"We are all, from the highest to the lowest, servants of one master - pearl." Muhammad ibn Thani, 1863
When Muhammad ibn Thani uttered those words to William Palgrave, much of the population of the Arabian Gulf, around 60,000 people, were servants of the pearl. Their lives and livelihoods were compressed into the six months between April and September, pearl-diving season. If the oyster beds produced a good harvest, they would have enough money to feed themselves for the rest of the year. A bad season meant hunger and poverty for all but a few.
For thousands of years, the pearl has been a prized possession, a treasure sought after by the earliest civilizations of China, India and Persia in the East; Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Americas in the West. Throughout history, the magical luster, the almost other-worldly glow of the pearl, has captivated the wealthy and powerful. The Queen of Sheba, Moghul emperors of India, Queen Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great were among those who spent their lives collecting pearls.
Even today, pearl dealers of New York, London, Geneva and the Arabian Gulf battle regularly at Christie's and Sotheby's international auctions in an attempt to buy some of the remaining fine-quality natural pearls before they disappear from the world market.
One such pearl dealer is Hussain Alfardan of Doha, Qatar. He estimates that his family has dealt in pearls for over 300 years. They have traced their origins to Sittrah, in Bahrain, though now there are branches of the family throughout the Arabian Gulf.
It was the grand patriarch of the family, the late Hajji Ibrahim Alfardan, who established them as a leading pearl dynasty. Hajji Ibrahim is still remembered by old pearl divers all over the Gulf as an extraordinary pearl man. He was known as The Surgeon for his exceptional skill and patience when using a knife to remove the microscopically thin outer layers of an ugly majhoolah
pearl to reveal a perfection of quality, color and luster underneath - an operation that sometimes took weeks. Hajji Ibrahim died in 1981 at the estimated age of 111 years, one of the last of his generation totally involved in the pearl.
Why do men like Hussain Alfardan and his uncle, Hajji Hassan Makki - himself a venerable man in his 80's - still occupy themselves with the many details of the pearl business, from buying and selling, to selecting designs and fashioning jewelry with their own hands? The answer appears to be that, though they are leaders in their field and widely acknowledged experts, the moment a fine pearl drops into their hands, it takes over. It is the master, for some reason in their blood and their genes; it embodies their childhood past and their cultural heritage. The pearl has an attraction that Hussain, a most articulate man, cannot put easily into words.
"I have my own private collection [of pearls] which is not for sale," he says. "When I'm sad or tired, I take the pearls out and look at them, losing myself by dreaming of the past and singing the old pearling songs. And I feel happy. Just looking at pearls makes me happy. Their monetary value is nothing compared with the special feeling I have for them."
To understand this rare passion we must look at the pearl itself. Every pearl is unique - nature at her glorious best. They need no enhancement, no cutting or polishing to add to their natural beauty and symmetry. They are found in almost every color of the rainbow: pink, blue, green, black, gray, yellow, cream and bronze, but the most prized of all is white with a faint sheen of rose pink, ideally combined with a deep luster that gives the pearl an almost translucent quality.
Arabian Gulf colloquial Arabic has many words for "pearl," such as lulu', dana, hussah,gumashah,
and the Alfar-dans still use the old, traditional names to describe shape and color. There is the sujani,
or pear-shaped drop; the khaizi,
with an elongated upper half and a half rounded bottom; the adasi,
cylindrica with flat sides; the majhoolah,
or unknown a large, irregular, ugly pearl which on ran. occasions conceals a perfect one under it' exterior. The sindaali
is flesh-colored, sofri
is yellow, and the khardil
is black. The sinjabaasi
is the finest black pearl of all, and the nimro
is a pearl fixed in the shell. Lastly, there is the jiwan
- a corruption of the Persian word jawan,
meaning young or premature - the perfect pearl, rose-tinted white, completely round and with a luster so pure that it comes alive with radiance.
Pearls are still sorted and graded using a series of 25 brass sieves collectively called gurbaai,
each individual sieve is a tasah.
And, while the rest of the world weighs precious gems in carats, the pearl merchants of the Arabian Gulf still use the old unit, the chow,
whose relationship to the carat is complicated. One writer claims that one carat equals 0.6518 chow
but two carats are 2.6074 chow;
dealers use handbooks with equivalency tables.
A symbol of purity and chastity in the East as well as the West, the pearl's mysterious origins have been variously described as magical drops of dew or rain; Sumerian tablets refer to them as "fish-eyes." Even today, experts cannot agree on how they form: Is a parasitic worm responsible, a grain of sand or a disease? Some pearls have a clearly defined parasitic nucleus while others have no nucleus at all. The only thing that is clear is that the oyster coats the irritant deep within its shell with layer upon layer of nacre, the secretion with which it builds its shell, until a pearl is born.
This is the difference, and, conversely, the similarity between a natural pearl and a cultured pearl. When pearls are cultured, an irritant, usually a tiny piece of shell, is placed inside the young oyster, or spat, which is then returned to the sea to grow for another two to 10 years, or even more. But the cultured pearl loses its luster, both dealers and wearers believe, and its color fades a few decades after harvesting, whereas there are natural pearls 300 or 400 years old that are as lustrous and beautiful today as when they were found.