Pearls used to make up 75% of the Persian Gulf's exports - but now the centuries-old industry is vanishing

  • The pearl industry made up 75% of the Persian Gulf's total exports at the end of the 19th century.
  • At the time, free diving was the only way to harvest pearls, and would require embarking on four-month voyages in search of oysters.
  • But the development of pearl farming in the 1930s allowed other countries to take over the market, and the industry nearly vanished in the Gulf. 
  • Today, some practice the old method of pearl diving to honor their heritage.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

Following is a transcript of an episode of Business Insider Today.

To harvest pearls like this, it once took 30 men and a four-month voyage across the Persian Gulf.

And it was worth the journey. Pearls made up 75% of the Gulf's total exports at the end of the 19th century.

Pearling was the pillar of local economies on the Gulf, employing nearly half of Qatar's population alone.

But a new way to harvest pearls changed everything. And by the mid-1900s, pearl diving had nearly vanished.

Pearl farming wiped out an entire industry, but some continue to carry on diving as a tradition.

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AFPTV

Free diving used to be the only way to harvest pearls.

Pearling on the Persian Gulf dates back to the Stone Age.

Wearing an all-cotton, traditional diving suit, the diver jumps in feet-first.

A clip made from turtle shell or sheep's bone keeps his nose plugged, and a stone weight tied to his feet pulls him under the surface.

Submerged for one or two minutes, he collects the oysters in a woven basket. When it's time to come up, the seib - the crew member managing the ropes - pulls him up onto the boat. Then, the crew cracks open the oysters and counts the pearls.

It's hard work - but today, instead of pearl diving, most producers are pearl farming, where farmers artificially seed oysters and then place them underwater nurseries.

With the spread of pearl farming in the 1930s, other countries began to flood the market, and the value of pearls dropped.

The number of pearl boats in the Gulf shrunk from 3,000 down to just 530 within a couple decades. Divers neglected the pearl trade, and the region turned to oil production.

Today, China is the biggest pearl producer in the world, something that doesn't sit well with pearl farmer Abdulla Al Suwaidi.

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Knowledge Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority

Abdulla Al Suwaidi, pearl farmer: "And the Gulf States, including the Emirates and the coast, before the union do not add or participate (in the trade) by even a fraction."

Gulf countries once took up between 65% and 80% of the global pearl market, selling to wealthy Europeans and royal families.

But Suwaidi says his farm is now the only one in all of the Middle East.

And even though pearl diving could bring in as much as $2,000 for one small pearl, most of his income comes from his farmed pearls.

But he continues to free dive to honor his heritage.

Suwaidi: I lived and spent a great deal of time with my grandfather who was a pearl diver. And he taught me a lot in regards to the pearl diving profession through my incessant questions and my demands for more information and stories. It shaped my imagination as a visionary in order to reorganize this profession.

Other countries are doing the same - this annual three-day pearl diving competition off the coast of Qatar celebrates the Gulf's pearling history.

So although the centuries-long practice has nearly disappeared, it's legacy lives on.

Jihad Al Jaidah, head of Senyar Festival organizing committee: "We want to revive the heritage. So we wanted to make them feel what our grandparents suffered during pearl hunting and fishing and in building this civilization that we now enjoy."

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