Historical Reading: Pearls from India

Dr. James Shigley
Map of the Gulf of Manar
The shallow waters along the coast of the Gulf of Manar have been an important source of natural pearls for several thousand years. Courtesy Century Magazine

The shallow waters of the Gulf of Manar and the Palk Bay (or Palk’s Strait), which separate India from the island of Sri Lanka, have been an important source of natural pearls for several thousand years. The pearl oysters are traditionally recovered by divers operating from small boats who, with the aid of a stone weight, descend up to 50 feet below the ocean’s surface to gather the oyster shells. The shells are placed in a bag, basket or net, and the diver returns to the surface after a brief period under the water. Each diver does this repeatedly to collect shells.

How to Use this Reading List

This reading list was compiled to give you an opportunity to learn more about the history of pearl farming in India. A number of the articles were published in the 1800s and early 1900s – when many classical gem deposits of historical importance were discovered – and gemology and mineralogy became sciences. The list is presented in chronological order to emphasize the development of ideas over time. The list is not comprehensive, but a compilation of the some interesting gemological information that has often been forgotten or overlooked. 

Many of the articles exist in the public domain and can be found online at digital libraries such as Hathitrust, Internet Archive, or other digital repositories. More recent publications can often be found in libraries, including the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library. Abstracts of these articles can usually be found on the website of the original journal or magazine, and the article itself is often available for purchase from the publisher.

Regarding the GIA library’s holdings and on-site access, please contact the GIA library in Carlsbad.

An Account of the Pearl Fishery in the Gulph of Manar in March and April 1797,  H.J. Le Beck, Philosophical Magazine, Series 1, Vol. 5, No. 20, pp. 335-350, (1800). An early description is given of the pearl fishery. The same article was published in: A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Vol. 3, (March), pp. 542-547 and Vol. 4, (April), pp. 21-27, (1801).
 
The Pearl Fishery, R. Percival. “An Account of the Island of Ceylon”, C. and R. Baldwin, London, Chap. 3, pp. 59-73, (1803). A description of the pearl fishery and of the means used to recover pearls.
 
Particulars of the Pearl Fishery in the Bay of Condatschy, Author unknown, Select Reviews of Literature and Spirit of Foreign Magazines, Vol. 8, no. 45, pp. 250-254, (1812). Description of the pearl fishery based on a French account of a voyage to Ceylon made between 1790 and 1800.
 
The Pearl Fishery of Ceylon, Author unknown, Penny Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 70, pp. 474-476, (1833). A short description is given of the pearl fishery.
 
The Pearl Fishery in Ceylon, Author unknown, Saturday Magazine, Vol. 2, (Jan. 5), pp. 5-6, (1833). A short description is presented of the pearl fishery.
 
Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon, J. Steuart, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 3, pp. 452-462, (1835). Description of the pearl fisheries around the Gulf of Manar and the means used to recover pearls.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon, P.L. Simmonds, Simmonds’s Colonial Magazine, Vol. 3, pp. 127-135, (1844). Descriptions are given of the pearl fisheries.
 
On the Natural History of the Cingalese Pearl Oyster and on the Production of Pearls, W.S. Dallas, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Ser. 3, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 81-100, (1858). A description is given of the pearl fishery and of pearl formation in oysters.
 
“Ceylon − An Account of the Island”, J.E. Tennent, Vol. 2, Pt. 9, Chap. 7, pp. 560-566, Longman Green Longman Roberts, London, (1860). A brief description of the method used to recover pearl oysters off the coast of Ceylon.
 
On the Natural History of the Pearl Oyster of Ceylon,  E.F. Kelaart, The Technologist, Vol. 1, pp. 166-177, (1861). A discussion is presented of the biology and life history of pearl oysters.
 
The Pearl Harvest, Author unknown, Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 80, pp. 161-173, (1866). General information is given on pearls and pearl fisheries in Ceylon.
 
The Tinnevelly Pearl Fishery, C.R. Markham, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 15, No. 747, pp. 256-260 (1867). The report of a public lecture on the pearl fishery by an individual who inspected the location in 1866, including a summary of the history of the area. Also by the same author:

The Tinnevelly Pearl-Banks, The Technologist, Vol. 5, (February 1), pp. 295-302, (1865), and a similar report in All the Year Round, Vol. 17, No. 423, pp. 534-537, (1867).
 
Pearl Fisheries, Author unknown, “The World of Wonder”, pp. 193-194, Cassell Petter Galpin, London, (1873). A short description of the Ceylon pearl fishery is given in this book.
 
Pearl Fisheries, E.I.N. Sammler, Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 7, pp. 408-409, (1874). A brief description is given of the Ceylon pearl fishery.
 
