that their occurrence in Britain was an important factor in inducing the first Roman invasion of that country in 55 B.C.[184] If this be true, the English-speaking people owe a vast debt of gratitude to these pearls in bringing their Briton ancestors in contact with Roman civilization; and the influence which they have thus exercised on the world’s history has been greater than that of the pearls from all other regions or, we might add, than all other jewels.

The naturalist Pliny (23–79) stated: “In Brittaine it is certain that some do grow; but they bee small, dim of colour, and nothing orient. For Julius Cæsar (late Emperor of famous memorie) doth not dissimble, that the cuirace or breastplate which he dedicated to Venus mother within her temple was made of English pearles.”[185]

This decoration of pearls was a very proper offering to the goddess who arose from the sea.

The historian Tacitus noted in “Vita Agricolæ” that the pearls from Britain were dusky or brownish (subfusca ac liventia).[186] In his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, Origen (185–253), one of the Greek fathers of the church, described the British pearls as next in value to the Indian. Their surface, he stated, was of a golden color, but they were cloudy and less transparent than those from India.

160We have no certain information whether the pearls secured by the Romans were from the edible mussel (Mytilus edulis) of the sea-coast or from the Unios of the fresh-water streams. Tacitus’s statement that they were collected “as the sea throws them up,” seems to locate them on the sea-coast; but conditions in modern times make it appear more probable that they were from the fresh waters.

Some of the very early coins of the country indicate that pearls were used to ornament the imperial diadem of the sovereigns of ancient Britain. In “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum,” the celebrated English monk, Bede (673–735) surnamed “The Venerable,” enumerated among other things for which Britain was famous in his day, “many sorts of shell-fish, among which are mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours; red, purple, violet and green, but mostly white.”[187] And Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes, in his lapidarium, written about 1070, refers to the British pearls as equaling those of Persia and India. About 1094 a present of an Irish pearl was made to Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick.[188]

In the twelfth century there was a market for Scotch pearls in Europe, but they were less valued than those from the Orient.[189] An ordinance of John II, King of France, in August, 1355, which confirmed the old statutes and privileges of goldsmiths and jewelers, expressly forbade mounting Scotch and oriental pearls together in the same article, except in ecclesiastical jewelry (Orfèvre ne peut mettre en œuvre d’or ne argent parles d’Ecosse avec parles d’orient se ce n’est en grands joyaulx d’église).[190]

Writing in the sixteenth century, the historian William Camden (1551–1623) stated in his “Britannia”:


Reproduced from “Margaritologia, sive Dissertatio de Margaritis,” by Malachias Geiger, Monachii, 1637

161The British and Irish Pearls are found in a large black Muscle.... They are peculiar to rapid and stony rivers; and are common in Wales, and in the North of England, and in Scotland, and some parts of Ireland. In this country they are called by the vulgar Kregin Diliw, i.e. Deluge shells; as if Nature had not intended the shells for the rivers; but being brought thither by the Universal Deluge, they had continued there, and so propagated their kind ever since. Those who fish here for Pearls, know partly by the outside of these Muscles, whether they contain any; for generally such as have them are a little contracted or distorted from their usual shape. A curious and accomplished Gentleman, lately of these parts, showed me a valuable Collection of the Pearls of the Conway River in Wales; amongst which I noted a stool-pearl [button-pearl], weighing seventeen grains, and distinguished on the convex side with a fair round spot of a Cornelian colour, exactly in the center.[191]

In 1560 “large handsome pearls” were sent from Scotland to Antwerp.[192] In 1620 a great pearl was found in the Kellie Burn, in Aberdeenshire. This was carried to King James by the provost, who was rewarded with “twelve to fourdeen chalder of victuals about Dunfermline, and the Customs of Merchants’ goods in Aberdeen during his life.” No record appears of the reward paid to the finder; possibly it was not worth recording.

In 1621 the Privy Council of Scotland issued a proclamation that pearls found within the realm belonged to the Crown; and conservators of the pearl fisheries were appointed in several of the counties, including Aberdeen, Ross, and Sutherland. It was the duty of the conservators, among other things, to nominate experts to fish for pearls during July and August, “when they are at chief perfection.” The conservators and fishermen were compensated by selling those pearls of ordinary quality, but “the best for bignesse and colour” were to be remitted to the king. It was reported to the Privy Council that the conservator in Aberdeenshire did very well in the first year. “He hath not only taken divers pearls of good value, but hath found some in waters where none were expected.” The first parliament of Charles I abolished these privileges.

Robert Sibbald, physician to Charles II, wrote that he had seen a necklace of Scotch pearls which was valued at two thousand crowns; they were “larger than peas, perfectly round, and of a brilliant whiteness.”[193]

It is said that Sir Richard Wynne of Gwydir presented to Catherine of Braganza, queen of Charles II of England, a pearl from the Conway in Wales, which is said to be even yet retained in the royal crown. In his “Faerie Queene” (1590), Spenser speaks of the

Conway, which out of his streame doth send
Plenty of pearles to deck his dames withal.

The White Cart River in Scotland, on which the city of Paisley is situated, was distinguished, according to Camden, “for the largeness and the fineness of the Pearls that are frequently found hereabouts and three miles above.”[194] And the pearls from Irton in Cumberland, England, were so noted at that time that “fair as Irton pearls” became 162a byword in the north country. In their history of Westmoreland and Cumberland,[195] Nicolson and Burn state that “Mr. Thomas Patrickson, late of How of this county (Cumberland), having employed divers poor inhabitants to gather these pearls, obtained such a quantity as he sold to the jewellers in London for above £800.” But in 1794 Hutchinson[196] stated that none had been seen for many years past.

Pearl fishing in Ireland was of some consequence in the seventeenth century. Speaking of the Slaney River, Solomon Richards, in a description of Wexford about the year 1656, said: “It ought to precede all the rivers in Ireland for its pearle fishing, which though not abundant are yet excellent, for muscles are daily taken out of it about fowre, five and six inches long, in which are often found pearles, for lustre, magnitude and rotundity not inferior to oriental or any other in the world.”[197] In 1693 Sir Robert Redding wrote that there were four rivers in the county of Tyrone in northern Ireland which abounded in pearl-mussels, all four emptying into Lough Foyle and thence into the sea. They were also to be found in several rivers in the adjacent Donegal County. Redding gave an interesting description of the fishery:

In the warm months before harvest is ripe, whilst the rivers are low and clear, the poor people go into the water and take them up, some with their toes, some with wooden tongs, and some by putting a sharpened stick into the opening of the shell; and although by common estimate not above one shell in a hundred may have a pearl, and of these pearls not above one in a hundred be tolerably clear, yet a vast number of fair merchantable pearls, and too good for the apothecary, are offered to sale by those people every summer assize. Some gentlemen of the country make good advantage thereof, and I myself, whilst there, saw a pearl bought for £2, 10s. that weighed 36 carats, and was valued at £40, and had it been as clear as some others produced therewith it would certainly have been very valuable. Everybody abounds with stories of the good pennyworths of the country, but I will add but one more. A miller took a pearl, which he sold for £4, 10s. to a man that sold it for £10 to another, who sold it to the late Lady Glenanly for £30, with whom I saw it in a necklace; she refused £80 for it from the late Duchess of Ormond.

The young muscles never have any pearl in them. The shells that have the best pearls are wrinkled, twisted, or bunched, and not smooth and equal, as those that have none. And the crafty fellows will guess so well by the shell, that though you watch them never so carefully, they will open such shells under the water, and put the pearls in their mouths, or otherwise conceal them. Yet sometimes when they have been taking up shells, and believing by such signs as I have mentioned, that they were sure of good purchase, and refused good sums for their shares, they found no pearl at all in them. Upon discourse with an old man that had been long at this trade, he advised me to seek not only when the waters were low, but on a dusky, gloomy day also, lest, said he, the fish see you, for then he will shed his pearl in the sand; of which I believe no more than that some muscles have voided their pearls, and such are often found in the sands.[198]


163For several years following 1760, the Scotch pearl fisheries were of considerable local value. The zoölogist, Thomas Pennant, wrote of them several times in his “Tour of Scotland.” Referring to the Tay and Isla rivers, then as now the center of the Scotch pearling, he states: “There has been in these parts a very great fishery of pearl, got out of the fresh-water muscles. From the year 1761 to 1764, £10,000 worth were sent to London, and sold from 10s. to £1 6s. per ounce. I was told that a pearl had been taken there that weighed 33 grains. But this fishery is at present exhausted, from the avarice of the undertakers. It once extended as far as Loch Tay.”[199] And he adds later that, some years preceding, a pearl fishery was prosecuted in Loch Dochart with great success and the pearls were esteemed the fairest and largest of any.

From 1770 to 1860 the pearl resources of Scotland remained almost dormant, and Scotch pearls were rarely met with in the markets. In 1861 a German merchant, who was acquainted with the beauty of these gems, traveled through the districts of Tay, Doon and Don, obtaining a great number which the poor people kept for their own pleasure, not esteeming them of any market value, and interested the fishermen in searching for the mussels. The seemingly high prices which he paid and the abundance of the pearls sent hundreds of persons to the rivers and small brooks. Those who were otherwise employed during the day devoted hours of the long summer nights to diligent search after the coveted shells; while boys and old persons, who were without regular avocations, waded day after day where there was a probability of reward. In the course of a short time pearls, good, bad and indifferent, reached the originator of the movement at Edinburgh, from Ayrshire, from Perthshire, and from the Highland regions far beyond the Grampians. He was soon the possessor of a collection which, for richness and variety, had seldom been surpassed. A trade in these gems was developed, the patronage of royalty was obtained, and once more Scotch pearls became fashionable, and their vogue was enhanced by the fondness which Queen Victoria entertained for them.

In addition to the rivers named, pearls were found in the Forth, 164the Teith, the Ythan, and the Spey in eastern Scotland. The summer of 1862 was most favorable for pearling, owing to the dryness of the season and the low water, and unusually large quantities of pearls were found, the prices ranging ordinarily from 10s. to £2 6s. Queen Victoria is said to have purchased one for forty guineas; others were bought by Empress Eugénie and by the Duchess of Hamilton. A necklace of them was sold for £350 in 1863.[200] The value of the entire catch in Scotland in 1864 was estimated at £12,000 to the fishermen, the yield being unusually large in that season owing to the unprecedented drought which permitted access to the deep beds of the rivers. In some of the streams the resources were quickly depleted, but in others the fisheries yielded profitable returns for many years. While most of the pearls were small, some of them were choice and of considerable individual value, ranging from £5 to £150, and £500 is said to have been paid for one fine specimen.

The pearl-mussel of the British Isles (Unio margaritifera) has a thick, coarse and unsightly shell, from 3 to 7 inches in width and 1½ to 2½ inches in length from the umbo to the lip. The rough exterior is dark brown, and it is sometimes twisted, distorted and barnacled.

It generally lies scattered and detached over the pebbly bottoms, but it also exists in reefs or beds which are sometimes of considerable extent. These occur usually where a stretch of water is still and deep, and oftentimes where the depth places the mussels beyond the reach of the fishermen. Apart from the pearls it contains, the mussel is of no economic value except that in some localities the mollusk is used for bait in cod-fishing.

In recent years the pearl-mussel has been numerous in several of the rivers of Scotland, such as the Tay, Earn, and Teith in Perthshire; the Dee, the Don, and the Ythan in Aberdeenshire; the Spey and Findhorn in Inverness-shire, and also the classic Doon of Burns, the Nith, the Annan and others in southern Scotland; however, it is rare in the Clyde and the Tweed.

The Teith has long been famed for pearl-bearing, though like other rivers it has become nearly fished out. The Tay produces many pearls, yet as a rule they are not of the best class. Some of its tributaries, as the Tummel and the Isla, also bear pearls; those in the Isla are usually fine and rank higher than those from the Tay. The Earn is also famous for the fine quality of its pearls, but the whole river was robbed of its wealth some years ago by a body of professional fishermen, and it has not yet recovered from the raid; few pearls now exist there save in the deeper pools, where doubtless may still be hid “full many a gem of purest ray serene.”

165In Ireland pearls have been found principally in the rivers of counties Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone, Antrum, etc. In an article in “The Field,” December 10, 1864, Mr. F. T. Buckland stated that they abound near Oughterard, and that a man called “Jemmy the Pearl-catcher,” who lived there, told him that he knew when a mussel had a pearl in it even without opening the shell, because “she [the mussel] sits upright with her mouth in the mud, and her back is crooked,” that is, corrugated like a ram’s horn. Pearls are yet found in several localities in the Emerald Isle, notably in the river Bann in the northeastern part and in the beautiful Connemara district in western Ireland. In 1892 the Bann yielded one of the choicest pearls that ever came from Ireland. Within the last twelve months Lady Dudley, wife of the Viceroy of Ireland, presented to Queen Alexandra a number of pearls from the Connemara. These were mounted in a green enameled brooch, and excited so much admiration that an active demand for similar gems quickly developed in County Galway.

Mr. D. MacGregor, a well-known jeweler of Perth, to whom we are indebted for much information relative to pearls in Scotland, states that no attention whatever is given to conserving the mussel; on the contrary, the waters are unscrupulously despoiled by the greedy pearl fisherman who destroys all that he finds, since, by chance, they may yield the coveted gem. Immense numbers are thus wantonly destroyed, which if allowed to grow and propagate would be more likely to contribute to the pearl yield, as it is well known that it is the aged mussels in which a pearl is most likely to be found. There is no close time, and so extensive have been the raids upon the mussels in recent years that they have been rapidly exterminated in places accessible to the fishermen; and should the spoliation continue and extend to the deep waters, the pearl-mussel may soon become extinct.

Pearl fishing is not prosecuted throughout the year, as it can be carried on only in the dry season when the waters are low. There are a number of professional fishermen who search in their favorite streams, and sometimes very profitably, as much as £200 having been gained in a single season by one fisherman. One of the most noted of these was “Pearl Johnnie,” who a few years ago hailed from Compar-Angus, in Perthshire, and who styled himself “Pearl Fisher to the Prince of Wales,” by reason of some dealings he once had with his Royal Highness. He was very successful in his experience of more than thirty years. There is little mystery in the search; skill does not always avail, and men, women and children are rewarded or disappointed indiscriminately. The bed of the stream is searched until the 166patches of mussels are discovered, and this is usually the most tedious part of the work. These may be in very shoal water, where a small boy has only to wade with water above his knees and pick up the mussels by stooping; but more frequently the water covers a man’s hips, and at times he is immersed almost to the shoulders.

The equipment of a pearl fisherman is simple. If he wades, he commonly wears long boots with tops reaching to his breast. Provided with a pole five or six feet long having a cleft at the lower end, and with a tube several inches in diameter with the lower end closed by a glass, he invades the home of the pearl-mussel. Thrusting the tube or water glass beneath the surface, he scans the bed of the stream, and when a mussel is sighted, the cleft pole is brought into use and it is picked up by means of these primitive tongs. Owing to the close resemblance which the pearl-mussel bears to the stones in the riverbed, good eyesight is required to avoid overlooking it. A bag by the fisher’s side receives the catch; and when this is well filled, he goes to the bank of the stream and opens his lottery, in the great majority of cases to find that he has drawn a blank.

A boat is seldom used, simply because it is not available, but in the tidal waters it is indispensable. The “box” is a risky device for fishing in the deeper waters. It is a small contrivance, somewhat like the ancient British coracle, in which the fisherman sits or lies over on his chest; venturing out in the deeper parts which can not be waded, he carefully peers through the tube and draws up his find with the long cleft stick. This is a tiresome method, but some places can not be readily fished in any other manner.

In Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, etc., there are a few men who regularly spend the season “at the pearls.” The knowing ones dispose of their best finds to wealthy residents or to strangers and tourists who frequent the vicinity. In addition to these experienced fishermen, many of the idlers and unemployed about the riverside towns, and also the farm servants in the country, search the waters in their neighborhood in the hope of picking up some gems. But very often it is severe and disappointing labor, for the pearl-seeker may travel far and endure privation and hardships for days, and yet, after destroying hundreds and even thousands of mussels, he may be rewarded with only a little almost worthless dross; but again and again he returns to the elusive game, inspired by the “hope which springs eternal in the human breast.”

The Valley of the Tay

The River Earn

Photographs by The Raeburn Portrait Studio, Perth, Scotland


167The British pearls are in great variety of colors, but most of them are practically valueless on account of the absence of orient or luster; for one possessing the white pearly luster, fifty may be found of a dull color and devoid of value. Many of these opaque pearls are dark, lusterless brown, and handfuls of them sell for only a few shillings. A large percentage are of a grayish or milky color, or of a bluish white tinge; these seldom attain much value unless aided by excellence of shape and purity of skin. A few are of a dark, fiery tint and of great luster. Sometimes the pearl is of a beautiful pink tint, sometimes of a light violet, or other exquisite shade. The fine pink ones are very rare and are highly prized. The best are those having the sweet, pure white light which constitutes the inimitable loveliness of a pearl; but few of them are found even in the most favorable seasons, and usually these are from the streams in the northeastern counties and some of the streams in the southwest. Very few combine the qualities of perfection in shape and luster; and the product of many seasons might be examined in vain to furnish enough pearls to make a well-matched necklace of gems weighing from five to ten grains each. But occasionally beautiful specimens are discovered, weighing fifteen or twenty grains or more. One found in Aberdeenshire a few years ago, perfect in shape and luster, weighed twenty-five grains, and sold at first hand for £50. Another one, found at the confluence of the Almond and the Tay in 1865, weighed thirty grains.

While most of these pearls are sold to jewelers in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth, and other towns, many of the finest specimens have gone into the possession of prominent Scotch and English families, who have a fancy for collecting them. Queen Victoria possessed a fine collection of Scotch pearls, choice specimens of many years’ search, obtained almost exclusively from the Aberdeenshire waters which murmur round her beautiful Highland home. In 1907, a Scotch pearl was sold in Perth for the sum of £80; this was of a good luster with a bluish tint, it was spherical, measured seven sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and weighed twenty-one grains.

The falling off in the yield of pearls in some streams is credited to a certain extent to the building of bridges and the consequent abandonment of fords. This is based on the theory that injury to the mollusk has something to do with the production of pearls, and that they are to be found more plentiful about fords and places where cattle drink. The theory is beautifully stated by the lamented Hugh Miller: “I found occasion to conclude that the Unio of our river-fords secretes pearls so much more frequently than the Unionidae and Anadonta of our still pools and lakes, not from any specific peculiarity in the constitution of the creature, but from the effects of the habitat which it chooses. It receives in the fords and shallows of a rapid river many a rough blow from the sticks and pebbles carried down in time of flood, and occasionally from the feet of men and animals that cross the stream during droughts, and the blows induce the morbid secretions, 168of which pearls are the result. There seems to exist no inherent cause why Anadon cygnea, with its beautiful silvery nacre—as bright often, and always more delicate, than that of Unio margaritiferus—should not be equally productive of pearls; but secure from violence in its still pools and lakes, and unexposed to the circumstances that provoke abnormal secretions, it does not produce a single pearl for every hundred that are ripened into value and beauty by the exposed, current-tossed Unionidae of our rapid mountain rivers. Would that hardship and suffering bore always in a creature of a greatly higher family similar results, and that the hard buffets dealt him by fortune in the rough stream of life could be transmitted, by some blessed internal pre-disposition of his nature, into pearls of great price.”[201]

The small blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) of the British seas yields opaque pearls of a deep blue color, but most of them are more or less white in some part. Sometimes a shell is found in which a blue pearl will be adhering to the blue lip of the shell while a dull white one adheres to the white portion of the shell. These pearls are commonly flattened on one side, doubtless where they have been adjacent to the shell. None of them is of more than very slight value.

Probably the principal fishery for the salt-water mussel pearls is that in the estuary of the Conway in Wales. These are mostly quite small and well answer the designation of seed-pearls, although a few are of fair size. In color most of them range from dirty white to the dusky or brownish tint noted by Tacitus eighteen centuries ago, but a few are of a pure silvery tint. In some seasons London dealers have agents at Conway for purchasing these pearls. The price is usually from eight to thirty shillings per ounce.


Après l’esprit de discernement, ce qu’il y a au monde de plus rare, ce sont les diamants et les perles.

La Bruyère, Les caractères.

Pearls occur in species of mussels found in the streams and lakes of Europe, in some of which the fisheries have been of considerable local interest. It appears that these resources were exploited by the Romans, then by the Goths and the Lombards, and later the natives continued to draw forth the treasures which lay hidden about their 169homes. These pearls have attracted attention up to the present time; and while they do not compare with those of the seas, either in quality or in aggregate value, yet they are prized on account of their intrinsic worth as well as because they are a product of the fatherland. In the densely populated valleys, the rivers are so polluted by refuse and sewage that the mollusks have been greatly depleted; but in the streams of clear, cool water, draining the mountain regions of France, Germany, Austria, and also in the rivers of Norway, Sweden, Russia, etc., the fisheries are not unimportant.

The most celebrated of the pearl fisheries in France are those of the Vologne, a small river in the extreme eastern part of the country, in the department of Vosges. Its sources are in Lake Longmere in the Vosges mountains on the Alsace frontier, and it flows into the Moselle at Jarmenil, between Remiremont and Épinal. While the pearl-mussel occurs to some extent in nearly the whole length of this river, and, indeed, is to be met with in the wild brooks and forest streams of nearly all the mountainous parts of France, it is most abundant in the vicinity of Bruyères, where the Vologne receives the waters of the Neuré. These resources were described in 1845 by Ernest Puton,[202] and in 1869 by D. A. Godron;[203] to whom—and especially to Godron—we are indebted for much of our information.

The fisheries of the Vologne have been celebrated for nearly four centuries. Writing in 1530, Volcyr stated: “In the river Vologne between Arche and Bruyères, near the ancient castle of Perle, beautiful pearls are found. In the opinion of jewelers and artists they closely resemble the oriental.”[204] A few years later Francis Reues wrote: “There is near the Vosges mountains in Lorraine a river fertile in pearls, yet they are not very brilliant. The strange thing is that the quality which they lack by nature is supplied by the aid of pigeons, which swallow them and restore them purer than before.”[205] In a publication of 1609, this little river is represented in the frontispiece by the figure of a nymph bearing many pearls, while beneath is the emblem: Vologna margaritifera suas margaritas ostentat.[206]

In his paper above noted, Godron recites several orders issued from 1616 to 1619 by the Duke of Lorraine, who then had jurisdiction over the present department of Vosges, showing that a high value was 170attached to these pearls and that the resources were well looked after. Writing in 1699, Dr. Martin Lister alluded to the many pearls taken from the rivers about Lorraine and Sedan. A Paris merchant showed him a fresh-water pearl of 23 grains, valued at £400, and assured him that he had seen some weighing 60 grains each.[207]

In 1779 Durival gave an extensive account[208] of the Vologne fishery. He records that for sixty years pearls had been abundant, but at the time he wrote they were very scarce.

Puton states that, in 1806, when taking the baths at Plombières in the Vosges, Empress Josephine formed a great liking for the Vologne pearls, and at her request some of the mussels were sent to stock the ponds at Malmaison. It does not appear that any favorable result followed this transplanting.

Owing to the extensive fisheries, the mussels became so scarce that in 1826, when the Duchesse d’Angoulême was visiting in the Vosges, it was impossible to secure enough pearls to form a bracelet for her. This scarcity has continued up to the present time; and yet in the aggregate many pearls have been secured, so that there are few prominent families in the neighborhood who do not possess some of them. They are especially prized as bridal presents to Vosges maidens.

While the Vologne pearls are of good form and of much beauty, they do not equal oriental pearls in luster. The color is commonly milky white, but some of them have a pink, yellow, red, or greenish tint. In size they rarely exceed 4 grains. The Nancy museum of natural history possesses one which weighs 5¼ grains and measures 6½ mm. in diameter.

In western France, according to Bonnemere,[209] the pearl-mussel is widely diffused, and in the aggregate many pearls are secured therefrom. They are somewhat numerous in the river Ille near its union with the Vilaine at Rennes; though small, these are commonly of good color and luster. In the department of Morbihan and that of Finistère, many pearls have been secured, especially in the Steir, the Odet, and in the Stang-Alla near Quimper. Small pearls, frequently of some value, are found in the Menech near the town of Lesneven, a few miles northeast of Brest, the great naval port of France.


Sold at auction in Amsterdam in 1776 for 180,000 florins. Note great baroque pearl forming body of the swan at the base, diameter 1.37 inches

171The Unio sinuatus (pictorum), the mulette of the artists, which has a shorter and smaller shell than the pearl-mussel, has also yielded many small pearls of good quality, as well as shells for manufacturing purposes. This species has been regularly exploited in the Adour, in the Charente, in the Gironde and its tributaries—the Garonne and the Dordogne and their affluents, and in some other streams in western France.

There is a pearl fishery in the Charente River near the western coast of France, and likewise in the Seugne, a small tributary entering it from the south. The mussel is known locally under the name of palourde. In an account of this fishery,[210] Daniel Bellet states that in the Seugne, where the water is shallow and clear, the mussel is secured by entering the pointed end of a wooden staff or stick between the valves of the open shell as the mollusk lies feeding on the bottom; as the shell is immediately closed tightly upon the intruding stick, it is easily removed from the water.

In the deeper waters of the Charente, the fishery is prosecuted on a larger scale. Until recently, the palourdes were caught by means of a dredge towed by a small boat, which was raised from time to time and the catch removed. Ten or fifteen years ago the scaphander or diving apparatus was introduced, requiring seven men for its operation, and by its use large catches have been made. The mussels are taken to the bank and there boiled for a time to cause the shells to open, so that the contents may be easily removed.

The shells are examined one by one to find any pearls that may adhere thereto, and then the flesh of the mollusk is crushed between the fingers to locate pearls contained in the mass; this is done largely by children, working under competent supervision. Many pearls of fairly good size and luster are obtained. The flesh of this mollusk is edible and well-liked in southwestern France; and the shells are also of value in the manufacture of buttons and similar objects.

In Germany the pearl fisheries are most important in streams of the southern districts, in Bavaria, Saxony, and Silesia. The pearl-mussel in these waters is not so abundant as formerly; yet, owing to the care which has been given to these resources, it is probably as numerous here as in any other part of the continent. The mussel rarely occurs singly, generally in small beds or banks contiguous to each other, and in some favorable regions these are extensive.

The pearl fisheries of Bavaria have been prominent since the sixteenth century. They exist principally in the districts of Upper Franconia (Oberfranken) and Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz), the several tributaries of the Danube between Ratisbon and Passau, and in those tributaries of the Main and the Saale which rise in the Bavarian mountains, such as the Oelsnitz, the Lamnitz, Schwesnitz, Grünebach, Vils, and the Perlbach; also in the district of Lower Bavaria, where in 172nine districts alone there are one hundred pearl-bearing streams and lakes, of which the most important are the Regen, the Isar, and the Ilz.[211]

Early in the sixteenth century, the river Ilz had the reputation of yielding the choicest pearls in Lower Bavaria. The right to them was reserved to the bishop of Passau, and a decree was made in 1579 that persons convicted of poaching on these reserves should be hanged.[212] Since that time there have been few decades in which the gems have not been found in the woodland brooks and mountain streams that flow through the ravines and past quaint, interesting castles of the wonderful Bavarian highlands. Most of the prominent families in this beautiful region have collections of native pearls, and there is still some trade in them in picturesque Passau, at the junction of the Danube, the Ilz and the Inn.

Tavernier wrote about 1670: “As for the pearls of Scotland, and those which are found in the rivers of Bavaria, although necklaces are made of them which are worth up to 1000 écus (£225) and beyond, they cannot enter into comparison with those of the East and West Indies.”[213]

The official returns for the Bavarian fisheries, dating from the latter part of the sixteenth century, were examined by Von Hessling in 1858. He noted many gaps in the statements of the yearly returns, partly on account of the loss of the records and partly because the pearls were delivered directly into the hands of the princes. The results of the first fisheries are recorded in the district of Hals for the years 1581–99, in Viechtach for 1581–83 and 1590–93, and in Weissenstadt and Zwiesel for 1583. The range of the fisheries was enlarged through the discovery of new areas during the first half of the seventeenth century; but this was offset by the bad seasons and by disturbed conditions during the Thirty Years’ War. From 1650 to 1783 the pearls in the forest lands of the Palatinate were exploited regularly and uninterruptedly, with the exception of the district of Wetterfeld and that of Neunburg vor dem Wald, where they were prosecuted for a few years only. From 1783 to 1814, they were almost entirely neglected, and the take was confined to a few streams in Upper Palatinate and in the Bavarian forests. In the former episcopal principality of Passau, where, according to general accounts, the waters were rich in pearls, the records were scanty previous to 1786; this was probably owing to the fact that the head gamekeeper was obliged to transmit the catch of pearls directly to the prince-bishop. The records for the 173fisheries in the districts of Rehau and Kulmbach began with the year 1733.

From these fragmentary returns—making no estimate for the years for which there were no figures available—Von Hessling found that from 1600 to 1857 there were taken 15,326 pearls of the first class, which were clear white in color and of good luster; 27,662 pearls of the second class, which were somewhat deficient in luster, and 251,778 pearls of the third or poorest class, or “Sandperlen,” which, though of poor quality, had sufficient whiteness and luster to be used as ornaments. Had the records been complete, these figures would probably have been at least fifty per cent. greater, or a total of about 445,000 pearls in the 257 years. In the last forty-three years of this period, for which the records are fairly complete, the annual average was 208 pearls of the first, 395 of the second, and 3091 of the third class, a total each year of 3694 pearls of all grades. This was divided among the districts as follows:

District First class Second class Third class Total
Upper Franconia 13 34 52 99
Upper Palatinate 38 77 207 322
Lower Bavaria 157 284 2832 3273

Total 208 395 3091 3694

Probably the most interesting of the pearl fisheries in Germany are those prosecuted in the extreme southwestern part of the kingdom of Saxony, in the picturesque region known as Vogtland. This is not on account of their extent, for the output rarely exceeds $2000 in value in any season; but because for nearly three hundred years they have been conducted with the utmost care and regard for the preservation of the resources. Indeed, a record exists of practically every pearl obtained for nearly two centuries.

The waters in which the Saxon Vogtland fisheries are prosecuted are the Elster River, from the health resort of that name to a short distance below Elsterberg; its tributaries, the Mülhaüser, Freiberger, and Marieneyer brooks; the Hartmannsgrüner and the Triebel brooks, the Trieb, the Meschelsgrüner, the Teil, and Loch brooks, and twenty-five or more small ponds.

For most of the data relative to these fisheries, we are indebted to J. G. Jahn’s “Die Perlenfischerei im Voigtlande,” Oelsnitz, 1854; to Hinrich Nitsche’s “Süsswasserperlen, Internationale Fischerei-Ausstellung zu Berlin,” 1880, and to O. Wohlberedt’s “Nachtrag zur Molluskenfauna des Königreiches Sachsen,” “Nachrichtsblatt der 174deutschen Malakozoologischen Gesellschaft,” Frankfurt-am-Main, 1899, pp. 97–104.

In the year 1621, the electoral prince, Johann Georg I, reserved the pearl fishery of the Vogtland in Saxony as a royal privilege, and appointed Moritz Schmerler as superintendent and fisherman. From that time until the present, this fishery has remained a royal prerogative; and, remarkable to state, except at the close of the seventeenth century when the father-in-law of a Schmerler enjoyed the privilege, all the superintendents of the fishery—twenty-four persons in number—have been direct descendants of the second pearler, Abraham Schmerler, who, in 1643, succeeded his brother Moritz. The present superintendent Julius Schmerler has been in charge since 1889.

This fishery is conducted in accordance with regulations of the chief inspector of forests for the district of Auerbach. The present regulations date from June 15, 1827. In compliance therewith an inspection is made of the waters each spring to remove all obstructions and debris that would injure the resources; and, if necessary, entire beds of mussels are removed from one locality to another which appears more favorable. No mussels are opened at that time, for the real search for pearls does not begin until the season is far advanced and the fishermen can wade up to the waist in the water without discomfort.

Dr. Nitsche states that the whole pearling district is not searched over every year, but is divided into 313 sections, each one constituting a day’s work for three fishermen, and rarely are more than twenty or thirty of these fished in any one year. Thus each section or district is permitted to rest and recuperate for ten or fifteen years before it is again invaded. Every mussel is opened carefully by hand, with the aid of a peculiarly constructed iron instrument. By inserting the edge of this between the nibs of the shell and turning it at right angles, the valves are opened sufficiently to determine whether a pearl is contained therein. If none is observed, the instrument is released and the mussel returned uninjured to the water; but if a pearl is found within, the shell is forced open and the find removed. In case small pearls are observed which give promise of growing larger in time, they are not removed, but the year is marked upon the shell with the opening implement and the mussel returned to the water. It often happens that good pearls are later removed from shells marked in this manner.

Complete records exist of the yield of this fishery during each year since 1719, when the Vogtland passed to the electorate of Saxony. The following is a summary of these records arranged in series of twenty years each.

Years Clear pearls
Half clear pearls
Sand pearls
Damaged pearls
Average per year
1720–1739 1,809 727 1,201 552 4,289 214
1740–1759 1,412 578 484 281 2,755 138
1760–1779 1,042 272 427 219 1,960 98
1780–1799 1,261 243 357 179 2,040 102
1800–1819 1,603 261 325 203 2,392 120
1820–1839 1,659 340 326 326 2,651 133
1840–1859 1,884 610 387 505 3,386 169
1860–1879 1,618 682 450 514 3,264 163
1880–1899 471 394 86 373 1,324 66
1900–1905 79 161 22 86 348 58

Total in 186 years 12,838 4,268 4,065 3,238 24,409  
Average per year 69 23 22 17 131  

In recent years the development of manufacturing industries in Saxony and the resultant pollution of the water has greatly reduced the abundance of the mollusks and consequently the output has been much restricted. The average annual yield in the twenty years ending in 1879 was 163 pearls; in the twenty years ending in 1899 it was 66 pearls, and in the six years ending in 1905 the annual average was 58 pearls. Owing to high water, there was no fishing in 1888; and with a view to permitting the resources to recuperate, the fishery was suspended from 1896 to 1899, inclusive. Omitting these five years, the average yield during each season in the two decades ending 1899 was 88 pearls.

At the end of each season, the pearls secured are turned over to the director of forestry for the district of Auerbach; by him they were formerly sent to the royal cabinet of natural history, or to the royal collection at Dresden, but since 1830 they have been sent to the royal minister of finance, by whom they are sold each year. The total proceeds from these sales now amount to about 55,000 marks.

In former times, according to Dr. Nitsche, it was customary to use these pearls in making royal ornaments. This was the origin of the famous Elster necklace, consisting of 177 pearls, now in the art collection in the Grüne Gewölbe in the palace at Dresden. Another assortment in that collection consists of nine choice, well-matched pearls, weighing 140 grains. For a necklace of Saxon pearls, the property of a duchess of Sachsen-Zeitz, the sum of 40,000 thalers ($28,400) is said to have been refused.

In Prussian Silesia the pearl-mussel is found in the upper tributaries of the Oder, especially in Bober River from Löwenberg to the sources among the foot-hills of the beautiful Riesengebirge, in the Lusatian 176Neisse to Görlitz, the Queiss above Marklissa, and in the Juppel as far as Weidenau. The Queiss has been famous for its pearls since the sixteenth century, and even yet specimens of great beauty are obtained therefrom. As long ago as 1690, Ledel complained of the diminution of the number of mollusks owing to their wilful destruction by children; and in 1729 the government issued a rescript in Upper Lusatia (Oberlausitz) recommending the care of the young mollusks.[214]

Pearls are also found in the White Main a short distance from its source, in the head waters of the Saale, and in numerous other mountain-draining streams of middle Germany. Indeed, references could be made to the discovery of pearls in nearly every stream of Germany at some time during the last three or four centuries.

The records of pearl fisheries in the province of Hanover were traced by Von Hessling as far back as the sixteenth century, when they were prosecuted in the Aller, Ovia or Om, Lua or Low, and in the Seva in the district of Lüneburg. During the reign of Christian Ludwig (1641–65) and in that of George William (1666–1705), pearl fishing was carried on by the state, and old records of the former district of Bodenteich note the customs and practices of that period and of earlier times, and the implements employed. In 1706, for instance, 265 clear and 292 imperfect pearls were taken by three official fishermen from the Gerdauerbach. Gradually, however, owing to indifferent management, the brooks yielded less and less; the government seems to have entirely abandoned supervision of them, so that, according to Taube’s “Communication,”[215] slight results were obtained in 1766; indeed, only a few pearls could be shown as curiosities.[216]

Regarding the condition of the Hanoverian pearl-brooks, especially of those in the vicinity of Uelzen, Möbius wrote: “Uelzen lies at the confluence of eleven small rivulets, three of which, the Wipperau, the Gerdau and the Barnbeck, contain pearl-mussels. Fishing has been pursued here for centuries, and there exists an old regulation of the sixteenth century in regard to the pearl fisheries in the Ilmenau. Even at the present day, hundreds of pearls are found here which command a good price when they are bright and of good form. These either have a silvery sheen or they are of a reddish color. The season for fishing is during the months of July and August. The pearls are usually found in deformed shells. Their shape varies greatly; most of them are flat on one side. Naturally those which are spherical are the best, but the pear shapes are highly prized.” Möbius frequently failed to find one pearl in a hundred shells, but at other times he came across six or eight in this quantity. Most of the mussels are found in the deepest places, especially near the banks of the streams. One end of the shell usually projects out of the sand. The fisherman is represented as feeling about the bottom with his feet, and when he finds a shell, he seizes it between his toes, picks it out, and then places it in the basket suspended from his neck.[217]


Presented by the Czar Alexis Mikhailovitch and the Czarina Marie Illiinichna. Decorated largely with European fresh-water pearls. Now in the treasury of the Patriarchs, Moscow.

177In Baden and in Hesse are small pearl fisheries. In 1760, Elector Maximilian III sent to Mannheim, then in the Palatinate, eight hundred living pearl-mussels from the Bavarian forests, and again in 1769, he sent four hundred mussels from Deggendorf on the Danube, so that they might be established in the Palatinate. The mussels were placed in the Steinbach not far from Heidelberg, where they thrived so well that fishing was instituted in 1783. Soon, however, most of the mussels became buried in the sand, and the remainder were transplanted into a quieter portion of the Steinbach, between Kreutzsteinach and Schönau, about five miles northeast of Heidelberg. Here they seem to have been forgotten, and were left undisturbed until, about 1820, a fine pearl valued at two louis d’or was found near Schönau. This discovery soon led to such reckless exploitation that the government reserved the fishery as a state monopoly. The mussels were examined and sorted, and a portion of the brook was specially prepared for their reception. However, the cost of supervision was greater than the proceeds of the fishery, and the business was rented to private parties for a very small amount. This was paid as late as 1840 by the Natural History Society of Mannheim, the annual rate then being ten florins.

An effort was made nearly two hundred years ago to develop the pearl fisheries in Hesse. In 1717, Landgrave Prince William requested his cousin, Duke Moritz of Saxony, to send a pearl fisherman “to examine some streams in his territory where mussels have been found and to determine whether they are fitted for pearl fishing and whether fisheries can be established.”[218] In the following year, a member of the famous Schmerler family from the Saxon fisheries was sent to Cassel, but with what result is unknown.

When the pearling excitement developed at Schönau about 1820, Landrath Welker, of Hirschhorn on the Neckar, requested the grand duke of Hesse to place him in charge of the fishery, and when the proposition was declined, he formed a small company for pearl-culture. In 1828 his company had 558 mussels, 88 of which showed pearl formations; 178in 1833, out of 651, 98 contained such objects, and in 1851, 117 mussels were found with pearl formations out of 867 examined.[219] Owing to the policy of the company in selling the pearls only among the members thereof, the profits were altogether insufficient to cover the expenses, and gradually the fishery dwindled down until it was prosecuted only as a pastime.

Pearls are found in the province of Schleswig-Holstein, which formerly belonged to Denmark, but since 1866 has been a part of the kingdom of Prussia. Möbius relates that the Bavarian soldiers in 1864 collected large quantities of pearls from the streams of this province and sold many of them to jewelers in Hamburg.[220] Most of them were of good form and luster; milky white was the prevailing tint, but some were pink and others were rose-tinted.

In Austria, pearl fisheries are most important in the province of Bohemia, where they are prosecuted in the headwaters of the Moldau from Krumau, a few miles above Budweis, to below Turenberg, and to a much less extent in its tributary, the Wottawa, on the northeastern slopes of the Böhmer Wald or Bohemian Forest mountains. From very early times the right of fishery belonged to those domains and estates through which the streams flow, as for example, the cloister of Hohenfurth, the domain of Rosenberg, of Krumau, etc. The Schwarzenberg family formerly drew a considerable revenue therefrom. Over a hundred years ago the fishery was actively prosecuted by Count Adolph Schwarzenberg, who exhibited at the Bohemian Exposition, held in Prague in 1791, an interesting collection of shells, apparatus employed in the fishery, and many beautiful pearls obtained from his domains. The fisheries of the Wottawa were noted in 1560 by the Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner,[221] and again in 1582 by the district treasurer, Wolf Huber von Purgstall. In 1679, Balbinus referred to the excellent qualities of the pearls, estimating the value of many of them at twenty, thirty, and even one hundred golden florins each. He described the methods by which they were taken, and also complained of the destruction of the reefs by depredations of poachers.[222]

The Wottawa or Otawa River has long had linked with its name the epithet “the gold- and pearl-bearing brook.” Formerly, along its shores gold washing was more or less carried on, as well as the fresh-water pearl-mussel industry. At the present time, every third or fourth year, these mussels are gathered, by means of small, fine-woven nets, from the bed of the river, and a goodly number of pearls are collected.

179The reefs in the Moldau from Hohenfurth to Krumau were almost entirely ruined in 1620 by the troops who were cantoned there when the Bohemian Protestants were overthrown near the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, and they never regained the reputation they formerly enjoyed. According to the Vienna “Handels- und Börsenzeitung,” the output of the pearls fifty years ago in the upper Moldau, in the Wottawa, and in the Chrudimka—a tributary of the Elbe—reached in some years the sum of one million florins in value, and as much as eighty and sometimes even one hundred and twenty florins were paid for an individual specimen.[223] These pearls closely resemble those from Passau in Bavaria, and some approach the oriental gems in luster.

In the archduchy of Austria, pearls occur in several of the tributaries of the “beautiful blue Danube.” They are especially important in streams within the former district of Schärding, such as the Ludhammerbach, the Ranzenbergerbach, the Glatzbachenbach, the Brambach, the Schwarzbergerbach, the Mosenbach, and the Hollenbach; those in the former district of Waizkirchen, including the Pirningerbach, the Kesselbach, and many of their tributary brooks, and the Michel, the Taglinsbach, the Fixelbach, and the Haarbach, in the domain of Marbach.[224] Fishing in the Pirningerbach and the Kesselbach was prosperous about 1765, and Empress Maria Theresa received a beautiful necklace and bracelets of the pearls therefrom. In the district of Marbach, the fishing was prosecuted as long ago as 1685 for the account of the archbishop of Passau.

In Hungary from time immemorial, the native pearls have been popular with the Magyar women, and very many yet exist in the old Hungarian jewelry worn with the national costume. A century ago there was scarcely a family of local prominence which did not possess a necklace of pearls, although these were frequently not of choice quality or of considerable size. With a falling off in the output of the native streams there has been a great increase in the quantity of choice oriental pearls purchased by the wealthy families, and some of the most costly necklaces in Europe are now owned here.

