The  Sultan Necklace and Earrings

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Origin of Name

This modern version of a two-stranded pearl necklace interspersed with emeralds was designed and executed by Cartier's of France in the 1930s, based on a pearl necklace of similar design worn by the Mughal Emperor's of India, who ruled from 1526 to 1858, as seen on portraits of the rulers painted by court artists of the period. The necklace was appropriately name the "Sultan Necklace" the Arabic word "Sultan" being the title adopted by Muslim rulers who claimed absolute sovereignty, not subordiate to any other higher ruler. The title also carried moral weight and religious authority. The greatest of all Mughal emperors, Akbar the Great  was addressed  as Sultan Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar.

the sultan pearl necklace and earrings

Characteristics of the necklace

The necklace was double-stranded made up of 64 natural white spherical pearls interspersed with emeralds and spinels. There are 13 emeralds and 8 spinels on the necklace. The centerpiece of the necklace is a large rectangular shaped flat emerald from which the pearl strands originate from either side. At the four points where the pearl strands originate  from the rectangular emerald is a spherical spinel. A pendant consisting of a large drop-shaped emerald, a small spherical white pearl, and a still smaller spherical spinel  is attached to the bottom of the rectangular emerald.

The outer strand consists of 32 pearls and the inner strand of 30 pearls, making a total of 62 pearls. This together with a single pearl each on the pendant and the necklace clasp, gives a total of 64 pearls. The pearls are all white in color, and are spherical, near-spherical or button-shaped. The pearls originated in the 1700s and are believed to be harvested either from the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Mannar. The outer strand is interspersed with six drop-shaped emeralds and the inner strand with four drop-shaped emeralds. The emeralds are placed in symmetrical positions at a regular interval of five pearls, in both the outer and inner strands. The ten emeralds on the strands, the single rectangular emerald as the centerpiece, the single drop-shaped emerald on the pendant and a single emerald on the clasp make a total of 13 emeralds. The five spinels surrounding the rectangular emerald, together with three spinels on the clasp, make a total of 8 spinels.

Characteristics of the earrings

Each of the earrings is set with 5 gemstones, consisting of a large drop-shaped emerald, followed by a small spherical spinel, and then 3 spherical pearls, progressively increasing in size from bottom to top. The emeralds, spinels and pearls, in the earrings perfectly match one another in terms of size, shape, as well as color. Likewise the emeralds, spinels and pearls in the earrings match those of the necklace, in terms of size, shape and color.

History of the necklace

The necklace was designed by Cartier, France, in the 1930s, based on the design of the pearl and emerald necklaces worn by the Sultans of the mighty Moghul empire, that ruled India for over 300 years. The pearls used by Cartier for the necklace dates back to the 18h century, and are believed to have been harvested either in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Mannar, the hub of the international pearl industry since ancient times.

Map of Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

Map of Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

Possible sources of the pearls

1) The Gulf of Mannar

Location of the Gulf of Mannar and the internationally renowned pearl banks

The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay (see images above and below), an inlet of the Indian Ocean, that lies between the southeastern tip of India, and the west coast of Sri Lanka. The width of the Gulf ranges between 80-170 miles (130-275 km), and its length is approximately 100 miles (160 km). A chain of low islands and reefs known as "Adam's Bridge" or "Ram Sethu" that connects the Mannar Island of Sri Lanka with Rameswaram Island on the Indian side, represents the northeastern boundary of the Gulf of Mannar, that also separates the Gulf from the Palk Bay which lies further northeast, between southeastern India and Sri Lanka. The Palk Bay, a shallow sea with a depth varying from 1m to 13m opens on the eastern side into the Bay of Bengal, via the Palk Straits. Several rivers from Sri Lanka and India flow into the Gulf of Mannar. The rivers that flow into the Gulf on the Sri Lankan side are Aruvi Aru, Kal Aru, Modaragam Aru, Kala Oya, Mee Oya, Deduru Oya, Maha Oya, Attanagalu Oya and the Kelani Ganga. On the Indian side the Tambraparni river is one of the major rivers flowing into the Gulf. The chief seaports on the Gulf of Mannar are Colombo in Sri Lanka and Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu.

Pearl Banks of the Gulf of Mannar

Pearl Banks of the Gulf of Mannar

The Gulf of Mannar was internationally renowned since ancient times for its rich pearl banks, that were situated along the coastline on the Sri Lankan as well as the Indian side. However, the pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side were much richer than the ones on the Indian side. The Sri Lankan pearl banks were mainly situated in the Kondaichchi (Condatchy) Bay on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka. The South Indian pearl banks were mainly situated off the coast of Tinnelvelly, in Tuticorin.

Hub of the international pearl trade in ancient times,persian gulf,red sea and gulf of mexico

History of the Pearl Trade in Sri Lanka and its Antiquity

The pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar as old as human civilization itself

Sri Lanka, known to the ancient Greeks as "Palaesimoundu" and later as "Taprobane," to the Arabs as "Serendib" (the Island of rubies), "Saheelan,"  and "Seylan," and to the Europeans as "Zeylan," was eventually referred to as "Ceylon" by the British. The Island nation had gained an international reputation from time immemorial for its different varieties of gemstones such as rubies and sapphires, and also pearls harvested from the Gulf of Mannar. The valuable gemstones of the island including pearls had entered the courts of kings and emperors of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and also the court of the great king of Israel, King Solomon (1,000 BC), the son and successor of David. The Phoenician civilization, that was based in the Middle East in the region presently occupied by modern-day Lebanon,  and parts of Palestine, Israel and Syria, dating back to 1,500 BC to 300 BC, was renowned for their maritime power in warfare and trading, chartering the high seas with great ease, reaching the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka to trade for pearls.

