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Bahrain pearls given royal stamp of approval

Britain's Catherine, Princess of Wales, wears the Queen's Bahraini pearl earrings Loic Venance/Pool via Reuters
Britain's Catherine, Princess of Wales, wears the Queen's Bahraini pearl earrings

The UK’s Princess of Wales put Bahraini pearls back in the spotlight this week when she wore a pair of earrings made from the precious stone for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

Her timing was perfect as Bahrain aims to re-establish itself as the global centre for sustainable pearls.

Catherine, Prince William’s wife, sported the Queen’s Bahraini pearl drop earrings, which are part of the royal collection. They were made from a selection of seven pearls given to Queen Elizabeth for her wedding in 1947 by Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

It is traditional for members of the British royal family to wear pearls as mourning jewellery. The practice dates back to Queen Victoria, who only wore pearl and black jewellery after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861.

Person, Human, Furniture
Bahrain is sometimes referred to as the “Mecca of Pearling”

The island kingdom off the Arabian Peninsula has pearl beds bigger than Manhattan and is looking to revive its traditional industry, which was the backbone of the country’s economy before the discovery of oil in 1932.

Natural pearls, which Bahrainis have free-dived to collect from the sea floor for centuries, are one of the most sustainable and ethical luxury gems, both conflict-free and climate-friendly. 

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.”

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 jewellery and one-of-a-kind pieces.

With natural pearls occurring in only one in 10,000 oysters and each one growing organically over several years, every natural pearl is unique.

Collection is done in the least obtrusive way with licensed divers carefully gathering oysters by hand, said Noora Jamsheer, CEO of the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (DANAT), which was established in 2017 to support a national plan to revive the pearl sector.

In collaboration with the Supreme Council for the Environment and the Coast Guard, DANAT monitors and shields the health of the pearl beds, periodically suspending diving in certain areas to allow for growth.

The institute tests and certifies the pearls and offers hands-on pearl grading education.

According to the institute, 2021 saw significant growth in the number of pearl diving licenses issued — including, for the first time, licenses being given to female pearl divers.

Kenneth Scarratt, president of the International Confederation of Jewellery (CIBJO) Pearl Commission, said he has seen interest in natural pearls rematerialise over the past decade. 

“Most of the pearls found in Bahrain are ‘seed pearls’, small pearls used in intricate jewellery designs and high fashion garments,” he said. 

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