In the kingdom of Denmark no pearl fisheries are now prosecuted, but three centuries ago the gems were taken in the Kolding Fjord in the province of Veile, Jutland. The great Holberg, who ranks first in Danish literature, wrote that the governor of the castle at Kolding employed as a pearl fisherman a Greenlander who had come to Denmark in 1605 or 1606, and who “had given the governor to understand that in his native land he was accustomed to fish for pearls.” 180Being required to work continuously, both winter and summer, he fell ill and died, and as no one else wished to pursue the occupation, the fishery ceased.[225]

In many of the Norwegian brooks, pearl fishing has been carried on for two or three centuries, and often with satisfactory results. It appears from ordinances dated November 10, 1691, May 14, 1707, and May 28, 1718, that the fisheries were under special supervision as a royal prerogative of the queen of Denmark.[226] Jahn notes that in 1719 and in 1722, Saxon pearl fishermen were sent for. In 1734 Charles VI of Denmark requested the elector of Saxony to send one of the pearl fishermen of Vogtland to examine the brooks of Norway in reference to the pearl resources, and to determine the practicability of establishing fisheries there. In response to this request, C. H. Schmerler was sent to Copenhagen and thence to Christiania, where he began an investigation of the Norwegian waters, the governor himself attending at the beginning of the work. So great was the estimation of its importance, that Schmerler was soon afterward received in audience by the king and queen of united Denmark and Norway at Frederiksborg palace near Copenhagen, and was awarded a gift of one hundred ducats and a life-pension.[227]

In 1751, according to Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, the Norwegian pearl fisheries were placed under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Christiansand. Among the principal pearling regions at that time were the Gon, Närim and Quasim rivers in the Stavanger district or amt; the Undol, Rosseland and other brooks in the Lister and Mandal province; and several streams in the district of Nadenäs.[228]

The returns from the Norwegian fisheries gradually decreased. After 1768 the rights were leased, and the revenue therefrom was paid into the royal treasury. Owing to small returns, this source of revenue received less and less attention, and about a century ago it was altogether neglected, although from time to time choice finds were made. Due to unusually low water in 1841, a number of valuable pearls were found near Jedderen in the province of Christiansand, some selling as high as $300 each; several of these were shown at the London Industrial Exhibition by the diocese of Christiania.


181The pearl fisheries of Sweden were noted, nearly four centuries ago, by Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala.[229] The gems were sought for by expert fishermen in the interior districts, and were brought in large quantities to the coasts for sale, the women and girls of all classes, rich and poor, using them extensively in personal decoration.

The celebrated Linnæus left a detailed account of the method by which mussels were caught in Sweden nearly two centuries ago. He wrote: “In the summer season, if the water is shallow, the fishermen wade in the stream and gather the mussels with their hands. Should the water be deeper, they dive for the mussels and place such as they find in a vessel made of birch bark, which they carry with them. Sunny days are selected, because then they can see deeper into the water. But, should this not suffice, they traverse the river on rafts which are painted white beneath so that the bed of the stream may be illumined by the reflected light. The men lie prone on the rafts and look down into the depths so that they may immediately seize with wooden tongs the mussels which they discover. Or else, hanging by their hands to the rafts, they seize them in the water with their toes. If the water is too deep even for this, they dive and feel around on the bottom with their hands until it becomes necessary to rise again to the surface in order to breathe. However, out of a hundred mussels, scarcely one contains a good pearl; but sometimes as many as twenty pearls of the size of a grain of sand are found in one shell. Many of the larger pearls are reddish or dark, but occasionally a beautiful white pearl is hidden under such a covering; although, naturally, it is rare that this is altogether perfect. It has been noted that mussels seven years old contain pearls; and in each of two mussels eighteen years old, a pearl was found attached to the shell.”[230]

The list of streams in Sweden from which pearls were taken, as noted by Olaf Maimer, J. Fischerstein, and Gissler[231] a century and a half ago, seems to cover nearly all the rivers and brooks which flow from the mountains of this beautiful country.

In Russia the love for the pearl has been almost as great as in Persia and India. During the Middle Ages, pearls were worn upon the clothes of nearly all well-to-do Russians. The great head-dresses of the women were ornamented with them; and they were used in decorating the stoles, vestments, crosses, and the priceless relics in the churches.

The pearl-mussel is found in very many of the Russian streams. It occurs throughout Archangel, in most of the rivers which flow into the White Sea, into Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega, and the Baltic Sea; and likewise in the Volga watershed. Von Hessling states that east 182of the Volga its southern boundary extends to Lat. 56°, while on the west it extends further southward, so that in the region of the Dnieper it reaches Lat. 51°. The extreme southern limit is near the mouth of the Don, about 47° north latitude.[232]

In northern Russia pearls are secured in the provinces of Livonia. Esthonia, and Olonetz, and in the grand duchy of Finland, where they have been sought after for three centuries or more. Most of them are bluish gray in color and they attain a maximum weight of about twelve grains. Although not equaling the oriental gems, these pearls are of good quality and are highly esteemed, not only by the peasants but by the nobility and by the royal family of Russia. For reference to most of the historical data relative to the fishery in Livonia, we are indebted to an account written by H. Kawall.[233]

So long ago as 1612, Dionysius Fabricius compared the pearls of Livonia with those of India. Said he: “Nor should I omit to mention that there are rivers in Livonia wherein large pearls are produced in shells; and I myself have seen some as large as the oriental, especially when they are well grown. But because the peasants of this region are too ignorant to determine with certainty when they mature, they are unable to collect them properly, and therefore the pearls have become rarer.”[234]

According to Mylius,[235] in the seventeenth century, when Livonia belonged to Sweden, the pearl resources received attention from the government. Charles IX of Sweden decreed October 22, 1694, that the pearls therefrom should not be exported but should be sold to officers of the crown at a definite price. In 1700, an inspector of the fishery in Livonia, whose name was Krey, reported that the peasants collected pearls secretly from the small rivers and brooks, and forwarded them to Moscow for sale. As the peasants objected to selling them to the king’s commissioners at the prices fixed, the fishery soon dwindled in extent. However, on the annexation of Livonia to Russia in 1712, and the removal of these restrictions, it revived and became of local importance during the last years of the reign of Peter the Great.

In 1742 the Livonian fishery was reorganized at the suggestion of a Swede named Hedenberg. Furnished by the government with funds and an escort, he began an exploration of the pearl-bearing waters, commencing with Lake Kolk, where he secured many pearls of value, some of which were presented to Empress Elizabeth.[236]

183The fishery then came into great favor. To the nobility of Livonia, in whose domains the brooks were situated, the crown accorded sixty rubles for each half ounce of choice pearls secured, and for every half ounce of the second class, thirty rubles; but the nobles were obliged to renounce their rights to the fisheries and to permit the lakes and brooks to be guarded by imperial soldiers. Owing to the very great destruction of mussels which yielded no pearls, a reward was offered to any one who would discover a method of determining from external characteristics those individual shells which contain gems of value.

In 1746, when the Empress Elizabeth passed the summer in Livonia, large quantities of pearls from the neighboring brooks were presented to her. But, owing to the cost of supervision, the expenditures soon exceeded the revenues and the government abandoned the guard and dismissed the fishermen. Little by little the search decreased, and by 1774 relatively few pearls were found.[237]

According to Hupel, the Schwarzbach River, near Werro, was celebrated for its pearls, which were noted for their size and beauty; one of the tributaries of this river is named Perlenbach (Pearl Brook). The Ammat and Tirse streams, and forty other brooks and lakes also yielded them. Pearls of slight value were likewise produced in the Palze and the Rause, near Palzmar; the Paddez, a tributary of the Evest which empties into the Düna, and the Voidau and the Petribach, each of which flows into the Schwarzbach. Near the Tirse was a very old road house, patronized by the peasants, which from time immemorial had borne the name Pehrlu-kroghs (Pearl Tavern).

Formerly some of the brooks of Esthonia on the Gulf of Finland, and principally those near Kolk and the adjacent lakes, furnished beautiful pearls. From these waters came the beautiful necklace which is yet an heirloom in the Kolk family. The choicest of these weighed from five to ten grains, and the color was grayish blue. The Emperor Alexander I is said to have received a present of pearls collected in the vicinity of Tammerfors, in the government of Tavastehus, in the grand duchy of Finland. The development of manufacturing in that region, however, has destroyed most of the mussels.

Von Hessling notes that in the province of Olonetz, pearls are found in the Poventshanka, in the Ostjor, and in the Kums, where they are secured by the neighboring peasants who sometimes make valuable finds.[238] When the brooks dry up, the mussels are easily secured; old inhabitants note that on one occasion of this kind many superb pearls 184were found in the Poventshanka, and a necklace of them was presented to the Empress Catherine Alexievna. These pearls rarely leave the province in which they are collected, as the inhabitants are fond of using them for personal decoration. Young girls attend to the fishing, and workmen pierce them for about two copecks each. Choice ones sell for thirty to one hundred rubles apiece.

In the government of Archangel pearls have been collected for centuries from the streams flowing into the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean. An extended account of the fisheries of this region was given by Von Middendorff.[239] He states that the Unio margaritifera inhabits all the rivers in which the descent is not too rapid, and especially in the Tjura, the Tuloma, the Kovda, Kereda, the Kanda, etc. The fisheries have been conducted exclusively by the shore Laplanders; but they have been neglected in recent years owing to the small returns. Von Hessling notes that the pearls are dull in color; in the opinion of the fishermen this is caused by the mysterious influence of the copper money which they carry with them. The Tuloma was formerly a productive river; its pearls were sold in Kola, whence they were carried to Archangel, 335 miles distant, where they were pierced by expert workmen. The Tjura also yielded many pearls; but since a Laplander was drowned while fishing for them, a legend has spread that the spirit of the river guards the pearls, and the natives hesitate about seeking them.

Probably the occurrence of so many in the home streams had much to do with developing in Russia that great love for the pearl which has made it the national ornament, all classes finding pleasure in its possession. While the superb gems treasured by the nobility are mostly from oriental seas, a considerable percentage of those worn by the peasantry are from the native waters. An interesting account of this fondness among a certain class of Russian women—the Jewesses of Little Russia—was given sixty years ago by the German traveler Kohl.


185In Alexandria, a small city in the government of Kherson in South Russia, a Jew kept a café, and his charming daughter served us with coffee. We paid her compliments on her beautiful eyes and teeth. But she seemed to be much less vain of these natural ornaments than of the acquired ones in the magnificent glittering pearl-cap which she wore upon her head. For all the women through South and Little Russia even as far as Galicia wear a certain stiff, baggy cap which is very disfiguring, and is covered all over with a great number of pearls, upon a foundation of black velvet. It is called a “mushka.” This cap, with very unimportant modifications, has almost always the same form; the only difference is that, in the case of the wealthy, the pearls are larger, and sometimes a number of small pearls and precious stones are suspended here and there, set in the same way as the earrings of our ladies. It is common for them to wear half their fortune on their heads in this way. For these caps generally cost from five hundred to one thousand roubles, and many are worth five or six thousand and even more; they wear them every day, holidays as well as ordinary days, and strut around the kitchens and cellars with their “mushka.” They spend their last penny in order to secure such a pearl-cap, and even when they are clad in rags their head is covered with pearls. In order to furnish the requisite material for this wide-spread fashion, the commerce in pearls of Odessa, Taganrog and some other places in southern Russia is not unimportant. There may live in the region where the pearl-caps of which I speak are worn at least 2,000,000 Jewesses. Let us estimate that among them there are but 300,000 adults, and that only half of these, 150,000, wear pearl-caps (only the most indigent and the most aristocratic do not wear the “mushka”); let us then estimate the average value of such a cap at only five hundred roubles—these are the lowest minima and fall far short of the real figures—and we have a total capital of 76,000,000 roubles, which the Jewesses of this region wear upon their heads. Naturally the annual diminution of this capital is small, since these pearls are transmitted from the mothers to their daughters and granddaughters. Still, if we estimate that they last for a century, the necessary yearly contribution amounts to nearly one million. It is, however, probable that a much larger capital is employed in the commerce of pearls. They are, for the most part, oriental and come by way of Turkey and Odessa or else by way of Armenia and Tiflis. We inquired of our beautiful Jewess whether she was not in perpetual dread on account of her pearl-cap, and how she protected it from thieves. She answered that she wore it on her head all day and at night placed it in a casket which rested under her pillow. So that the whole short life of these Jewesses of the steppes revolves around their pearl-cap as the earth does around the sun.[240]

Several species of marine mollusks on the coasts of Europe yield pearly formations, but none of much ornamental or commercial value. Probably the most interesting of these are from the Pinna on the Mediterranean coasts, and especially on the coast of Sardinia and the shores of the Adriatic. An interesting collection of these Pinna pearls was furnished to the writers by Alexandro Castellani of Rome.



Sea-girt isles,
That, like to rich and various gems, inlay
The unadorned bosom of the deep.

Gathering pearl shells and pearls is the principal industry of the semi-amphibious natives of the hundreds of palm-crowned and foam-girdled islands of the southern Pacific, commonly known as the South Sea Islands. Among these the most prominent for pearl fishing are the Tuamotu Islands or Low Archipelago, the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Fiji Islands, Penrhyn or Tongareva, and New Caledonia. These are under the protection of the French government, except Fiji and Penrhyn, which belong to Great Britain.

Almost ever since the South Sea Islands have been known to civilization they have contributed pearls; and the fishery has been one of the principal industries, not only for the natives, but also for the not inconsiderable number of sailors who, preferring the lotus on shore to the salt pork and monotony of ship life, have yielded to the insular attractions and formed domestic ties. The industry has been especially extensive during the last seventy years, when there has been a profitable market for the shells. Most of the natives—men, women, and children—follow it for a living. Domestic duties rest very lightly upon the women, and many of these, and even young girls, find employment in diving, in which at moderate depths these dusky mermaids are nearly, if not quite as expert as the men and boys.

Tahiti, the largest of the eleven Society Islands, is the center of the pearling industry of French Oceanica. It is situated in about Lat. 17° S. and Long. 150° W., and has an area of approximately 410 square miles and a population of 11,000, nearly one half of whom live in Papeiti, the principal town. This is one of the most agreeable of the “Summer Isles of Eden,” Nature furnishing food in abundance, and climate and social customs requiring little in the way of dress and habitation. Notwithstanding its importance as the headquarters of 190the pearling industry, few pearl-oysters are caught at Tahiti, most of them coming from the archipelagoes of Tuamotu, Gambier, and occasionally Tubai.

The Tuamotu Archipelago is the scene of the principal pearl fisheries of the South Seas; and from the local importance of this industry the group is sometimes called the Pearl Islands. These coral-formed islands are strung out for a distance of 900 miles in a northwest and southeast direction, and extend from Lat. 14° to 23° S. and from Long. 136° to 149° W. They number about seventy-eight, many of them made up of small atolls only a few feet above the surface of the ocean, and with an aggregate area of about 360 square miles. The total population is approximately 6000, with many visitors from Tahiti and other neighboring islands during the pearling season. The principal products are pearl shell and pearls, copra, and cocoanut oil; and nearly one half of the islands yield nothing but shell and pearls. The chief port is Fakarava on an island of the same name, and the trade is almost entirely with Tahiti.

As the Tuamotus are of coral formation, they produce little vegetable growth, and the people seem often on the brink of starvation, forming a striking contrast with those of the neighboring Society Islands. Drawing their subsistence entirely from the sea, except for the native cocoanuts and breadfruit, these people have, at times, been in great straits for food, and it was doubtless severe hunger that drove them to the acts of cannibalism with which they have been charged. And the sea which supplies them with food has also visited them with great destruction. As recently as January, 1903, a great storm swept over this group, drowning over 500 of the inhabitants, and destroying a very considerable portion of the pearling fleet and other property.

The pearl-oyster reefs of the Tuamotu Archipelago are very extensive, only eight or ten of the islands failing to contribute to the supply. They occur in the protected lagoons of the atolls, where the bottom is well covered with coral growth, with numerous elevations and depressions of various sizes; and it is about the bases and in the recesses of these coral growths that the best shells are usually found. Most of them are of the black-edged variety of Margaritifera margaritifera, which here attains a great size, reaching a diameter of twelve inches in extreme cases.

While pearl-oysters are found about nearly all of the Tuamotu Islands, the reefs are richest at Hikueru or Melville Island. When that lagoon is open it is the scene of the greatest operations, and it is credited with nearly one half of the total product of the archipelago. At the opening of the season, this is the resort of fishermen from all over the group, even from a distance of five hundred miles, and thousands of natives camp in temporary leaf-thatched huts among the cocoanut-palms on the beach, those from the different islands congregating in isolated settlements. As many as five thousand persons are sometimes brought together in this way.



192The volcanic-formed Gambier Islands, with high peaks reaching, in one instance, an altitude of over 1200 feet, present a striking contrast to the Tuamotu atolls. This group consists of five large and several small islands, surrounded by a coral reef of an irregular triangular figure. The 1100 inhabitants of the Gambier Islands derive a large percentage of their support from the pearl fishery. The patches of pearl-oysters are located between the islands and the barrier reefs. They are numerous about the island of Mangareva, which is well surrounded by them on the north, east, and southeast. Oysters from the reef of Tearae, which extends from the eastern point of Mangareva to the small island of Aukena, a distance of two miles, are especially rich in pearls. On this reef, where the water is from one to four fathoms in depth, the mollusks are small, rarely exceeding five or six inches at maturity, but the shell is very thick and coral covered; these yield many pearls. In greater depths, the oysters attain a larger size, but they yield few pearls.

The first white man to attempt the exploitation of the pearl resources of the Tuamotus appears to have been Mörenhout. In a voyage to the Oceanic Islands in 1827, he learned of the great wealth of pearl shell, and applied to Queen Pomaré at Tahiti for permission to employ the natives in the fishery. With an eye to business, she required a fee of $5000 for herself before granting the desired authority.[241] Considering this excessive, Mörenhout attempted to deal with the natives without permission of the dusky queen, but under these adverse conditions he found the trade unsatisfactory and soon abandoned it.

In 1830, and the years immediately succeeding, desultory pearling voyages were made from Valparaiso, Chile, and these were followed by expeditions from America and elsewhere. An interesting account of the trade at that time is contained in Lucatt’s “Rovings in the Pacific from 1837 to 1849,” published in London in 1851.

The Mormon influx in 1846 resulted in a further development of the pearl fishery; and Grouard, the local leader of that denomination, is credited with making a fortune in the business.

From the beginning of the industry up to 1880, when control of the islands passed to the French government, it is estimated that about 15,000 tons of pearl-oysters were secured. The extent of the fishery during the few years preceding 1880 made such drains upon the productiveness 193of the reefs that many of them gave signs of exhaustion. With a view to adopting methods for conserving the industry, so essential to the welfare of the natives, the French Ministry of Marine and Colonies in 1883 inaugurated an investigation of its condition, and of the possibilities for improvement. This was made under the immediate direction of G. Bouchon-Brandely, whose interesting report[242] contains much data on this subject.

As a result of these investigations and recommendations, a restricted season for fishing was adopted, and only a portion of the reefs was thrown open each year, a decree of the governor, published in the “Journal Officiel” of the colony, determining the islands in which the fishery might be prosecuted. This interdiction, known locally as rahui, is for the purpose of permitting the oysters to develop, and thus prevent the exhaustion of the reefs.

By decree of January 24, 1885, a restriction was made against taking shells measuring less than 17 centimeters in diameter on the interior nacre, or weighing less than 200 grams per valve. But this was repealed in 1890, and since then there has been no restriction on the size of the oysters that may be fished.

The pearl fishery and the isolated leper station are the principal claims which attract the attention of the outside world to the island of Penrhyn or Tongareva, one of the Manahiki group, in Lat. 9° S., and Long. 158° W. This desolate atoll island consists of a ring of land a few hundred yards in width, inclosing a lagoon nine miles long and five miles wide, and it produces little else than pearls and pearl shell. The white gravelly shore yields little vegetation except cocoanuts, which share with fish in furnishing sustenance to the semi-amphibious natives.

At Penrhyn the pearl fishery is carried on in the clear, limpid waters of the atoll where the oysters are undisturbed by storms. The shells belong mostly to the golden-edged variety, and are of good quality, the value in London ranging from £100 to £250 per ton. Relatively few pearls are found, amounting in aggregate value to only about one fourth of the value of the shells. These are the principal objects of the fishery; the finding of pearls is incidental, but careful search is always made for them, and some choice specimens have been secured.

On the coast of New Caledonia, pearling is of recent origin, dating as an industrial enterprise from 1897, although previous to that time some shells and pearls had been secured by native beach-combers. This island is 220 miles in length and 30 in width, situated 850 miles southeast of Australia, and about the same distance from New Zealand. 194It is a French colony, and has been used by that government as a penal settlement since 1864.

In 1897, rich beds of pearl-oysters were discovered off the west coast of this island. They are most numerous between the shore and the barrier reefs on the west coast from Pouembout River to Gomen Bay, and especially about the small island of Konienne at the mouth of the Pouembout River. They are also abundant among the Loyalty Islands off the eastern coast of New Caledonia, and especially at the island of Lifu.[243] The shell is similar to that from Torres Straits, and the yield of pearls is very large. Several concessions have been obtained to exploit these beds, one of them covering 130 miles in length. The industry is carried on by means of scaphanders, in a manner similar to that of Torres Straits. Virtually all of the catch is sent to France.

The natives of the South Sea Islands, and particularly of Penrhyn and the Tuamotu group, are doubtless the most expert divers in the world. This can be readily appreciated by those who have read of Hua Manu in C. W. Stoddard’s thrilling narrative, or have heard the story of the brown woman who swam for forty hours in a storm with a helpless husband on her back. Accustomed to the water from infancy, these human otters swim all day long as readily as they would walk, go miles from shore without a boat in search of fish which they take by means of baited hook and line, and boldly attack a shark single-handed. Seemingly fabulous stories are told of their descending, unaided, 150 feet or more beneath the surface, and remaining at lesser depths for nearly three minutes, far surpassing any modern records of the divers of India.

The water in the South Seas is wonderfully clear, enabling the fishermen to detect small objects at considerable depths, and especially so when using the water-telescope, similar to that employed in the Red Sea fisheries. By immersing this to a depth of several inches and cutting off the light from the upper end as he gazes through it down into the waters, the fisherman can readily inspect the bottom at a depth of fifteen fathoms, and thus locate the shells before he descends.

The diving is quite unlike that in Ceylon and Arabia. The men do not descend on stones, but swim to the bottom. The diver is stripped to his paréu or breech-clout, his right hand is protected by a cotton mitten or by only a wrapping of cotton cloth, and in his left hand he carries a pearl shell to assist in directing his movements and in detaching the oysters at the bottom. In preparing for a deep descent, he sits for several minutes in characteristic attitude with hands hanging over knees, and repeatedly inflates his lungs to the fullest capacity, exhaling 195the air slowly through his mouth. After five or six minutes of “taking the wind,” the diver inhales a good breath, drops over the gunwale into the water to give him a start, and descends feet foremost. At a distance of twelve or fifteen feet below the surface, gracefully as an otter or a seal, he bends forward and turns head downward and, with limbs showing dimly in frog-like motion, he swims vertically the remaining distance to the bottom. There he assumes a horizontal position and swims slowly just above the ground, searching critically for suitable oysters, in this way traversing a distance possibly of fifty feet or more. When he has secured an oyster, or his breath is approaching exhaustion, he springs from the ground in an erect position and rapidly swims upward, the buoyancy of his body hastening his ascent so that he pops head and shoulders above the surface, and falls back with laboring pulse and panting breath. In case the dive has been unusually extended, a few drops of blood may trickle from the nose and mouth. His find—consisting frequently of nothing and rarely of more than one oyster—is carried in a cocoanut fiber sack suspended from the neck, or is held in the left hand, or may be hugged beneath the left arm.

Ordinarily in actual fishing operations, the fishermen do not descend to greater depths than fifteen fathoms, and remain from sixty to ninety seconds. Writing in 1851, a trader who had spent several years in collecting pearls and pearl shells among the Tuamotus stated: “I timed several by the watch, and the longest period I knew any of them to keep beneath the water was a minute and a quarter, and there were only two who accomplished this feat. Rather less than a minute was the usual duration. It is unusual for them to attempt deep diving; and let the shells be ever so abundant, they will come up and swear there are none.”[244]

However, in mutual contests or in special exhibitions, reports of twenty, twenty-three, and even twenty-five fathoms are numerous, and they have repeatedly been timed two and a half to three minutes. Bouchon-Brandely speaks of a woman at Anaa, one of the Tuamotus, who would go down twenty-five fathoms and remain three minutes under water.[245] This seems very unusual, but there are numerous reports of two and a half minutes at about seventeen or eighteen fathoms. In October, 1899, at Hikueru Island, another of the Tuamotu group, a young native made an exhibition dive for the officers of the United States Fish Commission steamship Albatross. He reached bottom at a depth of 102 feet under the boat’s keel, and remained submerged two minutes and forty seconds. The water was so transparent 196that he was clearly seen from the surface. After he touched bottom at that great depth, he calmly picked over the coral and shells to select a piece to bring up.[246] The diver was ready to go down again only a few minutes after he came up.

In his work on French Oceanica, Chartier states: “There are three women well known in the archipelago [of Tuamotu] who have no equals elsewhere; they explore the depth at twenty-five fathoms and remain not less than three minutes before reappearing at the surface.”[247] However, these unusual depths and extensions of time are dangerous, and care must be taken or serious results follow. Most of the catch is obtained in about ten fathoms of water.

At the request of the writer, Mr. Julius D. Dreher, American Consul at Tahiti, made inquiries among the South Sea Islands in regard to the record of the best divers, and wrote as follows:

Mr. J. L. Young, who has lived in these islands for thirty years, informs me that he has never seen a diver remain under water longer than 80 seconds, and that at a depth of twelve to fifteen fathoms. At one time he tested a man who claimed to be able to stay under for three minutes, yet this man could hold his breath on land less than 80 seconds by the watch.

Elder Joseph F. Burton, who has spent many years as a missionary in these islands, states that once in Hikueru, of the Tuamotu group, he went out in a boat with the divers to time them. The best record made was 107 seconds, but he was informed that there were better divers on the island than those he tested. He thinks the water was ten to twelve fathoms in depth. A native of Takaroa, named Metuaro, told Mr. Burton that he could stay under water three minutes or longer. When these divers come up they take a breath and immediately put their head under water to prevent headache.

Mr. J. Lamb Doty, formerly Consul and now Vice-Consul at Tahiti, who has spent eighteen years here, is willing to be quoted as affirming that he once timed a diver who remained under water 2 minutes 35 seconds.

Mr. Henry B. Merwin, a leading trader with the Tuamotu Islands, is willing to be quoted as saying that he saw a diver remain under water 4 minutes 45 seconds by the watch. This is generally regarded, so far as my inquiries go, as improbable; but most persons interviewed believe that men do remain under water 2½ to 3 minutes. A native of Takaroa, named Tai, assured me in the presence of others that there were twenty men in that island who could remain under water 2½ to 3 minutes at a depth of twenty fathoms. He claimed to be able to stay 3 minutes at that depth.

Pearl-divers of the Tuamotu Archipelago; men, women and children dive in these waters

Settlement of pearl fishermen at Hiqueru, Tuamotu Archipelago

197Diving-suits, or scaphanders, have been used at most of the South Sea Islands, but in a very irregular manner. In 1890 the use of scaphanders was restricted in the Tuamotu group, and by decree of December 28, 1892, it was interdicted altogether with a view to preserving the industry to the natives, as it represents their principal means of livelihood. The suit commonly employed at Penrhyn consists of a helmet and a jumper, neither boots nor trousers being worn. Owing to the absence of weights on the feet, it rarely but nevertheless sometimes happens that a diver turns upside down, and the unwieldy helmet keeps him head downward while the air rushes out under the bottom cord of the jumper and he is suffocated. Also, when a good patch of shells has been located, the temptation to remain down too long is great, and paralysis often results. On the whole, these diving-suits have proven very dangerous to the light, graceful swimmers of these southern seas, to whom they are about as much of an impediment as was Saul’s armor to the shepherd lad who slew the giant with the simple pebble from a sling.

And there are dangers also in nude diving, even to those who have spent a lifetime about the water. Sharks and sting-rays and devil-fish there are in abundance, and many of them know the taste of diver’s flesh; on the other hand many a daring South Sea Islander could tell of a fierce combat more thrilling than even those pictured by Victor Hugo. One of the chief advantages of the diving-suit is that in case a shark comes along, the diver can bide his time until the fish is ready to leave, or he can frighten it away by ejecting air bubbles from the sleeve of his suit or by other demonstrations; whereas a nude diver is obliged to seek the air without delay, and in the retreat is seized by the fish who, human like, has his appetite increased by the visible retreat of the object of his desire.

Not Schiller nor Edgar Allan Poe ever conjured up a picture more ghastly than that of a Penrhyn diver caught like a rat in a trap by some huge, man-eating shark or fierce kara mauua, crouching in a cleft of the overhanging coral, under the dark green gloom of a hundred feet of water, with bursting lungs and cracking eyeballs, while the threatening bulk of his terrible enemy looms dark and steady, full in the road to life and air. A minute or more has been spent in the downward journey; another minute has passed in the agonized wait under the rock.... Has he been seen?... Will the creature move away now, while there is still time to return? The diver knows to a second how much time has passed; the third minute is on its way; but one goes up quicker than one comes down, and there is still hope.... Two minutes and a half; it is barely possible now, but—the sentinel of death glides forward; his cruel eyes, phosphorescent in the gloom, look right into the cleft where the wretched creature is crouching, with almost twenty seconds of life still left, but now not a shred of hope. A few more beats of the laboring pulse, a gasp from the tortured lungs, a sudden rush of silvery air bubbles, and the brown limbs collapse down out of the cleft like wreaths of seaweed. The shark has his own. (Beatrice Grimshaw in the “Graphic.”)

198At the end of the day’s work, the catch is opened by means of a large knife, and carefully searched for the much prized pearls. Usually the fisherman finds none; occasionally he discovers a small round one or a large baroque, and at long intervals—possibly once in two or three years—his search is rewarded with a fine pearl for which he may receive $50 or $60, and there is always the chance that the very next oyster will disclose a gem which will make him independent for the remainder of his life; and if no pearls whatever are found, there are the shells, the sale of which furnishes sufficient to purchase tobacco, knives, fish-hooks, the gaudy cotton cloths, the flour and other simple articles of food, and especially rum, that fatal gift of civilization which has been the curse of so many primitive peoples.

Some of the individual pearls secured have been remarkably large, weighing 100 grains and over. Returning visitors from Tahiti, with views magnified doubtless in proportion to the distance of the objects of their description, credited Queen Pomaré with the possession of some sufficiently large to be used for billiard-balls. Sixty years ago superb pearls could be obtained from the natives for a few gallons of rum or a small number of pieces of cheap calico, and several shrewd traders made great profits in the business. But as trade at the islands was open to vessels of all nationalities, the competition increased, with the result that the natives gradually learned the high estimation in which pearls are held, and in recent years it has not been unusual for one of medium grade to sell higher in Oceanica than it would in Europe.

It is difficult to form a reliable estimate of the value of the pearling industry of the South Sea Islands. The Tuamotu group, with 4000 fishermen, yields, in an average season, about 450 tons of mother-of-pearl, worth about £65,000 in London, where most of it is marketed. The yield at the remaining French islands is less than that of the Tuamotus. Probably the total yield of mother-of-pearl in all the South Sea Islands is not far from 900 tons, worth about $700,000.

No statistics whatever are available regarding the yield of pearls, and the estimates sent from the islands are small compared with those made by London and Paris firms who import the pearls. A large number of persons living in Papeiti and many traders visiting the islands depend very largely on pearl-dealing for a livelihood. From the yield of pearl shell and estimates made by dealers, we are inclined to put the value of the pearls secured in an average season from all the South Sea Islands at about $125,000, only a small portion of which goes to the fishermen themselves, the greater part representing profits of the traders.



Ocean’s gem, the purest
Of nature’s works! What days of weary journeyings,
What sleepless nights, what toils on land and sea,
Are borne by men to gain thee!

As regards area of distribution the most extensive pearl-oyster grounds of the world are situated on the northern and western coasts of Australia. These are located within the jurisdictions of Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia; and extend in irregular patches from near Cooktown on the northeast almost to Fremantle at the southwest, a distance of nearly 3000 miles. Those in Queensland are commonly known as the Torres Straits fisheries, as they are especially important there; but they extend a considerable distance beyond each end of the strait, and pearling expeditions are made from the limits of the Great Barrier coral reef northward to the vicinity of New Guinea.[248] Those of Western Australia are commonly spoken of as the Northwest fisheries.

The fisheries of Queensland and of Western Australia are approximately equal in extent, as regards number of vessels, boats, and men employed, and the quantity and value of the catch, with the advantage slightly in favor of the Northwest fishery in the last four or five years. In 1905, according to the official figures, the Queensland fishery gave employment to 348 vessels and 2850 men, and yielded shell and pearls worth £135,000, which was the smallest output since 1890. The Western Australia fishery, exclusive of Sharks Bay, employed 365 vessels in 1905, and about the same number of men as in Queensland, and yielded £196,000 worth of shell and pearls. The fishery of South Australia employed about 60 vessels and 375 men, and yielded about £25,000 worth of shell and pearls. This makes for the whole of Australia, except Sharks Bay hereinafter noted, a total of 773 vessels, 6075 men, and an output worth £356,000. It should be understood that the South Australia fishery is not prosecuted on the southern coast of the continent, but on the northern coast, in what is known as the Northern Territory of South Australia.

Three species of pearl-oysters are found in Australian waters. The largest species, Margaritifera maxima, which is by far the most important and widely distributed, occurs to a greater or less extent throughout the whole of this region. This yields the standard motherof-pearl 200of commerce. Although the pearls which it yields are among the largest and finest in the world, this mollusk is sought more particularly for the shell, the value of which from season to season averages three or four times as much as that of the pearls. Ordinarily this shell is uniformly white over the entire inner surface, and is commonly known locally as “silver lip”; but some “golden-edged” shell occurs on the muddy grounds in narrow passages between the islands on the northwest coast.

While this species is gregarious, it is not located in densely covered beds, but is scattered in patches over the reefs. Some of these are miles in length and contain scores of tons, but visually they are very much smaller. The oysters occur principally on rocky bottom, and also on clay and sand when well covered with seaweeds, but are rarely found on muddy ground. They are most numerous in the channels where the current is strong. The small oysters are generally loosely attached by the byssus to rock, gravel or other shells; while the mature ones lie loosely on the bottom or slightly turned in the sand.

The second species of the Australian pearl-oysters, Margaritifera margaritifera, is smaller, rarely exceeding eight inches in diameter and a weight of two pounds. The distinguishing characteristic is the black edge bordering the inner surface of the shell, whence it acquired the local designation “black lip.” This variety is not rare in Queensland, and in Western Australia its range extends as far as Champion Bay in Lat. 29° S. However, the catch is small compared with that of the Margaritifera maxima, amounting to only two or three per cent. in Queensland. In 1905, the export of “silver lip” and “golden-edged” from Thursday Island was 527 tons, and of “black lip” only 11 tons; in 1904, these figures were 778 and 7 respectively. In Western Australia the percentage of yield is much larger than this.

The third species, Margaritifera carcharium, is confined almost entirely to the limits of Sharks Bay, on the extreme western coast of Australia. At maturity it is the smallest of the three, averaging three or four inches in diameter, and about equals in size the Lingah pearl-oyster of the Persian Gulf. The percentage of pearls therefrom is relatively greater than from the larger variety; but, owing to its small size and lack of thickness, the shell is of little commercial value. The value of the output in recent years has approximated two or three thousand pounds sterling, which is very much less than formerly, the value of the shell having greatly decreased since the introduction of the Mississippi shell in button manufacture.

The pearl fishery on the coast of Australia originated about 1861. It appears that an American sailor named Tays was the pioneer in the business; and on his death by drowning, the business was conducted 201by his partner named Seubert.[249] This was on the northwest coast, and the output reached the market by way of Singapore. At first the oysters were so abundant in shallow water that they could be picked up at low tide, and beach-combing was profitable, especially when carried on with cheap native labor. As the beach-beds became exhausted, the natives were encouraged to wade out to greater depths, and soon they became accustomed to “bob under” for those oysters visible from the surface. The Australian blacks were thus taught to dive, and in 1867 diving from boats in two or three fathoms was attempted with such success that in the following year the practice was generally adopted, the depth in which they worked gradually extending to six or eight fathoms. In diving from a boat, the men imitated “bobbing under” which they had practised in shoaler water; they slipped off the gunwale feet foremost, and when six or eight feet below the surface, turned and swam downward.

Owing to the close labor relations existing between the natives and the sheep-raisers of northwestern Australia, the latter were brought into the business, and for a number of years pearling and sheep-raising were closely associated. The blacks were employed in various duties in connection with raising and shearing sheep, and it was important to find some occupation for them when ranch-work was slack, not only for their own subsistence but for the protection of the herdsmen and their property. Fortunately, this opportunity was furnished by the pearl fishery, for which these men were well qualified.

The profits of the business soon attracted many outside capitalists, and it became difficult to procure divers. Not only did the pearlers—and particularly new-comers—resort to impressing the blacks into service, but skilled fishermen were brought over from the Malay Archipelago, and in some cases the methods used in securing them were by no means regular.

In 1871 the Northwest pearl fishery gave employment to 12 vessels of 15 to 50 tons each, and yielded about 180 tons of mother-of-pearl. During the same year, in Torres Straits, where the industry had extended about 1868, there were 10 vessels—mostly from the port of Sydney—and the catch of mother-of-pearl approximated 200 tons, valued at £60,000 in London.[250] Each vessel was commonly manned by two or three white men and from ten to fifty divers, who worked from dinghys, in gangs of six or eight each with an overseer in charge.

As the fishery increased rapidly in extent, the problem of securing nude divers became a serious one, and “nigger hunting” became rather common, the Australian black man representing the cheapest form of 202labor, working for his food, tobacco, and the simplest articles of clothing. There was no complaint that the men thus impressed were treated with inhumanity; on the contrary they were well fed and cared for; yet, with a view to protecting them and preventing even a suspicion of wrong-doing, the Australian government enacted regulations restricting pearling contracts with the natives. Nearly every year these regulations became more stringent, affecting the hours for diving, and limiting the work to depths of six and a half fathoms, so that the employment of Australian aborigines in the fishery became extremely troublesome and annoying.

The government of the Netherlands also placed severe restrictions on the employment of natives of the Dutch Indies, requiring security of £20 per head for the repatriation of each man; and the local chiefs or rajahs also expected a rake-off before permitting their men to ship. These Malays—from the islands of Solor, Allor, Adonare, etc.,—also expected much better pay and better provisions than the Australian blacks.

The following interesting account by Henry Taunton gives a graphic description of the fishery as carried on at that time:

The work was far from easy. It was exhausting and perilous for the divers, and full of privation, exposure, and danger for the white men. Only the hope of a prosperous season reconciled one to the life. When shells were plentiful and the weather fine, the work was exciting and interesting enough; but during rough weather, when one had to be constantly straining at the oar to keep the dinghy from drifting too rapidly, or when hour after hour might pass without the men bringing up a single shell, the discouragement was great. The rays of the vertical sun beating down on one’s shoulders at such times seemed as if it would never reach the western horizon, which was the signal for returning on board.

As may well be imagined, when three or four white men had to control and compel some thirty or forty natives to carry on work which they detested, a very strict discipline had to be maintained. It was the rule that no talking was allowed amongst the divers when in the dinghy, nor were they even permitted to address the white man, unless, maybe, to answer a question as to the nature of the bottom, whether nanoo (sand) or bannin (shelly bottom), etc., or unless some urgent necessity arose. Sometimes, indeed, I have pushed off from the vessel’s side of a morning and have not heard a word spoken until we returned on board at night, unless chance might take me within hail of some other dinghy, when felicitations or condolences would be exchanged, as good or bad luck might happen. At times, when the “patch” was small, the dinghys of the whole fleet might be congregated on a very small area, in which case the scene was animated enough. On all sides you could see divers slipping into the water and others just coming to the surface, puffing, blowing, and coughing to clear their eyes, ears, and mouth from the salt water—some with, 203others without shells. Others would be swimming to regain their dinghy or squatting in their places for the few minutes’ rest permitted, and, if the wind were at all fresh, shivering with cold; for although the weather might be extremely hot, the constant plunging in and out for many hours at a time tended to reduce the bodily temperature considerably. The white men would be seen standing up in each dinghy. They were lightly clad, with shirt sleeves and trousers rolled up, in all varieties and colours of costume, from the regulation shirt, trousers, and felt hat, with leather belt sustaining sheath-knife and pouch, to the more comfortable pyjama suit, or even the Malay sarong. Some would be straining hard at the end of the scull-oar, forcing the boat against wind and tide in the endeavor to keep it as long as possible on the “patch,” which was marked by the discoverer’s buoy, which also might be observed nodding on the surface, and canted over by the swiftly rushing tide. Others, their men all being below, just kept the dinghy’s head to wind until, by judicious use of the oar and well-calculated drifting, all the divers reappear on the surface within a short distance from their own boat. This is the secret of saving the divers from wasting their powers and time uselessly.... As may be supposed, where the tide sweeps the divers along the bottom at the rate of three or four or even six miles an hour, they have to be very smart in seeking and grabbing any shell within reach. I have never tested them with a time-keeper; but by counting seconds on many occasions, from the moment a diver’s head sank below until it again came above the surface, I estimated the average time under water was fifty-seven seconds. Part of this is of course expended in swimming to the bottom, where they can remain only a very few seconds, as time must be allowed for reaching the surface before letting go their breath. Practice in ever-varying depths enables them to gauge this limit of time to a nicety. But sometimes they cut things too fine, and then a catastrophe was inevitable, unless much watchfulness was exercised by the white man, who has to keep his eyes turned in all directions once his men are down. So long as a diver can hold his breath the pressure forces him to the surface at a speed which seldom requires accelerating by strokes with the hands or feet; but the moment he lets go his breath—if under water—his upward course is arrested and his body commences to sink. Now, when the white man sees this, either he must plunge in to the rescue himself, or direct such divers who may be on the top to do the needful.

On a calm day, when one can see far into the blue clear depths below, I have often seen one of my men shooting rapidly upwards until within perhaps a foot or two from the surface, when a sudden gush of bubbles from the man’s mouth would tell its own tale. Instantly he would begin to sink gently downwards, and only quick action could save this diver who had miscalculated his time. However, as it was not infrequent for divers to go down and never come up at all, one may conclude that, where the time to be allowed is comprised in so few seconds, even the most experienced make fatal errors.[251]

The difficulties in securing labor at length resulted in experiments with the scaphander or diving dress, and gradually its adoption by 204most of the pearling fleet. The labor problem and the exhaustion of the oysters in medium depths developed more quickly in Torres Straits than on the northwest coast, and diving outfits were introduced there about 1879, while this was delayed about five years longer on the northwest coast. The outfit did not immediately supplant nude diving in either locality. In 1883, only 80 of the 206 Queensland vessels were supplied with scaphanders, the others continuing to use nude diving, and even yet nearly one third of the vessels depend on that form of fishery. Of the 353 vessels fishing in 1904, 108 depended on nude divers and 245 were supplied with armored equipment.

In 1881 the Queensland government took cognizance of the rapidly developing industry, and enacted a license system and other regulations. For every boat under two tons an annual license fee of £1 (in 1886 this was reduced to ten shillings) was enacted, and for every vessel of ten tons or under, the sum of £3, with an additional amount for vessels in excess of that measurement; but not exceeding £20 in any case.[252] In 1886 it was required by the Queensland government that every person employed “as a diver, and using a diving apparatus,” must be licensed annually, for which a fee of £1 is exacted.[253] And in 1891 it was required that “every diving dress and air-pump and all air-tubes and gear used in the fishery in connection with diving must be submitted to an inspector for examination once at least in every period of six months.”[254] The license system was adopted in Western Australia in 1886, a fee of £1 per annum being exacted for each vessel engaged in the fishery.[255] In 1891, South Australia adopted the license system, requiring that every boat of two tons or under should pay ten shillings, and that each boat over that measurement should pay twenty shillings.

With a view to protecting the reefs, the government of Queensland in 1891 enacted a law forbidding the sale or removal—except for cultivation purposes—of any pearl shell “of the kind scientifically known as Meleagrina margaritifera, and of either of the varieties commonly known as ‘golden-edged’ and ‘silver lip,’ of which the nacre or mother-of-pearl measures less than six inches from the butt or hinge to the opposite edge or lip, but this does not apply to the variety commonly called ‘dwarf-shell.’”[256] Owing to the difficulty in enforcing this regulation, the size restriction was reduced in 1897 to five inches from the hinge to the opposite lip, or six and one half inches exteriorly, shells of this size weighing approximately one pound. It is claimed that many oysters less than five inches in length are raised, opened for pearls, and then cast back into the water.[257] In 1899 the governor of South Australia interdicted the capture in the waters of that territory of any shell of “Meleagrina margaritifera measuring less than four inches from the butt or hinge to the opposite edge or lip.” Competent evidence exists that a good-sized pearl has been found in an oyster measuring one inch in diameter.

Pearling boats at Hiqueru, Tuamotu Archipelago

Australian pearl-diver (armored) coming up from the depths

205The fishermen of Western Australia rendezvous at Broome, about one thousand miles by water north of Perth, the nearest railway station. With only a thousand or so inhabitants, under normal conditions, this is a scene of great activity, and bears a reputation of being no Sunday-school when the fishermen are in, with tons of shell and many a pickle bottle more or less full of pearls. Cossack and Onslow are also important stations.