In the history of mankind pearls were the first gemstones to be identified and appreciated by human beings, as they were already in a finished form when recovered from the pearl oysters, with their superb colors and luster. Thus in the ancient history of Sri Lanka, the country became famous first for its pearls, before other gemstones that required processing. Thus the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar is as ancient as the beginnings of  human civilization.

Recorded history of Sri Lanka show that the pearl industry was already well established in the 5th century BC.

According to the Mahawamsa, the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, the pearl industry was already established in the island during the  period of King Vijaya, a Kalinga (ancient Orissa) Prince who landed in Sri Lanka in the 5th century BC with 700 followers, near Mahathitha (Manthota or Mannar), and from whom the Sinhalese trace their ancestry. When King Vijaya married a princess from India, the daughter of the Pandu King of India, he sent a gift of a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand (pieces of money), at that time, to his father-in-law the king. Again the Mahawamsa records that during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (265 BC to 238 BC) after the king was successfully converted to Buddhism by  Prince Mahendra, the son and the special emissary of the Buddhist King of India, King Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty, King Devanampiyatissa sent gifts of priceless treasures to King Ashoka, which included eight kinds of pearls.

Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to the court of the Mauryan King Chandragupta in the 3rd century BC, who was also a writer, noted that "the island of Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than the Indias." The island of Mannar, which was the center of the pearl fishery in ancient times was known as "Epidorus." The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea written in 60 AD, gives an account about the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, and states that at Kolkhai, condemned criminals were employed in the service of diving for pearl oysters.

The entry of the Arab traders and divers into the pearl fishery between the 7th -13th centuries AD

The Arabs of the Persian Gulf, who have a long history of exploiting pearl oyster resources in the Persian Gulf, the richest pearl banks in the ancient world, extending to at least four millennia, took an interest in the pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar, after they emerged as a maritime power between the 7th and 13th centuries AD. The Arab merchant and naval ships chartered the high seas with great ease, unchallenged by any nation during this period, and this maritime strength led to the rapid expansion of trade between the Arab nations and countries of Asia and Africa. During this period Arab merchants, jewelers and divers from the Persian Gulf took an active part in the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar, and a major portion of the pearl harvest reached the lucrative Baghdad market. The fishery benefited both sides. While the Arabs were assured of a regular supply of good quality pearls from the Gulf of Mannar which fetched high prices in the Baghdad pearl market, the local rulers, the Sinhala and Tamil kings were happy, that they had regular and trustworthy buyers who gave them a reasonable price for their produce. Besides, the employment of Arab divers from the Persian Gulf, with a wealth of experience in pearl diving,  who participated with the local divers, in the fishery, helped in the transfer of technological know-how, and the refinement of diving techniques used by the local divers. The Arab pearl divers were internationally renowned as the best pearl divers in the world at that time. The Arab dominance in world trade continued up to the 15th century, until the emergence of western nations such as Spain, Portugal, Britain, Netherlands and France as maritime powers. 

However the entry of countries like Portugal into the pearl trade in the Gulf of Mannar, who used their fire power to terrorize the people of the area, caused a lot of tension and insecurity in the area, where hitherto pearling activities had taken place in a peaceful atmosphere from time immemorial. 

The pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka in the middle ages, according to travelers and writers of the period

In the year 1225 AD, the Chinese author Chau Ju-Kua who wrote Chu Fan Chi, gave details about the trade between Arabia and China, and also on the pearl fishery of South India and Sri Lanka, during the Chola Period. He also wrote about the pearl diving procedures prevalent in the Gulf of Mannar at that time. According to Chau Ju-Kua about 30 to 40 boats were employed at a time in pearling activities during his visit.

Marco Polo (AD 1260-1300) who visited Sri Lanka on his return journey to Venice from China, also wrote about the pearl fishery that he witnessed in the Gulf of Mannar, giving details about the methods of diving adopted by the pearl divers of Sri Lanka. He also states that boats big and small were involved in the fishery. While the big boats remained anchored near the pearl banks, the smaller boats were actually used for the fishing.

Another Chinese traveler Wang Ta-Yuan who visited the Gulf of Mannar in 1330, gives a detailed explanation of diving for pearls in the Gulf of Mannar

Friar Jordanus, a missionary bishop who visited India around the year 1330, reported that as many as 8,000 boats were then engaged in the pearl fisheries of Ceylon and Tinnelvelly. The value of these fisheries in the middle ages was also attested by several other travelers, such as Friar Odoric, Ludovico de Varthema, and the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa.

A Venetian Merchant Caesar Frederic who traveled to India between 1563 and 1581 AD, gave an interesting account of the pearl fishing techniques used in the Gulf of Mannar, and said a very large number of boats took part in the exercise.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a professional jeweler from France, who traveled to India at least six times between 1631 and 1668 AD, gives an interesting account of the pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar, in his book Travels in India, published in 1887.

