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Nature's Gems: The History of Natural Pearls

Natural pearls were fished in the Persian Gulf along the Arabian coast, from modern-day Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman, as well as the Persian coast from possibly as early as 6000- 5000 BCE to about the mid 20th century.

The art of pearl fishing would have required in-depth knowledge of pearl beds and seafaring skills. A dhow (ship) carried the crew members to the sites targeted. The crew included a captain, the captain's assistant, a crew head, divers, pullers, as well as a singer, and a cook.

Tools of pearl divers, Sharjah Maritime Museum - Haupt & Binder

The divers' equipment consisted of a nose clip, a cotton bodysuit, leather finger protectors, a net, and rope. The rope was attached to a weight that would be looped around the ankle of the diver to speed his descent to the sea bed, typically at depths of between 6 to 20 meters. The net would be worn around his neck to collect as many oysters as possible once at the bottom. After 60 to 90 seconds, when the diver was out of breath, he would shake the rope to signal to the puller to pull him back up to the dhow. Each diver went underwater 30-40 times daily and there were as many as 40 divers aboard. A small percentage of the oysters collected would contain naturally formed pearls. Also incredibly important was the role of the singer, the only entertainment for the crew the many several months they were out at sea.

The Oldest Pearl Found in the Region

Natural pearl from Marawah Island - Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism

The oldest pearl excavated in the region is about 3mm and dates from 5800 to 5600 BCE. It was found at Marawah Island, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. At the site, archaeologists also discovered artifacts made from the bones of sea creatures like fish and turtles indicating the ocean was an integral part of life for the ancient communities living there. It is believed that pearls may even have been traded with other civilizations in exchange for ceramics and other goods.

Pearl fishing ended in the region with the invention of cultured pearls in the 1920s and the global depression of the 1930s.

Works cited:

Victoria and Albert Museum, Digital Media webmaster@vam ac uk. “Pearls: About the Exhibition.”, 4 Oct. 2013,


Saplakoglu, Yasemin. “The World’s Oldest Pearl Was Just Discovered on an Island in the Persian Gulf.”, 23 Oct. 2019,

“World’s Oldest Natural Pearl Found in Abu Dhabi.” The National,

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