In 1905, 340 luggers and 25 schooners were employed in the pearl fisheries of Western Australia, exclusive of Sharks Bay. Of this number about 85 per cent. hailed from Broome. The schooners ranged in size from 13 to 133 tons, and the luggers were mostly about 12 tons, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 14 tons. The total number of fishermen approximated 2900, a medley of races, Japanese, Malays, Chinese, Arabs, native aboriginals and South Sea Islanders working together more or less harmoniously. The yield consisted of 1394 tons of mother-of-pearl, with a declared value of £146,225, and about £50,000 worth of pearls, a total of £196,255 for the year, which was an increase of £32,286 over 1904.[258]

The headquarters for the fishery of the Northern Territory of South Australia are at Port Darwin. In 1905 this fishery employed forty-nine sail vessels and two canoes manned by Europeans, and two proas and twelve canoes manned by Malays. The crews, numbering about 375, consisted mainly of Malays, Japanese and Filipinos. In 1905, 42 per cent. were Malays, 24 per cent. were Japanese, and 20 per cent. were Filipinos. Owing to the low price of pearl shell, the fishery was not prosecuted actively, and many of the Asiatics left for the pearling reefs at the Aru Islands. The total value of pearl shells reported among the exports for that year was £18,526; during the preceding year it was £28,391. No record is available for the value of the pearls.

The Queensland pearling fleet has its rendezvous at Port Kennedy, Thursday Island, which was originally maintained by the British, the Queensland, and the New South Wales governments as a harbor of refuge for mariners. Politically this port is important as the strategic key to the northeast of Australia, but its prosperity is almost wholly 206dependent on the pearl-oyster fishery. The population approximates 1600, consisting largely of Japanese, Malays, Cingalese, Pacific islanders, and Australian aborigines, with specimens from nearly every Asiatic and European nationality, and some from America and Africa. The Japanese predominate, their influx dating from 1891; and at present the industry is largely dependent on these Scotchmen of the Orient for its most skilful workmen. The heterogeneous nationalities, and the abundance of sand-flies, mosquitos, etc., make this island rather less desirable as a place of residence than it is interesting from a political and ethnological point of view.

The Queensland fishery in 1905 employed 348 vessels, and yielded 543 tons of shell, according to the government returns. In 1904, 353 vessels were engaged, and the catch was 798 tons of shell.

During the last fifteen years there has been a very steady decrease in the average catch of pearl-oysters per boat in the Australian fishery. The average catch in the Queensland fleet in 1890 approximated 7 tons per boat; from 1898 to 1903 it was about 3 tons annually; in 1904 it was only 2¼ tons, and in 1905 a trifle more than 1½ tons. The yearly increasing number of boats would naturally lower the average, but the decrease is generally ascribed to the denudation of the reefs, due to close working for thirty-five years without giving them a chance to recuperate.

The small yield in Queensland in 1904 and 1905 was due largely ta the extended rough weather and the accompanying thick or muddy water, which presented an obstacle to the prosecution of the work. Mr. Hugh Milman, the government resident at Thursday Island, states that each year the beds in the more sheltered spots have been extensively fished, rendering it necessary for the fleet to go farther afield in places where the depth of water is greater, and where the vessels are more exposed to the full force of the southeast winds which prevail for about seven months of the year, and which were unusually severe in 1905.[259] The general denudation of the beds is not the principal cause of the decreased take. An additional cause for the falling off in 1905 was the deflection of a large percentage of the fleet to new fields of operation, 110 vessels leaving for the Aru Islands in the Arafura Sea, when the season was about half finished.

For vessels using diving apparatus, the season continues throughout the year, but it is frequently interrupted by storms, which may cause the boats to lie in harbor for ten days, or even two weeks at a time. The nude divers suspend work from December to March, and also during the season of gales.

207Each vessel is manned by a diver, his attendant, and a crew of four men, who in pairs take alternate shifts at the manual pump for supplying air to the diver. The entire force of men take part in managing the vessel and in caring for the catch. The vessel is provided with full equipment and supplies of food, water, etc., to last two or three weeks, depending on the distance of the fishing grounds from the shore station, or the frequency of trips made by a supply vessel.

Except a number of owners and their representatives, there are now very few white persons engaged in pearling in Australian waters. Even the persons in charge of the vessels are largely natives of the Pacific Islands. Owing to the hardships encountered and the small remuneration, it is difficult to secure white labor; and aliens from Japan, the Philippines, Java, Singapore, India and New Guinea, are employed.

The divers are of many nationalities, principally Japanese and Malays, and the former are said to be the most efficient. Previous to 1890, they were mostly whites, and were paid at the rate of £40 per ton of shells; but increased competition and the influx of cheaper labor caused a considerable decrease in the rate of compensation, driving most of the white men out of the employment. At present the Japanese almost monopolize the business. Of the 367 divers licensed at Thursday Island in 1905, 291 were Japanese, 32 were Filipinos, 21 were from Rotuma Island, 16 were Malays, and 7 were of other nationalities; this shows how completely the white man has been driven out of this skilled branch of labor.

The oysters are so scattered that considerable walking is necessary to find them. They usually lie with the shells partly open, and in grasping them the fisherman must be careful not to insert a finger within the open shell, or a very bad pinch will result. The progress of the vessel must be adapted to that of the diver, and when a good clump of oysters is found it may even be desirable to anchor. If the current and wind are just right, the vessel may repeatedly drift over a bed, the diver ascending and remaining on board while the vessel is retracing its course to the windward side of the reef. On new grounds, the nature of the bottom is determined by casting the lead properly tipped with soap or tallow, and the prospects for oysters thus determined without descending.

During good weather and in eight or ten fathoms of water, a diver can work almost continually, and need not return to the surface for two hours or more; but as the depth increases, the length of time he may remain at the bottom in safety decreases almost in geometric ratio, and he comes to the surface frequently for a “blow” with helmet removed. Evidence secured by a departmental commission of the 208Queensland government in 1897, showed that in good weather at a depth of eight or ten fathoms, a diver works from sunrise to sunset, coming to the surface only a few times. In a depth of over fifteen fathoms the attendant usually has instructions not to let him remain longer than fifteen minutes at a time; yet a diver’s eagerness in working where good shell is plentiful sometimes impels him to order the attendant to disregard this rule. The very great pressure of the water—amounting to thirty-nine pounds or more to the square inch—is liable to cause paralysis, and death occasionally results. In working at a depth of twenty to twenty-five fathoms, a diver is rarely under water longer than half an hour altogether during the day. The greatest depth from which shell is brought appears from the same evidence to be “30 fathoms and a little over”; but at that depth—where the pressure is seventy-eight pounds to the square inch—the fisherman remains down only a few minutes at a stretch, and should be exceedingly careful. The work is injurious, and even under the best conditions the diver not infrequently becomes semi-paralyzed and disqualified in a few years. Notwithstanding that the work is performed by men in vigorous health, nearly every year there are from ten to twenty-five deaths in the Queensland fleet alone;[260] three fourths of these are due to paralysis, and most of the remaining result from suffocation, owing largely to inexperience in use of gear. From five to ten years is the usual length of a man’s diving career, although in the fleet may be found men who have been diving for twenty-five years or more.

On the vessels manned by Japanese, commonly several members of the crew are competent divers and take a turn at the work, although only one license is secured. Such a vessel carries only one head-piece, but two otherwise complete suits, the helmet fitting either, so that as soon as one exhausted diver comes up to rest, a successor is ready to have the helmet screwed to his body-dress and descend without delay, thus saving about half an hour in the changing.

The nude divers in the Australian pearl fisheries are mostly Malays and Australian aborigines. They work from dinghys operated from a vessel, each dinghy carrying six or eight divers, usually with a white man as overseer. The man in charge sculls against the tide to keep the boat stationary over the ground, and all the fishermen of a particular dinghy descend together for greater safety from sharks, and to cover the ground systematically. On rising, each diver swims to the boat, throws his catch over the gunwale, and climbs in to rest for a few minutes. Sometimes two or possibly even three oysters may be 209brought up at a single descent, but a diver is doing well if he brings up one oyster in ten descents. The average daily catch of each man is probably two or three oysters, but a fisherman has been known to bring up fifty in one day. On some vessels, those who fall behind in the catch are punished by extra duty aboard ship.

The pearling industry has had a marked effect on the industrial and social condition of the natives of the Australian coast and the adjacent islands. Many of these natives now have boats of their own, and others seek employment on other vessels. Law and order and decent respect for property have arisen, with schools and churches. The result is all the more remarkable when it is considered that scarcely more than a generation has passed since labor among the men was unknown, the women doing all the work necessary to meet their scanty requirements.

As now carried on in Australia, pearling is a hard life, the men working for two thirds of the season in a dead calm and oppressive heat, while in the remaining months they are rolling day and night. The members of the crew are not allowed ashore without a written permission from the captain of the boat, and men and luggage are searched on leaving the vessel. In addition to these objections, life on board is not unusually made intensely disagreeable by the myriads of inch-long cockroaches, which are attracted by and multiply rapidly on the shreds of muscle left on the pearl shell stored in the hold. Storms are frequent on the coast. In February, 1899, three schooners and eighty smaller vessels were wrecked, and eleven white and four hundred colored men were drowned.

At the end of each day’s fishing, the oysters are cleaned of submarine growths. Sometimes this is by no means an easy task, as many of the shells are so covered with weeds, coral, and sponge as to bear little resemblance to oysters. After they have been scrubbed and the edges have been chipped, they are washed and stored on deck. Early the following morning they are opened and examined for pearls. This opening is done carefully to avoid injury to any pearl that may be within. The hinge of the shell is placed on the deck and a broad knife forced down so as to sever the adductor muscle, causing the shells to spring open and permitting the removal of the soft parts. The flesh is carefully examined, both by sight and by feeling, to locate all pearls, which are picked out by hand and placed in a suitable receptacle. Within the adductor muscle are found seed-pearls and small baroques; the large pearls are found embedded in the mantle, where their presence may be detected as soon as the shell is opened, the pearly gleam contrasting with the light blue of the mantle. Sometimes, though rarely, large pearls are found loose within the shell, whence 210they roll out when the shell is opened. Valuable pearls are occasionally removed from blisters on the surface of the shell, or from within the body of the nacre itself. Even when empty, these blisters are valuable, and are especially adapted for brooches and other ornaments requiring a broad and relatively flat surface.

After the flesh has been carefully examined throughout, it is discarded, as it is not considered suitable for food, and the shell is dried for half a day or so to make the hinge brittle in order that it may be broken without injury to the mother-of-pearl. After the shell has been roughly cleaned, it is placed in the hold, if the vessel is operating from a shore station, as is commonly the case in Torres Straits. Since long exposure to the sun affects the quality of the mother-of-pearl, it is important that it be kept under cover. On returning to the station, it is thoroughly cleaned, assorted, dried, the dark edges clipped off, and the cleaned shell is packed in shipping cases, each containing from 250 to 325 pounds. On the west coast, where the vessels at times operate 200 or 300 miles from port, the shell is cleaned, assorted and crated on the vessels; whence it may be delivered direct to the steamers. The Northwest shell is somewhat smaller than the mature shell of Torres Straits, averaging about 1100 to the ton, whereas that of Thursday Island runs about 725 to the ton.

It is very difficult to prevent the theft of pearls by the fishermen as they are liable to treat them as perquisites if not carefully watched. Indeed, on the Torres Straits vessels it has come about that pearls do not constitute a recognized source of income to the proprietors. There the fishery is now conducted almost exclusively for the shells, as the wage-earners secrete probably as many valuable pearls as they turn over to the rightful owners. The hot sun causes many of the oysters to open, and deft fingers quickly pick out such pearls as may be visible. An oyster may be induced to open its shell by being held near the galley fire on the lugger, and the insertion of a piece of cork holds it open while a pearl is shaken out or hooked out by means of a piece of wire. Then the cork is removed and the oyster closes again with no evidence of robbery. The proprietors of boats who themselves open the oysters almost invariably secure larger yields of fine pearls than those who depend on paid employees, who rarely have the luck to find choice pearls, judging from what they turn in. The government of Queensland has endeavored to put a stop to pearl stealing, and by enactment[261] of 1891, it restricted all selling or buying of pearls within the fishing region except through regularly licensed dealers, whose transactions are open to examination.

But the fishermen seem to have little difficulty in evading the laws, 211and throughout the fleet the men have become so adept that they regard the pearls as their contraband perquisites. And the ease with which these may be secreted is surpassed only by the facility with which they may be sold, notwithstanding legislation to the contrary. Indeed, some employers make no claim to the pearls found, thus enabling them to secure fishermen at lower rates of wages.

As previously noted, the pearls constitute only an incidental catch in the fisheries on the Australian coast, but in the aggregate the yield is very large. The yield in the northwest Australian fishery in 1906 is estimated at £50,000, local valuation; in the Queensland fishery £33,000; in that of South Australia £5000, a total of £88,000 or $440,000.[262] Relatively few seed-pearls are obtained, and some of the pearls are of great size. Some beautiful specimens have been found, but usually they have less luster and are more irregular in form than the Persian or the Indian output.

Among the remedies suggested for improving the condition of the Australian pearl reefs may be mentioned the establishment of six inches as the minimum size of the shell that may be taken (five inches is now permitted in Queensland, and there is no restriction in Western Australia), the closure of certain areas for stated periods from time to time, and a limit on the number of vessels employed. The government resident at Thursday Island, Mr. Hugh Milman, who has had long acquaintance with the industry, strongly recommends the adoption of a system of artificial culture; and in the meantime, to foster the industry, “licenses should be granted to a reduced number of boats and certain sheltered areas should be closed altogether for a few years to give the beds time to recover. This latter procedure, however, the pearlers themselves are not in favor of, as they are of the opinion that the weather conditions against which they have to contend are sufficient protection to prevent the denudation of the principal grounds.”

A few years ago certain areas in Torres Straits were proclaimed closed for a period against the removal of pearl shell; but, owing to the want of effective patrol, the shell was poached to a very large extent, and consequently the good that should have resulted from the experiment was not apparent. Owing to the impracticability of continuous patrol, and the want of proper legislation to bring die offenders to book, it was decided to remove the restrictions.

The Sharks Bay fishery, to which we have previously referred,[263] is prosecuted by means of small sail-boats using light dredges, except in the case of the very shallow or “pick-up banks,” where the oysters are commonly removed by hand. Some years ago this fishery was of 212much local importance; but the developing scarcity of the oysters, and the present low value of this grade of shell in Europe, due to the competition with Mississippi shell, have resulted in a great reduction. In 1905, the industry gave employment to 17 small boats and 42 men, of whom 18 were Europeans, 13 Asiatics, and 11 aboriginal natives. The yield of pearls, according to official report of the government of Western Australia, approximated £2000 in value, and of pearl shell there was 88 tons, with a declared value of £607. In 1896 the government of Western Australia surveyed the Sharks Bay reefs, and opened them to preëmption in small areas for cultivating this species of pearl-oyster. At present they are mostly held under exclusive licenses for a period of fourteen years. The business is under an elaborate system of regulations; but as appears from the above figures the results have not been important.

Pearls are more numerous in this pearl-oyster than in the two other Australian species. In removing them from the flesh, a modification of the Ceylon process is adopted. The mollusks are opened by means of a knife, and the contents of the shells are placed in vats or tubs—known locally as “poogie tubs”; and, exposed to the hot sun, are allowed to putrefy. Sea water is added, and the putrid mass stirred; after several days the water and the thoroughly disintegrated flesh tissues are decanted, leaving the pearls at the bottom. The odor from a number of these “poogie tubs” is said to almost rival that of the “washing toddies” at Marichchikadde.

The Sharks Bay pearls are commonly yellowish or straw-colored, and sometimes have a beautiful golden tinge. Although obtained from small shells, they are sometimes of considerable size—twenty grains or more in weight, and fine specimens sell for several hundred dollars each. China and India furnish better markets for them than Europe or America.


My thoughts arise and fade in solitude;
The verse that would invest them melts away
Like moonlight in the heaven of spreading day.
How beautiful they were, how firm they stood,
Flecking the starry sky like woven pearl.
Shelley, My Thoughts.

Opening pearl-oysters and searching for pearls, off the coast of Australia

Grading, weighing, and packing mother-of-pearl, off the coast of Australia

213For nearly four hundred years, pearls and pearl shells have been the most beautiful objects which have reached the outside world from the many islands of the Malay Archipelago. On his visit to this part of the world in 1520, Pigopitta, a companion of Magalhães, reported pearls among the prized possessions of the natives. The fisheries have never been of great importance, although the reefs are widely scattered throughout the archipelago, and the possibilities seem favorable for very great development. Thomas de Comyn stated a century ago, that pearl fisheries had been undertaken “from time to time about Mindanao, Zebu, and some of the smaller islands, but with little success and less regularity, not because of a scarcity of fine pearls, but on account of a lack of skill of the divers and their well-established dread of sharks.”[264]

Giacinto Gemmi,[265] writing of Philippine pearls, repeats a strange tale from the “Storia de Mindanao” by the Jesuit father, Combes, to the effect that in a certain spot, under many fathoms of water, there was a pearl of inestimable value, as large as an egg; but, although the king’s ministers had made every effort to have it secured, they had always been unsuccessful.

During the last thirty years, pearls and pearl shells have been secured from most of the inshore waters of Malaysia, but the output has not been so regular or so extensive as the conditions seem to warrant. Our observation leads to the conviction that this is not due so much to lack of skill on the part of the divers, or to their dread of sharks, mentioned by Comyn; but to the fact that foreign capital, attracted to this part of the world, has found more security and profit in developing plantations, and the natives have not had sufficient enterprise to systematize and develop the fishery resources.

Throughout Malaysia, including the Philippine Islands, the pearl is known as mutya, mootara, or a similar name, closely resembling the Sanskrit mukta or the Cingalese mootoo, indicating the source of the influence originating the fishery and trade.

The most widely-known pearl fisheries of Malaysia are in the Sulu Archipelago, a group of islands comprising about 1000 square miles in area, and containing a population of 100,000. The beautiful yellow pearls shared with the many acts of piracy in attracting attention to this group previous to 1878, when the islands were brought under the influence of Spanish rule; and since the Spanish-American War, pearl fishing has been the leading industry, though it has received less attention from outside sources, perhaps, than has the existence of slavery and harems as part of the social system.

Writing in 1820, John Crawfurd stated that the annual export of pearls from Sulu Islands to China approximated 25,000 Spanish dollars in value, and the mother-of-pearl similarly exported was worth 21470,000 dollars. “Considering the turbulent and piratical habits of the natives of the Sulu group, it is certain that a greater share of skill and industry than can at present be applied to the fisheries, would greatly enhance the value and amount of their produce.”[266]

In the Sulu Archipelago, the pearl-oyster reefs exist from Sibǔtu Pass to Basilan Strait, and roughly cover an estimated area of 15,000 square miles; that is, in the most favorable localities throughout this area, pearl-oysters occur to a greater or less extent. The fisheries are prosecuted by Malays and Chinese, and are largely centered at Sulu.

Pearl-oysters occur about many other islands. They exist at Maimbun and Parong; and also off the island of Tapul and its neighbor Lagos, both southwest of Maimbun. In the channels among these islands, on the rocky gravelly bottom where there is a good current, oysters are commonly found. They also occur off Laminusa, northeast of Tawi-Tawi, at Cuyo Island, and in the waters about Malampaya and Bacuit.

The large mother-of-pearl oyster (Margaritifera maxima) known locally as concha de nacr, is by far the most abundant. When full-grown in this region it is ordinarily between ten and thirteen inches in diameter. The young oyster attaches itself to the bottom by means of the green byssus; but after attaining a weight of one pound, it is too heavy to be easily moved by the tide, and the ligature gradually disappears. The Australian “black lip” (Margaritifera margaritifera), known here as concha de nagra, is also found. In these waters it attains a diameter of about eight inches, but most specimens are considerably smaller.

There is another pearly shell in the Philippines, a spiral gasteropod known locally as caracoles, which is ordinarily five or six inches in diameter, and has a beautiful pearly surface. This yields very few pearls; it is sought for pearl-button manufacture, selling for about the same as the concha de nagra.

Streeter states that it is declared by the natives of the Sulu Archipelago that pearls of a yellowish hue have been found in the pearly nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), one of the group of cephalopodous mollusks. As, however, there is a superstition that they bring ill luck, the natives say that they throw them away, believing that any one who should fight while wearing one of these pearls in a ring, would certainly be killed. If we consider the habits and organism of this remarkable animal, and the splendid nacreous coating of its shell, the assertion that pearls are found in it seems quite natural. Indeed, the occurrence of pearls in the pearly nautilus is generally recognized.

215For many years the successive sultans of Sulu exercised authority over the fisheries and—in addition to exacting certain percentages and presents from the fishermen—claimed as their perquisites all pearls exceeding a designated weight. The fisheries were prosecuted by nude divers, of whom there were a large number. A Chinese company had been particularly fortunate in its relations with the Sulus, and had an extensive equipment in the fishery, consisting of a number of small vessels, each carrying a crew of seven men, who used diving-suits. In addition to these, some of the native Moros owned boats from which diving-suits were employed.

Following the Spanish-American War and the transfer of the Philippine Islands to America, several vessels proceeded to engage in the fisheries without previously consulting the representatives of the Sultan of Sulu. This called forth from that official an appeal to the American authorities for protection in his claims. He gave an account of the pearl fishery in this interesting document, which we quote at length—through the courtesy of the American Bureau of Insular Affairs—because of the light it throws, not only on the industry, but also on the characteristics of these people with whom the American government is now dealing.


(Forwarded by the Governor of Moro Province.)
(Seal of the Sultan.)
No date.

I beg to inform my father, the civil governor, Major Scott, as you want to know about the mother-of-pearl shell, why it is the right of all Sulu people, above all my own right, this is the reason:

The forefathers of the Sulu people used to take the mother-of-pearl shell from the downs because the mother-of-pearl shell belonged to the downs, and they took them to eat the oyster with other food; of the shell they made plates and saucers to put the food on, and the pearls they used to make a hole through and put them on a string as necklaces for their children. This was at a time when no other nation had come to Sulu to buy the mother-of-pearl shell.

Later, a big boat, called the Sampang, wandered from China to Sulu; there were on board many people, all Chinese; it was loaded with merchandise. The people came ashore and saw the mother-of-pearl shell which the Sulu people were carrying. The captain of the boat said: “Have you many more of these things?” and the people answered, “Plenty; this is what we take from the downs to eat with other food.” The Captain said. “Gather me plenty. I will buy them from you.” The people went and gathered them and bartered them for plates and saucers. When all the shells from the downs were finished they 216looked into the deep, and that is how they found the pearling grounds, and the people noted them, and remembered them. This is what they agreed upon; whoever finds pearling grounds they belong to him from generation to generation. That is what they agreed upon. That is the reason why the Sulu people have the right, and that they came to make the dredge (badja) to get the mother-of-pearl shell from the deep, because they can not see them.

Later Salips came from Mecca of the Arab nation; they came to Sulu to convert the people into Mohammedans, as they had no religion. And when the Sulu people, including the islanders, adopted the faith, then they agreed to have a sultan and they elected Saripul Hassim to be sultan. Saripul Hassim said: “I don’t want you to make me your sultan if I do not know what the rights of the sultan are, and who I have to govern over, because this is not my country, this is your country.”

And this is how everybody agreed to accept him as sultan over Sulu and all the islands; this is how he became Sultan and governed over all, and this is how Saripul Hassim accepted to be the sultan of Sulu, to have full power over land and sea, and the people’s rights, where they got their living from on land and sea, were left to them, because they were the means of their getting their livelihood.

But a law was made, if they found valuables in the sea, such as pearls, tortoise shell, ambal or anything extraordinary, they have to show it to the sultan, and if the pearls weigh six chuchuk or over they become the share of the sultan; if they do not have that weight, the people can do with them as they please and sell them. If the sultan wants them, he will buy them according to custom. As to tortoise shell, if they weigh two ketties, they go to the sultan, and as to the ambal, whether it is much or little, it falls to the sultan. Whoever finds it must take it to the sultan. Whoever of his subjects violates this law as agreed upon, the sultan can punish him as he pleases.

They accepted this law as agreed upon, to be carried out by them (sultan and people), and their descendants, and not to be changed; but they asked of the sultan not to let any other nation take a share in this industry; it is enough for them; and the sultan agreed to this because they did not know how to earn their living otherwise. This is what the sultan and his subjects agreed to because the Sulu had no other treasures on land beyond the cultivation; the treasures came from the sea only, therefore other people are forbidden because this is the property of all my subjects, and especially my own.

Recently, in my time and in the Spanish time, there came to me Captain Tiana; he wanted to dive for pearl shells. I said “I cannot give you my consent at once because since our forefathers (sultan and people) we have an agreement, I will confer with my people.” I sent for the chiefs and the dattos and I told them about it, that Captain Tiana came to me and asked to dive for pearl shells. They said it cannot be done, because there is an agreement between our forefathers that other nations cannot join in this industry of the Sulu seas, because there is no other means of earning a living for your subjects.

Moro boats, used among the pearl islands of the Malay Archipelago

Raft used for pearl fishing in the Malay Archipelago

217I informed Captain Tiana of it. He said: “Allow me to dive for pearl shells, I will give toll to you as sultan and I will also give toll to the owners of the pearl grounds according to what we agree upon.”

So I informed all the owners of the pearling ground, and they said, “If he is really in earnest to give toll to us owners of the ground according to what we agree upon, if we don’t agree, we will not allow him to fish.” Thereupon Captain Tiana and I went to the Spanish governor to bear witness. The governor said: “All right; anything you agree upon; I cannot change the law of the Moro people, and I will not interfere.”

That is how I allowed Captain Tiana to fish, and I gave him a letter of the truth according to agreement. Therefore if any person of other nation wants to fish for mother-of-pearl shell, he will have to do as Captain Tiana did, and ask me for a letter of truth, and if he has no letter and does not pay toll to the owners of the ground, and especially to me, he cannot dive, and if he violates this and if anything befalls him, I am not responsible and do not want to be held responsible, because the mother-of-pearl shells are like the property in our boxes given to us by God. They do not go away from the places where they are put, they are not like fish that go about. Therefore, we forbid it. It is our heritage from our forefathers.

(Signed) Hadji Mohamad Jamaul Kiram,
Sultan of Sulu.
[Seal of the Sultan.]

Following these representations, the legislative council of the Moro province, by authority of the Philippine Commission, interdicted all fishing for pearl-oysters within three marine leagues of any land within the territorial limits of the Moro province, without license first obtained from the treasurer of the district within which the vessel carries on the major part of its operations.[267] No license was to be issued to any vessel not owned in the Philippine Islands or in the United States, and not wholly owned by citizens of the United States, by natives of the Philippine Islands, or by persons who have acquired the political rights of natives,[268] except that foreign vessels which for one year immediately preceding had actually engaged in pearl fishing might secure license to continue therein for a period of five years thereafter.

Licenses were of two kinds, according to the nature of the fishery. To engage in fishing with the aid of diving-suits, the fee was five hundred pesos annually, for each of the greatest number of divers beneath the surface of the water at any one time. For fishing without 218submarine armor, the fee was five pesos annually, for each of the greatest number of nude divers to be employed by the vessel during any voyage, and the same sum for each of the greatest number of dredges or rakes to be employed beneath the surface at any one time; but this did not apply to vessels under 15 tons, owned and operated wholly by native Moros, until January 1, 1906.

It was also made unlawful to catch or to have in one’s possession within the Moro province “any pearl shell or any bivalvular or lateral plate, or any pearl shell of less than 4½ inches in diameter, measured with a flat, rigid measuring rod along the line of the ligament which joins one binocular or lateral plate to the other at the hinge, unless the lateral plate of such shell be more than 7 inches in diameter measured with a flat, rigid measuring rod from the outer edge of the horny lips to the center of the hinge, the rod being so placed as to form a right angle with the line of the hinge.”[269]

According to a report furnished by the Mining Bureau at Manila, there were seven vessels fishing with diving-suits in the Sulu Archipelago in 1905, each representing an investment of about 6000 pesos. In 1906 there were ten vessels engaged in this industry, and the collection on licenses for that fiscal year amounted to 3375 pesos. These vessels are mostly small Moro craft which cannot venture upon distant cruises in the archipelago for prospecting purposes, and their operations are confined for the most part to the immediate vicinity of Jolo. Each vessel carries one diver, a tender, a cook, and four sailors. In addition to food supplies, the sailors and the cook each receive twelve to fifteen pesos per month, the tender thirty to forty pesos per month, and the diver the same amount and in addition thereto a bonus of twenty cents for each shell secured. Near Jolo the vessels work throughout the year, but farther north very little fishing is done from December to April, when monsoons prevail. The man in charge of each vessel is obliged by law to keep an accurate record of the number and weight of shells found, and his figures are checked up by a customs official at either Jolo or Zamboanga, the ports of discharge.

To enable them to secure pearl-oysters at depths of from twenty to forty fathoms, the Sulus have long made use of a dredge (badja) peculiarly constructed of native materials, and admirably adapted to the purpose. This consists of five or more long wooden teeth slightly curved and spreading outward, with an expanse at the ends of twenty inches or more. The dredge is properly balanced by two stones, and a bridle rope is so attached to it that, when thrown overboard and towed behind a canoe drifting with the current or the wind, the implement 219rests on the curve of the teeth, which are in almost a horizontal position. As the teeth enter the gaping shell of an oyster lying on the bottom, the animal instantly closes tightly on the intruder and effects its own capture. The principle is similar to that of the “crowfoot” dredge of the Mississippi River, although the design of the implement is radically different. A second rope is attached so as to raise and lower the implement and to detach it from corals, rocks, and other objects against which it may catch in its course on the bottom. This dredge is designed for very deep areas, where the bottom is relatively smooth.

The Moros employ yet another method of fishing, using a magtung-tung or three-pronged catcher, which is let down by a rattan rope and by means of which individual shells sighted from the surface are obtained. When the water is perfectly clear this implement can be operated where the depth is fifteen or eighteen fathoms, but its use is impractical where the water is clouded or there is even a slight ripple on the surface.

However, the bulk of the catch is made by the nude divers, of which there are hundreds at Maimbun, Tapul, Lugus and elsewhere. In their small boats these Moro fishermen visit the reefs, where the boats are anchored. Provided only with a short, heavy knife, with which to release the shells from the bottom or, perchance, as a weapon of defense against sharks and other fish, they enter the water feet first, but soon turn and descend head downward, precisely as on the Australian coast, swimming toward the bottom with bold strokes. The Sulu pearl-divers—and especially those at Parang, Patian and Sicubun—are among the most expert in the world. They easily penetrate to twelve fathoms and, if necessary, to eighteen or twenty fathoms. But they are not very industrious, and seldom descend more than twelve or fifteen times a day, preferring rather to go with their wants half satisfied than to satiate them by more active exertions.

Many descents may be necessary to locate and obtain a single oyster, but when this is secured the shell alone may ordinarily be traded for sufficient to supply the fisherman’s needs for several days, and there is always the chance of a pearl. After a short day of labor, the fishermen return, and the oysters which they have secured are opened and examined for pearls. After the flesh has been carefully searched it is placed in the sun to dry and, later, to be used for food, and the shells are carefully cleaned and placed under cover until they may be bartered or sold.

The Sulu shell is characterized by a peculiar yellowish tint around the rim, by means of which it is readily distinguished. Its size and beautiful iridescence make it very attractive, and for choice individual 220specimens high prices are received. It is the largest of the mother-of-pearl shells, single half-shells of “bold” size average one and one half pounds in weight, while some attain a weight of six pounds. The body of the shell furnishes the most beautiful of all mother-of-pearl, yet the necessity for discarding the yellow rim, or, rather, for using it separate from the rest, makes it unpopular with manufacturers. The annual product is estimated at 200 tons, valued in London and New York at $200,000, and of pearls about $30,000 worth.

The Sulu pearls are frequently large and of choice quality, but they are far more inclined to a yellowish tint than those from Australian waters, 1300 miles southward. The sultans accumulated the finest collection of them, and some of these found their way into the markets from time to time as the condition of the exchequer ran low or royal emergency required, as in 1882, for instance, when it was necessary to defray the expense of Sultan Buderoodin’s pilgrimage to Mecca. During the last six or seven years, much has been heard of the present sultan’s collection, which he largely inherited, and some fairly good specimens have been presented to prominent Americans.

Pearl-oysters are among the important resources of the inshore waters of the Dutch East Indies, including the surrounding seas of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes, the Aru Islands, the Moluccas or Spice Islands, and Papua or New Guinea. For very many years the natives have gathered pearl shell and pearls from these waters, and especially on the coast of the Aru Islands, at Gilolo or Halmahera, and the islands thereabout, on the east coast of Celebes, and about the Sunda group. The collections were made in the shallow waters by beach-combing and by nude diving, and were bartered with the Chinese and Arab traders sailing from Singapore, Macassar, and other ports. Occasionally a pearling vessel from Singapore or from Torres Straits would try its luck in these waters; but, except for the work of the natives, the reefs were practically untouched previous to 1883.

As the Australian fleet increased in size and the oysters became scarce in Torres Straits and on the northwest coast, some of the vessels occasionally visited the Aru Islands, the coast of Papua, etc. These met with considerable success and the number of trips increased, especially in 1893, when oysters were unusually scarce in Australia.

The following year, 1894, the government restricted the fishery to inhabitants of the Netherlands and of Netherlands India, or to companies established in those countries and operating under the Dutch flag. Owing to the activity of Dutch capital in coffee, tobacco and other plantation enterprises, the pearl resources received very little attention from them. The success of the Australian fishery encouraged the formation in 1896 of an Amsterdam company to exploit the Aru grounds; but apparently without financial success, for it liquidated in 1898.

Pearling village, with youthful fishermen. Sulu Islands

Japanese diver in Dutch East Indies, come up to “blow” for a few minutes

221In the meantime, residents of these islands paid more and more attention to the pearl fishery; also Europeans, Chinamen and Arabs arranged with the native chiefs for fishing in their territorial waters, paying therefor a fixed sum in cash or a percentage of the catch, which was permitted on approval by the governor-general of Dutch India. The fleet continued to increase from year to year, and in 1905 there was a very large influx of vessels from the Australian fisheries, 110 luggers and 7 tenders coming from Thursday Island alone.

The species are the same as occur on the northern coast of Australia, the “silver edge” or “golden lip” (Margaritifera maxima) occurring in greatest abundance, and the “black lip” (M. margaritifera) to a less extent.

The shells are the principal object of the search, and the pearls found incidentally form an additional source of revenue. These shells divide with those of Australia the reputation of being the most valuable in the world. They are commonly known in the trade by the name of the port from which they are originally shipped, as Manila, Macassar, Banda, Ceram, Penang, Mergui, etc. Before the exploitation of the Australian grounds, they sold at very high prices, and $2000 or more per ton was sometimes realized for those of the best quality. Singapore is the headquarters for supplies for the industry in all this region, and it is from that port that the shells and pearls are mostly distributed.

The pearls obtained in Netherlands India are of choice quality and of relatively large size, a considerable percentage of them weighing over eight grains, and fairly good pearls of fifty grains or more are occasionally reported. Colored pearls are rarely met with, nearly all of them being clear white, like the beautiful Macassar shell.

At Pados Bay, island of Borneo, one hundred or more persons find employment fishing the Placuna oysters, selling the shells for about $2 per picul (139 pounds to the picul), the dried meats at $4 to $6 a picul, and the seed-pearls (seleesip) at about $2 per mayam. Many of these pearls are sold in the village of Batu Batu. When a fisherman buys his few necessaries at the Chinese shops, he pulls out his little package of seed-pearls and pays in that currency, the Chinaman making a good profit by the transaction.



When I discovered the Indies, I said that they composed the richest country in the world. I spake of gold and pearls and precious stones, and the traffic that might be carried on in them.

Extract from Columbus’s Fourth Letter.

The Caribbean Sea furnishes one of the most interesting chapters in the history of the pearl fisheries. In no region of the world have these resources caused more rapid exploitation or affected the inhabitants to a greater extent than on the shores of Venezuela.

Before the discovery of America, the natives of this region collected pearls from the mollusks which they opened for food in times of necessity, and also sought them for ornamental purposes. And although they had large collections which they used for personal ornamentation and for decorating their temples, it does not appear that they prized them extravagantly, readily bartering them for small returns.

In Columbus’s account of his third and fourth voyages to America, he repeatedly refers to pearls. On the third voyage, in 1498, after passing the mouth of the Orinoco River, he entered the Gulf of Paria, where the natives “came to the ship in their canoes in countless numbers, many of them wearing pieces of gold on their breasts, and some with bracelets of pearls on their arms; seeing this I was much delighted and made many inquiries with the view of learning where they found them. They replied that they were to be procured in their own neighborhood and also at a spot to the northward of that place. I would have remained here, but the provisions of corn, and wine, and meats, which I had brought out with so much care for the people whom I had left behind, were nearly wasted, so that all my anxiety was to get them into a place of safety, and not to stop for anything. I wished, however, to get some of the pearls that I had seen, and with that view sent the boats on shore. I inquired there also where the pearls were 226obtained. And they likewise directed me to the westward and also to the north behind the country they occupied. I did not put this information to the test, on account of the provisions and the weakness of my eyes and because the ship was not calculated for such an undertaking.”

In his letter to one of the queen’s attendants, written in 1500, Columbus says, in justification of his conduct toward his miserable detractors: “I believed that the voyage to Paria would in some degree pacify them because of the pearls and the discovery of gold in the island of Española. I left orders for the people to fish for pearls, and called them together and made an agreement that I should return for them, and I was given to understand that the supply would be abundant.”

And again in the same letter, after speaking of a quantity of gold which mysteriously disappeared when Governor Bobadilla sent him and his brothers loaded with chains to Spain, he says: “I have been yet more concerned respecting the affair of the pearls, that I have not brought them to their Majesties.... Already the road is opened to gold and pearls, and it may surely be hoped that precious stones, spices, and a thousand other things will also be found.”

A more detailed account of Columbus’s pearling adventures, and of the subsequent discoveries and explorations on the Caribbean coast is given by Francisco Lopez de Gomara in his “Historia general de las Indias,” published in 1554, of which the following is a literal translation slightly abridged:

Since there are pearls on more than four hundred leagues of this coast between Cape Vela and the Gulf of Paria, before we proceed farther it is proper to say who discovered them. In the third voyage made by Christopher Columbus to the Indies, in 1498, having reached the island of Cubagua, which he called “Isle of Pearls,” he sent a boat with certain sailors to seize a boat of fishermen, to learn what people they were and for what they were fishing. The sailors reached the shore where the Indians had landed and were watching. A sailor broke a dish of Malaga ware and went to trade with them and to look at their catch, because he saw a woman with a string of rough pearls (aljofar) on her neck. He made an exchange of the plate for some strings of rough pearls, white and large, with which the sailors returned highly delighted to the ships. To assure himself better, Columbus ordered others to go with buttons, needles, scissors, and fragments of the same Valencian earthenware, since they seemed to prize it. These sailors went and brought back more than six marcs (forty-eight ounces) of rough pearls, large and small, with many good pearls among them. Said Columbus then to the Spaniards: “We are in the richest country of the world. Let us give thanks to the Lord.” They wondered at seeing all those rough pearls so large, for they had never seen so many, and could not contain their delight. They understood that the 227Indians did not care much for the small ones, either because they had plenty of large ones, or because they did not know how to pierce them.

Columbus left the island and approached the land, where many people had collected along the shore, to see if they also had pearls. The shore was covered with men, women, and children, who came to look at the ships, a strange thing for them. Many Indians presently visited the ships, went on board and stood amazed at the dress, swords, and beards of the Spaniards, and the cannon, tackle, and arms of the ship. Our people crossed themselves, and were delighted to see that all those Indians wore pearls on their necks and wrists. Columbus asked by signs where they fished them, and they pointed to the coast and island.

Venezuela and Panama; the principal pearling regions of South America

Columbus then sent to the shore two boats with many Spaniards, for greater certainty of those new riches, and because they importuned him. The chief took them to a place where there was a circular building that resembled a temple, where presently much bread and fruits of different kinds were brought. At the end of the feast he gave them pearls for sweetmeats, and took them afterward to the palace to see the women and the arrangement of the house. Of the numerous women there, not one was without rings of gold and necklaces of pearls. The Spaniards returned to the ships, wandering at such pearls and gold, and requested Columbus to leave them there. But he did not wish to do so, saying they were too few to settle. He hoisted 228sail and ran along the coast as far as Cape Vela, and from there came to Santo Domingo, with the intention of returning to Cubagua after regulating the affairs of the government. He suppressed the joy he felt at having found such treasures, and did not write to the king regarding the discovery of pearls, or at all events did not write it until it was already known in Castile. This was largely the cause for the anger of the king, and the order to bring Columbus a prisoner to Spain. They say that he did not so much intend to conceal this discovery from the king, who has many eyes, as that he thought by a new agreement to get this rich island for himself.

Of the sailors who went with Christopher Columbus when he found the pearls, the greater number were from Palos. As soon as these came to Spain, they told about the country of pearls, displayed many, and carried them to Seville to sell, whence they went to the court and into the palace. Excited by this report, some persons there hurriedly prepared a ship and made Pedro Alonso Niño its captain. He had from the Catholic king license to go in search of pearls and land, provided he should not go within fifty leagues of any discovered by Columbus.

Niño embarked in August, 1499, with thirty-three companions, some of whom had been with Columbus. He sailed as far as Paria, visited the coast of Cumana, Maracapan, Port Plechado, and Curiana, which lies united to Venezuela. There he landed, and a chief, who came to the coast with fifty Indians, conducted him amicably to a large town to take water, refreshments, and the barter he was in search of. He bartered for and secured fifteen ounces of pearls in exchange for pins, rings of horn and tin, glass beads, small bells, and similar trifles. The Spaniards stayed in the town twenty days, trading for pearls. The natives gave a pigeon for a needle, a turtledove for one glass bead, a pheasant for two, and a turkey for four. For that price they also gave rabbits and quarters of deer. The Indians asked to be shown the use of needles, since they went naked and could not sew, and were told to extract the thorns with them, for they went barefooted: Niño brought to Galicia ninety-six pounds of rough pearls, among which were many fine, round, lustrous ones of five and six carats, and some of more. But they were not well pierced, which was a great fault. On the route a quarrel arose over the division, and certain sailors accused Niño before the governor in Galicia, saying that he had stolen many pearls and cheated the king in his fifth, and traded in Cumana and other places where Columbus had been. The governor seized Niño, but did not keep him in prison very long, where he consumed pearls enough.[270]


Pan-American Exposition, 1901

229This expedition of Pedro Alonso Niño was the first financially profitable voyage to America. After his return, the Cubagua pearl fishery became the object of numerous speculations, and many other Spaniards fitted out voyages, most of them sailing from Hispaniola or Haiti, nine hundred miles distant. Owing to the ill-treatment of the Indians and excessive cruelties toward them, much difficulty was experienced in securing divers. This was relieved in 1508 by transporting large numbers of Indians from the Lucayan or Bahama Islands and impressing them into the service. These were so expert in the work that individuals sold for upward of 150 ducats each.[271] With their aid the fishery prospered so greatly that in 1515 a settlement, called New Cadiz, was established on Cubagua Island by the governor of Hispaniola, Diego Columbus, son of the discoverer. This small island was dry and desolate, without water or wood, which were brought from the mainland twenty miles distant, or from Margarita Island about three miles to the northward.

An interesting description of the manner of securing the pearls by these early adventurers was given by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478–1557) in his “Historia natural y general de las Indias,” written less than thirty years after the discovery of the mainland of America. A translation of this book was published in 1555 by Richard Eden in his “Decades of the New World”; from which we extract the following account, the retention of Eden’s quaint phraseology seeming permissible owing to this being one of the very earliest books on America.