Juan Ribeiro  in his book the "History of Ceilao" published in 1685, gives a detailed account of the conduct of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, and estimated that around 3,000 to 5,000 boats, were engaged in the exercise. Father Martin, a Jesuit priest, who was once based in South India, gave a detailed description about pearl fishing near Tuticorin, that was conducted in 1700 AD.

The pearl industry during the Portuguese colonization of Sri Lanka

The Portuguese take control of the maritime areas of Sri Lanka

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonize Sri Lanka, landing in the Island in the year 1506. The Portuguese led by Dom Laurenco de Almeida, the son of Francisco de Almeida, the first governor and viceroy of the Portuguese State of India, landed in the ancient port city of Galle in 1505, when his fleet was driven accidentally towards the island's coast due to a storm. After landing in Galle, they learnt that seat of the local ruler, the king, was based in Kotte, near Colombo. The fleet then proceeded along the coastline towards Colombo, where they anchored in the bay of Colombo. At the time the Portuguese arrived in Colombo, the island was divided into four kingdoms : The Kotte kingdom, the largest and the most important, the Sitawaka kingdom, the Kandyan kingdom in the central hills and the Jaffna kingdom in the north. The Portuguese signed a treaty with the King of Kotte, whose palace was situated in the city of Kotte, just a few miles away from Colombo. Under this treaty the Portuguese took control of the lucrative cinnamon trade in the country, ousting the Moors, the descendants of Arabs who had settled down in the country around the 5th -6th century AD.

The Portuguese take control of the pearl banks of Mannar only in 1619, after the capture of the Jaffna kingdom

The Portuguese were however unable to take control of the pearl fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mannar, as the region was under the control of the Jaffna kingdom, which successfully resisted Portuguese incursions until the year 1619. The Jaffna King Sankili I (1519-1561), resisted all contacts with the Portuguese, and even massacred 600-700 Parava Catholics in the island of Mannar, who were brought from India by the Portuguese, to take over the lucrative pearl fisheries from the Jaffna kings. If at all the Portuguese were able to exploit the pearl resources of the Gulf of Mannar, it was only between 1619 and 1658, when Jaffna fort was captured by the Dutch in 1658. However, during  this short period the Portuguese had to suppress at least four rebellions against them in Jaffna. During this period of 40 years even if the Portuguese decided to exploit the pearl resources of the Gulf of Mannar, they would have had to depend heavily on the Parava Catholic divers brought in from the South Indian coastal areas, as they had already alienated the local Moor and Tamil community that provided the divers for the pearl oyster fishing. Thus the impact of the Portuguese colonialists on the pearl industry in the Gulf of Mannar was only marginal, as the Portuguese seemed to be more preoccupied with missionary activities and the suppressing of other religious beliefs on the island, which created a lot of enemies from followers of other religions such as Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, that eventually led to their ouster from the Island by the Dutch.

The pearl industry during the Dutch colonization of Sri Lanka

The Dutch take control of the maritime areas of Sri Lanka from the Portuguese in 1656

The first Dutch expedition arrived in Ceylon on 31st May 1602. They landed at Batticaloa on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, a harbor which the Portuguese had never occupied. The Dutch established friendly relations with the King of the Kandyan kingdom in Central Sri Lanka, King Wimaladharmasuriya I, who was the enemy of the Portuguese. As the persecution of the Sinhalese by the Portuguese became unbearable, the King of Kandy sought the assistance of the Dutch, to drive the Portuguese out of the country. This led to the signing of the Kandyan Treaty of 1638, between the Dutch and the King of Kandy, Rajasinha, under which the Dutch would wage war against the Portuguese with the assistance of the Sinhalese army. However all expenses of the war were to be met by the King of Kandy. After the signing of the treaty the Dutch attacked and captured the fortresses of the Portuguese based in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Negombo and Galle. Having captured the Portugese fortresses, the Dutch requested King Rajasinha to meet his obligations under the treaty, and pay for the expenses of the war either in gold or other commodities such a spices. The King was not able to meet his obligations,  and thus the Dutch decided to keep the fortresses and surrounding areas captured by them from the Portuguese, and thus began the Dutch colonization of Sri Lanka, which lasted from 1656 to 1796. This colonization was also restricted to the maritime provinces and excluded the Kandyan Kingdom based in the central hills.

The Dutch take control of the pearl banks of Mannar in 1658

The pearl fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mannar came under the rule of the Dutch after they captured the Jaffna Fort from the Portuguese in 1658. The Dutch conducted pearl oyster fishing in the Gulf of Mannar, every three years. This interval of three years gave sufficient time for the oyster populations to regenerate and the oysters to reach maturity, and the pearls formed inside them to grow to optimum sizes. The native divers who were mainly Moors and Tamils, co-operated fully with the new Dutch rulers in exploiting the pearl oyster resources, as a token of gratitude for freeing their communities from the stranglehold of the Portuguese. The Dutch exploited the pearl oyster resources of the Gulf of Mannar till the end of their rule  in 1796, except for a break during the period 1732 and 1746.

