Bahrein Pearl Trade-- an article on the center of the world's pearl trade from the October 10, 1914 NY Times

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The New York Times, October 11, 1914:

PRESENT CENTRE
OF WORLD'S PEARL TRADE

    The Bahrein Islands are now the centre of the world's pearl trade. They are on the western shore of the Persian Gulf and have become the most important part of the fisheries of that body of water, which is the chief source of the world's pearl supply.

    The Sheik of Bahrein is stated to have a customs revenue amounting to $400,000 annually, which makes him the richest ruler of the Persian Gulf. The pearl fisheries under his control bring in $2,500,000 in a good year. Although the inconveniences of travel to Bahrein are great, there is an increasing tendency on the part of Continental buyers to go there because they can make better bargains and secure better specimens than by trading in the Bombay pearl market.

    The difficulties of reaching the islands are due to the tides and the shoal water surrounding the islands. At some stages of the tide it is impossible for ships to get nearer than four miles from Bahrein, the only port, and even small boats cannot approach. In consequence, passengers, mail, and cargo have to be landed by means of donkeys.

    The richest pearly oyster banks are situated around the northern and eastern coasts of the Bahrein Islands. Units of measurement in the sale are the rice bag and the coffee bag, which hold on the average 140 and 175 pounds, respectively, of uncleaned shells.

    No reliable statistics are available, so it is reported by Consul Henry D. Baker as Bombay, as to the average number of pearls found in a given quantity of shells. Reports from Bahrein state that the value of pearls exported is about twenty times greater than that of shells. The mother-of-pearl and mussels are sought for the sake of the shell alone, but the pearl oyster is gathered for the pearl and the shell is considered only as a by-product.

    The most primitive methods are adopted in the diving operations, and no modern appliances are used or allowed by the tribes. The banks on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf are the common property of the Arab tribes inhabiting that region, and are open to all comers so long as the same methods as those adopted by the Arabs are employed. The banks near the Persian Coast and islands are claimed by Persia.

    The diving craft are generally equipped by the owners, and the results of the operations are shared by the owner and crew in proportion laid down by custom. The owner receives 20 per cent. of the net earnings and 80 per cent. is divided among the crew, each diver receiving three shares and each rope puller and extra man two shares. Occasionally men may be engaged for a round sum of $30 to $60 for the season, but these are generally divers of indifferent skill, who cannot obtain advances from their first employers.

    It is difficult for newcomers to obtain the services of good divers, owing to the system in vogue, which practically makes this class of men slaves to the masters of the pearling boats. The men's earnings are insufficient to keep them all the year round, and consequently they take advances from their masters year after year to such an extent that they can never repay their debt. When a diver elects to engage himself to another boat the owner of the latter has to pay up the debt due to the former master, should he engage him.

    The pearl shell and pearl fishing season commences in the second week in May and terminates usually in the third week in September. Arabs, negros, and Persians are generally employed in the operations. The loss of life from sharks is said to be very small. The divers, however, suffer from chest diseases, and their average life is shorter than that of people in other industries.

    The best mother-of-year shells are found around the islands near the Persian Coast, and some are also obtained off the Oman Coast. They are sought at varying depths from a little below the surface to eighteen fathoms of water, on hard mud and sandy bottom. Very few are exported. Pearls are seldom found in these shells, but when they do occur they are generally large and of fine quality. Mussel shells, are also obtained off the coast of the Persian Gulf and around small islands, at the same depths as mother-of-pearl shells and on similar bottoms.

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