An island kingdom just off the Arabian Peninsula, known as the first emirate nation to discover oil in 1932, wants to re-establish itself as the global center for sustainable pearls.
Natural pearls are one of the most sustainable and ethical luxury gems, both conflict-free and climate-friendly. With pearl beds bigger than Manhattan, Bahrain is looking to revive its traditional pearl industry — once the backbone of the country’s economy. For centuries, Bahrainis have free-dived to collect pearl oysters from the sea floor. “Most families, before the discovery of oil in Bahrain, were associated with the trade of pearling — from merchants to divers, drillers, dealers,” says Faten Ebrahim Mattar, a sixth-generation pearl merchant from the Mattar family, which has been in the business since the 1850s.
“Working in the natural pearl business is one of the toughest trades, due to the rarity of your star element,” he says. According to Mattar, Bahrain has a reputation as the “Mecca of Pearling.” In 2012 UNESCO declared the Bahraini pearl beds a World Heritage site, calling the region the “last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling and the wealth it generated at a time when the trade dominated the Gulf economy.”
“Our geographic location as an island in the middle of the trade route from Iraq to India attributed to Bahrain being an important marketplace for this business,” says Mattar. He adds that some marine biologists believe that convergence of saltwater with fresh natural springs in the middle of the Gulf creates a unique environment for pearls to grow with high luster. Though the value of the natural pearl plummeted after the advent of cultured pearls in Japan in the early 1900s, the gems are experiencing a renaissance as consumers look for more responsibly sourced jewelry and one-of-a-kind pieces.