The Fisheries of Southern India, J.A. Boyle, The Calcutta Review, Vol. 62, No. 124, pp. 239-255, (1876). The author describes fishery area along the southeast coast of India.
 
Fishing for Pearls, Author unknown, Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 55, No. 737, pp. 87-90, (1878). General information is presented on pearls and a short description of the Ceylon pearl fishery.
 
Pearls and Pearl Fisheries, W.H. Dall, American Naturalist, Vol. 7, No. 7, pp. 731-745, (1883). A description is provided of the pearl fishery, with the comment that pearl recovery was being carried out exactly as it was in the time of the Romans 2000 years before.
 
“Pearls and Pearling Life”, E.W. Streeter, George Bell & Sons, London, pp. 186-209, (1886). The author gives general information on pearls and a description of the Ceylon pearl fishery.
 
The Tuticorin Pearl Fishery, E. Thurston, Nature Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 1025, pp. 174-176, (1889). A description is given of the pearl fishery near the coastal town of Tuticorin in southern India.
 
“Notes on the Pearl and Chank Fisheries and Marine Fauna of the Gulf of Manaar”.  E. Thurston, Government Central Museum, Madras, 116 pp., (1890).  The author gives a technical description of the pearl fishery.
 
Curiosities of Pearls, H.J. Gibbins, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 277, No. 1965 (September), pp. 306-315, (1894). A general discussion is given of pearls, including specific information about the pearl fishery off the coast of Ceylon.
 
Indian Pearl Fisheries, Author unknown, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 44, No. 2290, pp. 855-856, (1896). A brief description is given of the fishery and of the types of pearls found there.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon, W.A. Herdman, Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 63, (July), pp. 229-238, (1903). A summary of a detailed report on the history and production of the fishery and of some of the types of pearls found. The fisheries are of very great antiquity, and were known to Pliny and Cleopatra, and more recently, were under the control of the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Also see by the same author: “Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar”, Royal Society London, 384 pp., (1905). For a summary of the latter report see: The Ceylon pearl fisheries and their administration, Nature Magazine, Vol. 69, No. 1794, pp. 465-467, (1904); The Ceylon pearl fisheries, Nature Magazine, Vol. 71, No. 1843, pp. 395-397, (1905); The pearl fisheries of Ceylon, Nature Magazine, Vol. 74, No. 1907, pp. 57-58, (1906); and The natural history of the Ceylon pearl banks, Nature Magazine, Vol. 76, No. 1968, pp. 271-272, (1907).
 
The Biological Results of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery of 1904, with Notes on Divers and their Occupation, J. Hornell, “Reports from the Ceylon Marine Biological Laboratory,” No. 1, 39 pp. The author describes the fishery and the methods used to recover pearls.
 
The Lure of the Pearl, F.C. Penfield, Century Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 61-77, (1906). A description is given of the pearl fishery off the coast of Ceylon and the methods used to recover pearl oysters.
 
Ceylon and Indian Pearl Fisheries, G.F. Kunz and C.H. Stevenson, “The Book of the Pearl,” Century Company, New York, pp. 99-139, (1908). The author describes the pearl fishing areas.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon, H.M. Smith, National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 173-194, (1912). A detailed, popular account is given of the pearl fishery, including a number of photographs of the fleet of boats used by the divers to recover pearls.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon, F.H. Major, Overland Monthly, Vol. 61, No. 6, pp. 521-531, (1913). A popular description is given of the pearl fishery.
 
A Review of the Scientific Work on the Ceylon Pearls Banks from 1902 to 1912,  J. Pearson, Spolia Zeylanica,Vol. 8, Pt. 23, pp. 205-222, (1913). A summary of scientific studies is presented of the pearl fisheries conducted over a 10-year period.
 
The Ceylon Pearl Oyster Fisheries, J.A. Legge, Spolia Zeylanica,Vol. 8, Pt. 23, pp. 195-204, (1913). The report of a lecture is given on the pearl fisheries.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon,  R.I. Geare, Scientific American Supplement, Vol. 79, No. 2035, pp. 4-5, (1915). A brief description is given of the history of the fishery.
 
“The Indian Pearl Fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay”, J. Hornell, Madras Fisheries Department, Bulletin Vol. 16, 188 pp., (1922). A technical description is given of the pearl fisheries.
 
An Account of the Pearl Fisheries of Tuticorin, March and April 1927, P.R. Awati, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol. 32, pp. 524-531, (1928). Publication not seen.
 
The Portuguese and Pearl Fishing off South India and Sri Lanka, C.R. de Silva, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 14-28, (1978). Publication not seen.
 
The Pearl Fisheries of Sri Lanka, M.M.M. Mahroof, Australian Gemologist, Vol. 19, No. 10, pp. 405-412, (1997). A recent discussion is presented of historical references related to the pearl fishery.

 

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