Reviewed by Doug Fiske
An interviewer once asked Gloria Steinem, the co-founder of Ms. magazine, how her experience in the publishing business had changed her. Ms. Steinem replied that she had learned to believe a lot less of what she read.
Generally speaking, people read nonfiction books to learn something they don’t know. Readers trust the books’ authors, editors and publishers to accurately convey information. For Tears of Mermaids, Stephen Bloom dove into a subject he didn’t know and, in a short time, tried to learn and convey a lot about it. That’s a formula for committing many errors to print unless the publisher, author and editors take certain corrective steps. One is to have a disinterested editor thoroughly fact-check the text. Another is to have knowledgeable people peer-review the manuscript. Unfortunately, Bloom and his collaborators did neither.
There are so many errors in Tears of Mermaids — ranging from typos through factual omissions and inaccuracies to gross misunderstanding of fundamentals — that a pearl-knowledgeable reader is compelled to question the accuracy of the parts he or she knows little or nothing about. The shame of it is that readers who don’t know pearling history or cultured pearl production and marketing will take Bloom’s account as fact.
Such a strong statement about errors begs examples, so, although I could go on for several pages, I’ll give two in each category mentioned.
Typos: First, on page 192, it should be JCPenney rather than JC Penny. Second, with the first mention of Posada Hidalgo on page 333, the spelling is as I’ve given it here. With subsequent mentions in the book, the spelling alternates between Posada and Pousada.
Factual omissions: First, as C. Denis George and others have thoroughly investigated and reported, the technique of surgically implanting a bead and tissue piece in the gonad of a saltwater bivalve mollusk as a means to start the production of a cultured pearl was very likely invented by Englishman-turned-Australian William Saville-Kent. Not only does Bloom omit Saville-Kent, but he ignores Nishikawa and Mise, who, working with akoya mollusks, most likely adapted Saville-Kent’s technique to be first to produce whole cultured pearls in Japan. On page 24, Bloom attributes that feat to Mikimoto, while failing to point out that, in 1893, Mikimoto’s first was a blister pearl, something the Chinese had cultured at least 600 years earlier.
Second, in a related factual omission, hundreds of years before the Chinese induced Hyriopsis cumingii mussels to yield whole freshwater pearls (page 106), they famously had Cristaria plicata mussels produce countless blister pearls of various fancy shapes.
Factual inaccuracies: First, on page 5 and in many subsequent places, Bloom describes pearls as luminescent or says they luminesce. To luminesce means to emit light by phosphorescence, fluorescence or bioluminescence. Pearls do none of the foregoing. They reflect, refract and split incident light. Second, Bloom repeatedly misuses the term orient. He introduces it as a characteristic on page 5 and defines it as “a depth that allows a connoisseur to look into the pearl and see the different layers of conchiolin, or calcium carbonate.” Not only is Bloom wrong about orient — it’s iridescence, the splitting of white light into its spectral colors — in his incorrect definition, he errs further by equating conchiolin with calcium carbonate.
Misunderstanding fundamentals: First, regarding the tissue and bead nucleation of saltwater mollusks, Bloom gets it right on page 24 (“bead is inserted by a technician into the oyster’s gonad, along with mantle tissue from the same species of oyster”), wrong on page 73 (“tucks a tiny bead, along with a strip of mantle tissue, next to the oyster’s gonad), mostly right on page 157 (“slid inside the oyster’s gonad a tiny round bead, followed by a small, cut square of oyster mantle tissue”), wrong on page 179 (“wrapped each bead with mantle tissue . . . carefully inserted the bead, tucked in behind the oyster’s gonad” and “some oysters will be re-nucleated with another bead and mantle tissue [for] a second round of pearls”), and out of sequence on page 278 (“a strip of oyster tissue, inserting it first . . . a scalpel to make an incision inside the oyster . . . insert a white, round, 9-millimeter bead deep inside”).
Second, Bloom misunderstands the reach of the Paspaleys, “the family that had created, and now controls, the modern Australian pearl industry and, by extension, the global business of pearls.” There are several other Down Under pearlers who would dispute the assertion that the Paspaleys control the Australian industry, let alone farmers and marketers in Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Japan, Vietnam, Polynesia, Fiji, Mexico and the US who would scoff if told that the Paspaleys control the global pearl business.
Of the former and current major players he visited — Tasaki, Wan, Jewelmer, Paspaley — Bloom is most enamored with Paspaley. What with the high-tech armada, air force, 11 of 16 farming leases, production quantity and quality, auctions, retail stores, approximately 1,000 employees and vast holdings outside the pearl industry, swooning is appropriate. But swallowing the company PR and letting the trappings obscure a journalist’s objectivity is not. Two examples here should suffice: First, on page 269, Bloom writes, “Paspaley and other companies grow some of their oysters from spat, but — and this depends on the year and the company — the vast majority of pearls come from mature oysters already on the seafloor.” In fact, about half the Pinctada maxima cultured pearls produced in Australia come from mollusks bred in hatcheries and grown to adulthood, nucleated and harvested on farms. Second, Bloom seems to think the object is to grow the biggest pearls possible. Most round Australian South Sea cultured pearls intentionally measure between 11 and 14 mm. Above 15 or 16 mm, spherical pearls begin to look like the huge gumballs favored by Wilma Flintstone.
In the first few pages of Tears of Mermaids, Bloom convincingly declares his love for pearls. He promises to take the reader on a romantic adventure of discovery. In the narrative, however, that adventure turns out to be far, far too self-centered. This degree of egotism should be reserved for memoirs and autobiographies. Surely, only members of the Bloom family care about the author’s relationship with his wife and son, and how they fare as their husband/father pursues his global pearl dreams.
Given Bloom’s love of pearls, his persistent comparison of their production and marketing to that of cocaine is baffling and deeply offensive. He also seems intent on proving that the lords of pearling maliciously exploit everyone in the production and marketing chain while grossly enriching themselves. Bloom appears to have divided the many pearl industry people who enabled his romantic quest into two categories: those who could help him after he finished the book and those who couldn’t. Or perhaps the categories were the people he liked and those he didn’t. Either way, he needlessly and unfairly skewers many of the very people who made his world pearl tour possible.
Overall, Tears of Mermaids is colorfully written. However, given the choice of colorful or accurate, I would choose the latter. There are several chapters — for example, Chapter 1, “In the Beginning,” 18, “Sold!” and 22, “Fight for Pearl Supremacy: The Strange Case of the Otto Gerdau Co.” — that seem to be thoroughly and accurately reported. Although, considering the scores of errors in the book, I would have to place even those chapters under this heading: Important if True.
A book like Tears of Mermaids has a limited audience, more so if written only for aficionados. So it seems the publishing team decided to try to expand its appeal by making it exotic and a bit racy. Hence, perhaps, the exaggerated portrayals of many players and the romanticized narrative. The poor sales potential seems to have capped the editing effort. Even the index is skimpy. Bloom would have earned more respect and admiration from pearl-knowledgeable readers had he learned things like the meaning of hama-age and mabe, what a hank is, the correct pricing structure of the various pearl types, and that the center of freshwater pearling in China is Zhuji, not Joo-jee. The best thing about the book is the title. It’s hands-down terrific.
Doug Fiske was a writer/editor in the Course Development department at GIA for nearly 12 years. He wrote half of the 1999 GIA Pearls course and the entire revised Pearls course that is due out in 2010. He has visited pearl farms in Tennessee, Japan, fresh and saltwater China, Australia, and the Philippines.
Stephen G. Bloom, 382 pp., St. Martin's Press, New York, 2009. $27.99