During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds lay in the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and in the Red Sea. Chinese pearls came mainly from freshwater rivers and ponds, whereas Japanese pearls were found near the coast in salt water. Nearly all the pearls in commerce originated from those few sources. Over the next millennium only three substantive events altered what appeared to be a very stable pattern. Considering the minimal state of pearling in the United States today, it is impressive that two of the three developments occurred in the New World.
As Europe raced to capitalize on what Columbus had stumbled upon, the major powers of the day concentrated on spheres of influence. Spain focused its efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, the Spanish forced slaves to dive for pearls. The English colonizers along North America’s Atlantic coast and French explorers to the north and west, all found native Americans wearing pearls, and they discovered freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins. So many gems were exported to Europe that the New World quickly gained the appellation “Land of Pearls.”
What is now the United States, became famous for two products. Its best freshwater pearls fueled a ready market overseas, purchased by people who, unlike the then less sophisticated frontier Americans, knew the rarity and value of large, round, lustrous pearls. Many of the best examples made their way into Europe’s royal gem collections, where they can still be seen on display, usually misidentified as saltwater pearls from the Orient. America also produced mother-of-pearl buttons, which it exported all over the world. Iowa became the center of the trade, shipping billions of iridescent fasteners until World War II, when newly invented plastic virtually drove quality buttons out of the market. Mother-of-pearl, the iridescent coating inside oyster shells, once formed the foundation of a thriving button industry in the U.S.
While North America set a new standard for large freshwater pearls, white saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela competed with pearls from Bahrain, and black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in what is now Mexico) provided an alternative to Tahitian blacks. More pearls arrived in Spain than the country’s aristocratic market could absorb. As with the emeralds it was mining in Colombia, Spain found ready buyers for its new pearls across Europe and in India.
Those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until overfishing in Central American waters and in North American streams depleted the beds. Pollution also took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade slowly unfolded in the isolated island nation of Japan.