Of the maner of fyshynge for perles

The Indians exercise this kynde of fyschynge for the moste parte in the coastes of the North in Cubagua and Cumana. And manye of theym which dwell in the houses of certeyne particular lordes in the Ilandes of San Dominico and Sancti Iohannis, resort to the Ilande of Cubagua for this purpose. Theyr custome is to go fyve, syxe, or seven, or more in one of theyr Canoas or barkes erly in the mornynge to sume place in the sea there about where it appeareth unto them that there shulde bee greate plentie of those shell fyshes (which sume caule muscles and sume oysters) wherein perles are engendered. And there they plonge them selves under the water, even unto the bottome, savynge one that remaynethe in the Canoa or boate which he keepeth styll in one place as neare as he can, lookynge for theyr returne owte of the water. And when one of them hath byn a good whyle under the water, he ryseth up and commeth swymmynge to the boate, enterynge into the same, and leavynge there all the oysters whiche he hath taken and brought with hym. For in these, are the perles founde. And when he hathe there rested hym selfe a whyle, and eaten parte of the oysters, he returneth ageyne to the water, where he remaynethe as longe as he can endure, and then ryseth ageyne, and swimmeth to the boate with his pray, where he resteth hym as before, and thus continueth course by course, as doo all the other in lyke maner, being all moste experte swymmers and dyvers. And when the nyght draweth neare, they 230returne to the Ilande to theyr houses, and presente all the oysters to the master or stewarde of the house of theyr lorde who hath charge of the sayde Indians. And when he hath gyven them sumwhat to eate, he layeth up the oysters in safe custodie untyll he have a great quantitie thereof. Then hee causeth the same fyssher men to open them. And they fynde in every of them pearles other great or smaul, two or three or foure, and sumtymes five and syxe, and many smaule graines accordyng to the lyberalitie of nature. They save the pearles bothe smaule and great whiche they have founde: And eyther eate the oysters if they wyl, or caste them away, havynge so great quantitie thereof that they in maner abhorre them. Those oysters are of hard fleshe, and not so pleasant in eatyng as are owres of Spayne. This Ilande of Cubagua where this manner of fysching is exercised, is in the Northe coaste, and is no bygger then the Iland of Zelande. Oftentymes the sea encreaseth greatly, and muche more then the fyshers for pearles wold, bycause where as the place is very depe, a man can not naturally rest at the bottome by reason of the aboundaunce of aery substannce whiche is in hym, as I have oftentymes proved. For althoughe he may by vyolence and force descende to the bottome, yet are his feete lyfted up ageyne so that he can continue no tyme there. And therefore where the sea is verye deepe, these Indian fyshers use to tye two great stoones aboute them with a corde, on every side one, by the weyght whereof they descend to the bottome and remayne there untyl them lysteth to ryse ageine: At which tyme they unlose the stones, and ryse uppe at their pleasure. But this their aptenesse and agilitie in swimming, is not the thynge that causeth men moste to marvaile: But rather to consyder how many of them can stande in the bottome of the water for the space of one hole houre and summe more or lesse, accordynge as one is more apte hereunto then an other. An other thynge there is whiche seemeth to me very straunge. And this is, that where as I have oftentymes demaunded of summe of these lordes of the Indians, if the place where they accustomed to fysche for pearles beynge but lyttle and narrowe wyll not in shorte tyme bee utterly without oysters if they consume them so faste, they al answered me, that although they be consumed in one parte, yet if they go a fyschynge in an other parte or on another coaste of the Ilande, or at an other contrary wynd, and continue fysshing there also untyll the oysters be lykewyse consumed, and then returne ageyne to the fyrste place, or any other place where they fysshed before and emptied the same in lyke maner, they find them ageine as ful of oysters as though they had never bin fysshed. Wherby we may judge that these oysters eyther remove from one place to an other as do other fysshes, or elles that they are engendered and encrease in certeyne ordinaire places. This Iland of Cumana and Cubagua where they fyshe for these perles, is in the twelfe degree of the part of the said coaste which inclineth toward the North.

The cupidity of the proprietors of the fishery led to most cruel treatment of the divers and, if the accounts of the time are to be relied upon, a large percentage of them died under the harsh regime. About 2311515 the unfortunate natives obtained an earnest and influential advocate in Bartolomé de las Casas, who, in 1516, prevailed upon the youthful Charles V to decree that the fishery should be prosecuted only in summer, that the divers should not be required to work more than four hours a day where the depth exceeded six fathoms, that they should receive good nourishment and half a quart of wine daily, should have hammocks or beds in which to sleep, and should be provided with clothes to put on as soon as they left the water.[272] And by later ordinances it was stipulated that death should be inflicted on any one forcing a free Indian to dive for pearls.

In 1528 the resources of Coche Island were exploited with so much success that within six months “1500 marcs (12,000 ounces) of pearls” were secured. Pearl banks were successively found at Porlamar, Maracapana, Curiano, and at various places on the coast from the Gulf of Paria to the Gulf of Coro, a distance of over five hundred miles, which became designated the “Pearl Coast.” For a number of years previous to 1530, the output exceeded in value 800,000 piastres annually, approximating one half the produce of the American mines at that time.[273] It was largely these pearls that enriched the cargoes of many of those famous caravels that crossed the Atlantic to Spain. Indeed, for several decades, America was best known in continental Europe as the land whence the pearls came.

An interesting account of an early effort to use dredges in the Cubagua pearl fishery was given by Girolamo Benzoni, who had lived in America from 1542 to 1555, and was familiar with the conditions. He states:

“At the time the pearl fishery flourished on this island there came here one Louis de Lampugnan with an imperial license authorizing him to fish such quantities of pearls as he pleased within all the limits and bounds of Cubagua. This man set out from Spain with four caravels loaded with all the necessary provisions and munitions for such an enterprise, which some Spanish merchants furnished him. He had made a kind of rake, the fashion of which was such that in whatever part of the sea it was used, not an oyster would escape. At the same time he would have raked and drawn out all that bore pearls if he had not been disappointed. But the Spaniards in Cubagua all banded against him in the execution of his privilege. They said the emperor was too liberal with other people’s goods, and if he wished to give he might give his own as he wished. As for themselves they had conquered and kept that country with great labor and at the peril of their lives, and there were far better reasons why they should enjoy it than a stranger. Poor Lampugnan, seeing that his patents did not avail him the value of a straw, and at the same time not daring to return to Spain, partly through fear of being ridiculed and 232partly on account of the money he owed, was ruined. In fact, the business and its anxieties drove him crazy and he was exposed to the mockery of all the world as a lunatic. In the end, after dragging out five years in this miserable condition, he died in this isle of Cubagua.”[274]

The average size of these pearls derived from the Venezuelan fisheries was small, specimens rarely exceeding twenty grains. In 1577, Urbain Chauveton wrote: “The pearls of Cubagua are mostly 2, 3, 4, and 5 carats. But the quantity of them is so great that the fifth part which is paid to the king of Spain yields every year the value of more than 15,000 ducats; this besides the frauds committed and the pearls which stick to the fingers of those who manage the business, and who pilfer the most beautiful in great numbers, sending them here and there for sale. They place themselves in great danger if the facts become known, but they do it all the same.”[275]

The enormous demands made by the Spaniards soon had its effect on the resources, for Chauveton adds: “It is apparent they decrease and not so many are found as in the beginning. The reason for this is that the Spaniards are so eager to gather large quantities of them quickly that they are not content to use their divers to search for them in the depths of the sea, but they have conceived and invented I know not how many machines of rakes and drags to scrape up everything. In fact they have at times collected them all so that another could not be found, and have had to abandon their fishing for a considerable time to give the oysters a chance to lay their eggs and grow their pearls.”[276]

The decrease noted by Chauveton was probably not very serious, for the Spanish historian, Jose de Acosta, reports that in 1581 he saw “the note of what came from the Indies for the king; there were 18 marcs of pearles, besides 3 caskets; and for private persons there were 1265 marcs, and besides them, 7 caskets not pierced, which heretofore we would have esteemed and helde for a lie.”[277] Also the records show that in 1597 Spain received from the Venezuelan fisheries “350 pounds’ weight of pearls.” It is to be regretted that the Spaniards so frequently reported the yield of pearls by pounds’ weight, for—owing to the great variation in quality—this is about as unsatisfactory as to report the wealth of an individual by the pounds’ weight of his title-deeds or of his stock certificates. The value of “350 pounds of pearls” might have been anywhere from twenty thousand dollars to as many millions. Assuming that all were two grains each in weight and of 233good quality, the total value would approximate $600,000 according to the valuation of that period; and on a basis of eight grains each, it would be $9,600,000, or sixteen times as much. But as original parcels of pearls from the fisheries, these figures should be divided by three.

Following 1597, the productiveness of the Cubagua beds rapidly decreased. By acts of cruelty and oppression the Spaniards had converted the surviving Indians into deadly foes, ready to take advantage of any opportunity to avenge themselves on their oppressors, and thus terrifying the settlers into abandoning the enterprise. Early in the seventeenth century the development of mining resources in Mexico, Peru, etc., attracted the adventurous Spaniards. A considerable decrease in the value of pearls, brought about by the skilful manufacture of imitations at Venice, and elsewhere in southern Europe, also affected the prosperity of the fisheries. As a result of these combined influences, the output in Venezuela was greatly reduced, and it ceased long before the close of the following century. Thus ended an enterprise which, for a number of years, represented the greatest single industry of the European people on the American continent.

According to General Manuel Laudecta Rosales, the Venezuela archives contain no reference to any renewal of the fishery until early in the nineteenth century. At the time of Humboldt’s visit in 1799, the fishery was entirely neglected around the islands of Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche, and the only evidence of pearls was a few very insignificant ones picked up about Cumana and sold among the natives at a piaster per dozen.[278]

After the overthrow of Spanish authority on this coast, Messrs. Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, a firm of well-known goldsmiths of London, obtained, in 1823, from the government of Colombia, a ten-year monopoly of the fishery at several places on the coast of the new republic, in consideration of one fifth of the pearls secured.[279] After the independence of Venezuela in 1829, the taxes imposed were so heavy that the industry languished, and about 1833 it was practically abandoned.

Owing to the improved physical condition of the reefs, the fishery developed largely in 1845; and for several years an average of 1600 ounces of pearls were secured, an ounce of good quality selling for 150 to 500 bolivars (one bolivar = 19½ cents), and the inferior quality at 80 to 100 bolivars.[280] At that time there was a tax of sixteen bolivars per boat monthly. In 1853 this was increased to forty-eight bolivars per boat, and the use of dredges (arrastras) was interdicted, 234soon reducing the fishery to a very low stage. Subjected to frequent changes in regulations, and burdened by heavy taxes, the industry remained in poor condition until about 1895. Since then the enhanced value of pearls, and the increased industrial activity on the coast, has resulted in a very large development of the fishery.

In recent years the government of Venezuela has granted concessions to individuals and to companies for the exploitation of defined areas for a limited period, exacting 10 per cent. royalty on the proceeds of the enterprise. In granting these concessions, the government usually reserves the right to examine the books, and to intervene when necessary in any phase of the enterprise. For protecting its revenue, the government requires that shipments of the pearls must be signed by its agent, and bills of sale must be countersigned by the Venezuelan consul in the place where the sales are consummated.

The Venezuelan pearl fishery now gives employment to about 350 boats, manned by five or six men each, sailing from the ports of Juan Griego, Cumana, and Carupano. These are sail craft, measuring from two to fifteen tons each, and are licensed by the Venezuelan authorities at a charge of 15 bolivars ($2.92) each. Most of the boats use dredges, but some of them resort to nude diving, after the manner of the sixteenth century. Attempts have been made to use the scaphander, or diving armor, but without success, owing largely to the difficulty in obtaining experienced workmen, and also to local prejudice against this form of fishery. It is claimed that in using the scaphander, all oysters are removed from the reefs, whereas the arrastra or dredge spreads the oysters and thereby enlarges the reefs. This is the principal and, except those at Sharks Bay and the Sulu Islands, the only important pearl fishery in which the oysters are secured by means of dredges. These are made of iron and are similar to those implements used in the scallop fisheries of New York and Rhode Island. They are dragged over the beds, and when filled are lifted and their contents emptied into the boat, the fishermen culling out the desirable oysters from the mass and throwing the refuse material overboard.

The pearl-oyster (Margaritifera radiata) secured on the coast of Venezuela is closely related to the Ceylon species. It averages slightly larger in size, and there is a much greater range in coloration. The pearls are of good quality. In color they range from white to bronze, and occasionally a so-called black one is found. The total output is valued locally at about 1,750,000 francs ($350,000) per year. Most of them are sold in Paris.

Owing to their small size and lack of thickness, the shells of the Venezuela pearl-oyster are of little or no value in the mother-of-pearl 235trade. Thousands of tons of them, the accumulations of scores of fisheries, lie in heaps and ridges along the coast, as though in years long past vast armies of oysters, engaged in deadly combat, had left their innumerable myriads of slain comrades to bleach on the shores.


The bordring Ilands, seated here in ken,
Whose Shores are sprinkled with rich Orient Pearle,
More bright of hew than were the Margarets
That Caesar found in wealthy Albion.
Robert Greene, Orlando Furioso (1594).

From the point of view of the Spaniards of his day, the greatest result of Balboa’s immortal journey in 1513 across the Isthmus of Panama to the broad waters of the Pacific, was the discovery of the pearl resources of the Gulf of St. Michael, now known as the Gulf of Panama. Probably the best description of this is given by Lopez de Gomara in his “Historia general de las Indias,” published in 1554, from which we translate the following account.

After Balboa had reached the Pacific in 1513, he proceeded a short distance along the coast until he met with an Indian chief by the name of Tomaco. Being questioned about the gold and pearls which some of his people wore, Tomaco sent for some gold and 240 large pearls and a great number of small ones—a rich present, which filled the Spaniards with pleasure. Seeing the Spaniards so delighted, Tomaco ordered some of his men to go and fish for pearls. These went and in a few days obtained 64 ounces, which also he gave them. The Spaniards were surprised to see such pearls, and that their owners did not value them; they not only gave them away, but their paddles were decorated therewith, for the principal income and wealth of these chiefs was the pearl fishery. Tomaco told Balboa that these riches were nothing in comparison with those of Tararequi, which had pearls larger than a man’s eye, taken from oysters the size of sombreros. The Spaniards wished to go there at once, but fearing another tempest, left it for their return. They dismissed Tomaco and rested in the country of Chiape, who, at the request of Balboa, sent thirty of his men to fish. These did it in the presence of seven Spaniards, who looked on and saw them take six loads of small shells. As it was not the season for that fishery, they did not go into very deep water where the shells were. Not only did they not fish in September and the following months, but they did not even travel by 236water, on account of the stormy weather which then prevails in that sea. The pearls which they extracted from those shells were like peas, but very fine and white. Of those received from Tomaco, some were black, others green, blue, and yellow.

On the return of Balboa’s expedition to Darien in 1514, the sight of the pearls and the wonderful reports made by the men, caused his successor, Pedrarias, to fit out another expedition, an account of which we likewise translate from Gomara.

By command of Pedrarias, Gaspar de Morales went in the year 1515 to the Gulf of St. Michael, with 550 Spaniards, in quest of the island of Tararequi, which was said by Balboa’s men to be so abundant in pearls and so near the coast. The chief of that island sallied forth with many people to prevent his entrance, and clamored and fought three times with our people on equal terms, but the fourth time he was defeated. He then made friends, carried the chief of the Spaniards to his house, which was a large and good one, gave him food to eat, and a basket of pearls which weighed 110 marcs [880 ounces]. The chief received for them some looking-glasses, stringed beads, bells, scissors, axes, and small wares of barter, which he valued more than he had the pearls. He promised to give as tribute to the emperor, in whose guardianship he placed himself, 100 marcs of pearls every year. With these the Spaniards returned to the Gulf of St. Michael and from thence to Darien.

Tararequi is within five degrees of the equator. It possessed a great fishery for pearls, which are the largest and best of the new world. Many of the pearls which the cacique gave were like filberts, others like nutmegs, and there was one of 26 and another of 31 carats, pear-shaped, very lustrous, and most perfect, which Peter of the Port, a shop-keeper, bought of Gaspar de Morales for 12,000 castilians. The purchaser could not sleep that night for thinking on the fact that he had given so much money for one stone, and so he sold it the very next day to Pedrarias de Avila, for his wife Donna Isabel de Bovadilla, at the same price, and afterwards the Bovadilla sold it to Donna Isabella the Empress.

Pedrarias, who delighted in such fishery, requested the cacique to make his men fish for pearls in the presence of the Spaniards. The fishermen were great swimmers and divers, and seemed to have spent all their lives in that employment. They went in small boats when the sea was calm, and not in any other manner. They cast a stone for an anchor from each canoe, tied by strong, flexible withes like boughs of the hazel. They plunged to search for oysters each with a sack or bag at the neck, and returned loaded with them. They entered four, six, and even ten fathoms of water, for the shell is larger the deeper they go, and if at times the larger ones come in shallow water it is through storms, or because they go from one place to another in search for food, and having found their pasture they stay there until they have finished it. They perceive those who search for them, and stick so close to the rocks or ground, or one to another, that much strength is needed to detach them, and many times the fishermen cannot raise them and leave them, thinking they are stones. In this fishery many persons are drowned, either by remaining too long at the bottom, or because they become entwined or entangled in the cord, or such carnivorous fish as the shark devour them. This is the manner of fishing pearls in all the Indies, and many fishermen die from the dangers aforesaid, and from the excessive and constant labor, the little food, and the maltreatment they have. The emperor was led to enact a law among those whom Blasco Nunez Vela brought, which imposed the penalty of death upon him who should forcibly compel any free Indian to fish for pearls. He thought more of the lives of the men than of his interest in pearls, though they were of great value. The law was worthy of such a prince and of perpetual memory.[281]



Painting by Gonzales, in the Galeria del Prado, Madrid Most of these pearls were doubtless from the early American fisheries

238Gonzalo de Oviedo referred to the pearl resources of Panama in his “Historia natural de las Indias,” Toledo, 1526, mentioned in the chapter on pearl fisheries of Venezuela. After describing the resources of Cubagua and Cumana on the Venezuelan coast, he states, according to Eden’s quaint translation:

Lykewise pearles are founde and gathered in the South sea cauled mare del sur. And the pearles of this sea [the Caribbean coast] are verye bygge. Yet not so bigge as they of the Ilande of pearles cauled de las perlas, or Margaritea, whiche the Indians caule Terarequi, lying in the gulfe of saincte Michael, where greater pearles are founde and of greater price then in any other coaste of the Northe sea, in Cumana, or any other porte. I speake this as a trewe testimonie of syght, havyng byn longe in that South sea, and makynge curious inquisition to bee certenly informed of all that perteyneth to the fysshvnge of perles. From this Ilande of Tararequi, there was brought a pearle of the fasshyon of a peare, wayinge xxxi carattes, which Petrus Arias had amonge a thousande and soo many poundes weight of other pearles which hee had when capitayne Gaspar Morales (before Petrus Arias) passed to the saide Ilande in the yeare 1515, which pearle was of great prise. From the saide Ilande also, came a great and verye rounde pearle, whiche I brought owte of the sea. This was as bygge as a smaule pellet of a stone bowe, and of the weight of xxvi carattes. I boughte it in the citie of Panama in the sea of Sur: and paide for it syxe hundredth and fyftie tymes the weyght therof of good gold,[282] and had it thre yeares in my custodie: and after my returne into Spaine, soulde it to the erle of Nansao, Marquisse of Zenete, great chamberleyne to youre maiestie, who gave it to the Marquesse his wyfe, the ladye Mentia of Mendozza. I thyncke verely that this pearle was the greatest, fayrest, and roundest that hath byn seene in those partes. For youre maiestie owght to understande that in the coaste of the sea of Sur, there are founde a hundredth great pearles rounde after the fasshyon of peare, to one that is perfectly rounde and greate. This Iland of Terarequi which the Christians caule the Ilande of pearles, and other caule it the Ilande of floures, is founde in the 239eyght degree on the southe syde of the firme lande in the provynce of golden Castyle or Beragua. (Arber, “The First Three English Books on America,” Birmingham, 1885.)

In addition to the gems noted by Oviedo, these waters furnished many other beautiful pearls in the sixteenth century, and added largely to the collections of the Spanish court and of the cathedrals of Seville, Toledo, etc. The Italian traveler, Gemelli-Careri, who visited the Panama fisheries in 1697, reported that they yielded pearls equal to those of Ceylon. He mentioned one weighing 60 grains, for which the owner—a Jesuit priest—refused 70,000 pesos.[283]

In 1735, the Spanish admiral, Antonio de Ulloa visited the Panama pearl fisheries and wrote an extended description of them.[284] According to his account the pearls were then found in such plenty that there were few slaveholders in the vicinity who did not employ at least a portion of their Negroes in the fishery. These were selected for their dexterity in diving, and were sent to the islands in gangs of from eight to twenty men each, under the command of an overseer. They lived in temporary huts on the shore, and visited the pearl reefs in small boats. Anchoring in eight or ten fathoms of water, the Negroes would, dive in succession to the bottom, returning with as many oysters as possible. It was laborious work, attended with danger owing to the numerous sharks.

Every one of these Negro divers is obliged daily to deliver to his master a fixed number of pearls; so that when they have got the requisite number of oysters in their bag, they begin to open them, and deliver the pearls to the officer, till they have made up the number due to their master; and if the pearl be but formed, it is sufficient, without any regard to its being small or faulty. The remainder, however large or beautiful, are the Negro’s own property, nor has the master the least claim to them, the slaves being allowed to sell them to whom they please, though the master generally purchases them at a very small price.... Some of these pearls, though indeed but few, are sent to Europe, the greater part being carried to Lima, where the demand for them is very great, being not only universally worn there by all persons of rank, but also sent from thence to the inland portions of Peru.[285]

During the hundred years following, the pearl reefs of Panama were not very productive, and relatively little attention was paid to them. The development of a market for the shells in the mother-of-pearl trade, about 1840, enhanced the profits of the few natives engaged in 240pearling in a desultory manner, and led to an increase in the number of fishermen. During some years when industrial and market conditions were favorable, large quantities of shells were exported. In 1855, for instance, 650 tons of these shells were shipped to England alone, and in 1859 the reported quantity was 957 tons. Those from the Island of San José, one of the Pearl Archipelago, were said to be the largest and choicest in the bay. Many of them were used in decorating the twin towers of the stately old cathedral at Panama.

Since then the industry has fluctuated greatly, depending on the market for the shell. Many outsiders have experimented in the fishery, but most of these attempts have resulted in financial loss, through mismanagement, storms, sickness, or other causes. A story is told locally of a party of thirty men, principally from Scotland, who arrived at Panama equipped with a diving-bell and such necessary machinery as air-pumps, windlasses, etc. Much was expected of their operations, but soon yellow fever broke out among them, and within six weeks two thirds of the members of the party had died. The remaining members, becoming disheartened, and in fear of the dread disease, lost no time in leaving the country. The diving-bell and machinery remained for several years as a curiosity at Panama, for no one returned to claim them, nor has the use of similar apparatus been attempted since then.

The scattered pearl reefs extend from the east side of the Bay of Panama nearly to the Costa Rica boundary. However, this gives an exaggerated idea of their area, as much of this territory yields no pearl-oysters whatever. The principal reefs and the headquarters of the fishery are at Archipelago de las Perlas or Pearl Islands, which are from thirty to sixty miles southeast of the Pacific terminus of the projected Panama Canal. This archipelago contains sixteen small islands, on which are about twice that number of small settlements of Negro and Indian descendants, with a total population of perhaps one thousand. About half of these live on Isla del Rey, the largest island, about fifteen miles long and half that in width. The chief village, San Miguel, is the center of the pearling industry, and consists mostly of palm-thatched huts and a handsome stone church, more costly than all the remaining buildings of the town combined. While the soil is fertile and some vegetables are raised, the inhabitants depend almost wholly on the fisheries.

In 1901, the Republic of Colombia invited bids for the right to operate the pearl and coral fisheries for a term of fifteen years, but nothing seems to have come of it, and the establishment of the Panama Republic in 1903 terminated the authority of Colombia in these resources.

241The Panama fisheries differ widely in their character from those of Venezuela. The mollusk is much larger, averaging about six inches in diameter when fully grown, thus furnishing a valuable quality of mother-of-pearl. The shell constitutes the principal object of the fishery; the pearls themselves are of incidental importance, but are always looked for and anxiously expected.

The season extends from May to November, with a rest during the remaining five months of the year. The fishery is open to natives and to foreigners alike. While the leading fishermen employ diving-suits, which were introduced here about 1890, nude diving is yet practised to a considerable extent, the men descending in eight or ten, and some even in twelve fathoms of water. There is no restriction whatever on the nude fishermen, but for each machine diver an annual license fee of $125 United States currency is exacted.

Owing to the low market price for Panama shell during recent years, the fishery has not been vigorously prosecuted, and it has even dwindled to low proportions. A letter from one of the leading pearling companies in Panama states that the machine divers number about twenty, while there are about four hundred nude fishermen; and another firm likewise prominent, estimates these fishermen at twenty and three hundred respectively.

Yet a third pearling company writes that there are fifteen machine divers and two hundred head divers; and adds that the small demand for this quality of mother-of-pearl has made the condition of the industry about as bad as it could be; many who have capital invested are getting out of the business, and unless the market improves, the industry may be abandoned. Probably with the introduction of new capital and methods in the infant republic, the pearl resources may receive greater attention and a large development ensue.

The Panama pearls are of good quality and frequently of large size. In color they range from white to green and lead-gray, and frequently greenish black. Valuable pearls are not common, but occasionally the fisherman is amply rewarded. A letter from the American consul at Panama states that in 1899 a native boy, fifteen years old, fishing in shallow water, as much for sport as for profit, found a pearl which he sold to a local speculator for 4000 silver dollars ($1760); this speculator delivered the same pearl to a dealer in Panama for 10,000 silver dollars ($4400), and an offer of 30,000 francs was refused for it later in Paris. A pearl worth $2400 was reported as found within half a mile of the steamship anchorage at Panama. A pearl from a giant oyster resembling Tridacna, was an absolute egg-shape, pure cocoanut white, and weighed 169 grains; it was 21 mm. at the longest and 16.5 mm. at the narrowest part. The 242surface showed very distinctly a wavy structure, occasionally with a tiny, brighter central point; the surface under the glass resembling a honeycomb network. At the smallest point there was a radiated center with quite a brilliant field. It was worth only $100.

Not always, however, does the poor, ignorant fisherman receive the full value of his find; and many a story is told of some thoughtless improvident native, who, for less than a mess of pottage, “like the base Indian, threw a pearl away, richer than half his tribe.”

Most of the Panama pearls are sold in Paris, relatively few of them coming to America direct. This is not because of any greater estimation of them in Paris or higher prices obtained; but the trade relation has been long continued and the credits are well established. From Paris many of these pearls reach the American market.


Then, too, the pearl from out its shell,
Unsightly in the sunless sea,
(As ’twere a spirit, forced to dwell
In form unlovely) was set free,
And round the neck of woman threw
A light it lent and borrowed too.
Thomas Moore, The Loves of the Angels.

Pearl-bearing oysters are found at various places on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and especially along the coast of Lower California, where extensive fisheries are prosecuted. The pearls are noted for the great variety of colors which they display. A large percentage are black, others are white, brown, peacock green, etc. Generally they are small and of irregular form, yet sometimes very large ones are secured, weighing 100, 200, and even 300 grains.

European knowledge of the pearl resources of Mexico dates from the conquest of that country by Hernando Cortés about 1522. The diary of his lieutenant, Fortuno Ximines, tells of finding native chiefs living in primitive huts along the sea-shore, with quantities of beautiful pearls lying carelessly around. From a tribe near the present site of Hermosillo, in the State of Sonora, Cortés secured great quantities of the gems. It appeared that the fishery had been in existence for centuries. The location of the pearl reefs was prominently noted on Cortés’ map of this coast, made in 1535, a copy of which was procured by the Rev. Edward E. Hale when in Spain in 1883.

243Following Cortés’ explorations of the Pacific coast of Mexico (1533–1538), a number of expeditions were fitted out for securing pearls by trading with the natives, by forcing them to fish, and by even more questionable means. Several of these expeditions found record in history either by reason of their unusual success or through the extreme cruelty with which they were conducted. The contact of the Spaniards with the Indians resulted in very bitter feelings on the part of the latter, so that it became risky for small traders to venture among them. From time to time, successful expeditions were made, especially the one of 200 men sent in 1596 by the viceroy of Mexico to “the rich Isles of California,” mentioned by Teixeira.[286] Antonio de Castillo, a Spanish colonist, with headquarters south of Mazatlan, was one of the most successful of the early adventurers, and Iturbide Ortega and José Carborel were also among the fortunate ones of that period.[287] Ortega marketed his pearls in the city of Mexico, and the reported sale of one for 4500 dollars had considerable effect in stimulating the industry.

The advent of the Jesuits to western Mexico in 1642, developed amicable relations with the Indians; and although the missionaries were agriculturists rather than fishermen, the restoration of harmony resulted in a more favorable prosecution of the fisheries. The colonists of Sinaloa and Nueva Galicia, who had formerly, in small vessels and with great danger, made occasional visits to the pearl beds, built larger vessels and made more frequent visits without apprehension. The skilful Yaqui and Mayo Indians were employed or impressed as divers, just as natives of the Bahamas had served in the fisheries of Venezuela. Great profits resulted from the operations. Venegas wrote that “it was certain that the fifth of every vessel was yearly farmed for 12,000 dollars.”[288]

So profitable was the fishery that the Spanish soldiers and sailors stationed in the Gulf of Cortes—as the Gulf of California was then called—were frequently charged with devoting more attention to pearling than to their official duties. In order to put a stop to this evil, in 1704, Father Silva-Tierra, who was in authority in that part of the country, ordered that no soldier or sailor should engage in the fishery. With a view to removing the demoralizing influences of promiscuous adventurers among the Indians, the industry was later restricted to persons specially authorized.

Probably the most successful of the early pearlers was Manuel 244Osio, who is credited with having marketed “127 pounds’ weight of pearls in 1743,” and “275 pounds’ weight” in 1744.[289] He operated in the vicinity of Mulege and northward, employing the Yaqui Indians; and through his pearling interests is said to have become the richest man in Lower California.

Gulf of California and the pearling territory of western Mexico

The revenue from the royal fifth, somewhat later, was reported by 245Alvarado[290] at 12,000 dollars per year; but this was disputed by Jacob Baegert, a Jesuit priest. Baegert spent seventeen years in Mexico and, returning to Europe on the expulsion of his order from that country in 1767, published a report in 1772, containing rather an unfavorable view of the fishery. He stated that each summer eight, ten, or twelve poor Spaniards from Sonora, Sinaloa, and elsewhere on the mainland, crossed the gulf in small boats to the California shore for the purpose of obtaining pearls. They carried supplies of Indian corn and dried beef, and also a number of Indians who served as divers, the Spaniards themselves showing little inclination to engage in the work when native fishermen could be employed so cheaply. Provided with a sack for receiving the oysters which they removed from the bottom, the fishermen dived head first into the sea, and when they could no longer hold their breath they ascended with the gathered treasure. The oysters were counted before opening; and, when the law was complied with, every fifth one was put aside for the king’s revenue. Most of the oysters yielded no pearls; some contained black pearls, others white ones, the latter usually small and ill-shaped. If, after six or eight weeks of hard labor and deducting all expenses, a Spaniard gained a hundred American pesos, he thought he had made a little fortune, but this he could not do every season. “God knows,” said Baegert, “whether a fifth of the pearls secured in the California sea yields to the Catholic king an average of 150 or 200 pesos in a year, even without frauds in the transaction. I heard of only two persons—with whom also I was personally acquainted—who had accumulated some wealth, after spending 20 or more years in the business. The others remained poor notwithstanding their pearl fishing.”[291]

Father Baegert’s statement of the returns seems to be substantiated by the reports of the royal fifth a few years later. For the period from 1792 to 1796 this was placed at “2 lbs. 2 ozs.” by some writers; and according to others, from 1788 to 1797 it amounted to only “3 lbs. 9 ozs.,” which is the quantity assigned by some accounts to 1797 alone.[292] These returns apparently indicate that a great decrease had occurred since the days of Osio; but it seems very doubtful whether, under the conditions existing in Mexico at that time, the royal treasury received its due share of the proceeds.

Shortly following the independence of Mexico in 1821, and after a period of little activity, several attempts were made to exploit the pearl resources. The great prosperity in England, ensuing upon the 246termination of the Napoleonic Wars, resulted in much speculation and the promotion of stock subscriptions in many visionary schemes. Among these was “The General Pearl and Coral-Fishing Association of London,” which in 1825 equipped and sent out to Mexico, by way of Cape Horn, two vessels prepared to exploit the pearl resources by the use of diving-bells similar to those formerly employed in submarine construction. This expedition was under the direction of Lieutenant R. W. H. Hardy, whose report thereon presents an interesting exhibit of the condition of the pearl fishery at that time.

Hardy found the fishery at a very low ebb, owing, largely, to the scarcity of oysters and the uncertainty of depending on the native divers. He adds with peculiar naïveté: “I had almost forgotten to mention a very curious circumstance with respect to the pearl-oyster, namely that on the coast of Sonora there are none at all, except at Guaymas.” He states also that to the northward of 28° 30′ not the trace of a shell could be discovered on either side of the gulf.

The center of the industry was then at Loreto, a village of 250 inhabitants; but another small station existed at La Paz. At Loreto six or eight vessels of twenty-five tons each were employed, each having three or four sailors and fifteen or twenty Yaqui Indians who served as divers. Head-diving was in vogue, the work proceeding from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M., and the depth ranging from three to twelve fathoms. The annual catch of pearls was “4 or 5 pounds’ weight, worth from $8000 to $10,000.”[293] After the government’s claim of one fifth had been set apart, the owner and captain of the vessel received one half and the divers the other half.

It was found impossible to use diving-bells when the sea was at all rough, and even during calm weather they were impracticable on account of the unevenness of the ground and the strong undercurrents. An effort was made to employ native divers, but owing to the disorganized state of affairs only four could be secured. In the Gulf of Mulege a large number of oysters were collected, but when these were opened “six very small pearls” were all that could be found. After spending about three years on the coast, Hardy returned to England, and the company abandoned the enterprise.

In the early history of the Mexican pearl fishery, the shells were of no market value; but about 1830 a French trader named Combier made experimental shipments to France, securing cheap freight rates by using the waste shells largely as ballast for the vessels.[294] The best quality sold for about 600 francs per ton, and the market was found 247sufficient for regular shipments. The value gradually increased, and in 1854 it approximated 2000 francs per ton in France, placing the industry upon a very remunerative basis. This resulted in much activity in the fishery, and an increase in the number of boats and divers.

In 1855, the fishery gave employment to 368 divers, and yielded $23,800 worth of pearls, and 350 tons of shells worth $13,500.[295] It was estimated by Lassepas that from 1580 to 1857, inclusive, 95,000 tons of oysters were removed from the Gulf of California, yielding 2770 pounds of pearls, worth $5,540,000.[296]

For protection of the reefs, the Mexican government in 1857 divided the Gulf of California into four pearling districts, and provided that only one of them should be worked each year, and then only in areas leased for the season to the highest bidders, thereby permitting the reefs successively to remain undisturbed for three years.

The yield of pearls in 1868 approximated $55,000, and that of shells $10,600 in value; while in 1869 these items were given as $62,000 and $25,000, respectively.[297] The local prices ranged from $15 per ounce for seed-pearls to $1500 for a choice gem.

At that period the fishery was carried on from shore camps or from large vessels, each carrying twenty to fifty divers, who were mostly Yaqui Indians from the eastern shore of the gulf. The camp or vessel was located in the vicinity of the reefs or beds, and the fishing was prosecuted from small boats, each carrying three or four nude divers. Fastened to the waist or suspended from the neck was a net for the reception of oysters, and each diver carried a short spud or stick with which to detach them from the bottom, and to some extent for use as a weapon of defense against sharks and similar enemies. The diving progressed mostly in the morning, when the sea was unruffled by the breeze which usually begins shortly after noon. The season lasted from May to late in September, when the water became too cold for further operations.

The divers were paid a definite share of the catch, and kept in debt-bondage by means of advances and supplies. Little clothing was necessary, and the provisions consisted principally of corn, beans, and sun-dried beef. Luxuries were added in the form of tobacco, and of mescal distilled from the maguey plant, indulgence in these constituting the chief remuneration for the season’s labor. The finding of an unusually choice pearl brought to the lucky fisherman a gratuity of a few dollars, and shore leave for several days in which to spend it. Dressing 248in his best calico garments, he hastened to the nearest town to indulge in release from restraint, in drunkenness and debauchery—the highest dreams of happiness of a Yaqui Indian—thoughts of which served to bring him to the fishery each year from his home across the gulf.

From the Spanish conquest until 1874, the Mexican pearl fishery was conducted exclusively by nude divers. The experiments with the diving-bell in 1825 had been without favorable result, and also an attempt by an American in 1854 to use a diving-suit with air-pump, etc., this failure being credited to imperfection of apparatus. In 1874, through the influence of European pearl merchants, two schooners, each of about 200 tons’ measurement, one from Australia and the other from England, visited the Mexican grounds, with a dozen boats fully equipped with scaphanders or diving armor, including helmets, rubber suits, pumps, etc. Owing to their working in deeper water than the nude divers were able to exploit, their success was remarkable, and they secured upward of a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of pearls and shells during the first season.

The hitherto somnolent inhabitants of Lower California were amazed at seeing their resources thus easily removed, and were awakened to the opportunities afforded them to acquire the wealth which nature had scattered at their very doors. With this object-lesson before them, companies were formed for raising sufficient capital for the business, and the leading operators equipped their men with scaphanders, to the great annoyance of the would-be independent fishermen, who had not sufficient means to purchase the costly equipment. Many of these continued to employ nude divers, but after 1880 this method of fishery was subordinate to the use of diving apparatus. The change was accompanied by many accidents, and rarely did a month pass without the loss of a man, due in most cases to faulty apparatus or to inexperienced management.

In 1884 President Gonzalez inaugurated the policy of granting exclusive concessions to the pearl reefs. On February 28 of that year, five concessions were granted to as many persons, giving them and their associates and assigns the exclusive right to all shell fisheries in their respective zones of large area, for a period of sixteen years, in consideration of a royalty and export duty, amounting altogether to about $10 per ton of shells exported in the first three years, and $15 per ton for the remaining thirteen years of the term. Immediately these five grants were consolidated, forming the Lower California Pearl Fishing Company (“Compañia Perlífera de la Baja California”), incorporated under the laws of California with an invested capital of $100,000.

249Other concessions were given covering the ocean shore of Lower California, the eastern side of the gulf within the States of Sonora and Sinaloa, and the ocean shore of Mexico southward from Sinaloa. In addition to these, certain territorial rights of fishing are claimed through grants dating back very early in the history of the country. So eagerly have these concessions been sought in recent years, that there is now little pearling ground on the coast which is not under corporate or private claim. And, owing to speculation in these concessions and in the formation of companies to develop them, it is somewhat difficult to obtain wholly reliable data relative to the condition and extent of the industry.

Two species of pearl-bearing mollusks occur on the Mexican coast. The principal one is the M. margaritifera mazatlanica, known locally as the concha de perla fina. This species is closely related to the “black lip shell” of the Australian coast. It is considerably larger than the Venezuelan oyster, averaging four or five inches in diameter and attaining an extreme diameter of seven or possibly eight inches. It occurs to some extent all along the Pacific coast of Mexico, in detached beds intercalated in places. The principal reefs, which have been exploited for nearly four centuries, are in the shallow waters of the Gulf of California and especially within the 300 miles between Cape San Lucas and Mulege Bay. The fisheries have centered about the islands of Cerralvo, Espiritu Santo, Carmen, and San José, and in the bays of Mulege, Ventana, and San Lorenzo. The depth of water on the reefs ranges from two to twenty-five fathoms, with an average of probably six or eight fathoms. The species is generally isolated, and firmly attached by the byssus to the bottom rocks or the stone corals, from which it may remove in case of necessity, though it probably does not do so frequently.

The second species is known locally under the name concha nacar, and has been named Margaritifera (Avicula) vinesi (Rochebonne).[298] It occurs only in the northern part of the gulf near the mouth of the Colorado River. Formerly it was abundant in that region, occurring in large areas, but it has become much reduced and is now little sought after. It is claimed that this species is far more productive of pearls than the M. margaritifera, and that it yielded the large quantities obtained by Osio in the eighteenth century. Although iridescent, the shell is so thin and convex that it is without commercial value.


Ornamented with American gems and fresh-water pearls, rock crystal, gold quartz and agatized wood

Top of vase and side view

Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

250The headquarters of the Mexican pearl fishery are at La Paz, the capital of Lower California, 240 miles northwest of Mazatlan and 150 miles north of Cape San Lucas. This “Mantle of Peace”—the literal translation of La Paz—contains about 5000 inhabitants, nearly all of whom are more or less dependent on the pearl fishery. It presents an attractive picture, with the cocoanut-palms extending down almost to the water’s edge, and the high mountains forming a background. The low, stone houses, the tile roofs, the plaza with tropical trees, and the beautiful flower beds under perennial sunny skies, give it a quaint appearance. The most conspicuous objects from the harbor are the large old warehouses, with thick walls and iron-barred windows, for the storage of the pearls and the shells. During the season, from April to November, the arrival and departure of the pearling vessels presents a scene of great animation.

The present methods of the fishery on the Mexican coast are quite different from those of thirty years ago when nude diving was the only method in vogue. Instead of the haphazard work, largely in shallow water, the industry is conducted systematically, and the limit of depth is increased, much of the diving being in depths of ten to fifteen fathoms. The fishermen operate either from a large vessel making a cruise two or three months in length, or from a camp on the shore near the reefs. A vessel visits them frequently to furnish supplies and to transport the catch to La Paz. The fishing boats are undecked craft, each equipped with an air-pump and a crew of six men: a diver, a cabo de vida or life-line man, who is usually the captain, two bomberos at the air-pump, and two rowers.

The greatest depth at which armored diving is attempted in Mexico rarely exceeds twenty fathoms; twenty-five fathoms is fully as deep as it is practicable to go, and it is not advisable to remain at that depth more than a very few minutes. At fifteen fathoms a diver may remain half an hour or more, and at six or eight fathoms he may work uninterruptedly for several hours. When the water is very cold, the diver comes up frequently to restore his numbed circulation by vigorous rubbing. The occupation is especially conducive to rheumatism, and paralysis is more or less general, due, not only to the compressed atmosphere, but to the abrupt changes of temperature. The work is very debilitating, with particular effect on the nerves, and partial deafness is common. It is important that the diver be careful about overeating before descending, as heavy foods, and meats especially, make respiration difficult; therefore, breakfast consists of little more than bread and coffee. The risks and dangers from sharks, devil-fish, etc., have greatly diminished since the introduction of scaphanders; for a stout diver in his waterproof dress, with leads on the breast, shoulders, and shoes, and on his head a massive helmet containing great gaping windows for eyes, is enough to cause even a hungry shark to hesitate and to seek a more digestible meal.

There are yet many nude divers in Mexico, who operate in shallow 251waters, their cheap labor making them successful competitors of the armored divers. In arranging with these, the pearling company commonly grub-stakes a crew, pays a stipulated sum per hundredweight for the shells, and bargains for the pearls. If the fishermen are not satisfied with the price offered for these, they are at liberty to sell to other buyers under certain restrictions.

Nude diving is confined to the warm months, beginning about the middle of May and continuing until October. Owing to the cloudy or muddy condition of the water in the gulf, the nude diver can not inspect the bottom from the surface and select the best oysters before descending, nor can he work satisfactorily at depths greater than seven or eight fathoms. While the work is hard, it is more remunerative than the average branch of labor in this region.

Each day the boats deliver their catch of oysters at the fishing-camps or on board the receiving vessels. After they have been freed from marine growths and refuse, the mollusks are opened and searched for pearls. This operation is performed by trusted employees, usually elderly men who have become physically disqualified for diving, and who, seated together at a low table, work under the watchful eyes of overseers. A knife is introduced between the valves of the oyster, the adductor muscle is severed, and the valves are separated by breaking the hinge. The animal is removed from the shell and carefully examined with the eyes and the fingers, and then squeezed in the hands to locate any pearl which may be concealed in the organs or tissues. The debris is passed to other persons, who submit it to further examinations. A man may work all day long and find only a few seed-pearls, but occasionally there is the excitement of discovering a beautiful gem.

In some localities the flesh of the pearl-oyster is a source of profit through its sale to Chinamen, who dry and otherwise prepare it for sale among their countrymen in Mexico and America, as well as in the Orient. Frequently the large adductor muscle is dried for food, making excellent soup-stock, and, indeed, it is quite palatable when stewed.