The pearl industry during the British Colonization of Sri Lanka

British occupation of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka in 1796

Soon after Napoleon Bonaparte captured the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange escaped to London. The United Kingdom fearing that French control of the Netherlands, might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, invaded Sri Lanka, probably with the blessings of the Prince of Orange, and occupied the coastal areas of the island in 1796 which were under the control of the Dutch. The British captured the Dutch Forts of Galle, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Jaffna, and several other smaller forts in the coastal regions of Sri Lanka, without much resistance, and finally the capital city Colombo after a standoff with the Dutch forces, who were under orders from the government to resist to the last, but finally capitulated due to the superiority of the British forces both in men and material, and also due the naval superiority of the British. In the year 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, the Dutch formally ceded to Britain, the parts of Sri Lanka that were formally under their control.

The capture of the Kandyan Kingdom for the first time by a foreign power

The central part of Sri Lanka, occupied by the Kingdom of Kandy, and ruled by the local Sinhala kings, had largely remained untouched by foreign influence, during the rule of the Portuguese and the Dutch. This was probably due to the hilly terrain of the area, with its natural defenses, surrounded by large inaccessible hills, that made the defense of the territory relatively easy. The British colonialists were determined to bring this area too under their sovereignty, and the British commanders were confidant that the area could be easily captured with their superior fire power. Thus in 1803, the British decided to invade the Kingdom of Kandy, which came to be known as the "First Kandyan War", but were bloodily repulsed and the British forces almost annihilated. King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the King of Kandy, emerged as a hero from this encounter and earned the admiration of his subjects. King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe then ruled unmolested by the British for the next 12 years. The British again invaded the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, but this time connived with  King Rajasinghe's own chieftans, who betrayed the King and joined hands with the British, and finally King Rajasinghe was defeated and taken prisoner by the British. Thus the entire country came under British rule in 1815.

British exploitation of the pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar begins in 1797

The British who took control of the Gulf of Mannar pearl oyster banks in 1796, started the exploitation of the pearl banks almost immediately. For a beginning they sold the fishing rights for pearl oysters to private entrepreneurs, and in the year 1797, the fishing rights were purchased by a native of Jaffna, named Candappa Chetty for  sum of £110,000,  which was considered by many in the trade to be too exorbitant, when compared to previous rents. In fact many predicted the downfall of the renter, but eventually it turned out that the pearling that year was very lucrative and  extremely profitable. Encouraged by the outcome Candappa Chetty bid for a second year of renting in 1798, and obtained the rights for an enhanced sum of £140,000.

Pearling Stations in the Bay of Kondaichchi

Robert Percival's description of the scene at the height of the pearl-fishing season in the Bay of Kondaichchi (Condatchy)

The pearl fishing season in Sri Lanka at that time was a period of heightened activity, which drew international attention, and attracted all categories of people directly or indirectly associated with the pearl industry, such as divers, merchants, brokers, jewelers etc. Robert Percival's book "An Account of the Island of Ceylon"  published in 1803, gives a vivid description of the scene at the height of the pearl-fishing season in the Bay of Kondaichchi in Sri Lanka, near Silavatturai. The following is a relevant extract from the book :- "This desert and barren spot is at that time converted into a scene which exceeds in novelty and variety anything that I have ever witnessed. Several thousands of people of different colors, countries, castes and occupations, continually passing and re-passing in a busy crowd; the vast numbers of small tents and huts erected on the shore, with the bazaar or market place before each; the multitude of boats returning in the afternoon from the pearl banks, some of them laden with riches; the anxious expecting countenances of the boat-owners while the boats are approaching the shore; the eagerness and avidity with which they run to them when arrived, in hopes of a rich cargo; the vast numbers of jewelers, brokers, merchants of all colors and all descriptions, both natives and foreigner; who are occupied in some way or other with the Pearls, some separating and assorting them, others weighing and ascertaining their number and value, while others are hawking them about, or drilling or boring them for future use - all these circumstances tend to impress the mind with the value and importance of that object which can of itself create the same."

The colonial authorities who directed the pearl fishing took up residence at Tuticorin on the opposite side of the gulf on the Indian coast

Vincent in his "Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients" estimates that around fifty to sixty thousand people consisting of merchants, tradesman, mariners, divers etc. assembled at the pearl fishing sites of Kondaichchi, Silavatturai and Arippu, situated several miles south of Mannar island, on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, during the height of the pearl fishing season. The pearl banks are situated about 8 to 10 miles from the sea shore. The Portuguese, Dutch and the English colonizers, usually took up residence at Tuticorin (Thoothukudi), on the opposite side of the Gulf of Mannar, on the Indian coast, from where they directed pearl fishing activities on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf. This was probably due to the remoteness of the Kodatchy Bay area where the pearl banks were situated, surrounded by elephant and leopard infested jungles. The pearl fishery was strictly regulated by the government as it was a major source of income for the government. The areas where the fishing was permitted for a particular season  was clearly demarcated with buoys, and subject to examination from time to time by experienced divers.

