Pearl fans celebrate UAE's beautiful natural treasure

Pearl Revival Committee is working to put new lustre on age-old pearling industry and ensure it remains intact and flourishes

The Mother of the Nation pearl statuette of a centaur on display at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // The pearling industry, an honoured part of UAE heritage, is in danger of fading from public memory.

Now, a group of concerned Abu Dhabi cultural experts are working to ensure that the legacy of the regional pearl trade not only remains intact, but flourishes.

Khaled al Sayegh, the chairman of the Pearl Revival Committee, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the country's pearling tradition and restoring the industry as part of the nation's cultural identity, said: "We are the centre of the universe for the natural pearls, and we bring pearls from all over the world here

"It is important to bring attention to the pearl industry and to stabilise momentum and take it up further," Mr al Sayegh said. "We want the younger generation to see the beauty in pearls."

The organisation, which was formed in 2004 and has worked with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), holds symposiums, conferences, and lectures on all facets of pearling.

Before the discovery of oil, the pearl trade was a major economic force in the UAE. Delma Island, a destination for pearl divers in the 19th century, was known for its unique natural pearls, which were sold across the Gulf and treasured by European buyers.

Natural pearls, which now make up only about 0.5 per cent of all the pearls in the world, are formed in the wild, without human interference, when an irritant such as sand becomes trapped inside a mollusc, usually an oyster or a clam.

"This is our story, the story of the Arabian pearl," said Mr al Sayegh. "It is in our blood, and we celebrate this heritage that was passed on to us by our forefathers."

KC Bell, an American pearl expert and collector collaborating with the committee, said the group's efforts sparked a renewed interest in the pearl industry in the UAE.

"Natural pearls are one of those few natural treasures, and here in the Gulf area [it is] a national treasure which we can possess and adorn ourselves with. People's knowledge about all of this and the pearl's importance is growing by the day," Mr Bell said.

Ken Scarratt, the managing director of GIA Southeast Asia, said: "The Gulf, unique in the world, sits on nature's treasure trove of natural pearls, both fished and to be fished, and embraces the knowledge, passion and experience to be able to capitalise on this resurgence.

"I have been drawn to the region for many decades; it has been and remains the heart of natural pearling," Mr Scarratt said. "As you move though the region, its connection with pearls and pearling is clear. There is no other place on earth so well-suited to becoming a centre of excellence in all things associated with pearls and pearling."

The revival committee is looking to help grow the natural pearling industry in Abu Dhabi waters, despite obstacles including pollution and overharvesting of natural pearl beds.

"Historians wrote stories about the Gulf pearl," Mr al Sayegh said. "Singers sang songs to celebrate the treasure, and like our forefathers who struggled for the pearl we now have the obligation to carry that torch further into the future generation, keeping the spirit and our way of life alive forever."

As part of the capital's push to revitalise the once-flourishing pearl industry, some of the world's most rare and beautiful pearls are currently on display in Abu Dhabi.

The Sheikha Fatima Pearl, for example, is one of the largest and rarest natural pearls in the world. The centrepiece of the collection on display at the Emirates Palace hotel, the 856-carat piece is 10.2 centimetres long with a circumference of 15.2 centimetres.

The nacreous baroque pearl, also called the Mother of the Nation, is embedded in a gold statuette of a centaur. The half-man, half-horse sculpture is embellished with white, red, green and black enamelwork and adorned with diamonds.

Mr al Sayegh, said: "The Mother of the Nation is important because of its size and because of its name."

It was displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York until last year. Members of the Pearl Revival Committee declined to name the owner of the piece, but the centaur was loaned to the museum by a European family in 2001. A monetary value has not been assigned to it.

"The Arabian Gulf is where the whole pearl industry began," Mr al Sayegh said ahead of the International Pearl Conference last month, an event that brought together experts from around the world to discuss the future of the industry. "But we have lost that culture and need to remind our young people of the significance of their ancestors' work in the pearl industry - this whole region was created on their success."

The history of the Sheikha Fatima Pearl is unknown, but some experts speculate the statuette could date from the late Renaissance period or the Renaissance-revival period in the mid-19th century, about 1840 to 1870. Based on the pearl's unusual colouring, some experts have guessed it was produced by the rainbow-lipped oyster, which is found along the Baja California peninsula off the coast of Mexico.