It is difficult to approximate the output of the Mexican pearl fisheries, other than the pearl shell, because the dealers place a merely nominal value on the pearls in their invoices when sending them to Europe, an invoice of $500 sometimes representing gems valued in Paris at several thousand dollars. Furthermore, it is difficult to obtain satisfactory information from the pearling companies, owing, presumably, to the fear of developing greater competition. According to the estimates at La Paz, the local value of the pearl yield now approximates $250,000 annually, and the value of the same over the counters in Europe and America probably exceeds one million dollars.

252Some remarkably large pearls have been secured in the Mexican fisheries, especially considering the small size of the oysters. In 1871 a pearl of 96 grains, pear-shaped and without a flaw, sold at La Paz for 3000 pesos. In March, 1907, a beautiful pinkish white one, found near the lower end of the peninsula, sold for 28,000 pesos or $14,000. One of the best years for choice finds was 1881, when the scaphanders were first employed to their greatest efficiency. A black pearl was then secured which weighed 112 grains, and which brought 40,000 francs in Paris. In 1882 two, weighing 124 and 180 grains respectively, sold for 11,000 pesos. In the following year a light brown pearl, flecked with dark brown, and weighing 260 grains, sold for 7500 pesos. These are the prices which the La Paz merchants received for these pearls, and not the much greater amounts for which they were finally sold by the jewelers.

One of the finest pearls was found in 1884 near Mulege. This weighed 372 grains. The Indian fisherman is said to have sold it for $90; the purchaser declined an offer of 1000 pesos, and also a second offer of 5000, and soon sold it to a La Paz dealer for 10,000 pesos. Its value in Paris was estimated at 85,000 francs. Probably the most famous of all pearls obtained from these grounds was “the 400–grain pearl” found near Loreto, and “which is now among the royal jewels of Spain.” It is said that this was offered by the lucky fisherman to the Mission of Loreto, and by the Director of Missions in Lower California was presented to the Queen of Spain.[299]

As in every other fishery, one hears in Mexico of fishermen who have grasped a prize only to lose it through inexperience or improvidence. The account given above of the sale of the 372–grain pearl found near Mulege furnishes an instance of this. It is related in La Paz that in 1883 an Indian sold for ten pesos a gem weighing 128 grains, for which the purchaser received 27,500 francs in Paris. On another occasion a Mexican sold two pearls, easily worth $4000, for $16 worth of groceries.

In the eighteenth century, the Notre Dame de Loreto possessed a remarkable collection of Mexican pearls, which had been presented from time to time by the fishermen. During the régime of the Jesuits, it was customary to devote the proceeds of the last day of the fishery to the decoration of the altar of that mission. After the expulsion of this religious order in 1767, the mission was pillaged and the collection dissipated. From the old aristocracy of Mexico, family heirlooms of many choice pearls were placed on the European market during the civil wars in Mexico to contribute to the support of the contending armies. One lady in Sonora is said to have disposed of her collection for 253550,000 francs. A fine collection of these pearls, accumulated from 1760 to 1850, and showing them in a great variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, was in Chihuahua until recently.


And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck,
With whose radiant light they vie.
Whittier, The Vaudois Teacher.

The most recently developed pearl fisheries are within the limits of the United States, in the rivers and fresh-water lakes, and especially those in the Mississippi Valley. As an important industrial enterprise, these fisheries are less than two decades old, yet they are very productive, yielding annually above half a million dollars’ worth of pearls, many of which compare favorably in quality with those from oriental seas.

The prehistoric mounds in the Mississippi Valley present evidence of the estimation in which pearls were held by a race of men who passed away ages before America was first visited by Europeans. In some of these mounds, erected by a long-forgotten race, pearls have been found not only in hundreds and in thousands, but by gallons and even by bushels. Some of these equal three quarters of an inch in diameter, and in quantity exceed the richest individual collections of the present day. Damaged and partly decomposed by heat and through centuries of burial, they have lost their beauty, and are of value only to the archæologist and to indicate the quantity of pearly treasures possessed by these early people.

Owing to the great wealth of pearls which had been uncovered on the Spanish Main, at Panama, and in the Gulf of California, Eldorado explorers, in the sixteenth century, were particularly eager in searching for them within the present limits of the United States; in the reports of their wanderings, much space is given to these gems, and these reports aided largely in inducing and encouraging other expeditions. Some of these accounts read like the marvelous stories of Sindbad the Sailor, quantities of pearls—hundreds of pounds in some instances—being secured by the exchange of trinkets and by more questionable means. It would be easy to bring together numerous accounts of apparently reliable authorities to show that in the sixteenth century pearls were obtained here in far greater quantities than were ever known in any other part of the world; but this conclusion seems not wholly correct.

The unfortunate wanderings of Hernando de Soto from 1539 to 2541542 gave rise to most of the reports of rich pearl finds within the limits of this country. Of this voyage there are three principal accounts. The first was by Luis Hernandez de Biedma, who had accompanied De Soto as factor for Charles V of Spain. His brief report was presented to the king in 1544, although it was not published until 1841, nearly three centuries later, when it appeared in a French translation.[300] The second, and in our opinion the most reliable account,[301] published at Evora in 1577, was by an unnamed Portuguese (in English editions, commonly spoken of as the Gentleman of Elvas), who was a member of the expedition. The third account,[302] by far the longest and most widely known, but which was not written until 1591, was by Garcilasso de la Vega, who represented that his information was from a Spanish cavalier who had accompanied De Soto.

The only reference made to pearls in Biedma’s report seems to be his allusion to the large quantity secured at the village of Cofaciqui, on the east bank of the Savannah River. He states: “When we arrived there, the queen ... presented the governor with a necklace of pearls of five or six rows, procured for us canoes to pass the river, and assigned the half of the village for our quarters. After having been in our company three or four days, she escaped into the forest; the governor caused search to be made after her, but without success; he then gave orders to break open a temple erected in this village, wherein the chiefs of the country were interred. We took out of it a vast quantity of pearls, which might amount to six or seven arrobas,[303] but they were spoiled by having been underground.”[304]

The Portuguese narrative alludes to the pearls at Cofaciqui, stating that the queen “took from her own neck a great cordon of pearls, and cast it about the neck of the governor.... And the lady, perceiving that the Christians esteemed the pearls, advised the governor to search certain graves in the town, where he would find many; and that if he would send to the abandoned towns, he might load all his horses. He sought the graves of that town and there found fourteen rows of pearls, and little babies and birds made of them.”[305] This account makes no further mention of pearls, except to state that at the battle of Mavilla this great collection was burned, and that when the Queen of Cofaciqui escaped from the Portuguese she carried with her a little chest full of unbored pearls, which some of the 255Spaniards thought were of great value;[306] and further, that on one or two other occasions a few pearls were received from the Indians as presents.

The account of De Soto’s wanderings, given by Garcilasso, the Peruvian historian, contains many references to pearls, which read more like romance than reality. With his knowledge of the jewels, temples, etc., in Mexico and Peru, and recognizing some similarities in the manners of the people of those countries and the ones with whom De Soto came in contact, Garcilasso was easily led to statements which, though possibly true in the one case, seem fictitious in the other.

He gives the story of the Queen of Cofaciqui, with some additional particulars. The string of pearls which she presented to the governor made three circuits of her neck and descended to her waist. In his account, the graves in Cofaciqui became a temple containing, among other riches, more than a thousand measures of pearls, of which they took only two. Near Cofaciqui was the temple of Talomeco, over a hundred steps long by forty broad, with the walls high in proportion. Upon the roof of the temple were shells of different sizes, placed with the inside out, to give more brilliancy, and with the intervals “filled with many strings of pearls of divers sizes, in the form of festoons, from one shell to the other, and extending from the top of the roof to the bottom.” Within the temple, festoons of pearls hung from the ceiling and from all other parts of the building. In the middle were three rows of chests of graded sizes, arranged in pyramids of five or six chests each, according to their sizes. “All these chests were filled with pearls, in such a manner that the largest contain the largest pearls, and thus, in succession, to the smallest, which were full of seed-pearls only. The quantity of pearls was such, that the Spaniards avowed, that even if there had been more than nine hundred men and three hundred horses, they all together could not have carried off at one time all the pearls of this temple. We ought not to be too much astonished at this, if we consider that the Indians of the province conveyed into these chests, during many ages, all the pearls which they found, without retaining a single one of them.”[307] In the armory attached to this temple were long pikes, maces, clubs, and other weapons mounted with links and tassels of pearls.

Garcilasso has an interesting story of an incident said to have occurred a few days after leaving Cofaciqui, when the troops were passing through the wilderness.

Negro pearling camp on bank of an Arkansas river

Group of Arkansas pearl fishermen; photographed shortly after the woman in the center of the group had found a pearl for which she received $800

256Juan Terron, one of the stoutest soldiers of the army, toward noon, drew from his saddle-bags about six pounds of pearls, and pressed a cavalier, one of his friends, to take them. The cavalier thanked him and told him that he ought to keep them, or rather, since the report was current that the general would send to Havana, send them there to buy horses and go no longer afoot. Offended at this answer, Terron replied that “these pearls then shall not go any farther,” and thereupon scattered them here and there upon the grass and through the bushes. They were surprised at this folly, for the pearls were as large as hazel-nuts, and of very fine water, and because they were not pierced they were worth more than six thousand ducats. They collected about thirty of these pearls, which were so beautiful that it made them regret the loss of the others, and say, in raillery, these words, which passed into a proverb with them, “There are no pearls for Juan Terron.”[308]

At the capital of Iciaha, De Soto received from the cacique or chief, a string, five feet in length, of beautiful and well-matched pearls as large as filberts. Upon De Soto’s expressing a desire to learn how the gems were extracted from the shells, the chief immediately ordered four boats to fish all night and return in the morning.

In the meantime they burnt a great deal of wood upon the shore, in order to make there a great bed of live coals, that at the return of the boats they might put thereon the shells, which would open with the heat. They found, at the opening of the first shells, ten or twelve pearls of the size of a pea, which they took to the cacique, and to the general who was present, and who found them very beautiful, except that the fire had deprived them of a part of their lustre. When the general had seen what he wished, he returned to dine; and immediately after, a soldier entered, who instantly said to him that, in eating oysters which the Indians had caught, his teeth had encountered a very beautiful pearl of a very lively color, and that he begged him to receive it to send to the governess of Cuba. Soto politely refused this pearl, and assured the soldier that he was as obliged to him as if he had accepted it; and that some day he would try to acknowledge his kindness, and the honor which he did his wife; and that he should preserve it to purchase horses at Havana. The Spaniards valued it at four hundred ducats; and as they had not made use of fire to extract it, it had not lost any of its lustre.[309]

Notwithstanding the strong indorsement given to Garcilasso’s narrative by Theodore Irving and some other writers, his tendency to exaggerate depreciates greatly the historical value of his account, and it seems wholly unreliable as an authority relative to early resources in America. We may reasonably doubt whether De Soto’s expedition came in contact with more pearls than those mentioned by Biedma and the Portuguese writer.

257The account of the first voyage along the coast of the United States, that of the Italian, Juan Verrazano, in 1524, contains no reference to pearls, although he penetrated into the interior a score or two of miles, and was frequently in contact with the natives, who lived largely by fishing, and who prized many ornaments of different colored stones, copper rings, etc.

The first expedition which went far into the interior was the ill-fated one under command of Pánfilo de Narvaez in 1528. A thrilling account[310] of this journey was written by Cabeza de Vaca, who was one of the four survivors, after eight years’ wandering through America to Mexico. Cabeza had been controller and royal treasurer of the expedition, and in that position it was his particular duty to acquaint himself with all the pearls, gold, and similar riches found by the party. Notwithstanding his tradings with the Indians and their efforts to gain his friendship by means of presents, his account makes no mention of pearls, except to refer to a statement made by some Indians that on the coast of the South Sea there were pearls and great riches.

Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, who was shipwrecked on the Florida coast about 1550, and was detained there a prisoner for seventeen years, wrote:

“Between Abolachi [Appalachicola] and Olagale is a river which the Indians call Guasaca-Esqui, which means Reed River. It is on the sea-coast, and at the mouth of this river the pearls are found in oysters and other shells; from thence they are carried into all the provinces and villages of Florida.”[311]

The European narrators also reported great stores of pearls along the Atlantic seaboard. Among the first of these may be mentioned David Ingram, who is represented as traveling by land from the Gulf of Mexico to the vicinity of Cape Breton in the years 1568 and 1569. As it appeared in the first edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages, this relation states:

“There is in some of those Countreys great abundance of Pearle, for in every Cottage he founde Pearle, in some howse a quarte, in some a pottel [half a gallon], in some a pecke, more or less, where he did see some as great as an Acorn; and Richard Browne, one of his Companyons, found one of these great Pearls in one of their Canoes, or Boates, wch Pearls he gave to Mouns Campaine, whoe toke them aboarde his shippe.”[312]

Estimation of Ingram’s wonderful relation is decreased by Purchas’s comment:

258As for David Ingram’s perambulations to the north parts, Master Hakluyt, in his first edition printed the same; but it seemeth some incredibilities of his reports caused him to leave him out in the next impression; the reward of lying being, not to be believed in truths.[313]

Even the members of Raleigh’s Roanoke Colony of 1585 reported pearls. Hariot stated:

Sometimes in feeding on Muscles we found some Pearle: but it was our happe to meet with ragges, or of a pide colour: not having yet discovered those places where we heard of better and more plenty. One of our company, a man of skill in such matters, had gathered from among the Savage people about five thousand: of which number he chooses so many as made a faire chaine, which for their likenesse and uniformity in roundenesse, orientnesse, and piednesse of many excellent colours, with equality in greatnesse, were very faire and rare: and had therefore been presented to her Majesty, had we not by casualty, and through extremity of a storme lost them, with many things els in coming away from the countrey.[314]

So far as we can learn, there is no evidence to show that, during the sixteenth or the seventeenth century, any pearls of value were received in Europe from within the present limits of the United States, as was the case with the resources of Venezuela, Panama and Mexico. Many of the accounts quoted above seem wholly fictitious, some of them possibly drawn up for the purpose of promoting exploring expeditions. It is also probable that knowledge of the enormous collections at Venezuela and Panama misled some of the narrators into recognizing as pearls the spherical pieces of shell or even the cylindrical wampum which the Indians made in large quantities and used as money.

However, it is unquestionable that pearls of value were in the possession of some of the wealthier tribes. Biedma’s account of the 150 pounds or more of damaged pearls in the graves at Cofaciqui seems wholly reliable, and likewise many other statements; and it is an interesting problem to determine the source from which the Indians obtained them.

Most of the narratives refer to the pearls as coming from the coast of the South Sea or Gulf of Mexico. The evidence of Fontaneda, who had spent seventeen years in the country, throws some light on this. He states that pearls were obtained at the mouth of Reed River near Appalachicola, whence they were distributed throughout Florida. This seems to indicate that on the west coast of Florida there might have been extensive reefs of pearl-bearing mollusks, which have since become extinct, although existing shell-heaps do not confirm this.

259While it is possible and even probable that many of these pearls in the possession of the Indians came from the Gulf of Mexico or even from the Caribbean Sea, it seems much more likely that they came largely from the Unios of the inland lakes and rivers.

The voyages of Narvaez, Ayllon, De Soto, Ribault, etc., had been so unfortunate that for a century little exploration was made in the territory of the southern part of the United States. When this territory was again invaded, little was seen in the way of pearls.

Iberville, who established the French settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi in 1699, was specially directed to look for them. His instructions state: “Although the pearls presented to his Majesty are not fine either in water or shape, they must nevertheless be carefully sought, as better may be found, and his Majesty desires M. d’Iberville to bring all he can; ascertain where the fishery is carried on, and see it in operation.”[315] Pearls were found in the territory of the Pascagoulas, but they were not worth the trouble of securing them. It appears that from these the Pearl River in Mississippi derived its name.

The only reference to pearls in the seventy-one volumes of Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, from 1610 to 1791, is a note by Father Gravier stating that he saw no choice pearls: “It is true the chief’s wife has some small pearls; but they are neither round nor well pierced, with the exception of seven or eight, which are as large as small peas, and have been bought for more than they are worth.”[316]

Daniel Coxe’s description, in 1722, of pearl resources in America, is of special interest because of the extended experience of his father as a trader in the country. He states:

Pearls are found to be in great abundance in this country; the Indians put some value upon them, but not so much as on the colored beads we bring them. On the whole coast of this province, for two hundred leagues, there are many vast beds of oysters which breed pearls, as has been found in divers places. But, which is very remarkable, far from the sea, in fresh water rivers and lakes, there is a sort of shell-fish between a mussel and a , wherein are found abundance of pearls, and many of an unusual magnitude. The Indians, when they take the oysters, broil them over the fire till they are fit to eat, keeping the large pearls they find in them, which by the heat are tarnished and lose their native lustre; but, when we have taught them the right method, doubtless it would be a very profitable trade. There are two places we already know within land, in each of which there is a great pearl fishery. One about


Pan-American Exposition, 1901

260one hundred and twenty leagues up the River Meschacebe [Mississippi], on the west side, in a lake made by the river of the Naches, about forty miles from its mouth, where they are found in great plenty and many very large. The other on the River Chiaha, which runs into the Coza or Cussaw River (as our English call it), and which comes from the northeast, and, after a course of some hundred miles, disembogues into the Gulf of Florida, about one hundred miles to the east of the Meschacebe.[317]

It is interesting to note that the first place mentioned by Coxe as the location of a great pearl fishery is not far from one of the most productive pearling regions of the last fifteen years, viz., the eastern part of Arkansas. The second place noted by him appears to be identical with the Iciaha, where, nearly two centuries before, the Indians exhibited the methods of their fishing to De Soto and his companions.

Excepting Coxe’s notice, for 250 years following 1600, little was heard of the occurrence of pearls within this country. This does not indicate necessarily that the gems were absent from the waters; but, not using the Unios for food as did the aborigines, the residents had little occasion to open them and in this way learn of their contents. And even where pearls were occasionally found in mollusks opened for fish-bait, the people were in few instances informed as to their market value, and did not attempt to sell them, although the most attractive ones may have been treasured as ornaments or as keepsakes. This was paralleled in the diamond fields of South Africa, where gems worth thousands of dollars were used as playthings by the farmers’ children. A jewel, like a prophet, is frequently without honor in its own country until the residents of that country learn of the great esteem in which it is held elsewhere.

And yet, in some localities a few pearls were collected from time to time. The Moravians—familiar with the pearls of their native streams in Europe—gathered many from the Lehigh River near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, over a century ago;[318] and from Rhode Island and elsewhere a few were obtained.

The first awakening to a realization of the value of fresh-water pearls in America occurred fifty years ago, when several beautiful gems were marketed from the northern part of New Jersey. The story of this find has been frequently told. A shoemaker named David Howell, who lived on the outskirts of Paterson, occasionally relieved the monotony of his trade by a fishing excursion to some neighboring stream, where he would usually collect a “mess” of mussels. Returning from one of these visits to Notch Brook in the spring of 2611857, the mussels were fried with the usual abundance of grease and heat. After this preparation, one of them was found to contain a large, round pearl weighing “nearly 400 grains,” which possibly might have proven the finest of modern times, had not its luster and beauty been destroyed by the heat and grease.[319] Had the pearl been discovered in time, its value might have exceeded $25,000, thus making poor Howell’s fried mussels one of the most expensive of suppers.

Hoping to duplicate his wonderful find, Howell collected and searched other mussels, and his example was followed by several of his neighbors. Within a few days a magnificent pink pearl was found by a Paterson carpenter named Jacob Quackenbush. This weighed ninety-three grains, and was bought by the late Charles L. Tiffany for Messrs. Tiffany & Co., New York City, for $1500. Mr. Tiffany later described with much interest the feelings he experienced after making the purchase. Said he: “Here this man finds a pearl within seventeen miles of our place of business! What if thousands should be found, and many perhaps finer than this one! However, we risked buying the pearl, and as no one in New York seemed interested in it, we sent it to our Paris house for sale, and a French gem dealer offered for it a very large advance on the original price, paying 12,500 francs.” From this dealer it passed into the possession of the young and beautiful Empress Eugénie, from whom and from its great luster it derived the name “Queen Pearl.” Its present market value would doubtless amount to $10,000 or more.

When news of the very large price received for Quackenbush’s find became public, great excitement developed in the vicinity of Notch Brook. Persons came from all directions to search in the shallow streams for valuable pearls. Farmers of the neighborhood tried their luck, and also mechanics and other residents of the adjacent villages and towns, and even some from Newark, Jersey City, and New York. An old resident, who was an eye-witness, describes the scene as one of great animation, the crowds of people and the horses and wagons along the shore giving “an appearance of camp-meeting time.” At least one schoolmaster in the vicinity is said to have closed his school to give his pupils an opportunity to engage in the hunt.

With trousers rolled up, the people waded into the shallow water and sought for the mussels in the mud and sand on the bottom. Many pearls were secured, but none approached in size or value the two above noted.[320] During 1857, the New York City market received about $15,000 worth of pearls from these waters, and in addition many were 262sold locally or retained as souvenirs of the hunt. At the low price of pearls existing then, this figure would mean possibly ten times as much at present, or $150,000.

The active search soon depleted the resources of the little stream, so that in the following year the reported value of the yield was only a few thousand dollars. The decrease continued until in a few years practically every mussel was removed, and at present scarcely a single Unio is to be found in these waters.

The interest in pearling extended far from the place of the original find; and in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even as far away as Texas, search was made in the streams. In the Colorado and its tributaries, about 20,000 were found in a short while. Most of these were small and unattractive, but a considerable number were reported “as large as pepper-corns” and a few “the size of a small rifle ball,” the number decreasing with the increase in size. A correspondent in the “Neue Zeit” wrote:

Sometimes they are round, sometimes cylindrical, elliptical, hemispherical, or of an altogether irregular shape. The finest have a milk-white, silvery sheen; many, however, are reddish yellow, bluish brown, or quite black; the last naturally have no value whatever. As to their value, there is considerable uncertainty, and it can easily be understood that those who have a great number of them in their possession greatly overestimate them. So far they are found principally in the Llano and the San Saba.[321]

After the resources in northern New Jersey were depleted and the excitement had died out, little was heard of pearling in this country until 1878, when many were found in Little Miami River in southwestern Ohio. The fishing was carried on at low water, and principally by boys, who would wade out in the water and feel for the mollusks with their feet, and then bob under and pick them up with their hands. The senior author spent a day in this fishery with a party of six boys with some success. During 1878 about $25,000 worth of pearls were collected in the vicinity of Waynesville on that stream. Mr. Israel H. Harris, a banker of Waynesville, then began collecting these pearls; and by purchasing during several years nearly every interesting specimen found in the vicinity, he made his collection one of the largest and best known in the country. When sold in 1888, it contained several thousand pearls, mostly of small size, averaging in weight little more than one grain each. A large portion of this collection was exhibited in the American section of the Paris Exposition of 1889, and was awarded a gold medal. Included in this exhibit was a series of ornaments in which the gems were arranged according to color, so that in one the pearls were green, in another purplish brown, in another pink, 263in another waxy white, and in one a cream-white. It also contained a button-shaped pearl weighing thirty-eight grains and several pink ones almost translucent. A pink pearl of eight grains was admired by all who saw it; by reflected light this had the color and translucency of a drop of molten silver. Many of the pink pearls found in the Little Miami and its tributaries were of the most beautiful rose-petal pink; pearls of this peculiar color have never been found in any other waters.

From Ohio the industry gradually extended westward and southward, and new fields were developed, pearls to the value of about $10,000 annually coming on the market from such widely separated States as Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Washington, etc. However, little general interest was taken in fresh-water pearls, and few choice ones were found until the magnificent resources of the upper Mississippi Valley were discovered. Owing to the ease with which the mollusks may be collected by wading, it was in the relatively shallow tributaries that the fishery first developed, rather than in the deep channels of the main stream and of the large affluents.

The first region in the Mississippi Valley to attract attention was southwestern Wisconsin. Early in the summer of 1889, many beautiful pearls were found in Pecatonica River, a tributary of Rock River, which in turn empties into the Mississippi. Within three months, $10,000 worth of gems were sent from this region to New York City alone, including one worth $500, which was a very considerable sum for a fresh-water pearl at that time. The interest quickly spread to neighboring waters, and within a short time pearls were found also in Sugar River, in Apple River, in Rock River, in Wisconsin River, and in the Mississippi in the vicinity of Prairie du Chien. The fact that little experience and no capital was required for the business drew large numbers of persons to the newly-found Klondike; and the finds were so numerous and of such high quality that about $300,000 worth of pearls were collected before the end of 1891, greatly exceeding all records for fresh waters.

The Wisconsin pearls are remarkable for their beauty, luster, and diversified coloring, and some lovely shades of pink, purple, and especially metallic green have been found. Several of them have weighed in excess of fifty grains each, and some individual values ran well into four figures. One shipment made from Sugar River to London in September, 1890, contained ninety-three pearls, weighing from four to twenty-eight grains each, for which £11,700 was received in payment. In the limits of one county in the following year, pearls to the value of nearly $100,000 were secured.


Paris Exposition, 1900

264Shortly following the outbreak of pearling in Wisconsin came the development of interest in certain parts of Tennessee. For many years pearls had been secured from the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and their tributaries, especially Caney Fork, Duck, Calf Killer, and Elk rivers, the headquarters of the fishery and the local markets being Carthage, Smithville, Columbia, and Arlington. The search had been conducted in a moderate way by pleasure parties in the summer, and by farmers after the crops had been laid aside.

In 1901 pearling excitement developed in the mountain regions of eastern Tennessee, especially in Clinch River. These newly-discovered resources proved so valuable that the local interest became very great. Vivid and picturesque accounts published in the local papers reported hundreds of persons as camping at various points along the streams, some in tents and some in rough shanties, and others going from shoal to shoal in newly-built house-boats. They were described as easygoing, pleasure-loving people, the men, women, and children working hard all day, subsisting largely on fish caught in the same stream, and dancing at night to the music of a banjo around the camp-fires. The center of the new industry was Clinton, the county seat of Anderson County, whither the successful hunters betook themselves each Saturday, the preferred time for selling the catch.

The next outbreak of pearling excitement was in Arkansas, in the region referred to by Daniel Coxe two centuries ago as the location of great pearl resources.[322] Although in recent times little had been heard of pearls in Arkansas previous to 1895, they were not unknown in that State. For years they had been picked up by the fishermen, and used as lucky stones or given to the children for playthings. Some had come into the possession of persons acquainted with their value. About 1875, a few pearls were collected by a party of men engaged in cutting cedar poles on White River; in 1888, a brilliant pear-shaped pink pearl of twenty-seven grains was secured from the same river, and sold to a prominent resident. Little had been said about these finds, and in general the people of Arkansas had slight idea of the occurrence or the value of pearls in those waters.

In 1895, a surveying party on White River found pearls in the Unios of that stream, and collected them to the value of about $5000. News of this discovery attracted attention to the resource, and other persons sought for the gems in the White River and its tributaries, in the St. Francis and the Arkansas rivers. The unusually low water in 1896 facilitated the fishery, and resulted in the discovery of many large and valuable gems. The interest developed rapidly, and within twelve months nearly every stream of water in Arkansas yielded pearls, with the finds most extensive and valuable in White River and 265its tributary the Black River, which has proved to be the richest pearling region in America. The industry centered at Black Rock, more than a thousand persons fishing within twenty miles of that place. It is estimated that within three years following the development of this fishery, this State yielded pearls to the value of more than $500,000.

When the Arkansas fishery was at its height, it was reported that ten thousand persons were employed therein. The fishermen were from nearly every class and condition in the State. Women were not absent; even children participated in the industry, and some proved more fortunate than the older hunters. It was not uncommon to see several hundred persons congregated at one bar or in one stretch of the river, all intent on making a fortune, and all occupied in fishing or in opening the shells. So complete was the absorption of the people in this pursuit, and so many of the farm-hands were occupied in the eager search for anticipated fortunes, that the local papers reported much apprehension and difficulty in harvesting the cotton and other crops.

Within the main channel of the Mississippi, the relative scarcity of pearls in the Unios, and the greater preparation required for collecting the mollusks in the deep waters, retarded the fishery until the establishment of button manufacture afforded a market for the shells, this originating in 1891. The industry developed rapidly, and for several years has consumed about 35,000 tons of shells annually, obtained principally in the Mississippi between Quincy and La Crosse, and to a much less extent in other streams in this valley. This is more than twice the total product of mother-of-pearl shell in all parts of the world. However, the value per ton is very much less than that of the best grade of mother-of-pearl; that from Australia, for instance, commonly selling for $1200 per ton, whereas the Mississippi shell usually sells for less than $20, although the very choicest may bring upward of $50 per ton.

The gathering of shells for manufacture has extended to many of the large tributaries of the Mississippi, especially the Arkansas, the White, the St. Francis, the Ohio and the Illinois rivers, and this industry has added largely to the pearl yield in these waters.

In the last three years, the scenes of greatest activity have been the Wabash River and its tributaries, where shell-collecting developed in 1903, and the Illinois River, where the industry was of little importance previous to 1906. On the Wabash, camps were established at almost every town, from the mouth up to St. Francis, Illinois, and about one thousand persons found employment. Some of the most beautiful American gems have come from this river. They are usually silvery white in color and of the sweetest luster. A single 266pearl weighing only ten grains has been sold at the river for $1000; but it is frequently the case that a fine gem will sell for more at the place where found than in the great markets. During the spring of 1907, three pearls were found in the Wabash near Vincennes, which weighed forty-one, fifty-one, and fifty-three grains respectively. One of these was white, one faint pink, and the third was yellow. The finest pearls have been reported from the vicinity of Mount Carmel near the lower end of the river. Very large quantities of baroques or slugs are found in the Wabash and the Illinois; 30,000 ounces were reported from those rivers and their tributaries in 1907, for which the fishermen received a total of $50,000. A large symmetrical pearl found during 1907 weighed a trifle under 150 grains, and a slug was found which weighed fully one ounce, or 606 grains.

The pearl-hunting excitement has been felt even on the Atlantic seaboard, as a result of the publication of the discoveries in the Mississippi Valley. In Maine many pearls have been reported, especially in the vicinity of Moosehead Lake. In 1901 over one hundred were found in that vicinity; most of them were of little value, but more than a dozen were worth $10 or $15 each. Three found by Kineo guides were sold for an aggregate of $300. The choicest one reported in that year weighed twelve and one half grains and sold for $150; had it been perfect in form and luster its value would have been several times that amount. Most of these pearls were found by Moosehead guides, who found purchasers among the visiting fishermen and hunters.

Since 1901 many farm-boys as well as guides have devoted much attention to the business, some of them deriving as large a revenue therefrom as from the use of the rifle. Good finds have been made, during the last year or two especially. In 1906, one choice pearl sold for $700, and many have sold for $10 to $75 each. The search has proven so alluring that returning visitors have complained that some of the guides care to do little more than search every rill, brook, and creek they come across looking for the mollusks. Just at present the principal attention seems to be directed to the streams in the western part of Maine, where the river-beds are more sandy and the shell-fish more abundant than in the northern and eastern part of the State.

In Massachusetts pearls have been collected from many of the ponds and brooks. In Nonesuch Pond in Weston, the Unio complanata has yielded many small ones of attractive appearance, but not of sufficient size or luster to sell for more than $10 each. Ponds in the town of Greenwich and also in Pelham in Hampshire County are among the best in Massachusetts for pearls. The Sudbury River above Concord also yields many. Relatively few of the Unios contain pearls, and the gem-bearing individuals seem to be grouped in special localities. Outside 267of these places, thousands of mussels may be opened without revealing a single gem. A collection of small Massachusetts pearls was brought together a few years ago by Mr. Sherman F. Denton of Wellesley Farms, who has devoted much time to exploring the inland waters of Massachusetts.

Connecticut also has had a slight touch of the pearl fever. In 1897, Mr. C. S. Carwell of Ledyard, explored the headwaters of Mystic River, and in a few weeks collected a number of pearls, one of which he is reported as having sold for $500, and two others were estimated at $400 each. And from the other end of the State, along the Shepaug River, is reported a similar account of the success of Mr. Arlo Kinney of Steep Rock. Attracted by these reports, crowds of seekers have proceeded in the usual reckless manner to make wholesale destruction of the mollusks. The finds have been especially large and valuable in the lakes and streams of Litchfield County, particularly in Bantam Lake.

In New York State, pearls have been found in the swift shallow streams in the Adirondack region, and in several of those entering the St. Lawrence, particularly the Grass River in St. Lawrence County. Pearls were first reported from this region in 1894. In 1896 the Grass yielded one pearl weighing fifty-eight grains, worth $600 locally; and in 1897 one weighing sixty-eight grains was found, the fisherman selling it for $800. A resident of Russell township devoted most of his time to pearling in Grass River during 1896 and 1897, from which he is said to have realized $2000. In this region the mussels are found by wading in the shallow water and scanning the bottom through a water-telescope. Most of the pearls are of slight value, but many individuals are reported as worth from $30 to $60 each.

Pearl River in Rockland County, New York, has furnished a number of brown pearls. These are commonly small, weighing from one eighth to one half grain each, although some weigh seven or eight grains each. Most of these are not lustrous, but occasionally a bright brown or a bright copper-brown specimen of from one to four grains is met with. At the Paris Exposition, in 1900, were exhibited one hundred of these pearls, with an aggregate weight of 281 grains; these now form part of the Morgan-Tiffany Collection, in the American Museum of Natural History.

Even in the rich coal regions of Pennsylvania pearls are found. Possibly the most productive section in that State has been the headwaters of the Schuylkill River in the vicinity of Tamaqua, Quakake, and Mahony City. Of the tributaries of the Schuylkill, those contributing largely to the yield have been Lewiston, Nipert, Still, Locust, and Hecla. These rise in the mountains and are rivulets of fair size by the time they reach their common outlet.


From the Mississippi Valley

The upper pictures show the two valves of the same shell, and the pearl is detachable

268The original pearl finds in the Schuylkill date from half a century ago, when they were secured by farmers who used the mussel shells in removing hair from the hides of slaughtered pigs. During the Mississippi pearling excitement in 1897, several persons from New York, who were summering in Schuylkill County, searched the small streams for pearl-bearing mussels with such success that within a short while many farmers became enthusiastic hunters during their spare time. Half a dozen or more men did very well, their catch amounting to thousands of dollars’ worth. Mr. Frank M. Ebert, of Quakake, has put most of his spare time in the business in the last ten years, and has secured many good pearls. It is estimated that the total catch in Schuylkill County alone approximates $20,000 at local values. So actively has the search been conducted that at present few adult mussels of the pearl-bearing species remain, and a day’s work may result in finding less than a dozen.

The best price reported as received by a local fisherman was $200 for a twenty-grain pearl in the year 1904. Many individual specimens have been sold at prices ranging from $100 to $175. It is claimed that a pearl sold by a fisherman in Schuylkill for fifty cents was later marketed in Philadelphia for $125, and with slight mounting was ultimately sold for $1600. The most attractive weigh from ten to twenty grains each; larger ones have been found, weighing up to thirty-eight grains, but as a rule the luster is not so good as that possessed by pearls of medium size. The common colors are dark blue, pink, lavender, and white. A few are black and some are brown. The brown pearls are seldom of value, owing to deficiency in luster.

In Maryland pearls have been collected from the brooks near the head of Chesapeake Bay, and especially in Kent and Cecil counties. These are of almost every conceivable color, ranging from a clear white to a dainty pink, and to very dark colors, especially bronze and copper. Most of them are too small for commercial value, and only a few reach sufficient size to command more than $5 or $10 each, but single specimens have sold as high as $50.

Georgia has yielded some pearls, chiefly in the vicinity of Rome, at the junction of the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers. This is believed to be the site of the Indian town Cofaciqui, where, in his memorable expedition of 1540–1541, De Soto found the natives in possession of so many pearls. The general news of finds in the Mississippi Valley stirred up local interest in this region in 1897, and when the streams were low and clear in the autumn many persons engaged in hunting the mussels. An ex-sheriff of Rome is reported as having secured about fifty pearls, lustrous but irregular. A few miles above Rome, a farmer made a trial on Johns Creek, a tributary of the Oostanaula; 269and from a basketful of Unios he reports finding several marketable pearls for which he received $180 from a Baltimore jeweler. Others followed, and many fine specimens were secured. Unios are especially abundant in the Flint, Ocmulgee, and Oconee rivers, and it seems probable that many pearls might be found in these streams.

Florida has not yet been actively exploited, but it may prove a productive region ere long. The reports of De Soto’s expedition make special reference to the size and beauty of the pearls found at a point where he crossed the Ocklocknee River about thirty miles above its mouth, near the present site of Langston, Wakulla County. And there seems little doubt that pearls may be found in the Ocklocknee and also in its affluent, the Sopchoppy River. The banks of these streams are full of shells, and pearls of choice color have been sent from there.

It is unnecessary to refer in detail to the origin of pearling in each of the States. The general interest in this industry from 1889 to the present time has resulted in the examination of most of the rivers and creeks, and in few has the search been entirely unrewarded, although the finds have been relatively much greater in some waters than in others. As a rule, pearl-bearing Unios are most numerous in clear, swift streams, with sandy or gravelly bottoms and which flow through calcareous rocks. With pearlers as with miners, there is a stampede to the places where a good find is reported, since the rivers are free for all; consequently, there is much variation from year to year in the amount of attention which the individual streams and localities receive.

While many of the pearlers operating in the Mississippi River are professional fishermen or rivermen, most of those in the smaller streams have had no previous experience in similar work. Frequently whole families come twenty or thirty miles, and even greater distances, and camp on the river bank. In many instances farm-hands are there who have abandoned their crops, mechanics who have left steady jobs, railway men who have taken a lay-off, teachers, merchants, all eager and expecting to find a fortune. In some localities, pearl fishing has been used as an attraction in big picnic advertisements, and has drawn larger crowds than a public orator.

The mollusks are removed from the river bottoms in various ways and by many forms of apparatus. In the shallow streams the fishermen simply wade out in the water and pick up the shells by hand. If not readily visible from the surface, the shells may be located with the bare feet or by the use of a water-telescope. Where the water is too deep for wading, the fishermen work from small boats, and use garden rakes or other convenient inplements.

Where pearling has developed into more of an industry, special 270forms of rakes and drags are employed. A shoulder rake, with a handle twelve to twenty feet in length, is used extensively under the ice in frozen rivers, and in lakes and other places where the water is still and from eight to fifteen feet in depth. This is simply an overgrown or enlarged garden rake, armed with twelve or fifteen iron teeth about five inches in length. A wire scoop or basket is attached to receive the catch as it is pulled from the bottom by the teeth, and when this scoop is well filled it is lifted and the contents dumped on the ice or into the skiff. This method is laborious, and is employed only where the water is shallow and the mollusks are abundant. Scissor tongs—similar to those used by oystermen on the Atlantic coast—are also employed in some localities, especially in Arkansas, where it is estimated that 1700 pairs were manufactured and sold in 1899 and 1900, at about $7 each.

In the large streams of the Mississippi Valley, with their slow and steady currents, and where the Unios are taken largely for their shells to be used in button manufacture, the most popular form of apparatus since 1896 has been the crowfoot drag. This ingenious contrivance consists of a cross-bar of hollow iron tubing or common gas-pipe, six or eight feet long, to which are attached, at intervals of five or six inches, stout twine or chain snoods or stagings, each about eighteen inches in length. To each of these are attached three or four prongs or “hooks,” about six inches apart. These “hooks” are four-pronged, and are made of two pieces of stout wire bent at right angles to each other. According to the depth of the water, from twenty-five to seventy-five feet of three quarter inch rope is attached to the drag for the purpose of towing it behind the boat, which is permitted to drift down the stream with the current. This contrivance costs about $3, and each fisherman generally has at least two of them, as well as a wide flat-bottom boat costing $5 or $10.

Sometimes, when the current is light, the fisherman prepares a “mule” to assist the boat in towing the resisting drag. This “mule” consists of a wooden frame, hinged in V-shape, and is fastened several feet in advance of the boat with the V end pointed down the stream. It sinks low in the water, and the current pressing against the angle carries it along, and thus tows the skiff and the resisting drag at a uniform rate of speed. When there is not sufficient current even for this contrivance, as in the wide reaches and in the lakes, oars, sails, and even power engines may be used for propelling the boat.

As the crowfoot drag is slowly drawn along the bottom, it comes in contact with the mollusks feeding with open shells. When a hook or other part of the drag enters an open shell, the mollusk immediately closes firmly upon the intruding object and clings thereto long enough 271to be drawn up into the boat. In this way, where the Unios are thick, nearly every hook becomes freighted, and some may have two or three shells clinging thereto. It is easy to collect fifty mollusks in passing over a length of two hundred feet. Two drags are carried by each fisherman, and the second one is put overboard as soon as the first one is ready to be raised. This is suspended with the bar across two upright forks on either side of the boat with the prongs swinging freely, and the mussels are removed therefrom. When this operation is completed, the drag is put overboard and the other one is ready for lifting. This apparatus is very effective, and as much as a ton of shells has been taken by one man in twelve hours, but the average is very much less, probably not over four or five hundred pounds. Objection is made to this manner of fishing, since many mollusks not brought to the surface are so injured that they die.

A cruder implement of similar type has long been employed on many logging streams. The weighted branch of a tree is dragged on the bottom behind a raft of logs, and the mussels attach themselves to the twigs in the same manner as on the crowfoot hooks.

During the pearling excitement in Arkansas, a considerable portion of the choice pearls were found, not in the mussels, but lying loosely in the mud of the shores, indicating that under some circumstances, as agitation by freshets or floods, the loose pearls are shaken out from the Unios. In some instances, indeed, the pearls were found upon or in the soil at some distance from streams or lakes. It is reported that in October, 1897, Mr. J. W. McIntosh, of the northern part of Lonoke County, while digging post-holes in the old bed of Cypress Bayou, found a number of pearls, some “as large as a 44–caliber Winchester ball,” lying within the shells at a depth of a foot and a half below the surface. This peculiar occurrence is partly explained by the wide extension of the waters in flood times over the low region, and by the shifting of streams and the isolation of cut-offs.

Stray pearls have been found in many other odd places, as in the viscera of chickens and ducks, in the stomachs of fish, and even within a pig’s mouth. It is not an uncommon scene in the pearling region to see men raking over the muck in hog-pens along the river banks, hoping there to find a stray pearl lost from the mussels with which the animals had been fed by persons who had indeed “cast pearls before swine.” It is related that a Negro near Marley, Illinois, in this way secured a pearl weighing 118 grains, for which he received $2000 from a St. Louis buyer, and which was ultimately sold to a New York dealer for $5000.

Pearling scene on White River, Arkansas

The fishermen are using scissor tongs from flat-bottom skiffs

Pearling camp on upper Mississippi River

Crowfoot drags are shown on the flat-bottom skiffs at the river bank

272During the height of the Arkansas pearling excitement in 1897, the speculative spirit was so rife that many persons—unwilling to engage in the labor of fishing—purchased unopened mussels from the fishermen in the venture for aleatory profits. The price for these ranged from twenty-five cents to $2 per hundred, and fluctuated rapidly, according to the immediate results, increasing several hundred per cent. in a few minutes under the influence of a valuable find. One fisherman sold mussels to the value of $28 in one day, and thought he had made an excellent bargain until over $1000 worth of pearls were revealed when the shells were opened.

While some pearlers work in southern streams throughout the year, generally the season is coincident with warm weather, when the water is low and the work may be conducted with comfort. In the vicinity of Muscatine and Rock Island about twelve years ago, large quantities of Unios were taken during the winter when the river was frozen over, the men working with long rakes from the surface of the ice.

When only a few mollusks are taken, they are readily opened with a knife to permit a search for the pearls. But where there are many, as in the Mississippi River, the opening is facilitated by heating. After a sufficient catch has been obtained, they are subjected to the action of steam in a box, or they are heated in an ordinary kettle; a few minutes of steaming or cooking are sufficient to cause the shells to spring open. The fleshy parts are removed and thoroughly searched, the interior surfaces of the shells are likewise examined for attached pearls, and the liquid at the bottom of the vessel is strained so that nothing of value may escape.

This cooking is a convenient method of opening the shells, but unquestionably it injures the quality of many pearls. In some instances when the shells open, the pearls fall out and descend to the heated iron bottom, where they are quickly injured. The surface of one exposed too long to the heat shows numerous minute cracks, which increase in number and size when subjected to changes of temperature. Some choice gems have in this manner been rendered almost valueless. If a jacket boiler, or one with a double bottom, were used, there would be less danger of injuring the pearls; or a similar result could be accomplished by placing a wire screen a few inches above the bottom.

