Pearls recover their lustre for the Emirates

The Life: While the pearl trading business in the region started to decline in the 1930s because of the depression, there has been a resurgence.

In recent years there has been a resurgence in the country's pearl trading business.
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The Emirates has long been rich territory for pearl connoisseurs.

Beginning in the 16th century, pearl diving was a major source of income for people in the UAE and the wider Gulf, says Biju Joy, the general manager of Dubai Gold & Jewellery Group, a trade association with about 600 members.

While the pearl trading business in the region started to decline in the 1930s because of the depression, there has been somewhat of a resurgence lately.

The UAE has hosted a number of events pegged to pearls in recent years, including the country's first World Pearl Forum in 2009.

More than 100 pearl traders joined in a couple of auctions held earlier this year by the Dubai Pearl Exchange, which is a subsidiary of the licensing authority for Dubai's Jumeirah Lake Towers Free Zone known as the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC).

Sales from those auctions totalled more than US$13.5 million (Dh49.5m) and featured white South Sea pearls produced by Paspaley Pearling, as well as Tahitian and golden South Sea pearls from Robert Wan and Jewelmer.

But what about the so-called Dubai pearl that is created here, locally?

"UAE was previously a source for natural pearls," says Mr Joy. "However, the UAE today does not cultivate pearls, and they are imported from China, Australia, the US, Thailand and Philippines for trading purposes."

Others in the region have considered cultivating pearls locally, although a number of hurdles remain.

"The waters in Dubai are very active with the ports, [and] the best producing pearls are the ones in the unchartered areas of Australia and [other] places," says Ahmed bin Sulayem, the executive chairman of the DMCC.

"It would take up 10 or 20 times the size of the space we require in Dubai to get 5 to 20 per cent [of the pearls] to retail."

Today, freshwater pearls are the most common type bought in the Emirates, says Mr Joy. Freshwater cultured pearls are grown in lakes, ponds and rivers, with most of the world's supply coming from China, Japan and the US.

Globally, freshwater pearls are also the most popular, whereas saltwater pearls are rarer.

Most stores will provide in-house certificates for their jewellery, although shoppers should consider some key characteristics of pearls:

Size and shape

One key factor in a pearl's value is its size. Larger pearls typically command a steeper price. The more symmetrical a pearl, experts say, the greater its value. Yet some of the most common shapes of pearls are not only round but oval or semi-round. Long or rice-shaped pearls are also proving popular. "I don't like round," says Mr bin Sulayem. "I like it to have an organic type of shape."

Colour and lustre

Colours can vary from shades of white or peach to pink, lavender and mauve. They generally range from cream to silver-white, which are the most common.

Black is considered the most rare. "I have no idea what's my fascination, but it's always the black that I like," says Mr bin Sulayem, whose two great grandfathers were pearl divers. "I do have two pink pearls that I wear every now and then, but I'm more fascinated with the black colour."

When it comes to a pearl's lustre, the reflection of light on its surface is the most important factor in determining value.

Some in the industry say the best clearly show a person's reflection.


A strand of pearls can range from $100 to $10,000, depending on the key characteristics.

But South Sea pearls are the most expensive, and least commonly bought, says Mr Joy.

"They are some of the rarest and most valued pearls in the world," he says.

"They are generally much larger than other pearl types and have a unique lustrous quality."

South Sea pearls have a thick nacre with a silky lustre, says Mr Joy, and can vary in size from 9 millimetres to 20mm.

"Their host shell is the largest pearl-producing oyster, and is able to grow a very large pearl."

It may take two to four years before one of these is produced, and cost anywhere from $3,000 to $300,000.