Pearl culture set to change

Artificial methods put paid to Abu Dhabi as one of the major centres for the production of the much-prized silvery orbs, but now a concerted effort is being made to re-establish its position.

Diamonds often take centre stage in the most expensive jewellery pieces today but a century ago, it was pearls that were the most sought-after gem.

The well-to-do of society would pay top dollar because of their rarity. Natural pearls can only be formed when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, accidentally finds its way into an oyster or clam, which then coats it with a pearly sheen as a defence mechanism.

But since the invention of cultured pearls - created by deliberately inserting a fragment into an oyster - in the 1950s, the real thing has become even rarer.

They now represent about 0.5 per cent of all the pearls in the world, partly due to the mass production of cultured pearls and the pollution of oyster habitats such as the Gulf.

But the Pearl Revival Committee in Abu Dhabi is hoping to turn the tide.

Khaled al Sayegh, the committee chairman, said it was working with scientists to find a way to strengthen the molluscs and protect the environment.

The committee is also encouraging retailers and consumers in the Emirates to have their pearls certified or appraised by experts, to educate people about the differences between them and cultured pearls, Mr al Sayegh said.

"We're not against cultured pearls," he said at a recent conference. "But we are against selling the natural pearls and cultured pearls in the same bag, at the same price."

Abu Dhabi was once home to the world's greatest pearl bed, a ridge known as the Great Pearl Bank Barrier, and it was for pearls rather than oil that the region was renowned.

But with the introduction of cultured pearls and later the discovery of oil, the 80,000 workers in the pearl sector sought jobs in other industries. There are still pearl beds around the UAE coast but it is a now shadow of the industry it once was.

The UAE has at least one commercial pearl farm, the Emirates and Japan Pearl Cultivation and Trading Company in Ras al Khaimah, but it produces a relatively small yield of cultured gems, not natural ones.

Dubai has instead pushed to establish itself as a centre for the trade of pearls, both cultured and natural, with the launch of the Dubai Pearl Exchange.

Last year, about Dh99.6 million (US$27.1m) worth of pearls were traded through the emirate, up from Dh95m in 2008.

The global market is expected to reach about $3 billion annually by the end of this year, representing 2 per cent of the jewellery market, according to the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

But there are not enough natural pearls to meet the global demand, said Ellen Lau, the director of Jewellery and Precious Metals Industry for the All-China Federation's Chamber of Commerce.

"The supply is not certain and the quality is not certain, because they grow naturally in different parts of the sea," Ms Lau said during a recent industry conference in Abu Dhabi, organised by the Pearl Revival Committee.

"In the sea, there is pollution so the colour is not the same. There isn't a stable farm or stable production for these pearls."

Rapid development along the UAE's shores, such as the Palm Jumeirah complex, is also affecting the coastal habitat and marine life.

"To accommodate expanding industries and rapid population increases, there have been massive changes to large areas of ecologically productive coastal habitats throughout the Gulf," says a report called The Growing Need for Sustainable Ecological Management of Marine Communities of the Arabian Gulf, published in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in August.

"Inter-tidal flats, mangrove forests, fringing coral reefs, seagrass beds and sandy embayments, in particular, have been altered by coastal dredging and development.

"There is a lack of capacity in environmental regulatory agencies to help guide this growth, and because development has been too rapid, there have been many negative environmental impacts."

Mr al Sayegh said the committee was working with scientists and local environmental agencies to find a way to boost the resilience of the remaining natural pearl beds.

"What we are trying to do is to find a way to make the oysters more strong," he said.

But one of the biggest challenges for the natural pearl industry is a lack of education among consumers about the difference between natural and cultured pearls, said Maria Luisa Vitobello, the president of the European Jewellery Technical Network.

"The problem is there is not enough information, communication, related to making the difference," Ms Vitobello said.

It takes an expert eye and special X-ray equipment to be able to tell the difference. The Pearl Revival Committee this year began working with the Gemological Institute of America to standardise the testing of pearls in the UAE.

Ms Lau said that was a good move but it would take time.

"We need training," she said. "That will be step by step. You cannot have experts overnight."