You have soft hands,” Abdulla Rashid Al Suwaidi says when I meet him. “I also have soft hands but my grandfather did not. He was a pearl diver and because of that the skin on his palms became so thick that if he cut them,” (he draws a finger across his palm), “they would not bleed.” Al Suwaidi describes pearls as a family connection and a personal passion, but they are Also a matter of the most serious business. He is the charismatic founder and vice-chairman of RAK Pearls Holding, the only producer of cultivated pearls in the whole of the GCC. His goal is nothing less than the revival of an industry that disappeared from the Arabian Gulf almost a century ago.
“I feel a strong responsibility. A historical and cultural responsibility to carry this out this task,” Al Suwaidi explains. “We know that this Gulf produced the finest jewellery for thousands of years, and that our pearls went into the jewellery of royalty, of kings and queens, but because of the invention of commercial pearling, the whole industry shifted to Asia. What if those techniques were brought back to the Gulf?”
After even a brief conversation, it is clear that Al Suwaidi is just as much a product of his environment as his grandfather. However, instead of diving for pearls, he and his brother Mohamed now cultivate up to 40,000 of them a year on a small farm in the Al Rams creek area of Ras Al Khaimah.
In February of this year, the Al Suwaidi brothers presented their very finest pearls at the annual Doha Jewellery and Watches Exhibition in Qatar. They were set in two US$1 million (Dh3.67m) sets of haute joaillerie – the Lunar Pearl Suite and the Flower of Immortality Suite – the product of a year-long collaboration between RAK Pearls Holding and the House of Mouawad, a family-run Lebanese luxury jeweller and watchmaker that was originally established in Beirut in 1890. Until January, Mouawad was most famous for making the world’s most expensive handbag, the US$3.8 million 2010 Mouawad 1001 Nights Diamond Purse, but the jeweller entered the Guinness World Records again in January this year with its L’Incomparable Diamond Necklace. Set with an internally flawless 637-carat diamond, L’Incomparable was valued at US$55 million, making it the world’s most valuable necklace.
Fittingly for jewellery aimed at the Middle Eastern market, both of the RAK Pearls/Mouawad suites took their inspiration from stories and traditions that are firmly rooted in the region. The Lunar Pearl Suite identifies pearls as Bint Al Qamar or the daughters of moonlight, the product of moonbeam caught in an oyster. It features a matching necklace, bracelet, ring and earrings in 18K white and yellow gold intertwined with 59.13 carats of blindingly white diamonds. The Flower of Immortality Suite consists of an 18K white gold necklace, bracelet, earrings and ring set with 20.46 carats of verdant green emeralds surrounding gem quality white cultured pearls wrapped in rings and 15.24 carat rows of pristine white diamonds. The flower appears in the world’s oldest recorded story, the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and is thought to be the very first reference to pearl diving in the Arabian Gulf.
If the handful of perfect pearls used by Mouawad was the Al Suwaidis’ very finest, those used less than a month later by the Dubai-based, Emirati furniture designer Khalid Shafar were of a very different calibre. “If a perfect Gulf pearl is a double ‘A’ grade, then the ones I used for Illusion Pearl were something like an ‘F’,” he explains.
Described by Shafar as more of an art object than a piece of furniture, Illusion Pearl was presented by the designer, Beirut’s Carwan Gallery, and RAK Pearls as an installation at this year’s Design Days Dubai. Shafar took one of his existing chairs, Illusion, and reinterpreted the piece by replacing its rope upholstery with a 70-metre-long cable threaded with more than 8,500 cultivated Gulf pearls. Shafar’s intention was to create a unique artwork that would shed light on an important part of Emirati history and RAK Pearls’ attempts to revive the industry locally through the medium of contemporary design.
“People do not know that we are producing pearls again here in the Gulf. For me, the use of pearls en masse allowed us to explore them as a material. I did not use the best quality, but their imperfection and variation is what makes them beautiful.” Carwan Gallery is taking Illusion Pearl to Saudi Arabia this summer as part of an exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern craft practice at the Riyadh-based Alaan Artspace.
“Knowing the history of the pearling industry in the Gulf, having learnt about the pearl process, and having lived in a city, Dubai, that used to be called the ‘Pearl of the Gulf’,” says Shafar, “I thought Illusion Pearl made the perfect match. The purpose was to experiment with the material and to create a design object that would act as a material link to the culture here.”
As well as the chair, RAK Pearls mounted a live exhibit at Design Days Dubai that displayed the technique of pearl cultivation that Abdulla Al Suwaidi and his partner, the Japanese pearl merchant Daiji Imura, have spent the last eight years working to perfect.