A government employed shark-charmer was assigned to each pearl fishing boat

A fleet of around 150 boats took part in the shipping on any given day. The boats set out early in the morning before sunrise to the pearl banks, on the firing of a gun, so that they could reach the banks at the time of sunrise. But none of the boats would set out to sea unless its occupants, which included divers, rowers and steersman have gone through a number of ceremonies and rituals to protect them from the man-eating sharks, that were common in these tropical waters. Each boat was assigned a government employed shark charmer, as no diver would descend into the water without their presence. Some of the conjurors also remained on shore reciting incantations until the boats returned. Each boat carried around 23 men, one of whom was the head pilot or the "ada-napar." who commanded the ship. Ten of the men were rowers and ten were divers, and the other two were the steersman and the shark-charmer known as "pillai barras." The divers are divided into two groups of five, who dive into the water alternately. The first group of five go down into the water, and as they come up, the second group dive into the water. This method of alternate diving give sufficient time to the divers to recoup themselves before taking the next plunge.

The breath-holding technique of diving employed in pearl fishing

Heavy stones each weighing around 20-25 pounds (9.0-11.5 kg) were used by each diver to accelerate their descent to the seabed, thereby conserving energy and saving crucial time needed for picking oysters. The stone was somewhat pyramidal in shape, and round at the top and bottom, with a hole at the top narrower end, through which a rope is passed. Some divers prefer to use a half-moon shaped stone, which was fastened around their waist at the time of descent, enabling their feet to be kept free. Usually the divers who are about to take the plunge, seize the rope to which the stone is attached, with the toes of his right foot, while taking hold of a network bag with his left toes. With his right hand he seizes another rope, and while closing his nostrils with the left hand, takes the plunge into the water. As soon as he reaches the bottom, he frees his right toes letting go of the rope to which the stone is attached, which is drawn into the boat again. He then throws himself flat on the bottom, and collects as many oysters as possible, during the short time (half-a-minute to one-minute) he is able to remain underwater, holding his breath, which he lodges in his network bag. He then resumes his upright position again, and gives a signal to those above, by pulling the rope in his right hand, and is immediately hauled up into the boat again. The divers greatest occupational hazard was the ground sharks, and if any of the divers gave an alarm about a possible shark attack, none of the other divers will descend that day.

End of diving for the day and the return of the boats to the shore

Diving and harvesting activities continue until midday, when the firing of the gun for the second time, gives a signal to the divers to cease work for the day. A single diver could collect an average of around 3,000 oysters in a day, and if diving proceeded smoothly on a day, with all 10 divers in a boat putting in their maximum effort, on an average around 30,000 oysters would be loaded into the boat. The boats now headed towards the shore with their precious cargo, and were welcomed by the boat owners, renters and  government officials, who had been waiting eagerly for their arrival. The precious cargo was then unloaded and carried into a large cadjan hut, where they were deposited into three equal heaps. The British colonial superintendent then inspected the heaps, and chose two of the heaps as the government's share, leaving the remaining heap to the divers.

Retrieving of pearls from the oysters by decomposition

The divers collected their share of the oysters, and either opened them to retrieve any oysters that may be found inside the shells, or sold the oysters without opening to any interested buyers. The government share was then divided into smaller heaps and auctioned off to the merchants. The merchants who purchased the heaps of oysters, transferred them to pits dug on the sea shore, where they were left until they decomposed. As decomposition sets in the softer tissues of the oysters breakdown, under the action of bacteria, but the calcareous pearls and the shells are not affected. As the adductor muscles holding the valves of the oyster together also undergo deterioration, the valves usually open as decomposition sets in. Like any other organic decomposition, foul smelling gases such as hydrogen sulphide and ammonia are given out during the decomposition process. When the decomposition had reached an advanced stage, which may take around two to three weeks, the remains of the oysters are washed and rinsed with copious supplies of water, and the pearls picked out from the bottom of the basket or container.

Multiple pearls in a single oyster

While pearls generally occur singly in pearl oysters, there have been instances when several pearls have been found occurring together in a single pearl. One of the highest that have been reported during the British period was 150 seed pearls in a single oyster, that obviously occurred clustered together like a bunch of grapes. Another that was reported by Captain Stewart in 1828, was 67 from a single oyster, when he was officiating over the fisheries. He also reported seeing 10 pearls and some crushed oyster shells taken from the stomach of a fish called the "Chartree." However, the discovery of more multiple-pearl oysters would have been precluded by the method of putrefaction followed in retrieving pearls.

The misconception that retrieving pearls by putrefaction affect the skin of the pearls

The desirability of retrieving pearls by the method of decomposition as opposed to retrieval by individual opening of oyster shells, while the oysters may still be alive, have been called into question by  pearl experts, who believe that the skin of the pearl is seriously impaired by this process. While this has been found to be true in the case of the Australian fisheries, it may not apply to the Sri Lankan fisheries, which has been applying this technique for centuries, and had produced pearls of extraordinary quality and beauty. Experience had shown that equally good pearls were produced both in the shells that were opened immediately while the oyster was still alive, as well as those that were buried for weeks until putrefaction had set in. 

Disruption in the pearl fisheries for long periods of time due to unexplained disappearance of young pearl oysters from the pearl banks

Prior to 1833, the British colonialists rented the fishing rights to private entrepreneurs and determined the areas to be fished, the number of days fishing would last and the number of boats that could be used. This was essentially a system that was followed earlier by the Dutch. From 1833 onwards, the government played a more direct role in controlling the pearl industry, and instead of selling the fishing rights, hired the divers and boats to work for it under official supervision, and sold the oysters to the pearl merchants through public auction. The government took two-thirds of the share of every catch and left one-third to the divers.

