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Pearl hunting or pearl diving refers to a now largely obsolete method of retrieving pearls from pearl oysters, freshwater pearl mussels and, on rare occasions, other nacre-producing creatures, such as abalone.

History

Pearl diver in Japan
Before the beginning of the 20th century, the only means of obtaining pearls was by manually gathering very large numbers of pearl oysters (or pearl mussels) from the ocean floor (or lake or river bottoms). The bivalves were then brought to the surface, opened, and the tissues searched.

In order to find enough pearl oysters, free-divers were often forced to descend to depths of over 100 feet on a single breath, exposing them to the dangers of hostile creatures, waves, and drowning, often as a result of deep water blackout on resurfacing.. Because of the difficulty of diving and the unpredictable nature of natural pearl growth in pearl oysters, pearls of the time were extremely rare and of varying quality.

In Asia some pearl oysters could be found on shoals at a depth of 5-7 feet (1.5-2 meters) from the surface, but more often than not divers had to go 40 feet (12 meters) or even up to 125 feet (40 meters) deep to find enough pearl oysters, and these deep dives were extremely hazardous to the divers. In the 19th century, divers in Asia had only very basic forms of technology to aid their survival at such depths. For example, in some areas, they greased their bodies to conserve heat, put greased cotton in their ears, wore a tortoise-shell clip to close their nostrils, gripped a large object like a rock to descend without the wasteful effort of swimming down and had a wide mouthed basket or net to hold the oysters.

For thousands of years, most seawater pearls were retrieved by divers working in the Indian Ocean, in areas such as the Persian Gulfmarker, the Red Seamarker, and in the Gulf of Mannarmarker (between Sri Lankamarker and Indiamarker). A surviving fragment from the bookJourney Around Parthia by Isidore of Charax, a 1st century geographer from the city of Charaxmarker on the northern end of the Persian Gulf, deals with the subject of pearl fishing.

Pearl divers near the Philippinesmarker were also successful at harvesting large pearls, especially in the Sulu Archipelagomarker. In fact, pearls from the Sulu Archipelago were considered the "finest of the world" which were found in "high bred" shells in deep, clear, and rapid tidal waters. At times, the largest pearls belonged by law to the sultan, and selling them could result in the death penalty for the seller. However many made it out of the archipelago in stealth ending up in the possession of the wealthiest families in Europe.

In a similar manner as in Asia, Native Americans harvested freshwater pearls from lakes and rivers like the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi, while others successfully retrieved marine pearls from the Caribbeanmarker and waters along the coasts of Central and South America.

In the time of colonial slavery in northern South America (off the northern coasts of modern Colombia and Venezuela), a unique occupation amongst slaves was that of a pearl diver. A diver's career was often short-lived because the waters being searched were known to be shark-infested, resulting in frequent attacks on divers. However, a slave who discovered an extra-large pearl could sometimes purchase his freedom.

The present

Today, pearl diving has largely been supplanted by cultured pearl farms, which use a process developed by Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto. Particles implanted in the oyster encourage the formation of pearls, and allow for more predictable production. Today's pearl industry produces billions of high quality pearls every year.

Pearl diving in the Ohio River and Tennessee Rivers of the United Statesmarker still exists today. These pearls are called natural pearls, because they are created by nature alone, and are not cultivated by humans. Their shapes are uniquely baroque. Less than 1% are found in the classic round shape. They are very rare and considered collectors items.

References

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