After exploring the whole of the coast between Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi, they established their farm with one line of floats supporting 2,000 oysters in 2005. In 2009, the project received the support of the government of Ras Al Khaimah’s Investment and Development Office, and RAK Pearls Holding was established as a joint venture. The farm now operates with almost 30 lines and 200,000 shellfish. Forty thousand implanted oysters are harvested each year with an 80 per cent success rate. However, only 5 to 10 per cent of the pearls are of the highest quality – 40 to 50 per cent are sold on the wholesale market.
As well as the pearl farm, RAK Pearls Holding also operates the subsidiary businesses that have grown out of the pearl farming operation. A Japanese akoya restaurant uses the meat that is taken from the farmed oysters, unwanted shells and meat are used for fertiliser, and unusable pearls are even ground down for use in cosmetics. All of these schemes are illustrated in the nearby pearl museum established by the Al Suwaidis on RAK’s Al Qawasim Corniche.
Abdulla Al Suwaidi sees a certain symmetry in the fact that Japanese technology and know-how is now helping to reintroduce pearling back to the Gulf at the same time as the industry is experiencing something of a decline in the Pacific. “There was no information or records available about pearl farming in the Middle East when we started, so we opened oysters every month to check on their progress. That allowed us to compare the pearls here with those in Japan and other parts of the world and we found that we are able to achieve growth here in three months that would take six months in Japan.”
There are other important parallels as well. The oyster that produces Gulf pearls, Pinctada radiata, is the same species that was used by Japan’s Kokichi Mikimoto to create the first perfectly spherical cultivated pearls in the early 20th century, a discovery that sounded the death-knell for the natural pearl industry that had developed over centuries in the Gulf. Abu Dhabi was once home to one of the world’s greatest pearl beds, the great pearl bank barrier, famed for the concentration of its black-lipped oysters and the size of the natural pearls they produced.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when it is believed that up to 80,000 people were employed in the local pearl industry, a string of Arabian pearls could fetch up to a US
$1 million, but with the invention of cultured pearls the demand for natural Gulf pearls collapsed and pearl diving was rendered obsolete. Many communities lost their main source of income and did not experience prosperity again until the discovery of oil, as Mr al Suwaidi explains. “We knew that the Japanese invented cultivated pearls but we did not know what this meant. We knew only that pearling collapsed because of this invention. The stories I heard as a boy were all about hardship and misery.”
RAK Pearls’ recent collaborations are just the latest in a series of initiatives designed to help re-establish the UAE as an important hub not only for pearl production but for the operation of the international pearl wholesale trade as well, an industry still dominated by markets, auctions, buyers, and suppliers in East Asia and the Pacific. In 2006, a Pearl Revival Committee was established in Abu Dhabi with the aim of encouraging renewed interest in pearls throughout the Middle East and re-establishing Abu Dhabi as a world centre for natural pearl production. A series of global conferences followed between 2006 and 2010, and regional momentum seemed to build when Abu Dhabi’s efforts were mirrored by Dubai-based schemes such as the 2009 launch of the Dubai Pearl Exchange (DPE) and the inaugural World Pearl Forum. An exclusive, membership-based marketplace housed in the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), the DPE was designed to attract international buyers and sellers from around the world through the creation of a free zone business environment.
The DPE’s first pearl tender took place in the same year, featuring over US$5 million of rare and gem quality pearls from the collections of the world’s leading pearl producers including Jewelmer from the Philippines, Robert Wan Pearls from Tahiti, and the Paspaley Pearls company in Darwin, Australia. The DPE held its last two pearl auctions in January 2011, both of which were viewed as a success, attracting more than 100 merchants and generating a total wholesale value of more than US$13.5 million.
At the time, the auctions were also viewed as an important milestone in the evolution of the UAE’s renascent pearl trade. “We’ve gone from a pearl-producing nation to now a facilitator of trade,” said Malcolm Wall Morris, the chief executive of the DMCC, shortly afterwards. Since 2011 however, there has been a notable absence of activity in the local pearl market. Neither the World Pearl Forum in Dubai nor the international pearl conferences in Abu Dhabi were repeated, and pearl suppliers such as Robert Wan and RAK Pearls focused on the retail market where brand building was easier and profit margins higher.
However, with his focus on the bigger picture, Abdulla Al Suwaidi remains unperturbed by momentary fluctuations in the state of the market. “We need to see the pearl trade here at a national level. Yes, this is a business that makes a lot of money but we have a cultural and historical responsibility as well.”
“When I talk about leather shoes, which country comes to mind? Italy. Why is that? China and America now produce more shoes than Italy, and yet we still link leather shoes to Italy. When we talk about pearls, what countries come to mind? People may say Japan, they may say Australia, but they forget the 6,000 years of history connecting pearls with the Gulf. Where do pearls belong? The Gulf. Where are they coming back to? The Gulf. I am trying to make that reconnection.