However, the pearl fishery could not be conducted continuously for long periods of time. There were periods when the fishery had to be abandoned due to the unexplained disappearance of the young pearl oysters on the pearl banks. Local pearl experts attributed the disappearance either to the burial of the young oysters under shifting sands, or their washing away by strong underwater currents. Another plausible explanation was predation, by which vast numbers of young pearl oysters were devoured by skate and other voracious fish. The Ceylon pearl oyster attained maturity in about six years. Thus even if the populations of young oysters were restored naturally, it took several more years for the oysters to attain maturity and start producing pearls. The situation was so precarious that between 1864 and 1869, the government engaged the services of a naturalist from U.K. Mr. Howsworth to report on the unaccountable disappearance and failure of the oysters. The periods during British rule in Sri Lanka, when their was a break in the pearl fishing were 1) 1810-1813   2) 1821-1827  3) 1838-1855 4) 1864-1873   5) 1893-1896

The last pearl fishery held by the British authorities at Marichchukkaddi in 1906 and presided over by Leonard Woolf, a learner Government Agent at Jaffna Kachcheri (Secretariat).

The last pearl fishery held by the British authorities was between February 20 and April 3, 1906, lasting only 11 days, at Marichchukkaddi, a coastal hamlet situated very close to the border of the Wilpattu Forest Reserve, famous for its elephants and leopards. Leonard Woolf, a young British administrator, attached to the Jaffna Kachcheri (Secretariat) as a learner Government Agent, was assigned the task of officiating at this pearl fishery.

The fishery was attended by over 25,000 people, both local and foreign. The foreigners were mainly of Asian origin, and came from the Indian sub-continent and the middle east. Among this enormous crowd of people were jewelry dealers, merchants, financiers, shop-keepers, shark-charmers, divers, and even dacoits and criminals. The divers, the most crucial category of people on whom the entire pearl fishery depended, came from the Persian Gulf and India, with their own sailing vessels (dhows), commanded by the sheiks or captains. This multitude of people was housed in a special town created for the purpose, consisting of timber and cadjan roof buildings, that also included a police station, a prison and hospital. The fishery was conducted and supervised by a Superintendent of the Fishery, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, and three officers of the civil service from the Jaffna Kachcheri (Secretariat). 

An enormous fenced area with nine open huts, known as "kottus"  was created to receive the incoming precious cargo of pearl oysters. Each hut was divided into several compartments, and each compartment into three sections. The three sections accommodated three equal heaps of oysters, into which the incoming cargo from each ship was divided. Two of these heaps went to the government, and the other to the divers.

The value of the pearl fishery and the dangers involved in conducting it, has been highlighted by Woolf in his account of the pearl fishery of 1906. "From the point of view of law and order nothing could have been more precariously dangerous than the pearl fishing camp, a temporary town of 25,000 men, many of whom were habitual criminals. As the fishery went on, the town became fuller and fuller of a highly valuable form of property - pearls."

At the end of the day, after all the boats have returned to the shore, and their precious cargo had been deposited in the "kottus", the officers of the civil service from the Jaffna Secretariat, disposed of the government's two-third share of the oysters by public auction in the evening. The divers made their own arrangement to dispose of their own share.

The Marichchukkaddi pearl fishery was a failure and the government sells its monopoly to a private company

The Marichchukkaddi pearl fishery was ended abruptly in eleven days time, as the yield of oysters began falling drastically. Normally a pearl fishery lasted one full month, and till the last day the yields were satisfactory. Thus, the 1906 pearl fishery was a failure, and appeared to be following the declining trends of the previous years. As a result of the falling revenues, the Government decided to sell its monopoly in pearling to a private company, after the Marichchukkaddi pearl fishery of 1906. The new company attempted to culture pearl oysters in farms and artificially induce the farm-bred oysters to produce pearls. This technology had just begun in Japan, in the 1890s and Mikimoto was already successful in producing mabe pearls (half pearls), and was doing further research to produce spherical pearls. Thus, by attempting to invest in a technology that has not yet been perfected, the company incurred enormous losses and finally went bust.

The demise of the natural pearl industry of Sri Lanka

In the 1920s Mikimoto was finally successful in producing cultured spherical pearls, and large quantities of these pearls began to reach the international pearl markets, having an adverse effect on the prices of natural pearls. This gave the final death blow to the natural pearl industry of Sri Lanka, which had a colorful history spanning several millennia, with its origins intertwined with the beginnings of human civilization.

A breakdown of the revenue earned by the British colonial authorities during the 85-year period from 1796 to 1881

A breakdown of the revenue earned by the British colonial authorities in Sri Lanka during the 85-year period from 1796 to 1881, gives an insight into the economic viability of the natural pearl industry in Sri Lanka at that time, that justified the great pains taken by the authorities in regulating and maintaining the industry.

