The worlds within an oyster

Dubai’s Pearl Museum explains the incredible conditions divers went to attain the emirate's pearls – and displays the very finest specimens collected over the years

The beginnings of Dubai’s pearling industry dates back thousands of years. Approximately 80,000 men across the Gulf region toiled to earn a living from the trade in the early 19th century, and out of their efforts came hundreds upon thousands of pearls, awakened from their slumber in the ocean by divers: ghawawis – with noses pegged with turtle shell bone.

There is no better place to see a showcase of some of the finest specimens to come out of the depths of the sea than the Dubai Pearl Museum, whose vast collection was bequeathed by the late, respected businessman and poet Sultan Al Owais, the son of Ali bin Abdullah Al Owais, an Emirati pearl trader of the Al-Shamsi tribe from Sharjah.

The work for the UAE’s divers was perilous and the rewards were few. That’s if they survived the summer, escaping respiratory illnesses, jellyfish stings and attacks from sharks or sawfish

Between 1830 and 1900, output was believed to be US$1,750,000, rising steadily to nearly US$4,000,000 in the first decade of the 20th century. Of the huge fleets of pearling vessels that set out for the Gulf’s bounteous oyster banks during the season of June to September, it is thought that 900 dhows hailed from Bahrain, 600 from Kuwait and 1,200 from the Trucial States, 335 of which set sail from Dubai.

The museum displays photographs of the 15 to 80 crew members that would working, eat and sleeping on the dhow boats, which measured as little as 15 metres long. The divers had to work with basic equipment, dressing in thin cotton hooded tops and looping weighted ropes around their ankles to help them sink to the sea bed.

Visible are their faded leather thumb shields, knives and oyster baskets, wrapped around their necks to hold the precious harvest. The work for the UAE’s divers was perilous and the rewards were few. That’s if they survived the summer, escaping respiratory illnesses, jellyfish stings and attacks from sharks or sawfish. The men would dive around 40 times a day for up to two minutes at a time, with a single dive only yielding about 12 oysters each time, with no guarantee of pearls within.

pearl
No two pearls are the same, with sizes ranging from the rarest and largest, called dana, and descending from hasabi, ras, betten, thail, rubia’a to sathee

The museum estimates that at the industry’s height (1880 to 1920), pearling accounted for up to 95 per cent of national incomes. Demand waned as the Japanese perfected the manufacture of cultured pearls in the early 1920s, while the European depression of the 1930s sounded the final death knell.

While the first room teaches visitors about the conditions endured by the pearl divers over the centuries, the second perhaps explains why they did it, with an awe-inspiring displays of the items they strived to collect. The majesty of the pearl is showcased in a 360-degree treasure trove. An octagonal glass case displays thousands of pearls, separated into their respective carat, colour, shape, surface and lustre.

No two are the same, with sizes ranging from the rarest and largest, called dana, and descending from hasabi, ras, betten, thail, rubia’a to sathee. Here, among the display cases of marine treasures, visitors feel cocooned from bustling Dubai’s Baniyas Road below. Much like, one would imagine, a pearl inside an oyster.