The Gulf of Mannar in Ceylon (nowadays Sri Lanka) was historically one of two main areas in the world at the centre of the Pearl industry (the other being The Persian Gulf where so-called 'Basra' pearls were found). The shallow waters around the Gulf had been important since ancient times, their bounty being mentioned in early Greek and Roman texts and visited by the explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century.
Pearls grow within Oyster shells as a result of parasitic disease or a foreign body entering the shell which is then coated in nacre as the Oyster's way of protecting itself. Now, it is said that only one in a thousand Oysters will produce a gem quality Pearl, but many produce a great number of tiny 'seed' Pearls measuring less than 2mm in diameter. The Gulf of Mannar was the most prolific source of these Seed Pearls which were found in the Pinctada Radiata species of oyster on the banks.
These tiny natural 'Seed' Pearls are an oft seen feature in antique jewellery from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Highly regarded for their beauty and delicacy, as embellishments to a larger design, or in their own right clustered into naturalistic designs, so fashionable were these teeny Seed Pearls. Measuring from 0.5 to 3 millimetres, these teeny lustrous Pearls were crafted into full suites of elaborate jewellery, painstakingly threaded onto horsehair or silk and sewn over a carved Mother of Pearl base, many hundreds of Pearls being needed to create a single piece of jewellery. See the original design for a suite of seed Pearl jewellery we have in our collection below.
For several centuries under Colonial rule of either the Dutch (1664-1795) or British (1798-1948), the Pearls in the Gulf of Mannar were harvested once every few years from banks or 'paars' out at sea. The ideal was to harvest every seven years, but this was often breached by the controlling British Colonial rulers as such was the thirst for this lucrative harvest and the revenue it brought.
As Kari Pearl discusses...
'The Pearl Banks (paars) stretch from the island of Mannar, off the northwestern tip of modern-day Sri Lanka, south to Chilaw, at depths ranging from five to 15 fathoms. The shallow undersea plateau on which the banks are located varies from 32 kilometres wide in the north to six km in the south. Traditionally, each of the 50 or so banks bore a unique name, the most productive being the Cheval and the Moderagam.'
As Sarah Walton discusses in her article 'A Photobook of The Shimmer';
'The Manaar pearl fisheries/melas sprung up as sporadic “heterotopias” of up to 50,000 men, women, and children, who set up home and shop around the town of Marichchukkaddi. Living in thatched mud huts, they gathered en masse through word of mouth, rumour, or after the colonial government posted annual advertisements in the press announcing the imminent opening of the fisheries. Travelling from Malabar, Ceylon, the Malay Archipelago, Canton, Madras, and north-east India, this cosmopolitan, subaltern crowd...'
The Oysters would be brought to the surface by expert 'Parava' divers (local peoples by descent involved in the Pearling industry) who had trained themselves to stay under water without oxygen for extended periods in these shark infested depths. A shaman shark charmer played a crucial role in blessing talismans to protect the divers from the sharp toothed predators on what could sometimes be a perilous dive.
After being brought to the surface, their extraction is not a pretty tale as the practice was to allow the Oysters to rot in pits for ten days in order to extract the tiny Pearls more easily. These would then become infested by flies, the inevitable putrid stench making this an unpleasant process.
Once harvested, the Pearls from Sri Lanka were sent to the Pearl markets of Madras and Bombay. India which was the centre of production of seed Pearl jewellery in the early 19th century, and where there was a long history in working with Pearls. It is said the skilled and labour intensive jobs of sorting, drilling, arranging, threading and sewing were worked by the dexterous hands of children.
Many of these designs from the late Georgian era have a distinctly Indian inspiration in delicately trailing floral arrangements and lotus flowers shaped in intricate arabesques, but sadly due to their fragile nature surviving suites often have damage sustained over the years.
Regretfully, these once important oyster beds are now all but extinct due to over exploitation; dredging, over fishing and disease in particular under British rule, the last successful 'expedition' being made in 1909. The Pearling culture as old as civilization and a whole way of life which had survived centuries is now only history. However they are now protected as the area is now a National Marine Park and Biosphere Reserve.
Original pieces from this time have great charm, history and unique beauty. If you're interested in further reading, have a look at these pages...