Several fishermen have endeavored to devise mechanical methods for removing the pearls and thus avoid the painstaking search among the flesh tissues now necessary; but these contrivances have not proved satisfactory, and have not been employed except experimentally.

In the Mississippi and its tributaries, where the fishery is very extensive, after the pearls have been secured, the shells are sold to button manufacturers and to exporters at prices ranging from $4 to $40 per ton, according to species, quality, and market conditions. This provides a fairly remunerative income to the fishermen even if no pearls 273whatever are found. But in the small tributaries and where the mollusks are less numerous, the shells are of little value owing to the expense of bringing them together and conveying them to market.

Not every mollusk contains a pearl, and the village belle, intent on her evening toilet, need not buy a bushel of clams with the pleasant anticipation of finding a sufficient number of gems for a necklace. Small and irregular pearls are not at all uncommon, but choice ones are decidedly scarce, and each one represents the destruction of tens of thousands of mollusks. Quantities of irregular and imperfect nodules known as slugs are collected, which sell for only a few dollars per ounce. In some sections of the Mississippi, the slugs are so very numerous that their aggregate value exceeds that of the choice pearls.

In the Mississippi, the percentage of pearls found in a definite quantity of mollusks is less than in the tributary streams, yet the much greater quantity of shells collected raises the total yield to a very considerable amount. Pearling is subordinate and incidental to gathering the shells for manufacture. In that length of the river from St. Paul to St. Louis, a fair average yield to the fishermen is about fourteen dollars’ worth of pearls and slugs to each ton of shells. Of course, this is not the individual experience, for a single Unio may contain a gem worth $5000, and on the other hand several tons of shells may yield only a few cents’ worth of baroques. The market for the shells places the Mississippi fishing upon an industrial basis, and guarantees a substantial income to every fisherman even when no pearls whatever are found.

Unios from the upper part of the Mississippi yield a much greater percentage than those from below Davenport. In 1904, for instance, from the 4331 tons of shells taken in Wisconsin the fishermen secured pearls which they sold for $91,345, an average of $21 per ton; from the 822 tons in Minnesota the average was $16 per ton; in Iowa the average was $12 for each of the 7846 tons; in Illinois, $5 per ton for the 2364 tons, and in Missouri less than $1 worth of pearls was secured by the fishermen for each ton of shells which they took in the year named. A large number of choice pearls weighing over thirty grains each were found in the vicinity of Prairie du Chien and McGregor. Within a river length of one hundred miles in that region, the fishermen in 1904 gathered pearls which ultimately sold for $300,000. It is therefore apparent that the returns vary greatly in the different regions; nevertheless, even in the less productive localities fine pearls are sometimes found, which contribute to make the industry a profitable one.

Success in pearling is like that in mining. In the White River in Arkansas, for instance, one man found $4200 worth in one month. 274Another discovered a $50 pearl in the first shell he opened. A Negro found an $85 pearl the first day he worked, while another fisherman worked seven months and secured less than $10 worth. It is a question of finding or not finding; the finding brings riches sometimes, and though the failures reduce the average profits as low as in other local ventures, the big prizes affect the mind, and the average is lost to sight. Taking the country as a whole, it is probable that the total find has been sufficient to pay the average fisherman little if any more than $1 for each day’s work.

The fresh-water pearls range in size from that of the smallest seed to that of a pearl weighing several hundred grains. There is relatively only a small quantity of seed-pearls, especially when compared with the output in the fisheries of Ceylon and Persia. Possibly this is due largely to a scarcity of the parasites which seem to perform so important a function in the regions noted. A further reason may be found in the manner in which the mollusks are opened and searched. Were the Ceylon method of opening employed here—which, however, is not at all practicable—it seems probable that the quantity of seed-pearls found in this country would be greatly increased.

The pearls from the tributaries of the Mississippi are noted for their great range of coloration. From a dead white, the color is gradually enhanced to faint shades of pink, yellow, or salmon tints, then to a more decided form of these. From the light shades, the range extends to purple and to bright copper red, closely resembling a drop of molten copper. Some are very light green; others rose, steel blue, or russet brown, while purplish and very dark brown are not uncommon. White pearls are probably the most numerous; but pink, bronze, and lavender are by no means rare.

A large percentage of the Mississippi River pearls are very irregular in form, many of them resembling dogs’ teeth, birds’ wings, the heads or bodies of different animals, etc.

As a rule the fresh-water pearls do not rank so high in value as those from oriental seas, since ordinarily they are not so lustrous. However, some of them have sold at very high figures. A round pearl weighing 103 grains, found in Black River, Arkansas, in 1904, was eventually sold for $25,000; and one of 68 grains, found, in 1907, on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, was recently marketed at $15,000.

One of the largest American pearl necklaces, brought together in 1904, consisted of thirty-eight pearls weighing 1710 grains in the aggregate, an average of 45 grains for each pearl. The central gem weighed 98½ grains and those on the left of it respectively 85¾, 79⅝, 65¼, 59⅝, 49⅜, 46¼, 45⅛, 43¾, 41½, 40½, 40⅝, 35⅛, 27537⅝, 30, 25⅛, 22¼, 20¼, and 19 grains. The pearls on the right were graduated as follows: 85¼, 76⅛, 64⅞, 59½, 47¼, 46, 45⅛, 44½, 42½, 41¾, 38, 37⅞, 36, 35, 34⅝, 29½, 25¼, 21, and 20⅜, grains. This necklace was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was sold to a London merchant, who in turn sold it to a Parisian dealer, and it was finally purchased by a Spanish nobleman at a price said to be about 500,000 francs.

Another necklace shown at the St. Louis World’s Fair, was of American fresh-water pearls from the rivers of Arkansas. The total weight of these pearls, sixteen in number, was 861⅝ grains, an average of 61½ grains for each pearl. Of these one drop pearl weighed 77 grains, and two others each 65½ grains. A round pearl of 70 grains completed the adornment of the pendant. The circlet consisted of ten round pearls alternating with precious stones. The central pearl weighed 98½ grains and on each side were two of 61 grains, then two of 56 grains, two of 54⅞, and two of 48 grains, one of 45⅜ grains being at the back of the necklace.

In the early days of pearl hunting in American streams, the fishermen had little idea of their value, and sold choice gems for insignificant sums. In 1887, a fisherman on Rock River, Illinois, found a 40–grain pearl which he carried in his pocket for several months. Showing it one day in Davenport, he was offered $20 for it. He quickly accepted the offer, and on his return home told his friends about “the sucker who gave $20 for the shell slug.” At present this “shell slug” is worth more than one hundred times that amount. Numerous instances of a similar nature occurred until the average fisherman lost all confidence in his judgment as to the values, and extravagant ideas prevailed regarding even almost worthless nacreous concretions. Thus, when a choice pearl is found, an exorbitant price is set upon it and the seller feels for the market value by repeated dickerings with several buyers. And unless one is an expert, he is quite likely to pay two or three times as much for a pearl at the river bank as in a metropolitan market. Some of the fishermen collect everything in the shape of nacreous concretions, and very often pearl buyers in New York and elsewhere receive packages which are not worth the postage; in many other packages nine tenths of the lot is worthless; and the practical joker and the swindler have solicited bids on bright marbles, rounded pieces of pearl shell, and even sugar-coated pills.

While many pearls of fine luster and beautiful and regular form have been derived from these fisheries, it occasionally happens, in the case of pearls consigned to the city pearl dealer, that cracks, breaks or marks, which might detract from their value, are closed or removed, either by means of water or oil, the pearls having been kept in one or the other until a few moments before they were shown to the merchant. Pearls worth hundreds of dollars have sometimes shown breaks, and in one instance a pearl valued at $7000 showed these cracks even a very short time after the sale.


276In many of the pearling regions of the Mississippi Valley, inquiry of almost any fisherman will result in his bringing forth from an inside pocket a small box padded with raw cotton and containing an assortment of pearls and slugs. Most of the slugs he will sell at prices ranging from fifty cents to $5 per ounce, for several of the small pearls he will likely ask from $2 to $20 each, and one or two of the largest he may value at $50 or more. At very rare intervals, a choice pearl will be found, for which he may expect anywhere from $200 to $5000.

While the highest prices are not received by the fishermen, there are many who have been so fortunate as to obtain $1000 or more for a single pearl, and several have received double that amount. Probably the highest figure obtained by the original finder was $3800, notwithstanding exaggerated stories of enormous five-figure prices. Recently the press credited a lad sixteen years of age with securing $20,000 for a pearl he had found.

A particularly striking yarn relative to a so-called “Queen Mary” pearl went the rounds of the press some time ago. According to the newspaper report, this pearl was found by the wife of a fisherman who was a cripple or something equally pathetic, and, fortunately, when the family resources were at the lowest. With tears of joy, the fisherman embraced his wife and told her it was her very own and she should wear it. However, by means of a check for $17,500, he was induced to part with it, but only on condition that it be named Queen Mary in honor of the hard-working wife. The report continues that the original buyer sold it for $25,000, and at last accounts it was held by a Chicago dealer who had “refused $40,000 and probably would not accept $50,000 for it.” The facts seem to be that this pearl, which was found near Prairie du Chien in 1901 and weighed 103 grains, was originally sold for $250, and the local buyer sold it in Chicago for $550, where for many months it was offered at $1000.

All sorts of stories of valuable finds are told in the pearling regions: stories of mortgages that have been released, of homes bought, of college educations secured from the proceeds of a single gem; but these tales are offset by the untold stories of the undermining of fine, strong character in awaiting the turn of fortune which never comes. The public is quickly apprised of the valuable finds, but it does not hear of the time and labor lost by the hundreds who are unsuccessful. Pearling excitement has many of the features of a mining craze. While a few are benefited, hundreds are made poorer, and in many instances 277reduced to absolute want. Persons have given up their established business to devote their time to pearling, staking all on the aleatory profits, and have squandered days and months in the hope that one great, immense, all-rewarding find will be made. The monotony of continued disappointment is occasionally brightened by the news that some one—possibly a near neighbor—has made a lucky find, and then the work is continued with renewed enthusiasm. A spirit akin to that which dominates the gambler takes possession of the fisherman, and the days go on and the seasons go by while the gem that is to bring the fortune still eludes him. In many localities the pursuit yields far less profit than pleasure, and many a man who spends a summer in pearling is in a fair way to spend the winter at the expense of some one else.

The pearls are collected for the trade by a score or more of buyers, who visit the fisheries at intervals and purchase of the individual fishermen by personal dickering and bargaining. The buyers endeavor to keep informed of all choice pearls discovered, and when an especially valuable find is reported each one endeavors to have the first chance to secure it. The principal local centers of the pearling industry and marketing are Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; McGregor, Clinton, and Muscatine, Iowa; Newport, Black Rock, and Bald Knob, Arkansas; Clinton, Carthage, and Smithville, Tennessee; St. Francisville, Illinois; and Vincennes and Leavenworth, Indiana.

However, a large number of the pearls from American rivers are consigned by the finders to well-known gem dealers, the owners depending for fair treatment on the integrity and high standing of these experts. An interesting story is told of the pearl and the accompanying shell in which it was found, which was sent to a New York dealer by a poor woman. The price she received pleased her immensely; and in writing her appreciation, she added that she was especially gratified at receiving so good a price because it enabled her to send her boy to school. The dealer sent another check as a gift, and a few days before the next Thanksgiving Day a thirty-five-pound turkey was received by the four-score-year-old jeweler as an evidence of the mother’s gratitude.


Paris Exposition, 1900

278The outbreak of pearl hunting in various parts of the country is frequently chronicled by the newspapers. These despatches are much alike, usually telling how some fisherman discovered a beautiful pearl which he sold to some responsible jeweler for an amount varying from $100 to $2000. The despatches generally state further that the effect of the find has been remarkable; the whole region is seized with the fever, and into the rivers and creeks swarm the hunters of both sexes, of all ages, and from all classes of the community. Factory-men leave their mills, farmers their crops, and merchants their stores, and with the members of their families join in searching for the gems. The mussels are secured by whatever means is most convenient. If valuable finds continue, thousands and thousands of mollusks are destroyed in the search, and when the efforts begin to prove futile the excitement subsides almost as quickly as it began. In very many localities the industry has run the whole gamut of the feverish excitement of its beginning, the humor and romance of its existence, and the pathos of its ending.

If disturbed labor conditions at the height of the excitement were the only disagreeable attendant, these pearling furors could be viewed more favorably. But, unfortunately, in many localities, especially in shoal waters of restricted area, the fishery has been prosecuted so vigorously that it appears probable the resources will be very materially impoverished if not ruined in a few years, unless prompt and decisive protective measures are adopted. In some waters the crowds engaged in the search have removed practically every mussel without regard not only to protecting the immature mussels, but even to the necessity for preserving breeding mollusks. Many ponds and small river basins have been so denuded that not for many years, if ever, can they recover their former wealth of pearl-bearers.

This state of affairs has not come about without opposition on the part of those interested in the industry and the general welfare of the localities. Intelligent and well-directed efforts have been made to provide a system of regulations for protecting the mussels so that the maximum yield of pearls may be secured. But this is a very difficult problem to deal with. It involves not only the methods of fishery, but the question of sewage disposal by the cities and the large factories, through which great quantities of mussels have been destroyed.

Undoubtedly it will be difficult to devise regulations that will be satisfactory alike to the fishermen, the button manufacturers and the farmers. The great desideratum in the pearl fisheries—of the seas as well as in the fresh-water streams—is a restriction of the gathering to such mollusks and to such seasons and periods of years as produce the largest results with the least injury to the permanency of the resources.

It is generally agreed that the young or immature mollusks should be protected; but it is not easy to determine what is an immature Unio, as some species never grow large. Likewise, the beds should not be disturbed when the mollusks are loaded with young, but it is difficult to select particular months which would be better for close season than any others. The propositions which seem to be most actively advocated impose restrictions on the number and size of the mussels to be 279taken, a cessation of fishing from January 1 to May 31, closing certain areas when partly depleted, and prohibiting the use of especially injurious forms of apparatus. But whatever is done should be done without delay, before the pearl hunters and the button manufacturers kill the goose which for some years has been laying the golden eggs.[323]


The deep’s wealth, coral, and pearl, and sand
Like spangling gold, and purple shells engraven
With mystic legends by no mortal hand.
Shelley, The Revolt of Islam.

The beautiful pearls of the conch (Strombus gigas) are sought for in the West Indies and on the neighboring continental coasts. They are found most abundantly about the Bahamas, a group of more than four hundred islands off the Florida coast, where many of the fishermen devote a considerable portion of their time to collecting them. It is from this industry that the beach-combers of this group of islands, as well as those of the Florida reefs, have received the designation “Conchs.”

Near the shores, where they formerly abounded, a few conchs are yet picked up by wading fishermen. In waters of medium depth they are secured either by diving or by means of a long pole with a hook at the end. In great depths, the mollusks are located by means of a waterglass similar to the type employed in the Red Sea or among the South Sea Islands.

The animal is readily removed from the shell after crushing the tip end of the spire where the large muscle is attached. The flesh forms an important article of food to the fishermen and to the residents of the outlying islands. It is said that a “Conch” can make a visit to Nassau of a week or ten days, and subsist almost entirely on this dried meat, with which he fills his pockets on starting. A large demand exists for the beautiful shells for ornamenting flower-beds, garden-walks, etc. Many of them are burned into lime for building purposes. Formerly several hundred thousand shells were exported annually to England for use in porcelain manufacture.

The pearls are generally found embedded in the flesh of the mollusk; quite often they are in a sac or cyst with an external opening, from which they are sometimes dislodged by the muscular movement of the 280animal. The yield is small, a thousand shells in many cases yielding only a very small number of seed-pearls or perhaps none at all. Most of them are oval, commonly somewhat elongated. The usual size is about one grain in weight, but some of them weigh over twenty, and a very few exceed fifty grains each. These pearls are generally of a deep pink color, shading toward whitish pink at each end. While this is the usual color, yellow, white, red, and even brown conch pearls are occasionally obtained; these are not so highly prized as the pink ones. Conch pearls present a peculiar wavy appearance and a sheen somewhat like watered silk, a result of the reflections produced by the fibrous stellated structure. While many are beautifully lustrous, they are commonly deficient in orient, and the color is somewhat evanescent.

Most of the Bahama conch fishermen sell their catch of pearls at Nassau. According to the late Mr. Frederick E. Stearns, there are in Nassau four dealers who have an arrangement with Paris and London houses, to whom they can ship pearls in any number and draw against them with a bill of lading. In addition to these, there are a dozen dealers in Nassau who buy what pearls they can secure and offer them for sale.

The value of conch pearls is as variable as their form, color, and size, and they are sold by the fishermen at prices ranging from twenty-five cents to one dollar or more each. Those weighing from three to ten grains, and of good color and luster, but not quite regular in form, sell for about $10 per grain; those of exceptional perfection in color and form, and of about the same weights, sell for from $15 to $30 per grain. In other and exceptional cases, where the size is very large, the form perfect, and the color and luster choice, the value is enhanced to several hundred and even several thousand dollars each. A perfect conch pearl is among the most rare and most valuable of gems. An unusually choice one has sold in New York City for more than $5000. The yield fluctuates considerably, but perhaps averages about $85,000 in value annually. One of the finest conch pearls ever found is shown on the plate with the conch shell.

There are two important materials that have occasionally been sold and mistaken for the conch pearl. First, the pale Italian, Japanese, or West Indian coral, with a color very closely approaching that of the pearl. By means of a lens it can readily be seen that the coral is in layers, and does not possess the concentric structure of the pearl, or the peculiar interwoven structure, with its characteristic sheen, so frequent in conch pearls. Secondly, the pink conch shell in which the pearl itself is found; this is frequently cut to imitate the pearl and sold as such in the West Indies and elsewhere. This can also be detected by the fact that the layers are almost horizontal and the structure 281is not concentric or interwoven, as it is in the conch pearl, while the luster is more like that of the shell than that of the pearly nacre.

Streeter relates that many years ago an ingenious American turned out some bits of conch shell into the shape of pearls and placed them in the conch shells. A slight secretion formed over them, but it was not the true pearly secretion, and the layer was very thin, so that the deception was easily detected.

Not the least interesting of the American pearl fisheries is that which has the abalones (Haliotis) for its object. These occur in many inshore tropical and semi-tropical waters, and particularly in the marginal waters of the Pacific. They attach themselves to the rocks by means of their large muscular disk-shaped foot, which acts like a sucker or an exhaust-cup.

On the California coast the abalones are gathered in large quantities for the pearls, for the shells, and especially for the flesh, which is dried and used for food. The principal fishing grounds are at Point Lobos in Monterey County, and along the shores of Catalina and Santa Rosa islands in Santa Barbara County, with smaller quantities from Halfmoon Bay and from the rocks along the shores of Mendocino County. At low tide the fishermen wade out in shallow water, and, by means of a knife, separate the mollusk from its resting-place. Unless this is done quickly and before the mollusk has time to prepare itself for the attack, it closes down on the rock by means of its sucker-like foot, from which it cannot be removed without breaking the shell. A story is told at Santa Barbara of a Chinese fisherman having been drowned off one of the outer islands by having his hand caught underneath the shell of an abalone.

A few years ago, Japanese fishermen introduced the use of diving-suits in taking these mollusks in three fathoms of water; but in March, 1907, the California legislature interdicted this form of fishery. That legislature also interdicted the capture of black abalones measuring “less than twelve inches around the outer edge of the shell, or any other abalone, the shell of which shall measure less than fifteen inches around the outer edge.”

The animal is removed from the shell by thrusting a thin blade of soft steel between the flesh and the shell, and thus loosening the great muscle. The flesh is salted and boiled, and then strung on long rods to dry in the open air. When properly cured, the pieces are almost as hard and stiff as sole leather. Most of it is packed in sacks and exported to China, but large quantities are sold on the Pacific coast at from five to ten cents per pound. The catch is much less than it was forty years ago.


From the coast of California

282Many pearly masses are obtained from the abalones, and a few of these are of considerable beauty. Some are very large, measuring two inches in length and half an inch or more in width; but they are rarely of good form, and their value is commonly far less than that of choice Oriental pearls. Owing to their irregularity in form, they are scarcely suitable for necklaces. One of the best necklaces of these pearls ever brought together sold a few years ago for $2000; but individual specimens have exceeded $1000 in market value. While abalone pearls are not on the market in any great quantities, one resident of Santa Barbara has a collection of more than a thousand specimens, ranging in value from several hundred dollars to less than one dollar each. Most of the objects sold in curio and jewelry stores on the Pacific coast as abalone pearls are simply irregular knots or protuberances cut from the surface of the shell. The California fishermen are credited with having received $3000 for the abalone pearls in 1904; but it is safe to say that this represents only a small fraction of their final sale value.

In the river mussels of Canada, and especially in those from the Province of Quebec, and the Ungava Region, pearls are occasionally found. These are usually white and of good luster. They are not the object of systematic search, but in the aggregate many are secured by Indians and Eskimos, and some by the trappers and fishermen who operate from Quebec and Montreal. A number, weighing from one to sixty-five grains each, were shown at the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886, and received favorable notice. Recently, two beautifully matched pink pearls, weighing about fourteen grains each, were obtained from one mussel. A single pearl found in Canada has sold for $1000, but as a general rule they are of relatively little value. The Hudson Bay traders are represented as having secured a fair share of these pearls.

During the last few years, many pearls have been found in the streams of Prince Edward Island and of New Brunswick Province, and also in those of Nova Scotia. Most of them are well formed, but their color is generally inferior and their luster deficient. Many of them are buff or brown in color, some are bright and fairly good, a few are rose-tinted, and others are slate-colored and even almost black. Toronto jewelers report that many Canadian pearls are in the possession of farmers and others in the lower provinces, held by them for higher prices than the jewelers are willing to pay. The Nova Scotia pearls are from a bivalve which has been identified as Alasmodon margaritifera. They are especially abundant in Annapolis and King counties.

Even in the streams of northern Labrador and of the Caniapuscaw watershed, pearls are obtained by the natives, and by the hunters and fishermen who resort to that desolate country. These closely resemble 283the pearls of Scotland in color, size, and luster. A story is told of a fisherman who by chance found in one shell two well-matched pearls, which he later sold for $150; so pleased was he with his success that he spent a fortnight in diligent search, but secured only half a dozen small ones, worth perhaps $3 for the lot. Most of these pearls are silvery white, but beautiful pink ones are not rare. An unusually choice 20–grain pearl from this region sold in 1905 for $1000.

On the coast of Ecuador, pearl fisheries of minor importance have been prosecuted from time to time. Dr. H. M. Saville, of the American Museum of Natural History, states that in his explorations in that country he frequently came across evidence of pearls and the information that fisheries had existed on the coast centuries ago.

An interesting letter from that world-wide traveler and interesting writer, William E. Curtis, states that formerly there was a pearl fishery on the coast of Ecuador at the little town known as Manta, in the Province of Manabi; but it had to be abandoned on account of a particularly voracious species of fish called el manti, which abounds in that locality and gives the place its name. Pearls are said to be even more abundant at Manta than in Panama Bay. It is reported that this is the place where the Incas obtained those splendid gems which the Spaniards found in the palaces and temples of Peru.

In the waters of Costa Rica, pearl-oysters are found, and at times the fishery has been of considerable local importance. Owing to fear of injury to the reefs, the use of diving machinery was interdicted there a few years ago; but in 1906 its employment was authorized under certain restrictions. Licenses good for six months were authorized for a maximum of thirty machines, which may work at a minimum depth of thirty-seven feet.

On the coast of Colombia, South America, scattered reefs of pearl-oysters occur. A lease of the pearl fisheries and those for corals and sponges was granted July 2, 1906, but it is unknown what results have followed. This lease lasts five years, beginning August 1, 1906.

There is almost an absolute paucity of information in regard to the occurrence of fresh-water pearls in other parts of South America. The only data we have obtained are from Prof. Eugene Hussak of the Mining School of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who writes us that some pearls have been obtained from one of the Bahia rivers. Possibly, when the resources of the interior of that continent are better known, many pearls may be found.



Some asked how pearls did grow, and where.
Then spoke I to my girl,
To part her lips, and show them there
The quarelets of pearl.
Herrick, The Quarrie of Pearls.

The great profit that would accrue from an increased output of pearls has long directed attention to the problem of bringing this about by artificial means.

In his life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus, a Greek writer of the third century, repeats a story afloat at the time, which credited the Arabs of the Red Sea with possessing some method of growing pearls artificially. The story as it reached Greece was that they first poured oil upon the sea for the purpose of calming the waves, and then dived down and caused the oysters to open their shells. Having effected this, they pricked the flesh with a sharp instrument and received the liquor which flowed from the wounds into suitable molds, and this liquor there hardened into the shape, color, and consistence of the natural gems.[324]

While the description given by Philostratus is charged with many improbable details, and could scarcely develop belief, even in the most credulous, as to the exact method of procedure, it seems that the story may not have been wholly without foundation, and that attempts were made at that remote date to stimulate the growth of pearls.

In more modern times, the possibility of aiding or starting pearly formations in mollusks seems first to have been conceived by the Chinese about the fourteenth century. In 1736 there appeared in that storehouse of Oriental information, “Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères,”[325] a communication from F. X. de Entrecolles, dated Pekin, 4th November, 1734, which set forth that there were people in China who busied themselves with growing pearls, 286and the product was not only vastly superior to the imitations manufactured in Europe, but were scarcely to be distinguished from the genuine. From Father Entrecolles’s very detailed quotation of his unnamed Chinese authority, we condense this account. In a basin one half full of fresh water, place the largest mussels obtainable, set this basin in a secluded place where the dew may fall thereon, but where no female approaches, and neither the barking of dogs nor the crowing of chickens is to be heard. Pulverize some seed-pearls (Yo tchu), such as are commonly used in medicine, moisten this powder with juice expressed from leaves of a species of holly (Che ta-kong lao), and then roll the moistened powder into perfectly round pellets the size of a pea. These are permitted to dry under a moderate sunlight, and then are carefully inserted within the open shells of the mollusks. Each day for one hundred days the mussels are nourished with equal parts of powdered ginseng, china root, peki, which is a root more glutinous than isinglass, and of pecho, another medicinal root, all combined with honey and molded in the form of rice grains.

Although extremely detailed in some particulars, the Chinese account omits much to be desired as to the method in which the shells were opened to receive the pellets and the nourishment, and as to the importance of seclusion from females and loud noises. Admitting that it is “inaccurate and misleading,” this letter seems to indicate very clearly that the Chinese had some method of assisting nature in growing pearls in river mussels.

The first person in Europe whose suggestion of the possibility of pearl-culture attracted general attention was Linnæus, the Swedish naturalist (1707–1778). In a letter to Von Haller, the Swiss anatomist, dated 13th September, 1748, he wrote: “At length I have ascertained the manner in which pearls originate and grow in shells; and in the course of five or six years I am able to produce, in any mother-of-pearl shell the size of one’s hand, a pearl as large as the seed of the common vetch.”[326] There was much secrecy about Linnæus’s discovery, and even yet there is uncertainty as to the details of the method.

Shell of Dipsas plicatus, with attached metal figures of Buddha coated with nacre

Shell of Dipsas plicatus, with attached porcelain beads coated with nacre

287The Linnean Society of London apparently possesses some of the very pearls grown by Linnæus, as well as several manuscripts which throw much light on this subject. It appears from the latter that, under date of 6th February, 1761, Linnæus wrote that he “possessed the art” of impregnating mussels for pearl production, and offered for a suitable reward from the state to publish the “secret” for the public use and benefit. A select committee of the state council of Sweden was appointed to confer with him, and on 27th July, 1761, the naturalist appeared and verbally explained his discovery. After various meetings, the select committee approved the “art” and recommended a compensation of 12,000 dalars (about $4800). It does not appear that the award was paid, and the following year the secret was purchased by Peter Bagge, a Gothenberg merchant, for the sum of 6000 dalars. On 7th September, 1762, King Adolph Frederick issued a grant to this merchant “to practice the art without interference or competition.”[327]

Peter Bagge was unable to exercise the rights which he had acquired, nor was he able to dispose of them to advantage. On his death the memorandum of the secret became lost, and it was not found until about 1821, when it was discovered by a grandson, J. P. Bagge. Under the date of 27th February, 1822, the King of Sweden confirmed to this grandson the privileges which his ancestor had purchased in 1762. Fruitless efforts were again made to dispose profitably of the rights either to individuals or to the Swedish government.

The details of Linnæus’s “secret” have never been published authoritatively. In his “History of Inventions,” Beckmann states that before the naturalist thought of the profits that might accrue from his discovery, he intimated the process in the sixth edition of his “Systema naturæ,” wherein he states: “Margarita testæ excrescentia latere interiore, dum exterius latus perforatur.”[328] “I once told him,” says Beckmann, “that I had discovered his secret in his own writings; he seemed to be displeased, made no inquiry as to the passage, and changed the discourse.”[329]

In the second volume of his edition of “Linnæus’s Correspondence,”[330] Sir J. E. Smith remarks: “Specimens of pearls so produced by art in the Mya margaritifera are in the Linnean cabinet. The shell appears to have been pierced by flexible wires, the ends of which perhaps remain therein.” Referring to this remark, J. P. Bagge comments: “This is the nearest I have seen any one come to truth, but still it will be remarked by reading the ‘secret’ that more information is required to enable persons to practice the art.”

After a thorough examination of the manuscripts and other material, Professor Herdman concludes that the essential points of Linnæus’s process are to make a very small hole in the shell and insert a round pellet of limestone fixed at the end of a fine silver wire, the hole being near the end of the shell so as to interfere only slightly with the mollusk, and the nucleus being kept free from the interior of the 288shell so that the resulting pearl may not become adherent to it by a deposit of nacre.[331]

Shortly after Linnæus communicated with the Swedish government and before his death, it was learned in Europe that the art of producing “culture pearls” by a somewhat similar process had been practised by the Chinese for centuries.[332] They used several forms of matrices or nuclei, but principally spheres of nacre and bits of flat metal or molded lead, which were not infrequently in conventional outline of Buddha. In the spring or early summer, these were introduced under the mantle of the living mollusk after the shell had been carefully opened a fraction of an inch, and the animal was then returned to the pond, or lake. The mollusk did its work in a leisurely way, like some people who have little to do, and many months elapsed before it was ready for opening and the removal of the pearly objects.

The most satisfactory description we have seen of this process appears to be that communicated nearly a century later to the London Society of Arts by Dr. D. T. Macgowan,[333] through H. B. M. plenipotentiary in China, from which this account is abridged and modified.

The industry is prosecuted in two villages near the city of Titsin, in the northern part of the province of Che-kiang, a silk-producing region. In May or June large specimens of the fresh-water mussels, Dipsas plicatus, are brought in baskets from Lake Tai-hu, about thirty miles distant. For recuperation from the journey, they are immersed in fresh water for a few days in bamboo cages, and are then ready to receive the matrices.

These nuclei are of various forms and materials, the most common being spherical beads of nacre, pellets of mud moistened with juice of camphor seeds, and especially thin leaden images, generally of Buddha in the usual sitting posture. In introducing these objects, the shell is gently opened with a spatula of bamboo or of pearl shell, and the mantle of the mollusk is carefully separated from one surface of the shell with a metal probe. The foreign bodies are then successively introduced at the point of a bifurcated bamboo stick, and placed, commonly in two parallel rows, upon the inner surface of the shell; a sufficient number having been placed on one valve, the operation is repeated on the other. As soon as released, the animal closes its shell, thus keeping the matrices in place. The mussels are then deposited one by one in canals or streams, or in ponds connected therewith, five or six inches apart, and where the depth is from two to five feet under water.

289If taken up within a few days and examined, the nuclei will be found attached to the shell by a membranous secretion; later this appears to be impregnated with calcareous matter, and finally layers of nacre are deposited around each nucleus, the process being analagous to the formation of calculary concretions in animals of higher development. A ridge generally extends from one pearly tumor to another, connecting them all together. Each month several tubs of night soil are thrown into the reservoir for the nourishment of the animals. Great care is taken to keep goat excretia from the water, as it is highly detrimental to the mussels, preventing the secretion of good nacre or even killing them if the quantity be sufficient. Persons inexperienced in the management lose ten or fifteen per cent. by deaths; others lose virtually none in a whole season.

In November, the mussels are removed from the water and opened, and the pearly masses are detached by means of a knife. If the matrix be of nacre, this is not removed; but the earthen and the metallic matrices are cut away, melted resin or white sealing-wax poured into the cavity, and the orifice covered with a piece of shell. These pearly formations have some of the luster and beauty of true pearls, and are furnished at a rate so cheap as to be procurable by almost any one. Most of them are purchased by jewelers, who set them in various personal ornaments, and especially in decorations for the hair. Those formed in the image of Buddha are used largely for amulets as well as for ornaments. They are about half an inch long, and while in the shell have a bluish tint, which disappears with removal of the matrix. Quantities of them are sold as talismans to pilgrims at the Buddhist shrines about Pooto and Hang-chau.

In some shells the culture pearls are permitted to remain by the Chinese growers, for sale as curios or souvenirs; specimens of these have found their way into many public and private collections of Europe and America. These shells are generally about seven inches long and four or five inches broad, and contain a double or triple row of pearls or images, as many as twenty-five of the former and sixteen of the latter to each valve. That the animal should survive the introduction of so many irritating bodies, and in such a brief period secrete a covering of nacre over them all, is certainly a striking physiological fact. Indeed, some naturalists have expressed strong doubts as to its possibility, supposing the forms were made to adhere to the shell by some composition; but the examination of living specimens in different stages of growth, with both valves studded with them, has fully demonstrated its truth.

It is represented that in the northern part of the Che-kiang province about five thousand families are employed in this work in connection 290with rice-growing and silk-culture. To some of them it is the chief source of income, single families realizing as much as 300 silver dollars annually therefrom. In the village of Chung-kwan-o, the headquarters for culture pearls in China, a temple has been erected to the memory of the originator of this industry, Yu Shun Yang, who lived late in the thirteenth century, and was an ancestor of many persons now employed thereby.

The method in vogue in China for so many centuries has been the starting-point for similar attempts in various other countries. During the New Jersey pearling excitement in 1857, there were found several spherical pieces of nacre which had been introduced into Unios apparently for experimental pearl-culture; and in the collection of shells bequeathed to the United States National Museum by the late Dr. Isaac Lea, is a hemispherical piece of candle grease partly coated with pinkish nacre. Kelaart applied the Chinese method to the Ceylon pearl-oysters with much success in 1858. At the Berlin Fisheries Exhibition, in 1880, appeared the results of experiments in growing culture pearls in the river mussels in Saxony. Small foreign bodies had been introduced in the mantle, and others had been inserted between the mantle and the shell. These nuclei consisted of shell beads, unsightly pearls from other mussels, etc.; but unfortunately the shape of these was such that the mantle could not fit closely around them, consequently the result was so irregular as to be of no value except to show that German Unios as well as those of China could be made to cover foreign objects with pearly material.

Professor Herdman notes that, between 1751 and 1754, an inspector named Frederick Hedenberg received an annual salary “to inoculate the pearl-mussels of Lulea (in the northern part of Sweden) with ‘pearl-seeds’ which he manufactured, and then to replant the mussels. Certain pearls were produced by the inspector, which it is recorded were sold for some 300 silver dollars.”[334]

As noted by Broussonnet, in Finland artificial pearls were produced by inserting a round piece of nacre between the inner face of the shell and the mantle. The owner of the pearl fisheries at Vilshofen has succeeded in producing pearly figures by introducing into the mollusk flat figures of pewter, most of them representing fish in form.

In 1884, Bouchon-Brandely made experiments in pearl production at Tahiti. Gimlet holes about half an inch in diameter were drilled through different places in the shells of pearl-oysters, and through each of these holes a pellet of nacre or of glass was inserted and held by brass wire passing through a stopper of cork or burao wood, by means of which each opening was hermetically closed, so that the pellet was the only foreign substance protruding on the inside of the shell.[335] The oysters were returned to the sea without further injury, and after the lapse of a month the pellets were found covered with thin layers of nacre.

Artificial rearing-ponds for the development of pearl-oysters on the Island of Espiritū Santo, Gulf of California

Trays containing small pearl-oysters prepared for placing at the bottom of artificial rearing-ponds at Espiritū Santo Island, Gulf of California

291Experiments in growing pearls in the abalone or Haliotis were made in 1897 by Louis Bouton, an account of which was given at the meeting of the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1898.[336] The tenacity of life in this mollusk makes it especially desirable for experiments of this nature. Through small holes bored into the shell, pellets of mother-of-pearl were inserted and placed within the mantle, the small holes being afterward closed up. Other nacreous pellets were introduced directly into the bronchial cavity. The objects were soon covered with thin, pearly layers, resulting in a few months in spheres of much beauty, resembling somewhat the pearls naturally produced by this mollusk. In six months, according to M. Bouton, the layers became of sufficient thickness to be attractive. Within limitations, the size of the pearl produced is in proportion to the length of time it is allowed to remain within the mollusk. The results of the experiments seem to encourage further efforts in this line, and possibly in course of time there may be a profitable business in growing pearls in abalones on the Pacific coast of the United States. Indeed, the experiments in transplanting and cultivating the pearl-oyster in Australia leads one to fancy that the culture of that species in the warm coastal waters of America is by no means an impossibility.

Many other experiments along similar lines have been made more recently. An interesting feature of attempts made by Mr. Vane Simmonds of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1896–1898, is that in order to avoid straining the adductor muscles by forcibly opening the shell while the mollusk resisted the intrusion, each selected Unio was exposed in the open air and sunshine until the valves opened; then a wooden wedge was carefully inserted in the opening, and the mollusk immediately immersed in water to revive it or to sustain life. After a few moments of immersion, the operator carefully raised the mantle from the shell, inserted the pellet of wax or other small article to be covered with nacre, drew the mantle to its normal position, removed the wedge, and returned the mollusk to a selected place in the stream at sufficient depth to avoid danger of freezing in winter.

Probably it would be more satisfactory to stupefy the mollusks by means of some chemical in order to insert the pellets. Marine mollusks have been successfully stupefied by slowly adding magnesium sulphate crystals to the sea water until the animals no longer respond 292to contact. If treatment is not too prolonged, they may be returned to normal sea water with good prospects of recovery. To stupefy fresh-water mollusks, either chloral hydrate or chlorosone may be employed, although the latter is expensive to use in great quantity. Dr. Charles B. Davenport, of the Carnegie Institution, suggests that it might be well to experiment with pouring ether or chloroform over them.

In Japan the production of these pearly formations in Margaritifera martensi, which is closely related to the Ceylon oyster, has developed into some prominence since 1890, and the results have been well advertised. The industry is located in Ago Bay, near the celebrated temple of Ise in the province of Shima, and gives employment to about one hundred persons. It is stated that the proprietor, Kokichi Mikimoto, has leased about one thousand acres of sea bottom, on which are a million oysters of this species, which yield from 30,000 to 50,000 culture pearls annually.

As described by Dr. K. Mitsukuri, the shoal portions of this area are used for breeding the oysters and raising them to maturity, and in the deeper parts—covered by several fathoms of water—the oysters are specially treated for producing the culture pearls. In the former, the spat is collected on small stones, weighing six or eight pounds each, placed during May or June. The following November these stones, with the attached spat or young, are removed, for protection from cold, to depths greater than five or six feet, where they remain for about three years. At the end of that period, the growing oysters are taken from the water, the shells opened slightly, and rounded bits of pearl shell or nacre are introduced under the mantle without injury to the mollusks. About 300,000 are thus treated annually, and placed in the deeper water at the rate of about one to each square foot of bottom area. After the lapse of about four years more, the oysters are removed from the water and opened, when a large percentage of the pellets are found covered on the upper or exposed surface with nacre of good luster.

Most of these culture pearls are button-shaped and weigh two or three grains each. Although somewhat attractive and superior to the culture pearls of China and other fresh waters, they by no means compare favorably with choice pearls. They are rarely, if ever, spherical, and only the upper surface is lustrous; consequently they serve only the purpose of half-pearls. A cross section shows the nacreous growth in a thin concentric layer, forming a fragile hemispherical cap, the concave wall of which is covered with a brownish granular secretion which prevents perfect adhesion. Compared with choice pearls, they are not only deficient in luster, but are fragile, and are beautiful only on the upper surface, and not available for necklaces. 293Good specimens sell for several dollars each, and some individuals reach $50 or more. Specimens exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900 were awarded a silver medal; at the St. Petersburg Exhibition in 1902 they were awarded a gold medal; at the Tokio Exhibition a grand prize, and a medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. The awards were given in the fisheries, and not the gem divisions.

The work of Mikimoto is not the only attempt now being made in Japan to produce pearls. A letter from Dr. T. Nishikawa, of the Tokio Imperial University, states: “It is a great pleasure for me to tell you that I am studying pearl formation and pearl-oyster culture in the university laboratory, and recently I have got my pearl laboratory at Fukura, on the Island of Awaji, where I began the pearl-culture work this summer (1907). Fortunately, I found the cause of Japanese pearl formation, i.e., the reason why and how the pearl is produced in the tissue of an oyster. I made practical application of this theory with great prospects for producing the natural and true pearls at will.”

Among the most interesting of the pearl-culture enterprises are those of the Compañia Criadora de Concha y Perla, under the direction of Sr. Gaston J. Vives, in the Gulf of California. This company has an extensive station at San Gabriel, near La Paz, where breeding oysters are placed in prepared chests or cages for collecting the spat on trays. After remaining there for several weeks or months, the young mollusks are removed to prepared places (viveros) for further growth. Experiments are now made in depositing them between a series of parallel dams alternately touching each shore of a lagoon, thus developing a current of water over the oysters for conveying food to them, and thus hastening their growth.

In efforts to increase the output of pearls, attention has been given to the possibilities for extending the area and production of the reefs, and for stocking new areas and replenishing exhausted ones, thus bringing the pearl-bearing mollusks to maturity in greater abundance.

Although theoretically it does not seem a very difficult undertaking to cultivate the pearl-oysters by methods somewhat similar to the cultivation of edible oysters and clams, in no part of the world has this been successfully done on an extensive scale. While in certain minor cases, the areas of some species of pearl mollusks have been extended indirectly through man’s agency—as the range of the Red Sea pearl-oyster into the Mediterranean since the Suez Canal was opened—there is no well-known instance in which new areas have been abundantly populated through direct efforts.

In the chapter on the pearl fisheries of Asia are noted the hitherto 294unsuccessful efforts made in Ceylon and India to preserve the young and immature oysters on the storm-swept reefs by removing them to less exposed areas. This has received close attention from the Ceylon authorities during the last two years. Other practical measures which are recommended for that region include “cultching,” or the deposit of suitable solid material, such as shells or broken stone, to which the young oysters can attach themselves; thinning out overcrowded reefs, and cleaning the beds by means of a dredge, thereby removing starfish and other injurious animals. The attempts made by individuals and associations to extend the range of the reefs on the coast of Australia, among the Tuamotu Islands, in the Gulf of California, and some other localities, are noted in the appropriate chapters. But it may be stated that in most instances lack of adequate police protection has been not the least of the difficulties with which these experiments have had to contend.

Nor has much greater success followed upon efforts to prevent the exhaustion of the reefs and productive grounds through overfishing, except in those instances in which the government exercises a proprietory interest and determines the season, the area to be fished, and the quantity of mollusks to be removed. The most prominent instance of this is in Ceylon, where the fishery has been restricted to such seasons and periods as appeared to insure the maximum yield of pearls. Without restriction upon the fishery, the pearl-oyster in that populous region would doubtless become almost extinct in a few years. Another instance of proprietory interest on the part of the government is in some of the German States, where pearl fishing has been regulated and restricted for centuries. But there the sewage from cities and factories has accomplished almost as effectively, if less rapidly, what unrestricted fishing would have done.

Much attention has been given to the subject of pearl-culture in Bavaria, where the government has granted a small subsidy to encourage this industry, and a model pearl-mussel bank has been established in one of the brooks for the rational culture of the mussels.

On the Australian coast, the only theoretical protection of consequence is the restriction on taking small or immature oysters; but, owing to the great area over which the fisheries are prosecuted there, it has not been possible to enforce the regulations. At some of the Pacific islands and elsewhere, interdictions exist as to use of certain apparatus of capture, but this is intended for the purpose of reserving the industry to dependent natives rather than for protecting the reefs. Several efforts have been made to insure adequate protection for the Unios in our American rivers, but nothing in this direction has yet been accomplished by legislative enactment, except in Illinois.

