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Cultured Pearl Industry

Arkansas freshwater mussel shell provided the raw material for cultured pearl farming in the latter half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries. Following World War II, cultured pearls were the quintessential statement of elegance, and this drove the demand for Mississippi River Valley freshwater shell.

The 1960–1980s were the heyday for shell harvesting from northeast Arkansas waterways. Most of the shell was shipped to Japan, where Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected a cultured pearl process in the early 1900s. In this process, a bead, or nucleus, was inserted into a marine oyster and the creature layered its natural nacre around the orb, thus creating a pearl. As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters could potentially reject an inserted nucleus, and Mississippi River Valley shell proved to be the least likely to be expelled.

Prior to use in cultured pearl farming, tons of shell had been harvested for mother-of-pearl button blanks that were made in small factories dotting northeast Arkansas riverbanks, especially during the early to mid-twentieth century. By the time that the mollusk was used for the cultured pearl industry, brailing and diving were the primary gathering methods. Brailing boats fished with a fringe of chain to which non-barbed hooks were attached. The apparatus was lowered into the water and trolled across the mussel beds where the animals lay open for feeding. The method relied on the animal’s tendency to clamp onto anything that triggered its natural closing response. Diving was the other popular means of harvest in Arkansas. Divers in the region used underwater breathing apparatuses rather than free diving, which had been practiced for centuries in pearl regions, including the Gulf of Mexico. Primitive dive equipment appeared in the late 1800s, but the safety of the equipment was little better than that associated with free diving. Dive gear steadily improved, and by mid-century, lightweight equipment was available to the public.

In Arkansas, the same ingenuity that kept old cars and tractors running on the farm was utilized to engineer equipment. Old Model-T car engines were turned into compressors. Garden hoses served as air conduits, and dive helmets were designed from things as disparate as old fire extinguishers, hot water tanks, or, in one instance, an old torpedo casing. The glass faceplate was useless in the underwater darkness but offered a degree of illumination once the diver returned to the surface. Museums such as Jacksonport State Park and Randolph County Heritage Museum exhibit old dive gear once used for gathering mussels.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has required a shell-taking license since the early twentieth century, and after the diver had hauled the mussels out of the water, the shells had to be graded. Small or endangered creatures were tossed back in the immediate vicinity whence they had been harvested. Shell processing also included steaming open over a fire, removal of the flesh, drying and sorting by variety, and transporting to a buyer. The meat from the mussel was generally thrown back into the river for fish feed.

While the Japanese cultured pearl industry thrived during the latter half of the twentieth century, Chinese scientists and entrepreneurs were steadfastly moving from gnarly, so-called “rice-krispie” pearls to gorgeous specimens that would eventually upend the pearl industry. In former rice paddies, freshwater mussels that were not finicky and did not require ocean nurseries were now capable of growing pearls. Of greatest implication for Arkansas, they no longer needed a shell bead to serve as the nucleus for the pearl.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, Chinese pearl farmers could consistently grow perfect pearls after inoculating the host mollusk with a piece of mussel tissue instead of inserting shell-bead nuclei. This meant that the animal laid layers of nacre over the piece of mantle, and the resulting pearl was solid nacre rather than a few layers over a shell bead. As a result, the pearls exhibited an increased luster and luminosity—important factors in the pearl industry. Chinese pearls flooded the market in every size, shape, and color. The enormous quantity of pearls even allowed for pearls themselves to be used as nuclei to grow even larger pearls.

When the cultured pearl process no longer required a shell nucleus, international demand for Arkansas shell dried up, leaving limited uses for the shell in jewelry manufacture—primarily watch faces—or supplying the only domestic freshwater cultured pearl farm in the United States, in Birdsong, Tennessee.

For additional information:
Harris, John L., and Mark E. Gordon. “Arkansas Mussels.” Little Rock: Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 1990.

Mazurkewich, Karen. “From Rice to Pearly Riches—Chinese Farmers Switch Crops, Transforming Backwater; But Will the Market Last?” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, December 6, 2000, p. 1B.

Lenore Shoults
Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Last Updated 1/24/2012

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