Thousands of years ago, pearls were Qatar’s first major export. But the industry suffered greatly in the last century when it faced competition from Japanese oyster farmers.
Despite this, natural pearls retain their place as a premium product at the high end of the jewelry market. And in the waters off Qatar, there are still seasoned divers in search of nature’s treasures.
A family story
Mohammed Abdulla al-Sada is one of the few divers still looking for his fortune at the bottom of the ocean. For him, it’s a family tradition.
“My grandfather, actually, he was a pearl fisherman,” he says. “When I told my father, I want to go to the sea to catch fish as a second job and go to the fish market. He said to me, ‘Why? You are a diver, why don’t you take oysters ? and look for the pearls?’ “
Oysters that contain pearls are rare and it takes a keen eye to find them.
“First, you have to know if it’s an old oyster or a baby oyster,” says Mohammed. “How do you know? The size plus the thickness of the oyster. And also, there’s another thing I’m looking for, a space behind. More space, more age. You know about this oyster , that means she is older than the others.”
Although many pearl divers use tanks to stay underwater longer, Mohammed still practices the art of freediving. It is trained to be able to hold its breath for long periods of time while it rakes the seabed, just like its ancestors. It is one of the oldest professions in the Gulf region, and in the past, men also used to attach stone weights to a leg and a nose clip when descending deep to find oysters.
A streak of good fortune
During our trip, Mohammed experiences a series of good fortunes, finding several pearls. Small pearls are relatively more common, but to find an oyster with a large natural pearl inside, it’s more like one in 10,000. That gives you an idea, an idea why they’re so expensive and so desirable to many.
But for Mohammed, it’s not about earning a salary. Natural pearl diving is a vocation, a link with its past. And for him, it’s about keeping old traditions alive.
“It’s part of us,” he says. “It’s our culture. It’s what our grandfather did for a living. And right now we can also make money from it. So there are a lot of reasons why I doing this thing. And I love it. I’m a diver.”
Embroidered in Qatari culture
Apart from being vital for the livelihood of the local community, the beads are embroidered into Qatari culture and heritage. To learn more about it, I met Jassim Al Kuwari at the National Museum of Qatar.
“The first pearl exports came from the Gulf, actually,” he explains. “Gulf pearls, especially Basra pearls, were considered the most expensive type of pearl because they have a light and unique fracturing structure, and they have unique shapes that make rounded pearls the most expensive. .
“So pearls have reached all over the world. Western Europe, all the way to China and East Asia. And one of the items we have here in the gallery, especially in the gallery number seven, which is in the center of the museum, is the Baroda rug, which was made in India by the Indian Maharajah of Baroda.
“Thus, pearls were used to decorate many pieces of furniture. Even the mother of pearl which is the lining or the essence that is inside the oyster was used in many cultures and all over the world. For the carpet Baroda, it was a gift from the Indian Maharajah of Baroda to Muslims, and to cover the tomb of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so he made a whole room, a whole carpet of beads and other stones precious.
The collapse of industry
But the arrival of cultured pearls triggered a rapid decline in the natural pearl industry.
“Until the 1930s, Qatar’s main export was pearls,” says Jassim. “But during this period, especially a Japanese man named Mikimoto Kokichi, he developed the cultured pearl industry and together with the cultured pearl industry, it caused the pearl industry to collapse. natural gulf here because by collecting 8000 oysters from the waters you would only get 5-15 Pearls max They would not always look good Some of them would have different shape, size and color But with the cultured pearl industry, you can plant 8,000 oysters and harvest the exact shape, color and size you want, which has dropped the price of the natural Gulf pearl. the industry here in the Gulf slowly died out during the 1920s and 1930s.”
The memory of the industry, however, remains alive in the National Museum.
“We highlight the depth of the pearl industry,” says Jassim. “Talking first about the Pearl Trader, then about the reach of pearls around the world, from Rome 2000 years ago to North America in the 1930s. Talking about the importance of pearls during this time and of how they were the most expensive type of jewelry to be worn by celebrities or royalty around the world.”
Continuing the tradition
For some jewelry buyers however, natural pearls remain irreplaceable.
Nada bint Khamis Al-Sulaiti is a award-winning cartoonist based in Doha, where she is Creative Director at Hairaat. Her Sakura necklace won a Merit Award in International Jewelery Design Excellence from Hong Kong in 2017 and a Golden Award from A’ Design in 2015.
“There is a market just for natural pearls,” she says. “There are people who only buy natural pearls, and they don’t believe in cultured pearls and we have a lot of customers in this area who only buy natural pearls. Now if we talk about this market , it is considered 5% of the market only. However, natural pearls are always and always will be in fashion. Now for us, we use them mainly in fine jewelry and custom made bespoke pieces.”
Hairaat’s collections are inspired by the length and breadth of Qatar. The brand is internationally recognized, but all designs are deeply rooted in the natural beauty of the country.
“I went with my parents across the country to see the desert, the sea, the ruins, the old houses and so on,” says Nada. “And I always saw beauty. Since then, I always wondered how can I use it creatively. And then I noticed that my language was jewelry, and I found a way to translating the beauty I see around me and everything in all the detail we have here in wearable art and everyday use pieces.
“I’m very proud of where I come from,” she continues. “I mean, I’m an international person. I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve lived in the Middle East, I’ve traveled everywhere. But I’m still connected, rooted here. I love learning from others cultures, but I don’t want to forget my origin and I’m proud of it.”