Shining Bright: Cartier Ties Bahrain’s Pearling Past To Its Present

The "jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers", we trace how Jean-Jacques Cartier, from the French jewellery house, put Bahrain’s and its natural pearls on the global map.

April 25, 2024

The year 2024 is being touted as the comeback year for pearls especially with the recently concluded fashion weeks in Milan, Paris and London seeing pearl jewellery as the chosen accessories for the runway for Givenchy, Dior and Versace. Van Cleef & Arpels’ Le Grand Tour collection uses pearls in all its glory such as in the Eclat Mystérieux necklace and Dea Eterna clip. From the demure and delicate nature of pearls, the natural gem has become the centrepiece of avant-garde fashion. Met Gala 2023, which was a tribute to couturier Karl Lagerfeld, saw Indian actor Alia Bhatt debut on the coveted red carpet in a custom Prabal Gurung white gown studded with a whopping 1,00,000 pearls. The same Met Gala red carpet also saw Kim Kardashian sashay down in a Schiaparelli gown with 50,000 freshwater pearls. The year before, Deepika Padukone, who was also a Festival de Cannes jury member made heads turn in a white ruffled saree and a bustier with a hand-embroidered, statement pearl collar, a custom Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla couture, at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival. 

An iridescent gemstone that’s been used as finery for millennia, pearls make for one of the most classic jewellery choices and heritage jewellery brands to contemporary designers continue to be enamoured by its elegant charm. 

A pearl embedded within a freshly cracked oyster

The Lustrous Heritage Of Natural Pearls 

Historically, pearls have been coveted and a sign of opulence; the earliest pearl jewellery dates back to 420BC in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess. Till the 20th century, natural pearls were the ultimate sign of luxury, something the French jewellery brand Cartier, made the most of after their legendary deal with American tycoon, Morton Plant, in 1916. An exchange where Pierre Cartier sold Plant a double-stranded Oriental pearl necklace valued at $1 Million in exchange for Plant’s Fifth Avenue home in New York.  

Jacques Cartier with his sales assistant Mr. Maurice Richard meet a pearl expert associated to Mugbil Al-Thukair, at his house.

The power of pearls was not lost on the Cartier family. In 1912, the youngest of the third-generation Cartier, Jean-Jaques Cartier, travelled across South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent sourcing the finest gems and stones. On his way back to France, Jacques made a detour to the Kingdom of Bahrain, where he forged relationships and commercial links with local pearl merchants to assure the best gulf pearls for the French jewellery house’s ateliers.  

Cartier’s Bahrain Pearl Connection 

According to the 2019 book by Jean-Jacques Cartier’s great-granddaughter, Francesca Cartier Brickell, titled The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire, the French maison took great pride in being considered pearl importers and Jacques had a key role to play. He spent time with the local traders, and merchants and went on the pearling expeditions on dhows to first-hand see the challenges and intensity of sourcing natural pearls. The nation in return fondly remembers Cartier as a key facet in establishing its position as the leader in the international pearl trade. As an extension of the pearl trade between the House of Cartier and the Kingdom of Bahrain, the French jeweller’s design saw extensive creative influence from Egypt, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  

Jacques Cartier embarking on local pearling boat from Muharraq, home of Bahrain’s pearl divers.

The nugget of oceanic glory is embedded in Bahrain’s history. Pearl diving was a dangerous occupation with rudimentary and limited equipment, which included a metal nose clip, a stone tied to the ankle and a basket. Once they collected to haul, they would crack open the oysters one by one in the hope of finding the perfect ‘dana’. Dana pearl was and still is the most coveted with its perfect size, shape, and lustre with no imperfections. Another reason why Bahrain pearls are considered some of the best is due to the geographic curiosity where the salt water of the Persian Gulf meets underground freshwater springs making it an ideal environment for oysters.  

Reviving Bahrain’ pearling traditions 

It went downhill for Bahrain’s natural pearl dominance with cultured pearls taking over in the 1930s in addition to Bahrain finding oil in 1932, which redirected the kingdom’s economic focus. However, there has been an active attempt to revive the interest and natural sustainable pearl economy in the Kingdom Of Bahrain.  

In 2023, Bahrain banned the cultivation and harvesting of artificial pearls—the only country in the world to do so. Local jewellers and merchants continue to craft exquisite pieces of jewellery using natural Bahraini pearls that can fetch a premium of $3 Million and above.   

L-R: A local pearl expert, Mugbil Al-Thukair, Jacques Cartier, Salman Mattar, and, Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo taken in 1911 at Mugbil house

In 2017, The Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (DANAT) was set up with the intent to focus on the examination and exploration of natural pearls, that mirrors Bahrain’s rich history in pearling and a commitment to safeguard and promote the nation’s pearling heritage. The nation has gone the extra mile to celebrate and cherish its pearling heritage—Bahrain’s Pearling Trail was included as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. Bahrain Pearling Trail includes 17 buildings in Muharraq City, three offshore oyster beds, and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress. Apart from being a tourist site, the trail offers a fascinating insight into the Gulf nation’s rise in the global economy. 

Bahrain’s Pearling Path 

Muharraq, the erstwhile capital of the Kingdom of Bahrain, was the hub of socio-political and economic centre of the nation. The pearl economy was also rooted in the city—restored remains of this can be witnessed along the three and half kilometre-long Pearling Path. The trail starts from the Bu Mahir Fort where the pearling boats would set off from towards the oyster beds. The trail then heads to Al Ghus House, which is a traditional single-storied pearl diver’s home.  

Pearling Path Visitor and Experience Center in Muharraq, Bahrain

The next residence on the pearling path that is a must-visit is Fakhro House. The luxurious and ornate residence belonged to Yousif Abdurrahman Fakhro, a ship builder and timber merchant. He was one of the earliest citizens to find merits in reclaiming land to grow his business as the pearl trade flourished. One section of Fakhro House is still used by the family. Similarly, Murad House and Majlis belonged to the Murad family—generational pearl traders who are still in business.  

Another modest but important residence on this trail is the Nukhidhah House, which belonged to the captain of a pearling dhow, Jassim Ajaj. His job was one of the crucial ones in the economy—to ensure there was a haul during the pearling expeditions and that these pearls received a just exchange with the traders and merchants. 

The last of the building complexes on this trail belong to the Siyadi family—Siyadi Shops Block A and B, Siyadi House, Siyadi Majlis and Siyadi Mosque. Siyadis were a grand merchant family who settled in Muharraq in the early 19th century. While the residence is still in use by the family, the four-storey majlis is considered the epicentre of business, where merchants from India and Europe gathered for business. The majlis, a separate structure, was where pearl trade transactions took place. Likely, Jacques Cartier was also a participant in these exchanges. 

Go pearl snorkeling off the coast of Bahrain

A visit to Pearling Path Visitors and Interpretation Centre, opened in 2020, is a must. Here you will find the whole trail experience tied together while tying the past and the present with a community centre, an exhibition space, a pearling heritage archive, and conference facilities. For a more immersive experience, pearl diving as an experience is also available with verified operators. It is a much-recommended activity by the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority. If you are lucky, you can harvest 60 oysters that will be opened by trained guides, and if a pearl emerges then the diver gets to keep it. What could be more precious? 

All images courtesy Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA)