A Pearl’s Journey:

October 3, 2016


Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum

Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum

Throughout the ages, the pearl, long known as the ‘Queen of Gems’, has retained its value, appeal and status as a symbol of wealth, luxury and glamour. Till this day the enigmatic gem, which is amongst the oldest gemstones known to mankind, remains collected, worn and revered worldwide. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures appear to have been the first to value pearls as there exists archaeological evidence that as far back as 6000 years ago people in the Persian Gulf region were sometimes buried with a pierced pearl resting in the right hand.

It is no surprise then that traditionally Arabs have shown the greatest love for pearls. With pearls so abundant in the region, Middle Eastern cultures, amongst others, have had a long history of using and owning the most exceptional pearls that have adorned the necks of Moguls and Sheikhs alike. The depth of this affection for the prized gemstones can be seen in the Koran as well as in works of poetry. The Persian poet Saadi Shirazi (1190-1291 A.D.) aptly described the birth of this timeless gem, that is thought to represent perfection and completeness in Islam;


A raindrop fell from a spring cloud, and, seeing the wide expanse of the sea, was shamed. “Where the sea is,” it reflected, “where am I? Compared with that, forsooth, I am extinct.”

While thus regarding itself with an eye of contempt, an oyster took it to its bosom, and Fate so shaped its course that eventually the raindrop became a famous royal pearl.

It was exalted, for it was humble. Knocking at the door of extinction, it became existent.
p. 71 The Bustan of Sadi, tr. by A. Hart Edwards, [1911], at sacred-texts.com

This highly prized and coveted gemstone is intimately connected to the history and people of Bahrain, an island dubbed the Pearl of the Gulf.  It is a trade persued by its people across the ages since it was the main profession of merchants in the Gulf from the nineteenth century up to the first decades of the twentieth century. Whilst the divers were a pivotal part of the trade, it was the Tawwash or pearl merchants, who steered the course of the trade. The task of sorting the pearls, classifying them and selling them to local or international buyers rested in the hands of these experienced merchants. Although it must be noted that several other key figures played an important role in the great pearl-market towns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as Manama.

These were:
The tajir: a land-based trader who advanced the loans to the captains, and who was entitled to buy all the pearls of the catch at a reduced price of 20 percent.

The tawwash: a seagoing merchant, who wandered the seas and ports, during the pearling season, in the hope of obtaining a good purchase at lower prices in the absence of competitors. They also traded in water and other provisions at sea for pearls, as some sales were made at sea by the captains in order to maintain their boats and crew till the season ended and the main buying and selling began on the shore.

The dallal: acted as a broker between the tawwash and the tajir and often took a commission from both the buyer and seller. He was knowledgeable about the pearls as well as current market trends and prices.

The muthammin: someone who interceded to determine the value of the catch in cases where a merchant and captain disagreed.


Although some buying and trading was done at sea the bulk of the sales of pearls occurred on land. It involved both local and international dealers, many of whom were of Indian origin, as Bahrain was the main supply center and market for pearls headed for Bombay. Pearls gathered by the Gulf fleets reached Bombay and then the finest found their way to Europe and the USA.

Merchant’s equipment

Much like a doctor with his doctor bag containing his medical kit, the merchant carried a cloth bag or dasta, containing a set of equipment to determine the value of pearls. This traditionally red bundle of cloth known as the dasta or khirja typically contained:

Scales, (mizan): a small set of weighing scales.

Weights (awzan): each merchant possessed at least one set of weights, typically made of polished stone such as agate or sometimes brass.

Pearl sieves (tasat): graded brass sieves used to sort the pearls by size before they are then sorted by color and class. .

Pearl scoops (mighrafa): used to pour pearls into the sieves or into storage cloths.

Red cloth (khirja): used to hold the pearls. Red was the color of choice, as it was believed to offset the beauty of the pearls themselves.

Jeweler’s loupe (adasa): used to examine and work on the pearls.

Merchant’s chest (bishtakhta): a compartmentalized chest used to store the merchant’s equipment and bags of pearls.

Chao book (daftar al-awzan): leather-bound books that contained sets of tables that could be used to obtain the chao value for a pearl according to its weight, as well as that of each individual pearl within a batch of pearls of the same size. The chao is a unit of value calculated on the basis of the square of the weight of a pearl or pearls; this saved the merchants from the hassle of calculating the value of each pearl itself.

In Bahrain the pearls were weighed by a traditional Arab measurement, the mithqal, which utilized a set of weights made of brass.  The mithqal, which equaled 4.5 grams, was used to weighing pearls with a diameter less than 4.5 mm while chaw, was used for those above 4.5 mm.

Types of pearls

Pearls, or lu’lu, come in a myriad of shapes and sizes and therefore vary in value and this required that a merchant be knowledgeable in order to be successful. Expert merchants till this day might hold on to particular pearls for years until they find their match in order to complete a piece of jewelry, such as a necklace or earrings.

The pearls of the Gulf were reputed to be the finest in the world, especially those that emerged off the shores of Bahrain.  There were numerous varieties of pearls in the Gulf and a number of names used to classify them. The most common being:


Dana (Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum)

Dana or hasba: a fine pearl

Jiwan, G1: the most superior and beautifully consistently shaped pearl that shows excellent luster.

Golwah: is the second most superior kind of pearl following the Jiwan. It is however not as consistent in shape or as lustrous as the Jiwan pearl.

Khashra: lowest grade of pearls that are usually not used.

Durrah: big pearls

Marjan: smaller seed pearls

Badla (Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum)

Badla (Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum)

Badla: a pearl irregular in shape

Na’em: a perfectly round small pearl

Bukah: small, irregularly shaped pearls that come in a variety of colors

Pearl colors

The lustrous, spherical gems also demanded a color classification system, which essentially was not simple due to the luster that affected the color seen by the naked eye. In Bahrain, it is believed that pearls were classified into the following colors:

Abyad: white

Asfar or Ashagar: a light yellow

Wardi: pink

Ghameg: grey

Aswad (Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum)

Aswad (Photo Credit: Bahrain National Museum)

Aswad: black

Samawi: any color with a hint of a blue tone.

Basali: white but not entirely pure

Mushayyar: an extremely rare and valuable white pearl with red undertones.

Akhdar: the worst color, tending towards green.

Zujaji: white with some transparency.

After the pearls are sorted by size and color, the price can be determined by a number of characteristics, mainly:

  1. Shine and luster
  2. Shape
  3. Color
  4. Softness
  5. Weight

The strenuous and time consuming task of sorting the pearls and selling them, however, is well worth it as the power of this revered gemstone has stood the test of time. The immortal beauty of pearls still resonates strongly today and continues to defy time, as pearls remain now as popular as ever, whether cultured, natural or artificial. Pearls adorn our clothes, hair, and bags and are no longer confined to a singular use as an item of jewelry. Nothing testifies more to this then the iconic moment in 2011 when Elizabeth Taylor’s pearl necklace, which features a 16th century pear- shaped natural pearl weighing approximately 50 carats, La Peregrina, one of the most historically significant pearls, sold for 11.8 million dollars at Christies. This pearl necklace, which Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor back in 1969, set a new benchmark for pearl sales, as it was a record price for any pearl ever sold at auction. It becomes clear at this instance that the modern global market is just as fascinated by this immortal gemstone as ancient cultures were. It therefore is a trade that survives today on the tiny island of Bahrain, whose history is intertwined with that of the pearl, albeit on a much smaller scale.

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