Total revenue collected by pearling from 1796 to 1881


 Period of pearling

   Number of years   Revenue collected


 1796-1809         14   £517,481
 2nd  1814-1820         07     £69,909
 3rd  1828-1837          10    £327,132
 4th  1855-1863          09    £168,470
 5th  1874-1881          08    £117,000
  Total          48  Â£1,199,992

During the 85-year period from 1796 to 1881, actual pearling activities took place only for 48 years. The remaining 37 years were blank periods when no pearl fisheries were held at all.

The fate of the Sri Lankan pearls

The bulk of the Ceylon pearls from the fisheries each year were purchased by the Indian chetties, who carried them to Bombay, where most were perforated and strung into necklaces, and sold to the wealthy maharajahs of India, who paid a much higher price for the pearls, than what could be obtained from the dealers in London. The remaining pearls reached the London market. In spite of the frequent fisheries and finds of pearls, it was nearly impossible to buy any really fine pearls form Sri Lanka, at that time.

Pearl banks of the South Indian coast of Gulf of Mannar

While the most prolific pearl banks in the Gulf of Mannar was found on the Sri Lankan coast of the Gulf, pearls banks of considerable importance was also found on the opposite side of the Gulf, closer to the coastline of Southern India. These pearl banks are also of historic importance like the pearl banks of Sri Lanka, and had been exploited since time immemorial. The pearl banks of the South Indian coast of the Gulf of Mannar, were divided by Hornell (1922) into three divisions :-

1) Northern - Keelakarai

2) Central   - Thoothukkudi (Tuticorin)

3) Southern - Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin)

However, the most productive of these divisions is the Central, Thoothukkudi division, where 39 of the 40 pearl fisheries held in Southern India, between 1663 and 1961 took place, in the pearl banks or "parrs" located in this division. The pearl banks are situated off the coast of Tinnelvelly.

In the year 1822, after the English occupation of Tuticorin, a fishery was held in the central pearl banks, that yielded a revenue of £13,000 to the British colonial authorities based in Madras. Another fishery was held in 1830 that yielded a revenue of £10,000. After this the Tinnelvelly banks became unproductive and was not exploited for the next 30 years. The next pearl fishery was held only 1860. Thus in terms of the revenue collected and the frequency of holding fisheries, the Sri Lankan pearl banks were more prolific and lucrative than the Tinnelvelly pearl banks. During the 10-year period from 1828 to 1837, the total revenue that accrued to the authorities from the Sri Lankan fisheries was £327,132, which works out to an average of £32,713 for a single year. This was much more than the £13,000 collected by the Tinnelvelly fishery in 1822.

The Tinnelvelly pearl banks are found at a distance of about 6 to 8 miles from the shore, and at a depth of 5½ to 8½ fathoms (33 - 51 feet or 9.9 to 15.3 meters).  The pearl fishing had been conducted from time immemorial by members of a caste called the "parawas," who lived along the Tinnelvelly coast, from Cape Comorin to the Paumben Channel. The people of this caste were converted to Catholicism by St. Francis Xavier.

2) The Persian Gulf

The Persian Gulf - the oldest and most prolific pearl banks in the world

The other possible source of the pearls in the  "Sultan Pearl Necklace" is the Persian Gulf, historically the oldest and most prolific pearl banks in the world, the primary source of the valuable pearls that entered the courts of the kings of ancient kingdoms, such as  those of Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome etc. The history of pearling in the Persian Gulf dates back to over four millennia, and references to pearling in this region have been made by the Greek Historian, Pliny and the 2nd century AD Roman Geographer Ptolemy. Pliny referred to the high quality of the Persian Gulf pearls in his book Historia Naturalis. Ptolemy refers to the Island of Tylos, the Roman name for the Island of Bahrain, around which pearl-bearing reefs were concentrated, and where a pearl fishery existed since time immemorial. The Greek historian Isidorus of Charax in the 3rd century BC, also refers to the Island of Bahrain, when he referred to a certain island in the Persian Sea where an abundance of pearl oyster was to be found.

Location of the Persian Gulf and the distribution of pearl banks inside the gulf

The Persian Gulf situated between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, is an inland sea, originating from the Indian Ocean, with an area of around 251,000 km², and a length and width of approximately of 989 km and 160 km respectively. At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, the width is only about 56 km. The Persian Gulf is a shallow sea with an average depth of about 50 meters, and a maximum depth of around 90 meters. Countries that have a coastline with the Persian Gulf are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The pearl banks of the Persian Gulf are mainly found on the Arab side of the Gulf, especially in the surroundings of the Bahrain Islands.  The banks stretch from Kuwait and the island of Bahrain in the west, to Oman on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, including the Strait of Hormuz, and extending up to the Kish island on the Persian side of the Gulf, and are found from a few hundred meters to around 96 km, from the shore, at depths ranging from 2 to 18 fathoms (3.6 to 32.4 meters). Bahrain was the center of the pearl industry in the Gulf since time immemorial, as most of the pearl oyster reefs were concentrated  around this island. Other important pearling areas were found off the coast of Kuwait, the island of Dalmah off Abu Dhabi, Abu Musa, Hormuz and the Lavan-Kish island group on the Persian side.

