Bahrain’s pearls and present

“If you get lost, or separated from the group, just follow the pearls,” says our guide. I feel like I’ve stepped into Hansel and Gretel’s world — if it were set in the Kingdom of Bahrain, that is. Instead of breadcrumbs, there are round lights on the sides of narrow, cobbled streets. We’re in the heart of the Pearling Path, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.

Natural pearls, like the ones from the Gulf region, are considered the most precious, owing to their lustre and rarity, especially if you’re looking for that perfect specimen. Pearls are a national treasure here even today: while the economy has diversified into oil and natural gas, pearling is still a large part of the Bahraini cultural identity. This was evident at the Christie’s Magnificent Pearls exhibit and auction, held in Manama in March this year.

With a legacy of diving that stretches back 4,000 years, I discover that at one point, 80% of all natural pearls in the world came from the region. However, things declined in the 1930s (thanks to cultured Japanese pearls and the Great Depression; in recent decades, design houses like Mikimoto have been using cultured variants to create contemporary jewellery). “Little wonder that even today, cultured pearls are not legally allowed to be brought in or sold within these borders,” says David Warren, senior international jewellery director and head of jewellery Middle East at Christie’s.

Bahrain’s pearls and present

Under the sea
  • If you’re a certified diver, try diving for pearls. Once you get your ticket online (around ₹1,000), a licensed scuba diving centre of your choice will take care of the briefing and equipment (at additional cost). Each diver is allowed to pick 60 oysters, which will be opened on the boat. Once ashore, get them appraised for value and quality. Details on

How divers lived

With 2020 less than six months away (when the UNESCO deadline for the Pearling Path expires), the Bahrain Ministry of Culture is hard at work getting it fully functional. The heritage site — officially called ‘Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy’ — features three oyster beds, a seashore site, as well as 17 buildings that are now seamlessly a part of the urban landscape of Muharraq city. Three of these are currently open to the public, and restorative work is ongoing at the other sites.

The entire path is 3.5 km long, says our guide, a young woman architect working on the project. “Once completed, each building will showcase one aspect of the pearl economy,” she explains, bringing our attention to the Al-Ghus House, a typical humble dwelling for a diver. The grey outer walls are flecked with seashells and coral. Inside, the ceilings are low, and a verandah opens up into a large courtyard shaded by a large tree. It is part of Bahraini culture for people to gather and talk in such open spaces, we’re told. Meanwhile, Warren walks us through the paraphernalia on display. “They used stones to weigh themselves down and clips on their nose so they wouldn’t breathe in water. Tools to prise the oysters from the sea bed, a net to gather them, and metal tips [to protect their fingers] were other essentials,” he says.

Bahrain’s pearls and present

Shucking for luck

Next, we stop at a work-in-progress house of a family of pearl merchants, who started out as divers and worked their way up, in both business and society. There’s an India connect here: the ceiling beams of mangrove wood came from the sub-continent. Then we walk to Fakhro House, the luxury residence of a successful timber and boat merchant. “What you see here used to be the waterfront,” explains our guide. “The merchant could see the boats coming in from his home. As they expanded, land was reclaimed.” We try hard to imagine the dusty street — whose current occupants are parked cars and an indifferent cat — as a busy dock. It is an interesting exercise, considering that now the sea is a few miles away.

A couple of days later, before we leave the island country, the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (Danat) organises Pearl Tales — where real divers treat us to traditional songs and dance. One of them sits with a basket of fresh oysters, and we’re allowed to try our luck. It’s more an exercise in showing us how rare these gems of the ocean are; not one of us find a pearl. But that’s OK, it is just one more reason to go shopping and invest in some natural pearls.


The writer was there on invitation from the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (Danat) and Christie’s.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 9:06:23 PM |

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