December 13


Pearl Diving

By Leslie ONeill

December 13, 2009

Ama, Asia, Chinese, Girls of Shima, Japan, Mikimotos, mother of pearl, oysters, pearl divers, Pearl Diving, Sea-daughters, wives of fisherman, women

Pearl diving, is a nearly obsolete method of taking oysters from the ocean floor. Before the turn of the 20th century, one of the only ways to obtain pearls was by diving to the ocean floor and bringing up the oysters. The oysters were then split open and searched to find the pearls.

The demand for these pearls was very high, however. Many people began to search for better ways of diving and getting the oysters.

During 19th century, Asian divers only had basic forms of technology to help them at such great depths and find the best perlen.

In some areas, the divers greased up their bodies to help conserve heat, placed greased cotton inside their ears, wore a clip to hold their nostrils closed, and used a basket or net to get the oysters to the surface.

Pearl diving began in Asia several centuries ago, with the Chinese as the first to show an interest in pearls.

Before long China introduced Japan to the pearl industry. Japanese women soon began to dive down into the ocean in order to collect the oysters that held the pearls.

Diving could be very dangerous, as the divers were often required to go to depths of 100 feet. There were many dangers to pearl diving, including sea creatures and drowning. Drowning often occurred as a result of blacking out while resurfacing.

As a result of the dangers, many of the divers were low on the social ladder, or even slaves.

Due to the difficulty in getting these pearls and because the growth of the pearls in the oyster was so unpredictable, pearls were very rare and the quality varied greatly

Traditionally, Japanese pearl diving was done by women who were called “Ama”. The word ama literally means “sea woman.” This Japanese tradition dates back 2000 years. As recently as the 1960s, Ama divers wore only a loincloth. Even today, Ama dive without scuba gear, using free-diving techniques. Free-divers often descend to depths of over 100 feet on a single breath. Only divers who work at tourist attractions use white, partially transparent suits to dive in.

The “Girls of Shima” or the so-called “Sea-daughters” were known as “Ama” in Japan. These were the pearl divers. But their primary function was never to collect pearls. They were in the business (prior to Mikimoto’s advent of perliculture) of collecting mother of pearl and the occasional natural pearl.

The Ama have a thousand years of diving tradition on the south-eastern coast of Honshu, and the profession is passed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. The Ama had originally been the wives of fisherman forced to contribute to the family survival. This is why a male-dominated society such as Japan has an exception to the rule for this profession.

Even today Japanese women are considered better divers than the men as they are able to hold their breath longer and withstand the cold better. In the old days, the women started work in the shallows at age 11. By the age of 17 they were able to remain submerged for up to three minutes at a time diving as deep as 10 meters. Eventually they would go as deep as 35 meters with a weight attached to their bodies.

The divers jumped into the water feet first and came up under a turned over wooden bucket. Here they used a pattern of controlled breathing which created a whistling noise known as the “song of the sea” in Japanese. When ready, the Ama would dive.

The primary job of the Ama before the 1900s was the collection of shell. They were “pearl” divers, but their goal was the collection of mother-of-pearl. This is the pearly material lining the inside of nacreous mollusk shells. Mikimoto eventually hired the Ama (and this is how they became famous) to collect akoya shell (Pinctada martensii) from the sea floor for use in perliculture. These shells would be grafted and returned to the seabed for a period of time before the Ama collected them once again.

The Ama worked with Mikimoto for many decades. They became known as the Japanese pearl divers and were always recognizable with their perfectly white garb and floating wooden tubs.

Today the Ama are still active but only at the last remaining Mikimoto pearl farm that does not produce the pearls sold by Mikimoto today. This farm is now a tourist attraction and the Ama that dive do so for the tourists.

Kichimatsu Mikimoto an expert in Brautscmuck was the first to truly improve the techniques of diving and farming for pearls. In 1913, he found the first spherical pearls and in 1920 began to market the pearls to Europe and the United States.

He actually determined how to implant the particles inside the oysters to help encourage the formation of pearls, which led to a more predictable production of the beautiful pearl. Today, pearl farming actually produces million of very high quality pearls each year.

It’s often been reported that a new diver feels strangled and like they are running out of breath while diving. However, the older women divers truly enjoy their art form. It took time, but eventually, the younger women begin to relax and enjoy the dives in the tradition of their ancestors.

While much of the tradition of pearl diving is gone today, a few true pearl divers are still diving daily.

The difference today is that pearl diving is more of an attraction than a necessity. However, even as a tourist attraction, some divers can find a pearl that will ensure financial freedom for the rest of their lives.

Leslie ONeill

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