Colonization of the Persian Gulf countries

Colonization of the Persian Gulf pearl banks took place in the early 16th century, after the emergence of western nations as maritime powers, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France. The first to colonize was the Portuguese in 1504, who took control of the main pearling cities of  Bahrain, Kuwait and Hormuz. The Portuguese exploited the pearl resources of the Gulf for more than 100 years, until they were expelled by the Persians, with the help of the British in 1620. Subsequently, most of the islands in the Gulf came under the control of different colonial powers such as the British, Dutch and the French and regional powers like Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

For more information on pearling in the Persian Gulf please go to our web pages on the Pearl of Asia and the Pearl of Kuwait.

Differences in the pearling activities of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar

Significant differences in the pearling activities of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar become apparent when one studies the history of such activities in these regions. These differences can be seen in the areas of conservation,  government regulations and commercial centralization. In the Persian Gulf pearl diving was dominated by small and medium-scale enterprises, and was conducted virtually without any government interference. The area also had an effective conservation system that allowed for sustained pearling over many centuries. On the other hand in the Gulf of Mannar, pearling was highly centralized, with the government either selling fishing rights to  few big entrepreneurs or taking part directly in the fishing using hired boats and divers. Conservation was not a priority. Revenue generation was the primary aim. The Mannar pearl banks were fished intensively for periods of several years until no more Pinctadas could be found, and then abandoned for several decades while the Pinctada populations recovered.

The pearl oyster species prevalent in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar

The two species of pearl oysters found in the Persian Gulf are Pinctada radiata (the gulf-pearl oyster) and Pinctada margaritifera (black-lip oyster). However, Pinctada radiata was more common and was the main source of the Persian Gulf pearls over the centuries. The Ceylon pearl oyster, previously thought to be an entirely different species from the Persian Gulf oyster and known by names such as Meleagrina vulgaris, Margaritifera vulgaris, Pinctada vulgaris, Pinctada fucata, etc. is now considered to be a variety of the Persian Gulf oyster, Pinctada radiata. Thus Pinctada radiata is the oyster species common to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, the hub of the international pearl trade since ancient times. Therefore, Pinctada radiata was undoubtedly the greatest source of natural pearls in the world, since ancient times.

The Ceylon variety of Pinctada radiata usually has an entirely white nacre, producing predominantly white pearls with a silver overtone The Ceylon variety of Pinctada radiata usually has an entirely white nacre, producing predominantly white pearls with a silver overtone

© Pinctada radiata

Mediterrinian Science Comossion

The Ceylon variety of Pinctada radiata usually has an entirely white nacre, producing predominantly white pearls with a silver overtone, but sometimes may be cream or light pink, producing pearls of similar colors. The shells are pale yellow in color and the lip is slightly pinkish. 7 to 8 brownish radial bands are found on the shell. The size of the shell is 7 to 8 cm. The Persian Gulf variety of Pinctada radiata, is larger and darker with a reddish lip. The life span of Pinctada radiata is about 7 to 8 years.

Recent research suggests that Pinctada fucata/ martensii/radiata/imbricata belong to a species complex, which represents a cosmopolitan globally-distributed species, characterized by substantial intraspecific variation over its range. The four components of the species complex have specific locally adapted traits, that led them to be classified as different species, but are now considered as sub-species of a cosmopolitan species with a global range. Thus the Atlantic pearl oyster Pinctada imbricata, the two Indo-Pacific pearl oysters, Pinctada martensii, and Pinctada fucata, and the Gulf pearl oyster Pinctada radiata, belong to the same species complex, in spite of their widely separated habitats.

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha ,Qatar

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha ,Qatar

Photo above, creative commons

The Sultan Necklace belongs to the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

The Sultan necklace is now part of the valuable collection of jewels and jewelry - originating from Islamic nations across the world, which are also considered as an important form of artistic expression - belonging to the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar. The Museum is a treasure house of Islamic Art from across the Islamic World, displayed in 5,000 square meters of exhibition space. The Museum building based on ancient Islamic architecture, was designed by the renowned architect  I. M. Pei. The Museum that lies on the edge of the Doha Harbour, at the south end of Doha Bay, is the first of its kind in the Persian Gulf, and was opened to the public on December 1, 2008.

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha ,Qatar- at night

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha ,Qatar- at night

Photo by Ammar

Back to Famous Pearls 2

You are welcome to discuss this post/related topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in our FORUMS (

Related :-

1) History of the Gem Trade in Sri Lanka

2) Pearl of Asia

3) Pearl of Kuwait.

References :-

1) Phoenicia - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

2) Sri Lanka - Environment, Natural Resources, & Bio Diversity - www.virtuallibrary Sri Lanka.

3) History of Sri Lanka - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

4) British Ceylon - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

5) Portuguese Ceylon - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

6) Dutch Period in Ceylon - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

7) Ceylon Pearl Fisheries - Pearls and Pearling Life - Edwin Streeter

8) Pearl in Ceylon - Gold, Gems and Pearls in Ceylon and India - Ferguson

9) Pearling in the Gulf of Mannar - Derrick Shockman, www.virtual library-srilanka

10) Traditional Pearl and Chank Diving Technique in Gulf of Mannar : A Historical and Ethnographic Study - N. Athiyaman and K. Rajan (2003), Indian Journal of History of Science.

11) Pearls Without Price : The Rise and Fall of a Sometimes-Precious Gem - by Bennett Bronson

12) Museum of Islamic Art, Doha - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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