In my own words
BY BARBARA BACIGALUPI
AUTHOR OF Truly Human
If there is a gene for the attraction to pearls, I was born with it. Of course there isn’t such a thing, but I feel as though my personal desire to see, touch and wear pearls is such an integral part of me that it is as if it has been encoded deep within my very own DNA.

Universally, the wearing of pearls provides women with a way to establish themselves and give credibility to their personal stature. Think Princess Diana in her famous multiple strand choker necklace with the diamond centerpiece, or Jackie Kennedy wearing faux pearls during her White House years. The highest ranking women in American politics today such as Senator Dianne Feinstein and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have become closely associated with the exquisite strands of South Sea pearls peeking out from under their suit jackets.

Pearls celebrate a woman’s femininity as well as her personal power. After all, pearls have always drawn us more closely to the mystery of women and the virtue of purity.

When I started designing with freshwater cultured pearls I felt compelled to learn more of their history. And soon I discovered how instrumental women were in early pearl exploration. Only women comprised the exclusive workforce of divers who formed the basis of the then burgeoning pearl harvesting industry.

The tradition, believed to be nearly 2,000 years old, reveals that Ama, or female divers who plunged into chilling cold waters off the shores of Japan looking for seafood delicacies, evolved their skills into harvesting natural pearls discovered inside the oysters that they brought to the surface. It was believed in Japan that the distribution of fat in the female body, which is markedly different than male anatomy, secured this unique role for women.

Originally, Ama divers sought to reduce the friction that might slow the pace of their dives and eliminate the possibility of entanglements by wearing only a fabric thong and a rope belt through which they secured a long metal tool for prying oysters loose. Despite the extreme chill of the salt water seas in which they dove, the skill and value of an Ama grew with age. This age-appreciated status in the history of Ama divers creates a sharp contrast when compared to how most career paths are routinely viewed in the “youth is everything” culture of today.

The growing respect with increasing age was derived from the skilled free diving technique the Ama practiced, when they held their breath for the entire time it took to complete a dive, usually about two minutes. No scuba gear or oxygen tanks for these women! As the age of individual divers increased, so did their ability to hold their breath for increasing lengths of time, thereby increasing the length of time they could stay underwater during a single dive. With each plunge to the beds, located some 30 feet below the surface, the Ama would return with the oysters they pried loose, placing them in baskets tethered on the water’s surface. Once baskets were full, the divers returned to shore and began the painstaking task of prying open the bi-valve shells in search of precious pearls.

The rare discovery of an exquisite lustrous round form brought more wealth and recognition than ever achieved by the Ama through food source diving, even though the occurrence of these natural pearls was quite rare, and round pearls were discovered even less frequently than irregularly shaped ones.

After Mikimoto launched his cultured pearl farms on Mikimoto Island near the city of Toba, he maintained the Ama diving tradition. As the island attracted many visitors, Mikimoto clothed the divers in white garbs lest their previous unabashed nudity would scare tourists away.

Today women of strength and courage wear pearls—just as women of strength and courage first harvested these most alluring gems from the depth of the sea.
Ama and the allure of cultured pearls
Also in the LEARNING CENTER:
UNDERSTANDING CULTURED PEARLS
Learn about the history of pearl cultivation from Mikimo to the present, as well as the types and shapes of pearls that are currently available.
OBJECTS OF ATTENTION and AFFECTION
Favorite pieces of pearl jewelry can be used in mindful
meditation practices and guided visualization.
Visit the RELAXATION SECTION in the Learning Center.