295Reference has already been made to the parasitic stage of Unios.[337] The attachment of the newly-hatched mollusks to the gills or fins of a fish is entirely a matter of chance, and unless this takes place they die within a few days. Under natural conditions the fish thus infected will rarely be found carrying as many of the parasitic Unios as they can without serious injury. If the fish are placed in a tank or a pond containing large numbers of newly-hatched Unios, it is possible to bring about the attachment of hundreds of them for every one that would be found there by chance of nature. A fish six inches in length may thus be made to carry several hundred parasitic Unios, and thus a thousand fish artificially infected may do the work of several hundred thousand in a state of nature. Experiments with small numbers of fish under observation in the laboratory indicate that their infection on a large scale is entirely possible, and the experiment by Messrs. Lefevre and Curtis now in progress at La Crosse, Wisconsin, in which over 25,000 young fish have been infected, gives every indication that such work may be begun even with the scanty knowledge now possessed.

Since it has already been shown that the production of pearls is an abnormal condition, it does not follow that an increase in the quantity of mollusks would necessarily result in a corresponding increase in the yield of pearls. Indeed, it might even be that the artificial conditions bringing about an enhanced prosperity and abundance of the mollusks would result in a corresponding decrease in the product of gems, the improved surroundings impairing if not destroying the conditions to which the pearls owe their origin. This has resulted in directing efforts toward abnormally increasing the abundance of pearls in a definite number of mollusks.

The development of the parasitic theory of pearl formation has naturally invited attention to the possibilities of increasing the yield of pearls by inoculating healthy mollusks with distomid parasites. It does not appear that this has yet advanced beyond the experimental stage, and virtually all that has been accomplished has been set forth in the chapter on the origin of pearls. It seems that there are great possibilities in the artificial production along these lines; and that under skilful management it could be made a profitable industry, especially if carried on concurrently with the systematic cultivation of mother-of-pearl shells.

Although there is scientific basis for the belief that it may be possible in time to bring about pearl growth in this manner, the public should not be too hasty in financing companies soliciting capital for establishing so-called “pearl farms.” Every once in a while announcement 296is made in the public press of wonderful success which has been attained by some investigator, who surrounds his discovery with as much mystery as enveloped the Keeley motor, and who is as anxious to sell stock as was the owner of that mythical invention. A prospectus of one of these “pearl syndicates,” which is now before us, claims to “increase and hasten pearl production by forcing the oyster, through doctoring the water in which it is immersed and also by irritating the mollusk itself.” So far as the writers are aware, aside from the inexpensive but somewhat attractive culture pearls, no commercial success has yet followed the many attempts at artificial production.

This chapter should not close without reference to the so-called “breeding pearls,” probably the most curious of all theories of pearl growth, regarding which many inquiries have been made. Throughout the Malay Archipelago there exists a generally accepted belief that if several selected pearls of good size are sealed in a box with a few grains of rice for nourishment they will increase in number as well as in size. If examined at the expiration of one year, small pearls may be found strewn about the bottom of the box, according to the theory; and in some instances the original pearls themselves will be found to have increased in size. If again inclosed for a further period of a year or more, the adherents of the theory say, the seed-pearls will further increase in size, and additional seed-pearls will form. Furthermore, the grains of rice will present the appearance of having been nibbled or as though a rodent had taken a bite in the end of each.

It is claimed that the breeding pearls are obtained from several species of mollusks, mostly from the Margaritifera, but also from the Tridacna (giant clam) and the Placuna (window shell). While cotton is the usual medium in which the pearls and rice are retained, some collectors substitute fresh water and yet others prefer salt water. It seems that rice is considered essential to success.

The earliest account we have seen of this extraordinary belief was given by Dr. Engelbert Kæmpfer,[338] who was connected with the Dutch embassy to Japan from 1690 to 1696, and since that time it has been referred to by many travelers in the Malay Archipelago.

A correspondent in the time-honored “Notes and Queries,” 20th September, 1862, writes:

Nearly five years ago, while staying with friends in Pulo Penang (Straits of Malacca), I was shown by the wife of a prominent merchant five small pearls, which had increased and multiplied in her possession. She had set them aside for about 12 months in a small wooden box, packed in soft cotton and with half a dozen grains of common rice. On opening the box at the expiration of that time, she found four additional pearls, about the size of a 297small pinhead and of much beauty, which I saw and examined not long after the lady made the discovery. While my story may be received with laughter, I can most solemnly assure you of the truth of my having seen these pearls, and I have not the slightest doubt of the perfect truthfulness of the lady who possessed them. I questioned an eminent Malay merchant of Penang on this subject, and he assured me that one of his daughters had once possessed a similar growth of pearls.[339]

Notwithstanding the apparent absurdity of this pearl-breeding theory, belief in it appears to be not only sincere but wide-spread, as can be attested by any one familiar with affairs in the archipelago. A critical examination into the matter was made in 1877 by Dr. N. B. Dennys, curator of the Raffles Museum at Singapore, the result of which was communicated to the Straits branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 28th February, 1878.[340] From his numerous quotations of persons who gave the results of their experiences we extract two instances. One gentleman had 120 small pearls in addition to the five breeding ones with which the experiment had started twenty years before, and during the entire period the box had not been molested except that it was opened occasionally for inspection by interested persons. Another experimentor inclosed three breeding pearls with a few grains of rice on 17th July, 1874; on opening the box on 14th July, 1875, nine additional pearls were discovered, and the three original ones appeared larger.

The belief has many curious variations. It is stated that in Borneo and the adjacent islands, many of the fishermen reserve every ninth pearl regardless of its size, and put the collection in a small bottle which is kept corked with a dead man’s finger. According to Professor Kimmerly, nearly every burial-place along the Borneo coast has been desecrated in searching for “corks” for these bottles, and almost every hut has its dead-finger bottle, with from ten to fifty “breeding pearls” and twice that number of rice grains.[341] A correspondent at Sandakan, North Borneo, writes that at the time of his death at Hongkong in 1901, Dr. Dennys had in his possession a small box containing “breeding pearls”; but these disappeared after his death, and his brother, the crown solicitor, was unable to find them. This correspondent also states that the Ranee of Sarawak, a British protectorate in western Borneo, has a collection of “breeding pearls” numbering about two hundred, and that this is the only large collection known at present.

298As contrasted with abundant and unquestionably sincere testimony that pearls do “breed,” it may be stated that absolutely no result has followed one or two native experiments made under supervision. While it must be admitted that negative evidence is always weaker than positive, and twenty failures would be outweighed by one successful experiment, yet the scientific objections to the possibility of pearls “breeding” cannot be overcome. The phenomenon is doubtless one of those curiosities of natural history in which some important factor has been overlooked.

Another curious theory is that peculiar pearls continue to grow after removal from the mollusk in which they originate. Quite recently it was reported from New Durham, North Carolina, that a pearl found there in 1896 had been growing continually since it was found and removed from the water. Unfortunately, it was weighed only when the last observation was made, and its increased size doubtless existed only in the imagination of its possessor.



Divers are the virtues of gems; some give favor in the sight of lords; some protect against fire; others make people beloved; others give wisdom; some render men invisible; others repel lightning; some baffle poisons; some protect and augment treasures, and others cause that husbands should love their wives.

Arabic version of Solomon’s writings.

While no special gems are mentioned in the tribute which the Arabs credit to Solomon, it seems that pearls must certainly have been included, for in nearly all countries where these gems have been prized and from the earliest period, they have been credited with mystic properties and healing virtues.

In the first chapter of this book, reference was made to the Atharvaveda, dating from at least 2400 years ago, and its allusion to the use of an amulet of pearl shell and of pearls among the Hindus in bestowing long life and prosperity upon young Brahmanical disciples. As this amulet is fastened upon the youth, the following hymn is recited, according to this ancient Veda of the Atharvans:

Born of the wind, the atmosphere, the lightning, and the light, may this pearl shell, born of gold, protect us from straits!

With the shell which was born in the sea, at the head of bright substances, we slay the Rakshas and conquer the Atrins [devouring demons].

With the shell [we conquer] disease and poverty; with the shell, too, the Sadanvas. The shell is our universal remedy; the pearl shall protect us from straits!

Born in the heavens, born in the sea, brought on from the river [Sindhu], this shell, born of gold, is our life-prolonging amulet.

The amulet, born from the sea, a sun, born from Vritra [the cloud], shall on all sides protect us from the missiles of the gods and the Asuras!

Thou art one of the golden substances, thou art born from Soma [the moon]. Thou art sightly on the chariot, thou art brilliant on the quiver.

(May it prolong our lives!) 302The bone of the gods turned into pearl; that, animated, dwells in the waters. That do I fasten upon thee unto life, luster, strength, longevity, unto a life lasting a hundred autumns. May the amulet of pearl protect thee![342]

The mystical Taoists, in their pursuit of immortality, made much of pearls as an important ingredient in formulæ for perpetuating youth. According to an old Taoist authority, in preparing one of these elixirs, an extra long pearl which has been worn for many years is steeped in some infusion of malt, or a preparation of serpents’ gall, honeycomb, and pumice-stone. When the pearl becomes plastic, it is drawn out to the length of two or three feet, cut into suitable lengths, and formed into pills, the taking of which renders food thenceforth unnecessary.[343]

The myth of the dragon and the pearl has been a far-reaching theme of the artists in Japan and China, whether in color, metal, or stone. There has been much written as to how the myth became so fixed in the minds of the Orientals, and Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, who has made an exhaustive study of the myth of the dragon in all its phases, has very courteously communicated to us the following facts. Personally he had never been able to learn of a true or clear description of the origin of the myth other than the well-recorded legend given by Legge in the “Sacred Books of the East” (Vol. XL, p. 211), in which there is a quotation from Shuangtze, a writer of the fourth century before Christ, who says: “Near the Ho river there was a poor man, who supported his family by weaving rushes. His son, when diving in a deep pool, found a pearl worth a thousand ounces of silver. The father said: ‘Bring a stone and beat it in pieces. A pearl of this value must have been in a pool nine khung deep and under the chin of the black dragon. That you were able to get it must have been owing to your having found him asleep. Let him awake, and the consequences will not be small.’” Prince Rupprecht says:

This legend has nothing to do with the illustration to which you refer; it belongs to a cycle of myths concerning a stone in the head of a serpent, or the crown of the king of the serpents or dragons; myths which also exist in Germany since the days of old. I should rather be inclined to think that the commonly accepted pearl between the two dragons is not a pearl at all. At least this pearl is always surrounded by ornaments in the shape of flames or claws, and Professor Hirth discovered on such a representation in woodcut, an explanation of the flames by the sign for Yangsui, a very ancient kind of metallic mirrors, of concave form, that were used to produce the heavenly fire.


Heber R. Bishop Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

303This explanation is probably erroneous and due to a misunderstanding of the signs for flames. In my opinion, another explanation, that the pearl is not really a pearl but a spider, is nearer to the truth. As an argument in favor of this theory the following sentence may be quoted from an encyclopedia of the eleventh century (“Pieu-tzi-lei,” chap. 223): “The pearl of a fish is its eye, the pearl of a tortoise is its foot, the pearl of the spider is its belly.” Pearl, as well as spider, are both called in Chinese by the same word but are written in a different way.

I, for my part, believe that the pearl is the belly not indeed of a spider, but of Garuda, the eagle of Vishnu, known in the old Hindu mythology as the foe of the Vagas, beings with human bodies and the tails of serpents. At least, I found on an old Chinese gateway, dating back to the times of the Mongol emperors, a sculpture showing the contest between Garuda and the Vagas. On another sculpture of the late King epoch the Vagas are already changed into dragons, and the wings, the limbs and the head of Garuda have become quite insignificant, while his belly is prominent like a ball.

A beautiful metaphor occurs in ancient Chinese writings, in the Book of the Later Han,[344] for instance, which regards this gem as the hidden soul of the oyster.

There is no end of legends and myths regarding the pearl in oriental literature. One fable credits it with a peculiar magical power: by speaking the right word, a spirit can be called therefrom which makes the owner a possessor of all the happiness of the earth. Browning notes this in two exquisite stanzas, “A Pearl, a Girl,” published on the day of his death in 1889, in which he compares this characteristic with a woman’s love called forth by the mystic word.

A simple ring with a single stone.
To the vulgar eye no stone of price;
Whisper the right word, that alone—
Forth starts a sprite, like fire from ice,
And lo, you are lord (says an Eastern scroll)
Of heaven and earth, lord whole and sole,
Through the power in a pearl.
A woman (’tis I this time that say)
With little the world counts worthy praise;
Utter the true word—out and away
Escapes her soul: I am wrapt in blaze,
Creation’s lord, of heaven and earth,
Lord whole and sole—by a minute’s birth—
Through the love in a girl.

304In the folk-song of Servia is a pretty little poem which testifies to the love they bear to pearls:

A youth unmated prays to God,
To turn him to pearls in the sea,
Where the maidens come to fill their urns;
That so they might gather him into their laps,
And string him on a fine green thread,
And wear him pendant from the neck;
That he might hear what each one said,
And whether his loved one spoke of him.
His prayer was granted and he lay
Turned to pearls in the dark blue sea,
Where the maidens come to fill their urns;
Then quickly they gather him into their laps,
And string him on a green silk thread,
And wear him pendant from the neck;
So he hears what each one says of her own
And what his loved one says of him.[345]

In the days when romance and chivalry held sway in Europe, pearls and other favors were presented by ladies for the brave knights to wear at tournaments. And we are told in the Arthurian legends how Elaine, “the lily maid of Astolat,” gave to Sir Lancelot “a red sleeve of scarlet, embroidered with great pearls,” for him to wear on his helmet: and “then to her tower she climbed and took the shield, there kept it and so lived in fantasy”; while he fought and won at the tilt, “wearing her scarlet sleeve, tho’ carved and cut, and half the pearls away.”[346]

The sweet sentiment of purity associated with the pearl ennobles it above all other gems. Rabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz, wrote, about 850, that “mystically, the pearl signifies the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven, or charity and the sweetness of celestial life.”[347] True, it was not among the twelve gems which adorned the breastplate of the high priest of the Temple, symbolical of the twelve apostles. A Father of the Church—St. Augustine, we believe—explains this by saying that it was reserved for a more sacred office, that of representing Christ himself.

Pearl signifies purity, innocence, humility, and a retiring spirit. All stones of the gray color of the pearl have the significances which are given to this beautiful gem.[348]

305Unlike other gems, the pearl comes to us perfect and beautiful, direct from the hand of nature. Other precious stones receive careful treatment from the lapidary, and owe much to his art. The pearl, however, owes nothing to man. Perhaps this has much to do with the sentiments we cherish for it. It touches us with the same sense of simplicity and sweetness as the mountain daisy or the wild rose. It is absolutely a gift of nature, on which man cannot improve. We turn from the brilliant, dazzling ornament of diamonds or emeralds to a necklace of pearls with a sense of relief, and the eye rests upon it with quiet, satisfied repose and is delighted with its modest splendor, its soft gleam, borrowed from its home in the depths of the sea. It seems truly to typify steady and abiding affection, which needs no accessory or adornment to make it more attractive. And there is a purity and sweetness about it which makes it especially suitable for the maiden.

The idea of pearly purity is inseparably linked with the name Margaret, derived from the Persian Murwari (pearl, or child of light) through the Greek μαργαρίτης. This name—beautiful in sound as well as in origin—is popular in all European countries, and likewise are its abbreviations and diminutives: in Italian, Margherita and Rita; in French, Marguerite, Margot, and Groten; in German, Margarethe, Gretchen, and Grethel; and in English, Margaret, Marjorie, Madge, Maggie, Peggy, etc.

The use of the word as a proper name among the early Christians was doubtless suggested by the sweet simplicity and loveliness of the pearl, and by the beautiful symbolical references to this gem in the Scriptures; and the meaning of the name has been strengthened by the pure lives and the good deeds of the many beautiful Margarets in all lands, including the virgin martyr, St. Margaret of Antioch, “the mild maid of God” referred to in the Liturgy, who, before the fifth century, was the embodiment of feminine innocence and faith overcoming evil, and who is often represented wearing a string of pearls; also St. Margaret Ætheling of the eleventh century, who endeared the name in Scotland, was canonized in 1215, and was adopted as the patron saint of Scotland in 1673; and Margaret, “Pearl of Bohemia,” so beloved by the Danes.

Especially among the Germans has the name a tender significance; with them it is symbolical of maidenly sweetness and purity associated with richness of womanhood, such as was typified by Goethe in the heroine of his “Faust.” This idea may have impelled Wordsworth in the selection of a name for the lovely, girlish character in his “Excursion”; and Tennyson for his “Sweet pale Margaret,” and likewise Scott for “Ladye Margaret, the flower of Teviot.” With the memory of these lives and characters before her, many a loving mother has 306crystallized the hope entertained for a baby daughter by enriching her with this beautiful name.

Poets seem never to tire of using the pearl as a symbol of perfection in form, in purity, in luster, and in sweetness. But probably none has made a more lovely comparison than Owen Meredith:

As pure as a pearl,
And as perfect: a noble and innocent girl.[349]

The Oriental poets unite with those of the West in their love for this gem, and those gifted writers are lavish in its use. Let us but add the lament of Shabl Abdullah on the death of Nozami:

Nozami’s gone, our fairest pearl is lost.
From purest dew, kind Heaven had given her birth,
And then had fashioned her the pearl supreme.
She softly shone, but hidden from mankind,
So God has now restored her to her shell.

Far more crude, but possibly equally pathetic, is that old epitaph from Yorkshire, England:

In shells and gold pearls are not kept alone,
A Margaret here lies beneath a stone.

In the seventeenth century, Pierre de Rosnel wrote in a burst of enthusiasm:

The pearl is a jewel so perfect that its excellent beauty demands the love and esteem of the whole universe. Suidas expresses himself in regard to it thus: “The possession of the pearl is one of love’s greatest delights; the delight of possessing it suffices to feed love.” In a painting, Philostratus, who had the same ideas, has represented cupids with bows enriched with pearls; and the ancients were all agreed to dedicate the pearl to Venus. Now, to my thinking, the reason for their so doing was, that inasmuch as this goddess of love, the fairest of all divinities, is descended from heaven and is formed of the sea, so in like manner the pearl—the loveliest of all gems—is formed in the sea and is the offspring of the dew of heaven. But he that would learn more of the excellence of the pearl, let him inquire of the ladies, who will relate much more in its praise than I can write, and who will doubtless confess that nothing else so well adorns them.[350]

Emblematic as the pearl is of maidenly purity and sweetness, it is deemed especially appropriate as a wedding gift. This use dates 307from the earliest dawn of Hindu civilization, when the beloved Krishna drew it from the sea to decorate his beautiful daughter on her nuptial day. And among the Hindus not uncommonly the presentation of a virgin pearl and its piercing forms part of the marriage ceremony. In most of the European royal weddings in recent years, pearls have been prominent among the bridal gifts; nor have they been overlooked among the presents to American brides, including one much in the public print about 1906, for whom a necklace of them was selected by a neighboring republic as an appropriate present.

The dedication of the pearl to love and marriage appears to have been recognized by the artistic Greeks. One of the choicest engravings preserved from classic times is a magnificent sardonyx showing the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, in which the lovers are united by what some authorities consider a string of pearls—emblematic of conjugal bonds—by means of which the god Hymen leads them to the nuptial couch.[351] This engraved gem now forms one of the choicest objects in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, having been purchased at the sale of the Marlborough gems, London, 1898, at a cost of about $10,000.

And yet in Western countries the ill omen of pearls as bridal ornaments has been widely recognized, these determining the tears that will be shed in the married life. As Milton says, referring to the Marchioness of Winchester:

And those pearls of dew she wears,
Prove to be presaging tears.

It was told that when the Empress Eugénie of France was finishing her toilet preparatory to her wedding in Notre Dame in 1853, a personal attendant reminded her of the omen, and begged that she refrain from wearing her pearl necklace on that occasion. Eugenie paid no heed to the warning and wore the beautiful jewels just the same; and, as all the world knows, her life has been one long tragedy. Since that necklace was a lengthy one, containing very many pearls, the bride who wears only a few on her wedding day need not dread the adage so much, for, unfortunately, no woman’s life is wholly free from grief; and most brides would doubtless risk a few tears rather than refuse to wear a wedding gift of pearls.

It was a very old idea that to dream of pearls betokens tears. A suggestion of this occurs in John Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi” (1623), Act III, sc. 5:

308Duchess: I had a very strange dream to-night;
Methought I wore my coronet of state,
And on a sudaine all the diamonds
Were chang’d to pearles.
Antonio: My interpretation
Is, you’ll weepe shortly;
For to me the pearles
Doe signifie your teares.

And we quote also from “The Parson’s Wedding” (1663), Act II, sc. 5, where Jolly exclaims: “What! in thy dumps, brother? The captain sad! ’Tis prophetic. I’d as lieve have dreamt of pearl, or the loss of my teeth.”

Tradition relates that Queen Margaret Tudor, wife of James IV of Scotland, just before the battle of Flodden Field (1513), had many fears as to the disastrous issue of that conflict, owing to having dreamed on three nights in succession that all her jewels were suddenly turned into pearls. This was interpreted as a sign of coming widowhood and sorrow, which was soon verified; and a similar story is told of Marie de’ Medici shortly before the murder of Henry IV of France in 1610.

The employment of pearls medicinally dates from an ancient period. This use is mentioned in the oldest existing Sanskrit medical work, the “Charaka-Samhita,”[352] composed early in the Christian era; and likewise in the somewhat more modern “Susruta,”[353] which probably originated before the eighth century.

It is particularly in Oriental countries that therapeutic properties have been credited to pearls. The powder of these gems has been rated very highly there, and is still used to some extent. It was considered beneficial in cases of ague, indigestion, and hemorrhages, and was regarded as possessing stimulative qualities. Medical literature of the Orient contains many accounts of the uses of pearls and of the methods of forming them into pills, ointments, etc.

According to a treatise written by Narahari, a physician of Kashmir, about 1240 A.D., the pearl cures diseases of the eyes, is an antidote to poisons, cures consumption and morbid disturbances, and increases strength and general health.[354]

In China, as well as in other Asiatic countries, a distinction was made in the therapeutic effects of so-called “virgin” pearls and of 309those pierced or bored for stringing. The Chinese natural history of Li Shi Chin, completed about 1596, states that bored pearls will not serve for medicine, for which unpierced ones should be used. It further adds that the taste is saltish, sweetish, and cold; and that they benefit the liver, clear the eyes, and cure deafness. Dr. T. Nishikawa informs us that at the present time many Mytilus seed-pearls are exported from Japan to China for medicinal purposes.

Quoting principally from Ahmed Teifashi, Whitelow Ainslie wrote in 1825 that Arabian physicians suppose the powder of the pearl to have virtues in weak eyes; and they credit it with efficacy in palpitations, nervous tremors, melancholia, and hemorrhage. Also they have this strange notion, that when applied externally and while in the shell, it cures leprosy.[355]

Statements of the curative properties of pearls come also from Japan at a somewhat recent date. The catalogue of the National Exhibition at Yedo in 1877, Part V, page 78, notes that they soothe the heart, lessen phlegm, are an antidote to poison, and cure fever, smallpox, and blear-eyedness.

The popular modern idea in India as to the therapeutic value was thus expressed by a native prince, Sourindro Mohun Tagore, Mus. Doc., the Maharajah of Tagore, in 1881:

The use of pearls conduces to contentment of mind and to strength of body and soul. The burnt powder of this gem, if taken with water as sherbet, cures vomiting of blood of all kinds. It prevents evil spirits working mischief in the minds of men, takes off bad smell from the mouth, cures lunacy of all descriptions and all mental diseases, jaundice and all diseases of the heart, intestines and stomach. Burnt pearl mixed with water and taken into the nostrils, as a powder, takes away headsickness, cures cataract, lachryma and swelling of the eyes, the painful sensation such as is caused by the entry of sand into them, and ulcers. Used as a dentifrice, it strengthens the gums and cleanses the teeth. Rubbed on the body with other medicines, it cures all skin diseases. It stops bleeding from cuts and ultimately heals them up. Whether taken internally or externally, it is a sure antidote to poison. It drives away all imaginary fears and removes all bodily pain. To prevent its tendency to affect the brain, it should always be used with the burnt powder of basud, and in its absence with that of white mother-of-pearl. The dose of pearl-powder should not exceed 2¼ mashas [19.68 grs.].[356]

The Hindus credited specific virtues to pearls of different colors: the yellow brought wealth, the honey shade fostered understanding, the white attracted fame, and the blue, good luck. Defective pearls caused leprosy, loss of fortune, disgrace, insanity, and death, according 310to the degree of defect. The “Mani-málá,” previously quoted, states that “pearls possessed of every valuable quality shield their master from every evil, and suffer nothing harmful to come near him. The house which contains a perfect pearl the ever-restless Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) chooses to make her dwelling for ever and a day.”[357]

A similar idea is expressed in an old Hindu treatise on gems by Buddhabhatta, where we read: “The pearl from the shell ought always to be worn as an amulet by those who desire prosperity.”[358]

Pearls still find a place in the pharmacopœia of India. One of the latest standard works, that of R. N. Khory and N. N. Katrak,[359] credits the powder as a stimulant, tonic, and aphrodisiac. It is one of the ingredients in numerous Indian prescriptions used in curing impotence, heart-disease, consumption, etc. According to these authorities, the dose is from one fourth to one half grain of the powdered pearl.

Owing to the high cost of sea pearls, even those of the smallest size, a substitute for medicinal and similar purposes is found in the Placuna pearls of Ceylon, Borneo, etc. These are of such slight luster that only the choicest are of ornamental value, consequently they are sold at relatively small prices. A considerable demand exists for them to be placed in the mouths of deceased Hindus of the middle class, instead of the sea pearls which are used by the wealthy, or the rice which is employed in a similar manner by persons of poorer rank. This custom seems to be analogous to that of the ancient Britons, and also to that of the American Indians, in depositing food and other requisites for a journey in burial graves. The practice is an old one in India and was noted by Marco Polo more than six hundred years ago.

Most of the Placuna pearls are calcined and are used with areca-nuts and betel-pepper leaves in a very popular masticatory, one of the “seven sisters of sleep,” which is to the Hindu what opium is to the Chinaman, or tobacco to the American or European. The hard white areca-nut (Areca Catechu) is about the size and shape of a hen’s egg. Three or four thousand tons of the small, tender nuts are annually shipped from Ceylon to India for this masticatory, which is chewed by a hundred million persons. After boiling in water, pellets of them are placed in a leaf of the betel-pepper (Piper betle) with a small quantity of lime made from pearls or shells, according to the desired quality and value of product. It is credited with hardening the gums, sweetening the breath, aiding digestion, and stimulating the nervous system like coffee or tobacco; its most visible effect is tingeing the saliva and blackening the teeth, which is far from attractive, especially in an otherwise beautiful 311woman. A more recent use for these Placuna pearls is as an ingredient in a proprietary face powder and enamel, which is marketed in Europe.

It is not alone the Orientals that have found medicinal virtues in pearls. Even in Europe they have occupied a prominent place in materia medica, especially during the Middle Ages when a knowledge of the occult properties of gems was an important branch of learning. Indeed, they could scarcely have been overlooked by people who at one time or another swallowed pretty much everything, from dried snake’s eyes to the filings of a murderer’s irons, in their quest for the unusual and costly with which to relieve and comfort themselves. During the Middle Ages in Europe, writers who gave attention to pearls, as well as to other gems, treated almost exclusively of their reputed efficacy in magic and in medicine; and most of the accounts from the ninth to the fourteenth century seem wholly without scientific value, and at times reach the climax of extravagance and absurdity in their claims for the wonderful potency of the gem.

Albertus Magnus, the Dominican scholar born in Germany in the twelfth century, wrote that pearls were used in mental diseases, in affections of the heart, in hemorrhages, and dysentery.[360]

The “Lapidario” of Alfonso X of Castile (1221–1284), called “The Wise,” the father of the Spanish language, states:

The pearl is most excellent in the medicinal art, for it is of great help in palpitation of the heart, and for those who are sad or timid, and in every sickness which is caused by melancholia, because it purifies the blood, clears it and removes all its impurities. Therefore, the physicians put them in their medicine and lectuaries, with which they cure these infirmities, and give them to be swallowed. They also make powders of them, which are applied to the eyes; because they clear the sight wonderfully, strengthen the nerves and dry up the moisture which enters the eyes.[361]

Anselmus de Boot, physician to Emperor Rudolph II, and one of the great authorities at the beginning of the seventeenth century, gave the following directions for making “aqua perlata, which is most excellent for restoring the strength and almost for resuscitating the dead. Dissolve the pearls in strong vinegar, or better in lemon juice, or in spirits of vitriol or sulphur, until they become liquified; fresh juice is then added and the first decanted. Then, to the milky and turbid solution, add enough sugar to sweeten it. If there be four ounces of this solution, add an ounce each of rose-water, of tincture of strawberries, of borage flowers and of balm and two ounces of cinnamon water. When you wish to give the medicine, shake the mixture so that the sediment 312may be swallowed at the same time. From one ounce to an ounce and a half may be taken, and nothing more excellent can be had. In pernicious and pestilential fevers, the ordinary aqua perlata cannot be compared to this. Care must be taken to cover the glass carefully while the pearls are dissolving, lest the essence should escape.”[362]

A curious book on the medicinal use of pearls was written in 1637 by Malachias Geiger,[363] in which he especially praises the efficacy of Bavarian pearls. It was true that their material value was less than that of oriental pearls, but this was compensated by their therapeutic qualities. He had accomplished many cures of a very serious disease and had used these pearls successfully in cases of epilepsy, insanity, and melancholia.

Quotations might be given from a hundred medieval writers as to the therapeutics of pearls. The diseases for which they were recommended, as noted by Robert Lovell’s “Panmineralogicon, or Summe of all Authors,” published at Oxford in 1661, seems to have included a large portion of the entire list known at that period. This summary states:

Pearls strengthen and confirme the heart; they cherish the spirits and principall parts of the body; being put into collyries, they cleanse weafts of the eyes, and dry up the water thereof, help their filth, and strengthen the nerves by which moisture floweth into them; they are very good against melancholick griefes; they helpe those that are subject to cardiack passions; they defend against pestilent diseases, and are mixed with cordiall remedies; they are good against the lienterie, that is, the flux of the belly, proceeding from the sliperiness of the intestines, insomuch that they cannot retaine the meat, but let it passe undigested; they are good against swounings; they help the trembling of the heart and giddinesse of the head; they are mixed with the Manus Christi against fainting (called Manus Christi perlata in the London Pharmacopaea); they are put into antidotes or corroborating powders; they help the flux of bloud; they stop the terms, and cleanse the teeth; they are put into antidotes for the bowels, and increase their vertue, make the bloud more thin, and clarify that which is more thick and feculent; they help feavers. The oile of Pearles or unions helpeth the resolution of the nerves, convulsion, decay of old age, phrensie, keepeth the body sound, and recovereth it when out of order, it rectifieth womens milk, and increaseth it, corrects the vices of the natural parts and seed. It cureth absesses, eating ulcers, the cancer and hemorrhoides.... The best are an excellent cordial, by which the oppressed balsame of life and decayed strength are recreated and strengthened, therefore they resist poyson, the plague, and putrefaction, and exhilarate, and therefore they are used as the last remedie in sick persons.[364]


Ornamented with pearls

313So powerful and mysterious were their alleged virtues, that in some instances it was necessary only that the pearls be worn to make effective their prophylaxis against disease. This belief was by no means confined to the ignorant and inexperienced, for we are told that even Pope Adrian was never without his amulet made of the extraordinary combination of oriental pearls, a dried toad, etc.[365] Leonardo, in the fifteenth century, wrote that pearls render true and virtuous all who wear them.[366] Although we wonder at what we call the superstitions of the Middle Ages, perchance future generations will smile at many of our mistaken follies.

A prominent historical instance of administering pearls medicinally was in the treatment of Charles VI of France (1368–1422), to whom pearl powder mixed with distilled water was given for the cure of insanity.

A far more illustrious patient was Lorenzo de’ Medici, “The Magnificent” (1448–1492), the celebrated ruler of Florence. When this plebeian prince lay dying of a fever at Careggi, just after that famous interview with Savonarola, his friends called in Lazaro da Ticino, a physician of reputation, who administered pulverized pearls. Politian, who was present, is credited with the statement that when the medicine was administered, to the inquiry as to how it tasted, Lorenzo replied: “As pleasant as anything can be to a dying man.”[367]

Even the English philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), mentioned pearls among medicines for the prolongation of life. He adds: “Pearls are taken, either in a fine powder or in a kind of paste or solution made by the juice of very sour and fresh lemons. Sometimes they are given in aromatic confections, sometimes in a fluid form. Pearls no doubt have some affinity with the shells wherein they grow; perhaps may have nearly the same qualities as the shells of crawfish.”[368]

Powdered pearl or mother-of-pearl mixed with lemon juice was used as a wash for the face, and was considered “the best in the world.”[369] The pearl powder and lemon juice were permitted to stand for a day or two and the combination was then filtered before using. Another method of preparing this was:

Dissolve two or three ounces of fine seed-pearl in distilled vinegar, and when it is perfectly dissolved, pour the vinegar into a clean basin; then drop some oil of tartar upon it, and it will cast down the pearl into fine powder; then pour the vinegar clean off softly; put to the pearl clear conduit or spring water; pour that off, and do so often until the taste of the vinegar and tartar 314be clean gone; then dry the powder of pearl upon warm embers, and keep it for your use.[370]

Through their composition of carbonate of lime, pearls possibly possess some slight therapeutic value, which, however, can easily be supplied by other materials—as the shell, for instance—and is entirely out of proportion to their market value as ornaments.

Although pearls have lost their therapeutic prestige and no longer have a recognized place in materia medica, their healing qualities are not to be denied, for there are few ills to which women are subject that cannot be bettered or at least endured with greater patience when the sufferer receives a gift of pearls; the truth of which any doubting Thomas may easily verify in his own household to the limit of his purse-strings.

Owing to their beauty and great value, pearls have been deemed particularly appropriate as a sacrifice in enriching a drink for a toast or tribute. Shakspere alludes to this in the words of King Claudius, the pearl being frequently designated union in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries:

The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath;
And in the cup an union shall he throw,
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark’s crown have worn.[371]

It is stated that a pearl worth £15,000 was reduced to powder and drunk by Sir Thomas Gresham, the English merchant, in the presence of the Spanish ambassador, as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth, by whom he had been knighted.[372]

The most celebrated instance of enriching a drink with a pearl was doubtless Cleopatra’s tribute to Antony, Pliny’s account of which we give in the words of old Philemon Holland:

This princesse, when M. Antonius had strained himselfe to doe her all the pleasure he possibly could, and had feasted her day by day most sumptuously, and spared for no cost: in the hight of her pride and wanton braverie (as being a noble courtezan, and a queene withall) began to debase the expense and provision of Antonie, and made no reckoning of all his costly fare. When he thereat demanded againe how it was possible to goe beyond this magnificence of his, she answered againe, that she would spend upon him at one supper ten million Sestertij. Antonie laid a great wager with her about it, and shee bound it againe, and made it good. The morrow after, Cleopatra 315made Antonie a supper which was sumptuous and roiall ynough: howbeit, there was no extraordinarie service seene upon the board: whereat Antonius laughed her to scorne, and by way of mockerie required to see a bill with the account of the particulars. She again said, that whatsoever had been served up alreadie was but the overplus above the rate and proportion in question, affirming still that she would yet in that supper make up the full summe that she was seazed at: yea, herselfe alone would eat above that reckoning, and her owne supper should cost 60 million Sestertij: and with that commanded the second service to be brought in. The servitors set before her one only crewet of sharpe vineger, the strength whereof is able to resolve pearles. Now she had at her eares hanging these two most precious pearles, the singular and only jewels of the world, and even Natures wonder. As Antonie looked wistly upon her, shee tooke one of them from her eare, steeped it in the vineger, and so soon as it was liquified, dranke it off. And as she was about to doe the like by the other, L. Plancius the judge of that wager, laid fast hold upon it with his hand, and pronounced withal, that Antonie had lost the wager.[373]

Elsewhere has been set forth the impracticability of dissolving a pearl in a glass of vinegar without first pulverizing it.[374] It seems probable that if Pliny’s interesting story has any foundation, Cleopatra might have swallowed a solid pearl in a glass of wine—certainly a more pleasing draught as well as a more graphic sacrifice; and we should accept its reported value with a grain of salt, for it would scarcely have been safe for the court gossip to belittle the value of this tribute of love.

Pliny, and other Roman writers, mention another instance, that of Clodius “the sonne of Aesope the Tragedian Poet,” who took two pearls of great price “in a braverie, and to know what tast pearles had, mortified them in venegre, and drunke them up. And finding them to content his palat wondrous well, because he would not have all the pleasure by himselfe, and know the goodnesse thereof alone, he gave to every guest at his table one pearle apeece to drinke in like manner.”[375] The chronicler fails to tell what the guests thought of the flavor of pearls, or whether some would not have preferred them for a more appropriate use.



A pearl,
Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships,
And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants.
Troilus and Cressida, Act II, sc. 2.

To trace the markets of the pearl is to trace the routes of commerce from early times. The first routes from the Far East seem to have been two: one by the Persian Gulf and the Euphrates to Babylonia and Assyria, and thence by caravan through Damascus to Tyre and Sidon; the other by the Red Sea and Suez to Egypt. As regards the former route, Sir George Birdwood furnishes positive evidence that the Phenicians visited India as early as 2200 B.C. It seems highly probable that pearls were introduced by this route at an early period, although it is difficult to find material proof of the fact.

By means of this commerce, the great ancient civilizations of Phenicia, Mesapotamia and the Nile valley doubtless became familiar with the gem treasures of eastern Asia. Then came the opening of the Mediterranean with first “the great Sidon,” and later Tyre, as the starting-points of commerce, exploration, and colonial settlement among the islands and on the shores of what, to the Asiatic peoples, was the great western sea. However, as the Greek islands and their colonies developed, the Phenicians were more strictly confined to the coasts of Africa and Spain. Gades, Tartessus, and Carthage were their great colonies and trading-ports, and their adventurous sailors passed on through the Straits of Gibraltar and directed their course northward to the British Isles, where they very probably obtained the pearls of the Scotch rivers.

Meanwhile, the campaigns of Alexander had carried Greek influence and authority over all western Asia, reaching even to India itself, and had led to a widely increased intercourse. Although he died at the age of thirty-two, Alexander the Great did more than any single individual in the world’s history to bring the nations of the Eastern and the Western worlds into contact with each other, and it is certainly 320due to this circumstance that we find much greater evidences of the use of pearls in the western countries after his time. Besides this, the founding of Alexandria provided a mart, in whose bazaars the traders of India, Persia, and Arabia bartered their treasured gems, just as their descendants do in the same place at the present day.

It was not, however, until the establishment of the Roman empire that this commercial intercourse reached its highest development. The Romans, with their marvelous capacity for organization, were the first to build a great system of permanent and well-kept roads to facilitate land travel and land traffic. These great roads, starting from the Forum, reached out in every direction, even to the limits of the empire; and, as a result of increased commercial activity, more gems were engraved, mounted, and set during the five hundred years of Rome’s commercial supremacy than during any other early epoch of the world’s history.

In Rome, the trade in pearls was so important that there was a corporation of “margaritarii.” The officinæ margaritariorum were installed in the Forum, in the neighborhood of the tabernae argentariæ; some were also on the Via Sacra.[376] However, the name margaritarius did not only apply to the jewelers, merchants, and setters of pearls, but also to those who fished for them and to the guardians of the gems and jewels wherein pearls were used.

With the fall of the Western empire, the Dark Ages settled down like a cloud over Europe for five hundred years. Only among the Saracens and at Byzantium did the culture of the old civilization survive, and eventually the light of knowledge and of progress was rekindled from these sources. The Crusades were the chief factors in this new development; they gave a mighty stimulus, by means of which Europe was aroused from her lethargy and once more brought into contact with the Orient. Venice and Genoa now became the great carriers, and from this time, and to this source, may be traced many of the oriental gems in Europe. The Venetian fleet of three hundred merchant ships brought the products of the East and distributed them over Europe, by way of the German cities of Augsburg and Nuremberg, where the great jewelers and silversmiths made world-famed ornaments.


Containing some wood attributed to the true cross.

321When Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks, the treasures of the Eastern empire were scattered throughout Europe; but, at the same time, the establishment of the Turkish empire served to close the way to India and the far East for the merchants and travelers of Europe, and, hence, new means of access had to be sought by sea. This, as is well known, was the cause of the voyages of De Gama and Columbus. The unexpected result of these voyages—the discovery of a new continent—ushered in the wonderful period of Spanish and Portuguese development and their colonization of both the East and the West Indies; and to this epoch belongs the introduction of American pearls to the markets of Europe. The gradual decline of the power of Spain and Portugal—largely owing to bigotry and to the reckless exploitation of the regions under their control—brings us to the beginning of the present phase of commercial intercourse in which all the nations of the civilized world are engaged in varying proportion, according to their power and aptitude. Never before have the different regions of the earth been more closely in touch with each other, and we may safely say that nothing is likely to occur which can permanently interrupt the progressive development of the world’s commerce.

With the various means of transportation and locomotion that have existed in the past twenty-three or twenty-four centuries, there is no doubt that the commerce of pearls has varied more or less, but there has ever been, in some part of the world, a great potentate, a great collector or dealer who has influenced the finest gems to gravitate his way. Never has there been a time when some person was not prepared to encourage—and to richly encourage—the sale of fine jewels to him. The history of the commerce of precious stones is a history of travel and exploration, of hardship, pleasure, reward, and sometimes of serious disappointment.

The lesson we derive from these decorative objects of natural beauty and softness—treasured alike by savage, barbarian, ancient warrior, statesman, king, emperor, peasant, bourgeois, magyar, lady, and queen—always carries with it the moral that the gifts of creation are ever prized by some one in every age or place.

The necessary qualifications affecting the value of a pearl are: first, that it should be perfectly round, pear-shaped, drop-shaped, egg-shaped, or button-shaped, and as even in form as though it were turned on a lathe. It must have a perfectly clear skin, and a decided color or tint, whether white, pink, creamy, gray, brown or black. If white, it must not have a cloud or a blur or haze, nor should the skin have the slightest appearance of being opaque or dead. It must be absolutely free from all cracks, scratches, spots, flaws, indentations, shadowy reflections or blemishes of any kind. It must possess the peculiar luster or orient characteristic of the gem. The skin must be unbroken, and not show any evidence of having been polished.

Diamonds and the more valuable precious stones generally are 322bought and sold by the weight called a carat. This carat, whatever its precise value, is always considered as divisible into four diamond or pearl grains, but the subdivisions of the carat are usually expressed by the vulgar fractions, one fourth, one eighth, one twelfth, one sixteenth, one twenty-fourth, one thirty-second, and one sixty-fourth. The origin of the carat is to be sought in certain small, hard, leguminous seeds, which, when dried, remain constant in weight. The brilliant, glossy, scarlet-and-black seed of Abrus precatorius constitutes the Indian rati, about three grains; the Adenanthera pavonina seed weighs about four grains. The seed of the locust-tree, Ceratonia siliqua, weighs on the average three and one sixth grains, and constitutes, no doubt, the true origin of the carat.

Another[377] of the more notable of these weight-units used for precious stones and precious metals is the candarin, condorine, or cantarai, also termed by the Chinese fun or fan, and by the south Indians a fanam, and used all over the Indo-Chinese archipelago. This is by origin a large lentil or pea of a pinkish color dotted with black, about double the size of the gonj, and possessing the same quality of very slight variability of weight when dried. It is probably a variety of the same botanic genus or species as the Abrus precatorius. The value when reduced to absolute standard became a subsidiary part or submultiple of the weight of some local coin, rupee, or pagoda, or a decimal fraction of some local tchen, as in China and Japan.

The following derivation of the word carat is given by Grimm: “Carat. Italian: carato; French: carat; Spanish and Portuguese: quilate; Old Portuguese: quirate, from Arabic qirat, and this from the Greek, κεράτιον.”[378]

The carat is not absolutely of the same value in all countries. Its weight, as used for weighing the diamond, pearl, and other gemstones in different parts of the world, is given in decimals of a gram, by the majority of the authorities, as follows:

Grams In Grains Troy
Indian (Madras) .2073533 3.199948
Austrian (Vienna) .20613+ 3.18107+
German (Frankfort) .20577+ 3.175514
Brazil and Portugal .20575+ 3.175206
France .2055+ 3.171347
England .205409 3.169943
Spain .205393 3.169696
Holland .205044 3.16431+
Pearl Grains in Grams In Grains Troy
Indian (Madras) .0518383 .799987
Austrian (Vienna) .05153+ .79526+
German (Frankfort) .05144+ .793878
Brazil and Portugal .05143+ .793801
France .051375 .792836
England .051352 .792485
Spain .051348 .792424
Holland .051261 .791077

Assuming that the gram corresponds to 15.43235 English grains, an English diamond carat will nearly equal 3.17 grains. It is, however, spoken of as being equal to four grains, the grains meant being “diamond” or “pearl” grains, and not ordinary troy or avoirdupois grains. Thus a diamond or pearl grain is but .7925 of a true grain. In an English troy ounce of 480 grains there are 151½ carats; and so it will be seen that a carat is not indeed quite 3.17 grains, but something like 3.1683168 grains, or less exactly, 3.168 grains. Further, if we accept the equivalent in grains of one gram to be, as stated above, 15.43235, and if there be 151½ carats in a troy ounce of 480 grains, it will follow that an English diamond carat is .205304 of a gram, not .205409, as commonly affirmed. The following exact equivalents, in metric grams and grains troy, of the diamond carat as used in different parts of the world in 1882, are given by Mr. Lowis d’A. Jackson:

Grams Grains Troy
Turin .2135 3.29480
Persia .2095 3.23307
Venice .2071 3.19603
Austro-Hungary .2061 3.18060
France (old) .2059 3.17752
France (later) .2055 3.17135
France (modern) .2050 3.16363
Portugal .2058 3.17597
Frankfort and Hamburg .2058 3.17597
Germany .2055 3.17135
East Indies .2055 3.17135
England and British India .2053 3.16826
Belgium (Antwerp) .2053 3.16826
Russia .2051 3.16517
Holland .2051 3.16517
Turkey .2005 3.09418
Spain .1999 3.08492
Java and Borneo .1969 3.03862
324Florence .1965 3.03245
Arabia .1944 3.00004
Brazil .1922 2.96610
Egypt .1917 2.95838
Bologna .1886 2.91054
International carat .2050 3.16363
Proposed new international carat .2000 3.08647

Recalculating the above figures into pearl grains we have:

Grams Grains Troy
Turin .053375 .823700
Persia .052375 .808267
Venice .051775 .799007
Austro-Hungary .051525 .795150
France (old) .051475 .794380
France (later) .051375 .792837
France (modern) .051250 .790907
Portugal .051450 .793902
Frankfort and Hamburg .051450 .793992
Germany .051375 .792837
East Indies .051375 .792837
England and British India .051325 .792065
Belgium (Antwerp) .051325 .792065
Russia .051275 .791292
Holland .051275 .791292
Turkey .050125 .773545
Spain .049975 .771230
Java and Borneo .049225 .759655
Florence .049125 .758112
Arabia .048600 .750010
Brazil .048050 .741522
Egypt .047925 .739595
Bologna .047150 .727635
International .051250 .790907
Proposed International .050000 .771617

With the present system of diamond carats and pearl grains it is necessary to keep two entirely different sets of weights or to resort to troublesome calculations. The stock-book of a jeweler, at the present time, will contain the following fractions, expressing the weight of a single pearl: ½, ¼, ⅛, 116, 132, 164, when the weight could be much better stated as 63⁄64 of a carat. It requires but a glance to see how much easier this would be. Certain dealers have therefore proposed 325the use of sets of fractions arranged in a similar way. In this manner a stock-book can be kept much more easily and with greater precision. Others, again, have adopted a decimal notation of the fractions of a carat, which is even more simple and feasible, since the common fractions ½, ¼, ⅛, etc. can be expressed as .5, .25, .125, etc., of a carat, this being either a carat of .2053 of a gram or the English carat of .20534 of a gram.

On the other hand, an agreement was arrived at, as the result of a conference between the diamond merchants of London, Paris, and Amsterdam, by which the uniform weight of a diamond carat was fixed at .205 of a gram, making the pearl grain .05125 of a gram. This standard, which was suggested in 1871, by a syndicate of Parisian jewelers, goldsmiths, and others dealing in precious stones, was subsequently (1877) confirmed. But there is still a lack of uniformity in the standard by which diamonds and pearls are bought and sold, and very serious discrepancies exist in the sets of carat weights turned out by different makers, although the international carat is almost universally used.

At the International Congress of Weights and Measures held at the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893, the writer suggested that the carat should consist of 200 milligrams, so that ½ of a carat would be 100 milligrams and ¼ of a grain would be 12.5 milligrams. This would mean 5 carats or 20 grains to a French gram, and 5000 carats or 20,000 pearl grains to a French kilogram. This would depreciate the present diamond carat or pearl grain only about one per cent., and it would do away with the needless series of carats and grains of the many nationalities. It could be simply explained to any private individual in any country, especially as there are only two countries which do not use the metric system.

This carat has been earnestly indorsed, its introduction advocated, and its merits clearly shown, by M. Guilliame, of the French Bureau des Arts et Metiers, whose energetic work has found a reasonable cooperation, in this country as well as in Europe, in introducing what will be a scientific, logical, comprehensive, and possibly the final and international carat; and any ancient, obsolete, or foreign carat can be readily reduced to this carat once the metric value of the former is computed.

The Association of Diamond Merchants of Amsterdam has already, to avoid confusion, fixed the value of the carat (17th October, 1890) at 1 kilogram = 4875 carats, or 1 carat = 3.16561 grains troy = 205.128 mg. One pearl grain = .7914 grains troy = 51.282 mg.; but the association has decided that, in case of litigation, these values shall be determined by appointed bureaus, which would express them 326in grams and milligrams, a most important and valuable decision, as the gram and the milligram will always be known as weights of constant value.

In view of the difficulty of inducing the abolition of the carat in different countries, the German Federation of Jewelers decided to petition the imperial government for authority to use the carat, in order that it might be legally recognized. Such a proposition not being in accord with the German laws in force on the subject of the metric system, it was proposed to substitute for the carats then in use one carat only, weighing two hundred milligrams. This proposal was very favorably received in trade circles and may be taken into consideration by the International Committee of Weights and Measures. The Commission des Instruments et Travaux, to which this proposition was referred, recommended its adoption to the committee in the following terms:

“The Commission recognizes that it would be very desirable that the unit of weight of precious stones (the carat) which varies in different countries, should be made uniform, and should be reduced to the nearest metric equivalent. The weight of 200 mg., which is very close to the carat most in use (205.5 mg.), would seem to be the best for this purpose. The Commission believes that there can be no objection to this standard of 200 mg. being called ‘the metric carat’ in order to facilitate the abolition of the old carat.”

This proposition, adopted at the meeting of the International Committee on the 13th of April, was communicated to the more important associations. The Chambre Syndicale de la Bijouterie, Joaillerie et Orfèvrerie de Paris, and the Chambre Syndicale des Négotiants en Diamants, Perles, Pierres Précieuses et des Lapidaires de Paris assured the committee of their support of this measure.

The following is the text of the resolution which was passed by both the above associations in January, 1906:

“The Council, recognizing the advantages which would result to the international trade in precious stones from the use of a unit based on the metric system, desires that the metric carat of 200 mg. be universally adopted.”

The German Federation of Jewelers passed the following resolution in August, 1906:

“The German Federation considers that it is both necessary and advantageous to replace the old carat by the metric carat of 200 mg.; it authorizes its president to approach the imperial government and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, and the foreign associations in order that the metric carat may be introduced as soon as possible in all countries.”

327The Chamber of Commerce of Antwerp promised, in a letter dated the 7th of December, 1906, to rescind a decision of 29th of April, 1895, approving the adoption of a carat of 205.3 mg., when the metric carat of 200 mg. should come into universal use in the markets.

The Association of Jewelers and Goldsmiths of Prague formally authorized the German Federation to act in its name, in order that the reform should come about as soon as possible by international agreement, and the Association of Goldsmiths of Copenhagen has declared its willingness to support the reform. The Committee of Weights and Measures in Belgium prepared a law for the adoption of the metric carat in December, 1906.

Mr. Larking, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Melbourne, Australia, has transmitted by letter of September 16, 1907, the following resolution of the Association of Manufacturing Jewelers of the Colony of Victoria:

“It is desirable that the carat weight should be the same in all countries, and our association approves a metric carat of 200 milligrams.”

On October 16, 1907, the Association of Societies for the Protection of Commerce in the United Kingdom passed the following resolution:

“The Committee of the Association approves the attempt to urge the adoption in all countries of an international carat of 200 milligrams, and hopes that, in the interest of the unification of weights, it will prove successful.”

The fourth General Conference of Weights and Measures, held in Paris in October, 1907, passed this resolution:

“The Conference approves the proposition of the International Committee and declares that it sees no infringement of the integrity of the metric system in the adoption of the appellation ‘metric carat’ to designate a weight of 200 milligrams for the commerce in diamonds, pearls, and precious stones.”[379]

The following resolution was passed by The Birmingham Jewelers’ and Silversmiths’ Association, January 23, 1908: “That the best thanks of this Committee be conveyed to the Decimal Association for the good work they are doing, and this Committee expresses the hope that all countries will adopt an International Carat of 200 milligrams in weight.” Finally, on March 11, 1908, the metric carat of 200 milligrams was adopted in Spain as the official carat for diamonds, pearls, and precious stones.

Pearls have become of so much importance to so many dealers that a special form of weight has been proposed for them. This would have a diamond form and not a square form, and it would be stamped 328“Grain” instead of “Carat.” Another set would be stamped in milligrams, the regular milligram weight with the pearl fraction above it, and they could even be made round so as better to designate the pearl.

The great value of pearls has suggested the making of a gage, called the Kunz gage, by means of which round pearls can be very accurately measured. Pearls of a given weight and perfectly spherical form have been weighed and then measured by this gage, and the theoretical diameters as computed from the measurement of a single pearl are in the majority of instances in exact accord with these actual measurements, the occasional variations in the smaller pearls barely exceeding the thousandth part of an inch. These discrepancies may be due to imperceptible divergencies in sphericity or, possibly, to trifling differences in specific gravity.

The following table gives the diameters of round pearls by measurement, from 116 to 500 grains, in millimeters and inches:

Weight Grains Diameter Millimeters Inches
116 1.3 .0512
1.66 .0653
¼ 2.09 .0823
½ 2.65 .1043
¾ 2.99 .1187
1 3.32 .1307
3.60 .1417
3.80 .1496
3.98 .1567
2 4.18 .1645
4.32 .1701
4.47 .1759
4.63 .1823
3 4.80 .1889
4.88 .1921
5.01 .1972
5.17 .2035
4 5.23 .2058
5.44 .2141
5 5.65 .2224
5.86 .2283
6 6.03 .2374
6.20 .2442
7 6.36 .2504
8 6.64 .2614
9 6.90 .2716
10 7.15 .2815
11 7.38 .2905
12 7.60 .2992
13 7.81 .3074
14 8.00 .3149
15 8.18 .3220
16 8.36 .3291
17 8.53 .3358
18 8.70 .3425
19 8.86 .3488
20 9.01 .3547
25 9.71 .3823
30 10.31 .4059
35 10.86 .4275
40 11.35 .4468
45 11.82 .4653
50 12.23 .4815
60 13.00 .5118
70 13.38 .5386
80 14.30 .5630
90 14.89 .5862
100 15.42 .6071
125 16.60 .6535
150 17.63 .6941
200 19.41 .7641
300 22.22 .8748
400 24.46 .9630
500 26.35 1.0374

The new and finer analytical balances weigh to the tenth part of a milligram, the two thousandth part of a carat, the five hundredth part of a grain; but this is not necessary. If the 200–milligram carat were used, the two hundredth part of a carat could readily be ascertained, and then a short-beam, rapid-weighing balance would answer every purpose and save much time for the dealer who must make many weighings in the course of a day. In an office where thousands of weighings were made in a month, the task was accomplished with such 329minute accuracy that the margin of error did not exceed one carat during that time.

The mina, the sixtieth part of the lesser Alexandrian talent of silver, was divided by the Romans, when they occupied Egypt, into twelve ounces (unciae), and, weighing as it did 5460 grains, it became the predecessor of the European pounds of which the troy pound is a type. If we may believe a Syrian authority, Anania of Shiraz, who wrote in the sixth century, the carat or diamond weight was originally formed from one of these ounces by taking the 1144 part.[380]

We find in Murray[381] that the Greek κεράτιον was originally identical with the Latin siliqua, and was called the siliqua Graeca. As a measure of weight and fineness the carat represents the Roman siliqua as 124 of the golden solidus of Constantine, which was ⅙ of an ounce, hence the various values into which 124 and 1144 enter, or originally entered. As a measure of weight for diamonds and precious stones, it was originally 1144 of an ounce or 3⅓ grains. It is stated in Hakluyt (Voy. II, pp. 1, 225, 1598): “Those pearls are praised according to the caracts which they weigh; every caract is four graines.”

There have been at all times men who possessed a delicate touch or a fine sense of feeling, but probably few men are living to-day who would be able to accomplish the feat attributed to Julius Cæsar, namely, that of estimating the weight of a pearl by simply holding it in his hand. There are very few who can tell the weight of a pearl in this way, and while the story may be historically interesting, it is rather dubious.

To attempt to formulate a list of prices, comparative or otherwise, of pearls, is almost an impossibility, as probably no two authors of the past three centuries have ever seen the same lot of pearls, nor have their estimates always been the same as to quality, rarity and value.

As interesting statistics from an historical point of view, there will be presented here a list of the values of pearls dating back some ten centuries. That there always has existed a higher valuation for the larger pearls, which are the rarest, will readily be apparent, but that the correct value of a pearl of one, ten, twenty or fifty grains be definitely given for the years 1602, 1702, 1802, or 1902 is an impossibility. However, we believe this to be the first attempt to present so large a body of carefully selected quotations, and they are given to the reader, whether he be layman or professional, for what they are worth.

In regard to the smaller pearls, as is the case with the smaller diamonds, prices have been dependent upon the changes of fashion; that 330is, whether the prevailing style of jewelry was such that the smaller pearl or diamond was in demand. In other words, if they were used as a decoration forming a border, a flower, a scroll ornament, or a pave requiring many small gems, the demand naturally increased and the prices were higher or lower as the occasion required.

It is not the project of this book to fix the prices of pearls at the present time, for any such attempt would prove misleading, owing to the fact that pearls vary in the estimation of the different dealers, and a figure given here for the highest standard, if applied to an inferior grade, would necessarily mislead the buyer to his positive injury. This much, however, can be said: during the year 1907 pearls from five grains upward have been sold according to their quality, at a base of five, eight, ten, fifteen, or even twenty dollars in very exceptional cases; that is to say, twenty, thirty-two, forty, sixty, or eighty shillings, or twenty-five, forty, fifty, seventy-five or one hundred francs. Nevertheless, it would be impossible, without considerable experience, for a layman to apply these valuations to objects that require much practice in determining their quality and perfection.

With diamonds, rubies, and emeralds there may be a stated price per carat for stones of a certain size, but a gem of unusual perfection or brilliancy, or of exceptionally fine color, will often command a price far beyond that generally quoted. It is the same with the pearl. Sums which may seem exorbitant in comparison with those that are paid for ordinary pearls, are often given for specimens remarkable for their beauty, size, or luster.

Pearls of one hundred grains are even more rare at the present time than are diamonds of one hundred carats. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the diamonds of the world weighing one hundred carats or over could be counted on the fingers, but since the opening of the African mines in 1870, the number of large diamonds has increased at a much greater ratio than have the pearls of one quarter of their weight. It would thus seem that pearls of great size are worth four times as much as diamonds of equal weight. For instance, a 100–carat diamond of the finest quality would be worth at least from $1000 to $1500 a carat, making a total value of $100,000 to $150,000; and a pearl of 100 grains at a base of $10 would be worth $100,000. But no such high price has ever been paid.

The usual method of estimating the value of pearls is by establishing a base value for those weighing one grain and then multiplying this amount by the square of the number of grains that the pearl weighs. For instance, if the base value of a one-grain pearl should be fixed at $1, a pearl weighing two grains would be worth $4 (2 × 2 = 4), or $2 per grain; one weighing five grains would be worth $25, or $5 per grain, etc. Naturally, these values increase in proportion to the 331increase in the value of the base. A base of $3 would give a value of $75 for a five-grain pearl, or $15 per grain, while a $10 base would make the value $50 per grain, or $250.

This method of estimating pearls by squaring their weights has been credited by many authors to David Jeffries, who published an interesting treatise on diamonds and pearls in 1750–1753. It has also been credited to Tavernier, the oriental traveler of the middle of the seventeenth century. We have, however, traced this method back to Anselmus de Boot, in his treatise on precious stones, dated 1609. Before this date we have not been able to find any mention of the computation of the value of diamonds and pearls by squaring their weight and multiplying the product by a base of a franc, guilder, crown, dollar, or of many dollars, as would be necessary at present. It is probable, however, that this system is of oriental origin and it may have come to Europe through some of the oriental traders, with the precious stones, as did the use of the carat.

De Boot makes the carat (four grains) his unit of comparison, increasing his base value by one third for pearls weighing eleven carats (forty-four grains) or over. In Pio Naldi’s treatise, published in Bologna in 1791, the unit is the grain, the base being the fourth part of the value of four pearls weighing together one carat. Naldi, also, increases his base value making it 1½ lire ($.30) for pearls weighing less than ten grains, and 2½ lire ($.50) for those weighing twenty grains and upward.

A curious method of valuing pearls by their weight is shown in a treatise by Buteo, published in 1554.[382] The writer states that a pearl weighing two carats was valued at 5 gold crowns; one of four carats at 25 crowns; and so on, the price increasing fivefold when the weight was doubled. The intermediate figures were obtained by computing the proportional mean of any two known weights and values. For example: 8 × 4 = 32, the square root of which is 5.656. Now, the value of a four-carat pearl is 25 and that of an eight-carat pearl 125 crowns, and 125 × 25 = 3125, the square root being 55.9; hence a pearl weighing 5.656 carats was worth 55.9 crowns.

The base value of a necklace can be determined in the following way. Should the center pearl weigh 25 grains, multiply 25 by 25; the result is 625; then, take the next two, three, or four pearls, as many as are of approximately the same weight, add their weights together, multiply the resulting figure by itself and divide the product by the number of pearls in the group. Proceed in exactly the same way with the remainder of the necklace, always grouping the pearls so that there shall not be a considerable difference in weight between the smallest and the largest pearl, and then add together the figures obtained for 332the center pearl and for the various groups and divide the price of the necklace by this total; the quotient will represent the multiple or base.

As may be seen by comparison of the first with the second and third of the accompanying tables, the result arrived at in this way will, if there is any difference in the weight of the pearls in the various groups, vary slightly from that obtained by calculating the weight of each pearl separately, but it represents a satisfactory approximation.

1 pearl, weighing 25 grs. 25 × 25
2 pearls, each of 22 grs. 44 × 44
1936 ÷ 2 = 968.000
2 pearls, each of 20 grs. 40 × 40
1600 ÷ 2 = 800.000
2 pearls, each of 19 grs. 38 × 38
1444 ÷ 2 = 722.000
2 pearls, each of 18 grs. 36 × 36
1296 ÷ 2 = 648.000
2 pearls, each of 17½ grs. 35 × 35
1225 ÷ 2 = 612.500
2 pearls, each of 17 grs. 34 × 34
1156 ÷ 2 = 578.000
2 pearls, each of 16½ grs. 33 × 33
1089 ÷ 2 = 544.500
2 pearls, each of 16 grs. 32 × 32
1024 ÷ 2 = 512.000
2 pearls, each of 15½ grs. 31 × 31
961 ÷ 2 = 480.500
2 pearls, each of 15 grs. 30 × 30
900 ÷ 2 = 450.000
2 pearls, each of 14½ grs. 29 × 29
841 ÷ 2 = 420.500
2 pearls, each of 14 grs. 28 × 28
784 ÷ 2 = 392.000
2 pearls, each of 13½ grs. 27 × 27
729 ÷ 2 = 364.500
2 pearls, each of 13 grs. 26 × 26
676 ÷ 2 = 338.000
2 pearls, each of 12½ grs. 25 × 25
625 ÷ 2 = 312.500
2 pearls, each of 12 grs. 24 × 24
576 ÷ 2 = 288.000
2 pearls, each of 11½ grs. 23 × 23
529 ÷ 2 = 264.500
2 pearls, each of 11 grs. 22 × 22
484 ÷ 2 = 242.000
2 pearls, each of 10¾ grs. 21½ × 21½
462¼ ÷ 2 = 231.125
2 pearls, each of 10¼ grs. 20½ × 20½
420¼ ÷ 2 = 210.125

41     624       10,003.750
$10 × 10,003.75 = $100,037.50
1 pearl, weighing 25 grs. 25 × 25 =   625.00
2 pearls, total weight 44 grs. 44 × 44 = 1936 ÷ 2 = 968.00
4 pearls, total weight 78 grs. 78 × 78 = 6084 ÷ 4 = 1521.00
4 pearls, total weight 71 grs. 71 × 71 = 5041 ÷ 4 = 1260.25
6 pearls, total weight 99 grs. 99 × 99 = 9801 ÷ 6 = 1633.50
6 pearls, total weight 90 grs. 90 × 90 = 8100 ÷ 6 = 1350.00
6 pearls, total weight 81 grs. 81 × 81 = 6561 ÷ 6 = 1093.50
6 pearls, total weight 72 grs. 72 × 72 = 5184 ÷ 6 = 864.00
6 pearls, total weight 64 grs. 64 × 64 = 4096 ÷ 6 = 682.67
  624     9997.92
$10 × 9997.92 = $99,979.20


Composed of 362 pearls, weighing 58.8 grains. Actual size. Worn by Empress Eugenia

333On a $5 base this necklace would be worth $50,018.75 according to the first reckoning, and $49,989.60 according to the second; on a base of $2.50 the figures would be $25,009.37 and $24,994.80 respectively.

1 pearl, weighing 25 grs. 25 × 25 =       625.00
4 pearls, total weight 84 grs. 84 × 84 = 7056 ÷ 4 = 1764.00
6 pearls, total weight 109 grs. 109 × 109 = 11881 ÷ 6 = 1980.16
6 pearls, total weight 99 grs. 99 × 99 = 9801 ÷ 6 = 1633.50
6 pearls, total weight 90 grs. 90 × 90 = 8100 ÷ 6 = 1350.00
8 pearls, total weight 106 grs. 106 × 106 = 11236 ÷ 8 = 1404.50
10 pearls, total weight 111 grs. 111 × 111 = 12321 ÷ 10 = 1232.10
    624             9989.26
$10 × 9989.26 = $99,892.60

On a $5 base this would represent a value of $49,946.30 and one of $24,973.15 on a base of $2.50. The different grouping of the pearls accounts for the slight reduction in value.

A system of estimating the value of pearls which has recently been introduced into Germany, is an adaptation of the ordinary method of squaring the number of grains and then multiplying the result by a certain base figure. The pearls are first grouped according to quality and size, and a figure is agreed upon as the multiplicator of each class. In Germany the carat is employed as the weight unit for pearls as well as for diamonds, and in this new system the total weight of a given number of pearls of the same class is first reduced to grains; the number of grains is then multiplied by four and the quotient is multiplied by the figure agreed upon. The resulting sum, after being divided by the number of pearls, gives the carat value of such pearls. For example, if the base figure agreed upon is 5, and we wish to find the carat worth of 4 pearls of similar size, weighing together 314⁄64 carats, the sum would be as follows:

206 × 4 × 4 × 5  

= 64.37
64 × 4  

At this rate per carat, reckoning in marks, the value of the 314⁄64 carats would be 207.20 marks. This result is identical with that obtained by the ordinary method, but the calculation is perhaps a trifle simplified.[383]

334A curious Hindu treatise on gems has been preserved for us in the Brhatsamhitâ of Varâhamihira (505–587 A.D.). It is the earliest work of this kind that we have in Sanskrit, and M. Louis Finot,[384] who has published it, together with several other similar treatises, believes that it was based upon an original composed at a much earlier period. In his introduction M. Finot says: “It would be an error to regard the ratnaçastra [treatise on gems] as a simple manual for the use of jewelers. Without doubt this subject formed one of the principal branches of commercial instruction, ... but it was also taught to princes and it is for their use that the ratnaçastras we publish seem to have been composed.”

This treatise only describes four gems, although a larger number are enumerated. These gems are the diamond, the pearl, the ruby, and the emerald. One of the most interesting portions is that treating of the valuation of pearls. The system described is peculiar, and, unfortunately, there is some difficulty in finding an absolutely correct equivalent for the values expressed.

A price is first placed upon a pearl weighing 4 mâsakas (about 45 grains). This is estimated at 5300 kârsâpanas (about $1600). As the weight diminishes the valuation decreases as follows:

4 mâsakas 5300 kârsâpanas
mâsakas 3200 kârsâpanas
3 mâsakas 2000 kârsâpanas
mâsakas 1300 kârsâpanas
2 mâsakas 800 kârsâpanas
mâsakas 353 kârsâpanas
1 mâsakas 135 kârsâpanas
4 guñjas[385] 90 kârsâpanas
3 guñjas 50 kârsâpanas
guñjas 35 kârsâpanas

Smaller pearls were grouped together in dharanas (one dharana = about 72 grains). If there were thirteen fine pearls in a dharana, they were valued at 325 rûpakas (about $100); the other values were as follows:

16 pearls in a dharana were worth 200 rûpakas
20 pearls in a dharana were worth 170 rûpakas
25 pearls in a dharana were worth 130 rûpakas
30 pearls in a dharana were worth 70 rûpakas
40 pearls in a dharana were worth 50 rûpakas
55–60 pearls in a dharana were worth 40 rûpakas
80 pearls in a dharana were worth 30 rûpakas
100 pearls in a dharana were worth 25 rûpakas
200 pearls in a dharana were worth 12 rûpakas
300 pearls in a dharana were worth 6 rûpakas
400 pearls in a dharana were worth 5 rûpakas
500 pearls in a dharana were worth 3 rûpakas

335It would be extremely interesting if we could find at this early date (sixth century A.D.) an indication of the use of the system of computing the value of pearls by the square of their weight as expressed in some weight unit, and it is singular that the three valuations given for the weight in guñjas are graduated in accordance with this system. A pearl weighing 2½ guñjas and valued at 35 kârṣapâṇas would have a base value of 5.6 kârṣâpaṇas. Estimated at this ratio we would have the following figures:

3 guñjas 50.4 kârṣâpaṇas
4 guñjas 89.6 kârṣâpaṇas

Now, the values actually given are 50 and 90 kârṣâpaṇas, respectively, and these figures are easily obtained by rejecting the fraction that is less than one half and counting the fraction that is in excess of one half as a unit. After this, however, the progression becomes irregular. A pearl weighing 1 mâṣaka (5 guñjas) is valued at 135 kârṣâpaṇas, while the equivalent according to the system would be 140. However, it is possible that the writer may have changed this figure intentionally so as to add exactly one half to the preceding valuation (90 + 45 = 135). The succeeding values bear no relation to the system and appear to be entirely arbitrary. Still, it can scarcely be due to hazard that the first three figures are practically in exact accord with the system and the fourth in close approximation. As the change seems to come when the weight is expressed in mâṣakas instead of guñjas, we are tempted to think that the system may have been used for single pearls weighing less than twelve grains (1 mâṣaka = 11¼ grains), while the value of those over that weight was estimated in a different way.

In a much later Hindu treatise, by Buddhabhatta, after certain values have been given for pearls of the best quality, a pearl of this class is described as follows:

White, round, heavy, smooth, luminous, spotless, the pearl gifted with these qualities is called qualified (guṇavat). If it be yellow, it is worth half this price; if it be not round, a third; if flat or triangular, a sixth.[386]

One of the earliest records we have of a system of prices for pearls is the treatise on precious stones written in the year 1265, by Ahmed ibn Yusuf al Teifashi, who was probably a native jeweler of Egypt. In his time pearls were sold in Bagdad in bunches of ten strings, each string comprising thirty-six pearls. If one of these strings weighed one sixth of a miskal (four carats or sixteen grains), the ten strings 336were valued at four dinars (about ten dollars). The values increased progressively as follows:[387]

Average weight of each pearl 10 strings of 36 pearls, weight of each string Value
Grains Carats Grains Dinars U. S. money
½ 4 16 4 $10.00
6 24 5 12.50
1⅓ 12 48 6 15.00
2 18 72 10 25.00
3⅓ 30 120 15 37.50
4 36 144 20 50.00
4⅓ 42 168 25 62.50
5⅓ 48 192 35 87.50
6 54 216 40 100.00
7⅓ 66 264 70 175.00
8 72 288 80 200.00
9⅓ 84 336 110 275.00
10 90 360 150 375.00
10⅔ 96 384 200 500.00
12 108 432 400 1000.00
12⅔ 114 456 550 1375.00
13⅓ 120 480 650 1625.00
14 126 504 750 1875.00
14⅔ 132 528 800 2000.00
16 144 576 1000 2500.00
18⅔ 168 672 1500 3750.00

Al Teifashi then proceeds to describe a pearl of the first quality; it must be “perfectly round in all its parts, colorless and gifted with a fine water. When a pearl possesses these requisites and weighs one miskal [24 carats or 96 grains] it is worth 300 dinars [$750]. If, however, a match is found for this pearl and each one weighs one miskal and has the same form, the two pearls together cost 700 dinars [$1750].” This writer also mentions that in the shops of the Arab jewelers, the pearl which exceeded the weight of a drachma (12 carats or 48 grains) even by one grain, was called dorra, while the name johar was used for that which did not reach the above weight.

In 1838, Feuchtwanger gave the price of a one-carat pearl as five dollars, and used this amount as the multiplier of the square of the weight; therefore, a four-carat pearl would cost four times four multiplied by five dollars, the value of the first carat; that is to say, a sixteen-grain (four-carat) pearl would have been worth eighty dollars in 1838, according to this computation.


337In 1858, Barbot[388] gave the value of pearls under ordinary conditions, but very indefinitely, as follows:

Grains Carats Francs per carat U. S. currency
1 ¼ 4 $0.80
2 ½ 10 2.00
3 ¾ 25 5.00
4 1 50 10.00

Above four grains they sold by the piece, and below, by the ounce. Baroque pearls sold for 300 to 1000 francs per ounce. Seed-pearls, if quite round, were worth about 120 francs per ounce.

Emanuel[389] gave the following table of prices for the pearl, reduced to United States currency:

Grains 1865 1867
3 $2.88— $3.84 $4.32— $4.80
4 5.28— 6.72 6.72— 8.40
5 8.40— 10.80 9.60— 12.00
6 13.20— 15.60 16.80— 19.20
8 21.60— 26.40 24.00— 28.80
10 38.40— 43.20 48.00— 52.80
12 57.60— 72.00 67.20— 76.80
14 72.00— 86.40 86.40— 96.00
16 96.00—144.00 96.00—144.00
18 144.00—192.00 144.00—192.00
20 192.00—240.00 192.00—240.00
24 288.00—345.60 288.00—345.60
30 384.00—480.00 384.00—480.00

The following values appear in the “Encyclopedia Hispano-Americana,” Barcelona, 1894, Vol. XV, p. 180 (Louis Dieulafait):

Grains Value, 1865 Value, 1867
Pesetas U. S. currency Pesetas U. S. currency
3 17— 18 $3.40— $3.60 21— 23 $4.20— $4.60
4 25— 32 5.00— 6.40 32— 40 6.40— 8.00
5 41— 52 8.20— 10.40 46— 58 9.20— 11.60
6 64— 75 12.80— 15.00 81— 93 16.20— 18.60
8 104— 128 20.80— 25.60 116— 139 23.20— 27.80
10 202— 227 40.40— 45.40 252— 277 50.40— 55.40
12 302— 378 60.40— 75.60 352— 403 70.40— 80.60
14 378— 453 75.60— 90.60 455— 504 91.00—100.80
16 504— 756 100.80—151.20 504— 756 100.80—151.20
18 756—1005 151.20—201.00 756—1005 151.20—201.00
20 1005—1260 201.00—252.00 1005—1260 201.00—252.00
24 1512—1815 302.40—363.00 1512—1815 302.40—363.00
30 2117—2521 423.40—504.20 2117—2521 423.40—504.20
Weight 1609[390] 1672[391] 1675[392] 1751[393] 1774[394] 1791[395]
Grains Thal. Kreutz. Livres £ s £ s £ s Lire
1 0 13   0 ½ 0 1 0
2 0 52 2 0 2 0 4 0 2 6
3 1 47 5 0 6 0 9 0 13½
4 3 0 10 0 12 0 16 0 18 24
5 4 48 18 1 5 1 5 1 10 37½
6 6 52 28 2 10 1 16 2 5 54
7 9 13 38 4 10 2 9 3 1 73½
8 12 0 55 6 0 3 4 4 10 96
9 15 23 75 8 0 4 1 6 0 121½
10 18 52 100 10 0 5 0 8 5 150
11 22 48 130 12 0 6 1 9 15 242
12 27   175 14 0 7 4     288
13 31 48   16 0 8 9 13 15 338
14 36 52 270 18 0 9 16     392
15 42 13   21 10 11 5 21 0 450
16 48   380 25 0 12 16     512
17 54 13   30 0 14 9 27 10 578
18 60 52 500 35 0 16 4     648
19 67 48   37 10 18 1     722
20 75   650 40 0 20 0 37 10 800
22 90 52   50 0 24 4 52 10 1210
24 108     60 0 28 16 82 10 1440
26 126 52       33 16 99 0 1690
28 147         39 14 150 0 1960
32 192         51 4 225 0 2560
36 243         64 16 262 10 3240
40 300         80 0 300 0 4000
45 506 17       101 5     5062½
50 625         125 0     6250
60 900         180 0     9000
70 1225         245 0     12250
80 1600         320 0     16000
90 2025         405 0     20250
100 2500         500 0     25000
Weight Grains 1609 1672 1675 1751 1774 1791
1 $0.20   $0.12 $0.24 $0.09 $0.30
2 0.81 $0.80 0.48 0.96 0.50 1.20
3 1.82 1.90 1.44 2.16 1.87 2.70
4 3.24 3.80 2.88 3.84 4.50 4.80
5 5.06 6.84 6.00 6.00 7.50 7.50
6 7.28 10.64 12.00 8.64 11.25 10.80
7 10.92 14.44 21.60 11.76 15.25 14.70
8 12.96 20.90 28.80 15.36 22.50 19.20
9 16.40 28.50 38.40 19.44 30.00 24.30
10 20.25 38.00 48.00 24.00 41.25 30.00
11 24.50 49.40 57.60 29.04 48.75 48.40
12 29.16 66.50 67.20 34.56   57.60
13 34.22   76.80 40.56 68.75 67.60
14 39.69 102.60 86.40 47.04   78.40
15 45.56   103.20 54.00 105.00 90.00
16 51.84 144.40 120.00 61.44   102.40
17 58.52   144.00 60.36 137.50 115.60
18 65.61 190.00 168.00 77.76   129.60
19 73.10   180.00 86.64   144.40
20 81.00 247.00 192.00 96.00 187.50 160.00
22 98.01   240.00 116.16 262.50 242.00
24 116.64   288.00 138.24 412.50 288.00
26 136.89     162.24 495.00 338.00
28 158.76     188.16 750.00 392.00
32 207.36     245.76 1125.00 512.00
36 262.44     311.04 1312.50 648.00
40 324.00     384.00 1500.00 800.00
45 546.75     486.00   1012.50
50 675.00     600.00   1250.00
60 972.00     864.00   1800.00
70 1323.00     1176.00   2450.00
80 1728.00     1536.00   3200.00
90 2187.00     1944.00   4050.00
100 2700.00     2400.00   5000.00

340Giving the pearl values in 1867, Emanuel[396] says: “It would be almost useless to give any value for drop pearls, as when of large size and fine quality they are of so rare occurrence as to command fancy prices; still, as a slight guide, it may be mentioned that perfect white drop pearls, of 80 to 100 grains, may be estimated at from £7 to £11 [$35–$55] per grain; those of 50 to 80 grains at from £4 to £7 [$20–$35] per grain, and those of 30 to 50 grains at from £3–£5 [$15–$25] per grain; smaller sizes bring from 20s. to 60s. [$5–$15] per grain.”

Emanuel also states that misshapen pieces called “baroque pearls” (perles baroques), are sold by the ounce, the price varying from £10 to £200 ($50–$1000) per ounce, depending on quality, color, and size.

Grains Value per grain Total value
1 $1.00 $1.00
2 1.83 3.66
3 2.75 8.25
4 3.60 14.40
5 4.03 20.15
6 4.69 28.14
7 6.32 44.24
8 6.87 54.96
9 7.42 66.78
10 8.25 82.50
11 9.62 105.82
12 10.45 125.40
13 11.68 151.84
14 12.55 175.70
15 14.20 213.00
20 19.70 394.00
24 24.75 594.00
Size No. Millimeters Inches 1873 1876 1878 1885 1908
4     $1.10   $0.85 $0.50 $1.55
5 1.20 .047 1.35 $0.70 1.00 .60 1.95
6 1.22 .048 1.80 .90 1.35 .70 2.90
7 1.24 .049 2.25 1.10 1.70 1.12 3.88
8 1.26 .049 2.70 1.35 2.00 1.80 5.27
9 1.28 .050 3.35 1.80 2.50 2.00 6.65
10 1.80 .071 4.50 2.25 3.40 3.00 9.15
11 1.83 .072 5.60 2.70 4.20 4.00 11.36
12 1.86 .073 8.00 3.35 5.90 5.00 13.86
13 1.90 .075 9.00 4.50 6.75 5.75 15.51
14 2.00 .078 11.00 5.60 8.40 6.75 17.50
15 2.10 .082 14.00 8.00 10.00 8.25 20.80
16 2.25 .088 17.00 9.00 12.50 10.50 25.00
17 2.40 .094 19.00 11.00 14.00 12.00 30.50
18 2.60 .102 23.00 14.00 17.00 14.50 37.40
19 2.75 .108 28.00 17.00 21.00 16.25 48.50
20 2.90 .114 33.00 19.00 24.00 18.25 61.00
34122 3.05 .120 42.00 28.00 31.00 33.00  
24 3.15 .124 53.00 38.00 39.00 48.00  
26 3.30 .130 67.00 45.00 50.00 69.00  
28 3.55 .140 101.00 56.00 75.00 98.00  
30 3.90 .153 124.00 79.00 92.00 150.00  
Size No. 1873 1876 1878 1885 1908
4 $0.55   $0.45 $0.30 $0.84
5 .70 $0.35 .50 .35 1.22
6 .90 .45 .70 .50 1.87
7 1.10 .55 .85 .80 3.05
8 1.35 .70 1.00 1.05 4.43
9 1.80 .90 1.35 1.45 5.82
10 2.25 1.10 1.70 1.80 8.32
11 3.35 1.35 2.50 2.60 10.53
12 4.00 1.80 3.00 3.00 12.75
13 4.50 2.25 3.40 3.75 14.41
14 5.60 3.35 4.20 4.25 15.51
15 6.75 4.00 5.00 4.75 18.00
16 9.00 4.50 6.75 5.25 20.80
17 10.00 5.60 7.50 6.00 26.35
18 11.00 6.75 8.40 7.00 31.90
19 14.00 9.00 10.00 7.75 41.60
20 17.00 10.00 12.50 8.75 52.70
22 20.00 14.00 15.00    
24 27.00 19.00 20.00    
26 34.00 23.00 25.00    
28 51.00 28.00 38.00    
30 62.00 40.00 46.00    
Size No. 1876 1907 Size No. 1876 1908
4   $0.47 15 2.70 8.93
5 $0.25 .70 16 3.35 11.20
6 .35 1.11 17 4.00 13.90
7 .40 1.94 18 4.50 18.00
8 .45 2.77 19 5.60 22.20
9 .70 3.86 20 6.75 27.75
10 .80 4.99 22 9.00 40.00
11 .90 5.82 24 14.00 75.00
12 1.10 6.65 26 17.00 85.00
13 1.60 7.48 28 19.00 100.00
14 2.25 8.32 30 28.00 200.00
Pearls to the ounce Value in English money Equivalent in U. S. currency Average for each pearl
£ s.    
500 3 0 $15.00 $0.03
300 6 0 30.00 .10
150 11 2 55.50 .37
100 18 0 90.00 .90
60 33 15 168.75 2.81
30 75 0 375.00 12.50

The following values for the smaller oriental pearls are given in the “Museum Brittanicum” of John and Andrew van Rymsdyck, 1778, p. 9.

No. to the ounce Rix dollars Equivalent in U. S. currency Average for each pearl
200   70 $75.60   $0.378
300   50 54.00   .18
900   10 10.80   .012
2000   3 4.24   .00212
4000   2.70   .006755
8000 } 2 2.16 { .00027
10,000 2 2.16 .000216

Pio Naldi’s treatise of 1791 gives the following rule for estimating the value of small, round pearls, weighing less than one carat or four grains. As the carat value of four such pearls is given as five lire and 576 one-grain pearls were counted as one ounce, these two numbers were used to determine the value of an ounce of small pearls. The product of 576 multiplied by 5 is 2880, and this number was then divided by 2000, 1000, 500, or whatever might be the number of pearls in a given ounce. If there were 2000 pearls, the carat value would be 1.44 lire or $.29; if there were 1000, the carat would be worth 2.88 lire or $.57; if 500, 5.76 lire or $1.15, etc.



343The same author[398] gives tables expressing the values of pearls not perfectly spherical in form, which he designates as “perle dolce.” These pearls he considers to be worth half the price of good round pearls; that is to say, 2½ lire (about $.50) per carat for four weighing together one carat. Where there are as many as three thousand of these “perle dolce” in an ounce, the 2½ lire base is multiplied by 576, the number of grains given to the ounce; this makes the value of an ounce of one-grain pearls $288. This amount is then divided by 3000, and the quotient, $.096, represents the value of one carat of these small pearls. Multiplying this by 144 we obtain, as the value of an ounce of such pearls, $13.82. An ounce consisting of two thousand would be worth $20.73, while if there were but one hundred to the ounce it would be valued at $414.72, or $4.15 for each pearl and $.72 per grain of weight. In this latter case the pearls would average 5¾ grains. Another class of pearls denominated by this author as “scaramazzi,” pearls of an irregular form and with protuberances, are estimated in a similar way, but at exactly half of the above values. The baroque pearls were not considered to be worth even half as much as the “scaramazzi.”

Scotch pearls (fresh-water) are mentioned by De Boot (1609, p. 88 sq.) among the other western pearls—Bohemian, etc. He remarks that they were valued much less than the oriental pearls, but if they were of especially pure color their value was greater, although they lacked the silvery hue characteristic of the eastern pearl. Fine pearls of this sort were valued on a carat base of one fourth of a thaler ($.27), so that a forty-grain pearl was worth $27, and one of eighty grains, $108. The author of the Bologna treatise, “Delle Gemme,” 1791, attributes the lack of luster in the Scotch pearls to the presence of a dark mass in the interior which interfered with the passage of light. He estimates Scotch pearls to be worth one half the value of oriental pearls of mediocre quality, provided the former are fairly good.

A Scotch writer of the seventeenth century is more enthusiastic in regard to these pearls; he mentions having paid one hundred rix dollars for an exceptionally fine one, but he does not specify its weight. This is the value given by De Boot for a pearl of this class weighing eighty grains, as we have just mentioned. The Scotch writer asserts that he could never sell a necklace of fine Scotch pearls in Scotland itself, as every one wanted oriental pearls; he continues: “At this very day I can show some of our own Scots Pearls as fine, more hard and transparent than any Oriental. It is true that the Oriental can be easier matched, because they are all of a yellow water, yet foreigners covet Scots Pearls.”

In Ceylon[399] and India, pearl-grading and valuing has received close attention, and an elaborate system has been evolved by the pearl merchants. This system has been in use for generations and possibly for centuries. Although apparently very complicated, it is in reality quite simple, if we only remember that the value of inferior pearls is determined by their weight, whereas the value of superior pearls is computed from the square of their weight.

344The pearls are first grouped according to the size, of which ten grades are made. This is done by passing them successively through ten brass saucer-like sieves or baskets (peddi), each about three and a half inches in diameter and one inch deep. The holes in the bottom of each sieve are of uniform size, but they are graduated in size for the different baskets. The pearls are sifted in the basket with the largest holes, and those which will not pass through are of the first size. The pearls which pass through are then sifted in the second basket, and those retained are of the second size; and so on through the entire series of ten sieves or baskets. Those which pass through the tenth sieve are known as masi-túl, or powder pearls; they are of little value