The largest pearl known, I believe, is in the possession of Mr. Beresford Hope; it weighs three ounces, and is two inches long, and two and a half inches in circumference, and is set as a pendant: and the pearl necklace of the Empress of the French is one of the finest known. The Shah of Persia has a pearl valued at £60,000.*
In India rose-coloured pearls are much esteemed, for red pearls (Lohitamukti) form one of the seven precious objects which it was incumbent to use in the adornment of Buddhistic reliquaries, and to distribute at the building of a Dagopa.†
Marco Polo states, that in the island of "Chipangu" (the kingdom of Japan), the Chinese "Jih-pañ-kivé," rose-coloured pearls were abundant, and quite as valuable as the white ones, and that there some of the dead were buried and others were burnt, and that when a body was burnt they put one of these rose-coloured pearls in the mouth "for such is their custom".‡ These rose-coloured pearls were no doubt those found in the conch shells.
The most productive pearl-fishery banks lie on the west coast of Ceylon, between the eighth and ninth degree of north latitude, near the level dreary beach of Condatchy, Aripo, and Manaar.§ The other principal fisheries are those of the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf, Corornandel, Catifa in Arabia (which produced the pearls purchased by Tavernier for £110,000), the Algerine Coast, the Sooloo Islands, and, in the Western world, the Bay of Panama and the Coast of Columbia, which had formerly some very valuable pearl-fisheries, for Seville alone is said to have imported thence upwards of 697 lbs. in the year 1587.
* 'A Manual of Precious Stones and Antique Gems,' by Hodder M. Westropp.
† 'Nat. Hist, of Precious Stones,' by Koeppen as quoted in Yule's 'Marco Polo'.
‡ 'The Book of Ser Marco Polo,' by Colonel Henry Yule, C.B.
§ 'Voyage of the Novara,' vol. i. pp. 379 - 381.
In Western Australia pearl-fishery grounds have been discovered in the Torres Straits.
In 1864 the pearl-fishery of Ceylon suffered considerably, owing to an irruption of the skate fish, which was said to have killed the pearl-oysters; and the loss of revenue was calculated at £50,000.
A correspondent of the 'Ceylon Observer,' says, however, that the Ceylon pearl-fishery shows no sign of languishing, and that a new bank had been fished, the oysters from which are of a larger size than those hitherto obtained from this fishery. The total amount received by the government, in 1881, was £75,000 worth less than the largest fishery on record, viz., that of 1814, which gave a return of £105,000; but in the 'Journal of the Society of Arts,' Aug. 12th, 1881, as quoted from 'Colonies and India,' it is said that the pearl-fishery for that year had been one of the most successful on record. The pearls from the oysters on the banks situated off "Silavaturai," on the western coast of the island, have been famous for their purity, shape, and colour, from time immemorial, and in these attributes they far surpass those obtained from the pearl-oysters of the Persian Gulf, although, as a rule, inferior in size to the latter. . . . The pearl-oyster is said to be migratory in its habits, and for one cause or another some of the banks are for years deserted by them. The following description, from the same source, of the working of the fishery may be interesting. The inspector having sent in his report to the effect that there are sufficient pearl-oysters of mature age on the banks, the government advertises a date for its commencement. A large number of boat-owners, both Cingalese and from the opposite coast of India, apply to enrol their boats, and these probably number 150 to 180; they are divided into two fleets, sailing under red and blue flags. They proceed to the banks, which are some six miles from shore, on alternate days. Each boat provides its own crew and divers, and has on board a guard whose duty it is to see that the oysters fished are not surreptitiously disposed of. Each diver stands on a flat stone attached to the diving-rope, and, after taking a long inspiration, closes the nostrils with one hand, and descends on the stone to the bottom, where he hastily collects as many oysters in his basket as the time he is able to remain under water admits of......At a given signal all the boats sail for the shore, where they are unloaded under inspection, and the oysters placed in the government kottoos (palisaded enclosures with cement floors). Here the oysters are counted, and the proportion due to the boat-owners for their services, is made over to them. The remainder, which is the property of government, is put up to auction and sold to the highest bidder. The purchasers remove their lots to private kottoos, where the oysters are left to decompose, to enable the pearls to be washed out.
In Ceylon, the fourth part of the pearls brought up is the diver's share. In each boat there are ten divers, each with an assistant. Before the divers descend a number of quaint ceremonies are gone through with incantations, both in the boats and on shore. So superstitious are these men, that not one of their number, Christian or idolater, would continue their employment without the countenance of the sorcerer, and in 1857 Government was compelled to pay these impostors. The chief shark-charmer was a Roman Catholic* The same authority further states that the utmost depth in which a diver can remain safely is about seventy feet. They can remain under water from fifty to sixty seconds, and the diving is carried on from five to six hours daily. Each of the ten divers can, in the course of the day, bring up from 1000 to 4000 pearl-shells. A single oyster contains sometimes thirty or forty pearls, of which some may be worth a sovereign on the spot. The small valueless seed-pearls are burnt, and sold as pearl-lime to the wealthy Malays, to add to the betel and cabbage-nuts which they chew. The Ceylonese mix the lustreless pearls with grain, and feed their poultry with them, in whose crops the pearls regain their former brilliancy after a few minutes grinding. The crops are slit up, and the pearls taken out. It is said to be done by other Indian races, but that the pearls lose weight. In India the priests of Buddha keep up the strange belief as to the origin of pearls, which I have mentioned elsewhere, and make it a pretext for exacting what they term "Charity oysters," from the divers and boatmen of their faith for the use of Buddha, who, when propitiated, will make the fish yield more pearls in future seasons.†
* 'Voyage of the Novara,' vol. i. p. 332.
† ' Household Words,' "My Pearl-fishing Expedition," vol. iii. p. 80.