How UAE's only pearl farm creates gemstones for jewellers around the world

The profession pre-dates the discovery of oil in the region. This RAK farm is a dive into the past



By SM Ayaz Zakir

Published: Fri 8 Jul 2022, 4:17 PM

Last updated: Tue 12 Jul 2022, 6:28 PM

A delicate, iridescent pearl takes over two years to form. The nearly six-millimetre pearl in the above video did too.

The UAE's only pearl farm in Ras Al Khaimah invites visitors to witness the entire process – from the birth of an oyster to pearl hatching.

This is also the region's first cultured pearl farm. Founded by Abdullah Al Suwaidi in 2005, it caters to jewellers in the country and throughout the world.

Al Suwaidi inherited pearling from his grandfather, who was one of the last pearl divers in the UAE before oil was discovered in the region.

Visiting the farm is a historical journey in itself – from embarking on the old wooden dhow boat to learn about the history of pearling in the Arabian Gulf to experiencing the process of hatching the pearl out of the oyster.

The 20-minute boat ride takes the visitor through the mangroves of Rams in Ras Al Khaimah till the farm. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the Hajar mountains, greenery, and a water lagoon.

Al Suwaidi is keeping the tradition alive of the primary economy of the region. “This is a huge part of our history and deserves to be lived and cherished,” said Al Suwaidi.

He recollects the memory of his grandfather taking him to dive for hours. “It was not to make money, but was a fitness routine and to keep healthy”.

Al Suwaidi first dived at the tender age of eight. He added: “I did my first pearl dive when I was 14 years old which was nearly 30 feet”.

Formation of cultural pearl

At Al Suwaidi’s massive farm, corals are submerged in the lagoon attracting oysters. Othman, the seeding expert at Al Suwaidi Farm, said: “These oysters aged over two years are precisely seeded with a tiny bead made from mantle tissue (oyster shell) that contains epithelial cells from a donor mussel, and the process takes about 30 seconds”.

Once the bead is inside the oyster, “it induces layers of nacre production over the bead which creates the pearl in two years,” said Othman.

These oysters are then transferred to different types of containers and put back in the water. Al Suwaidi monitors the farm and “helps to keep the oyster alive which produces a high quality of pearls,” said Othman.

More than 45,000 oysters are inserted with beads and “we have a 60 per cent success rate. The remaining 40 per cent beads are thrown away by the oysters”.

Natural pearl formation

The formation of a cultural pearl is slightly different from that of the natural pearl, yet both are considered real gemstones.

A natural pearl grows without human intervention and “is formed organically when a foreign body like a seaworm, sand or dust enters the oyster’s muscle accidentally,” said Al Suwaidi.

This activates the secretion of nacre which develops into pearl over time, “only one per cent of the oysters that are extracted from the sea produce pearls,” said Al Suwaidi.

Pearls formed at Al Suwaidi’s farm are shipped all over the world for jewellery. But for Al Suwaidi, the moment of pride was when he gifted Tasbeeh (a string of beads used in praying and meditating) to the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, former UAE President, and the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman.

“This tasbeeh is not for sale and just for viewing,” said Al Suwaidi.

“This is made from the highest quality of cultural pearls, “with sizes ranging from 8 mm to 11 mm. It took about 4-5 years for these pearls to form”.

History of pearl diving in the UAE

Pearl diving in the UAE dates back 7,000 years and used to cater to luxury clients from many parts of the world.

Pearls from the UAE were in demand and very desirable at that time. However, the discovery of oil in the Arab world, the economic impact of world wars, and the introduction of the Japanese cultured pearl had a significant impact.

Pearling in the Emirates, 1907

EmirateNumber of boatsNumber of pearl divers
Abu Dhabi4105,570
Dubai3356,936
Sharjah2995,639
Ajman40781
Umm Al Quwain701,759
Ras Al Khaimah611,360

Types of boats used in pearl diving

Four types of boats were majorly used for pearl diving:

  • Shouai - This boat had a length of 40-60 feet and was not decorated at the back. The front resembled the edge of a sword.
  • Sanbook - This was one of the strongest boats used for pearl diving. It was 60 feet long.
  • Jalboot - One of the most famous boats in the Arabian Gulf. The length of this boat varied from 60 feet to 80 feet and could carry more than 30 sailors.
  • Baggara - This boat was usually 30-40 feet long with a width of 15-17 feet. It could carry about 20 people.

Roles on the pearl diving boat

A pearl diving boat carried nearly 30 men on an average, which included a captain, divers, pullers, cook, helpers entertainers and budding divers.

Tools of a pearl diver

Divers would wear light, black, cotton clothes to protect themselves from sharks. However, they would also wear white to save themselves from jelly fish.

A nose clip made of turtle bone would be worn to stop oneself from breathing. Al Suwaidi says that wood was prone to break under pressure, which is why turtle bone was used.

Finger guards were also used by the divers to protect them from the sharp edges of corals and oysters. These finger caps were made from cow, goat, or camel leather.

A diver takes two ropes along with him. One is tied to his leg with a stone that is 10 per cent of his weight and the other rope has a collection basket.

After collecting the oysters and staying underwater for about 3 minutes, he signals the puller by shaking the rope. “After resting for a minute or two, the diver would return back underwater in search of oysters,” said Al Suwaidi.

The divers dive from dawn to dusk and complete about 200 dives every day.

Seasons of pearl diving

The pearl diving season kicks off with the grand diving season.

The grand diving season commences in the beginning of May and continues until August. Sometimes seasons were delayed due to Ramadan or Eid, but they lasted for 4 months.

The second season or return diving season, lasts from 10 to 30 days. It is when the seawater becomes cold.

In this season, the number of boats and men in the sea is comparatively lesser.

In the third season no diving takes place as boats and divers return to shore. This is for nearly four months.

The fifth season is the preparation season where boats are repaired, and the diver practices their skills before the grand diving season.

What is found on the pearling boat?

A boat sets off for the four-month long journey carrying essential commodities like rice, lentils, dates, coffee, and water for the sailors. Apart from these, a few interesting tools are also taken along.

Al Suwaidi and his pearl farm definitely takes one back to the days of pearl diving, giving each visitor a story to remember.

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