UAE pearl industry to rise from the depths after lost decades

Pearls harvested from the waters of the UAE are to be sold at auction for the first time in the country's modern history.

RAS AL KHAIMAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Feb 27 : One of the employee of RAK pearls showing pearl after opening the oyster at the pearl farm in Ras Al Khaimah. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Business. Story by Rory Jones
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Pearls harvested from the warm, briny waters of the UAE will on Sunday morning be sold at auction for the first time in the country’s history at an exclusive sale to be held at the Dubai Pearl Exchange in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

“The UAE produced the finest pearls in the world for over 7,000 years,” said Mohammed Al Suwaidi, one of the founders of RAK Pearls, producer of the gems up for sale. “That stopped in the 1940s with the discovery of oil and the Japanese invention of cultured pearls. Now, with this sale, UAE pearls are available to the market again for the first time. I am so very proud.”

The warm waters of the Arabian Gulf produce highly prized colourful pearls with incredible lustre and luminosity. Some of the consignment for sale this weekend appear to glow gold, others silver, more yet seem to posses a blue inner light.

Several bags of tiny misshapen pearls, or baroque in pearling parlance, which are known as keshis, are also being offered. Keshi pearls are a by-product of the cultivation process and are as close to natural pearls as you can find on the market today.

“The blue baroque keshi pearls are my favourites,” Mr Al Suwaidi said.

He delivered the pearls to the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), home of the Dubai Pearl Exchange, on Wednesday night.

The pearls were ceremoniously handed over to officials who began the laborious process of logging each one. There were between 4,000 and 5,000 pearls in total ranging in size from 7 millimetres in diameter up to 13mm.

The small consignment is expected to fetch north of Dh1 million, according to conservative estimates.

There are at least 50 buyers from all over the world already queuing up to buy the pearls, according to Franco Bosoni, the DMCC director of commodities services.

“We anticipate a lot of interest in the sale,” Mr Bosoni said. “Not only for the quality of the pearls themselves but for the historic nature of the sale. This is a first for the UAE.”

Jewellers and pearl specialists in Dubai are keen to see the pearls. Chetan Karani, the managing director of Mikura, a Dubai-based pearl company, will attend the sale.

“This is the first time anyone has commercially successfully cultured pearls in the Middle East,” Mr Karani said. “This sale could be the start of something very important for the UAE.”

Since the RAK Pearls farm was launched in 2004 it has only produced very small quantities of highly prized pearls with rare lustre and colouring. These were sold exclusively to high net-worth clients and creators of one-of-a-kind pieces of jewellery, such as the Lebanese jeweller Mouawad.

With Sunday’s sale of pearls to the open market it is hoped that the UAE will once again become synonymous with fine pearls.

The introduction of cultured pearls by the Japanese in the 1920s killed off the natural pearling trade that had been the lifeblood of the UAE for millennia.

To create a cultured pearl, oysters farmed in beds are seeded with tiny mother of pearl beads and a small piece of mantle tissue from another pearl. The pearl’s immune system then coats the bead with thousands of layers of calcified tissue that eventually becomes the pearl. The process takes between three and five years.

The RAK Pearl farm operates with almost 30 lines of beds and 200,000 shellfish. Some 40,000 implanted oysters are harvested each year with an 80 per cent success rate. However, only 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the pearls are of the highest quality and sold to exclusive clients and royalty. A further 40 per cent to 50 per cent are sold on the wholesale market.

The sale starts on Sunday and closes the following Thursday. Viewing and bidding are by invitation only. “We have successfully grown commercial quantities of pearls and we are very pleased,” Mr Al Suwaidi said.