Diving For Pearls

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

The Indian Ocean: Cradle of the Pearl Trade

Until the early 20th century, the vast majority of the world's marine pearls were collected by divers working the pearl beds of the Indian Ocean--specifically in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, between Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and India. These regions dominated the international pearl trade for more than 4,000 years. Even though people have harvested pearls from this region for centuries, local populations of mollusks are still relatively healthy. Nevertheless, the pearl trade has dwindled: the oil industry now provides more lucrative employment for most of the region's inhabitants.

Diving for Pearls early 20th centuryIndia/Sri Lanka
AMNH Special Collections #317884

Pearls from the Pacific

Pearl divers working in the Sulu Archipelago of the southern Philippines have harvested large pearls, as well as mother-of-pearl, from Silver-lipped Pearl Oysters since at least the 1300s. Over the centuries, the Bajau (or Badjao) people of the Philippines did most of the diving, often because it was the only work available to them as a result of their low social status. Today, the Bajaus retain traditional rights to the pearl beds that yield the big shells needed by the modern pearl culturing industry. Even now, Bajau divers free dive to depths well beyond the safe limits of normal scuba diving, around 125 feet.