An industry that had become moribund has been revived by the Middle East’s first pearl culture farm.
Two hours away fromDubai’s skyscrapers and six-lane highways, Al Rams is home to a pearl farm where dirt roads open to the sea.
The warm air smells of fish, birds circle low over mangroves, and men — much like their grandfathers decades before them — search for oysters carrying the shiniest pearls.
Mr. Suwaidi plunges a knife into an oyster plucked fresh from the sea. He cracks open the shell and cuts through the tough flesh to reveal, hidden in the center, a perfectly round, shiny pearl. He rubs the pearl between his hands with thick salt and water to clean it and remove the smell of the sea. He holds it up between thumb and forefinger with a smile.
“They used to suffer so much, spending months at sea diving from sunrise to sunset, hoping to find something like this,” he says of his grandfather’s time.
The pearl industry once dominated the business sector in the Gulf. During the 1930s, however, it ground to a halt after a technique developed by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan to culture pearls made it much cheaper to export high quality pearls during the Great Depression. For 80 years, the pearl industry was moribund in the Gulf. Today, Mr. Suwaidi along with his brother Abdulla al Suwaidi and a Japanese business partner are managing the Middle East’s first pearl culture farm.
RAK Pearl Holding, which has been selling pearls to royalty in the Gulf over the last five years, is trying to revive the Gulf’s pearl industry. Whereas divers used to find natural pearls in one out of 100 oyster shells, the success rate is nearly 80 percent with pearl culturing. The company cultures about 40,000 pearls a year, each costing between 1,000 dirhams to 20,000 dirhams, or $270 to $5,450, depending on shape, size, luster and color.
Ten percent of pearls are deemed of remarkably high quality and are sold to wholesalers such as Mouawad jewelers, the Lebanese team behind the world’s most expensive handbag and brassiere, selling for $3.8 million and $11 million, respectively.
Their pearls are also used to make exquisite jewelry pieces in-house. On his Blackberry, Mohamed al Suwaidi displays a picture of a floral necklace presented to the wife of Ras al-Khaimah’s ruler that took six months to make and included 70 pearls of the highest quality as well as diamonds.
“For the last five years, we focused on pearl farming, but this year we have expanded to include an in-house workshop and manufacturing site, so we can make our own designs,” he said.
Back on land, Mr. Suwaidi walks to a small office near the water, where a man in glasses and a blue cap who everyone refers to as “Captain” is culturing pearls at a desk with a magnifying glass.
A box full of oysters in neat rows faces him. He takes one and opens it, ready to insert a round bead made from crushed oyster shells, along with oyster tissue, in oysters found naturally in the bay by divers in the summer. They are then returned to the water and cleaned weekly.
Over the course of a year, a layer grows around the bead, forming a pearl in 80 percent of oysters harvested.
Before oil was discovered in the Gulf, local tribes relied on the success of pearl divers in search of natural pearls to sell to royalty in Europe and India.
Up to 50 divers would spend four months at sea on a dhow in the summer, eating one meal of rice and fish a day, all in the hope of finding treasure in oysters.
A good summer would mean that a pearl diver could secure land for his family. A bad summer could hold a pearl diver in debt for years, because the diver must pay the boat owner in advance for a spot on the dhow. Pearls from the Gulf have adorned royalty and celebrities, including Grace Kelly.
“Now that the Japanese pearl industry is declining because they have problems with pollution in the water, I thought, what if we brought pearls back to the Gulf?” said Abdulla al Suwaidi, vice chairman and managing director of RAK Pearl Holding.
“It was a question that I never thought would turn into anything until I bought a pearl necklace for a wedding present for my wife from a Japanese pearl trader.”
The Suwaidis’s partner, Daiji Imura, 47, began selling pearls to wealthy families in the Mideast in 2001 and met Mr. Suwaidi. The Japanese pearl trade was in steady decline then, after a red tide of harmful phytoplankton damaged Japan’s oysters in the mid-1990s. Cheap pearls from China were also a problem.
After two years of research and development using their own finances, Mr. Imura and Mr. Suwaidi started Emirates & Japan Holding in 2005. They are now able to maintain a steady production of about 40,000 pearls per year. In 2009, the government of Ras al-Khaimah formed a joint venture with the company, culminating in the founding of RAK Pearl Holding.
The company aims to expand, opening subsidiaries, including a restaurant offering oyster meat, a souvenir shop, and a museum chronicling the history of the pearl industry in the Gulf.
They will continue to sell pearls to high-end consumers, not the mass market. They are now in search of American collaborators.
The eco-friendly company focuses on using every part of the oyster, with the meat going to restaurants and the shells sold as decorations in the souvenir shop. The pearls are saved for high-end jewelry designs in-house, as well as collaborations. Mouawad plans to make 12 pieces worth 1 million dirhams each this year.
“It’s the only gem produced from a living organism,” said Mohamed Al Suwaidi, holding open a red velvet bag full of the month’s catch in his hand.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 3, 2012
A photo caption with a previous version of this article misidentified a worker at a cultured pearl operation.