Opening a mussel that has been cultivated for pearls.TennesseeRiverPearls.com
To grow a pearl one first needs a shell. This shell is attached to a mollusk, and though the popular image is that of an oyster, it is in fact the mussel that most successfully grows pearls. Unlike those collected by the solitary diver of Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” cultured pearls are grown on farms, specifically, Japanese pearl farms. “There’s a huge industry of exports,” says pearl enthusiast India Rows, “for mussel shells that come out of the Tennessee River, and this dates way back to Mikimoto’s time.”
Rows is the founder of the Pearl Girls, a Georgia-based jewelry company and blog for which she has researched the history of the gems. Kokichi Mikimoto is the Japanese businessman who invented the cultured pearl in 1893 and is something of a god in the industry today. Without the company that still bears his name, there would be virtually no affordable pearls available, considering the effects of overfishing and pollution worldwide.
At the time that Mikimoto was developing the cultured pearl, the mother-of-pearl industry expanded in the United States, and button factories could be found along the Mississippi River. (Mother-of-pearl, or nacre, is the irridescent layer that coats the inner shell of some mollusks.)The button companies began exporting the shells that they collected to Japan, where they were used as the nuclei needed to create pearls.
This nucleus, essentially a round bead, is inserted into the mussel as an irritant; in response, the mussel produces nacre, slowly building it around the intruder until a pearl is formed.
With the rise of plastics and the decline of mother-of-pearl buttons after World War II, Camden’s shell exporters began to focus more intensely on cultured pearl farms. “The goal never was, ‘Let’s find some pearls,’” says Rows. “When people first started finding pearls, a few people did find success in selling their pearls to New York jewelers … but this actual shell business was really the main money out there, the export business to Japan, to Australia, to throughout the world.”
But just as plastic changed the button industry, advances in culturing pearls have led to a decline in the need for nuclei and, subsequently, Tennessee’s shells. “During peak harvest years,” the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reports, “the commercial mussel shell industry in Tennessee employs approximately 2,000 people and provides nearly $50 million to the Tennessee economy … Currently, 2 to 5 million pounds of mussel shells, with a wholesale value of 2 to 6 million dollars are harvested annually.” But these peak harvest figures are no longer reflective of today’s shell and pearl market. According to the TWRA, only 43 mussel diving permits were issued in the 2013 fiscal year. As of the 2010 census, 36 percent of Camden’s residents were reported as living below the poverty line.
The divers who remain are nearly impossible to find. A forum post on Pearl-Guide.com, a popular enthusiast and collector website, jokes of pearl fever, manifested in an abiding desire to hide one’s sources, as the root of such secrecy. But the dangerous nature of the work, paired with the dwindling local economy, might be a better explanation for missed calls, unanswered messages and suspicion toward outsiders.
Pearl diving is a vocation that has been shaped by the poor visibility and dirt that characterize the Tennessee River. “The river bottom can be sandy, rocky or muddy,” a Pearl Guide poster who calls himself Mikeyy reports on the forum. “The current may be stronger in some places than in others.” A diver named Bennie Woods told Alabama’s Times Daily that being a mussel diver “can get pretty scary at times. A lot of time when you are probing around a stump looking for shells, there will be a giant catfish hiding under the stump … If you are diving near the barge channel, you can hear the screws of the tow boats turning as they pass you by.” Unlike Japan’s Mikimoto Pearl Island, where white-clad ama divers — female traditional free divers — perform hourly for the visiting crowds, the life of the Tennessee River diver, always difficult and now increasingly without rewards, is not for tourists.
As Tennessee’s divers dwindle, China has in recent years become the leading exporter of cultured pearls, flooding the market with what many consider a lower-quality product and hastening the demise of the Tennessee shell industry. The key difference between Chinese pearl farms and those of other countries is the process by which they nucleate their pearls. The Chinese pearl farms have found a way to irritate their mussels without a shell nucleus, using instead only mussel tissue. Tissue nucleation, an effective cost-cutting measure, is now being imitated by farms in other countries, leading to a decline in U.S. shell exports.
The repercussions of the Chinese pearl farms’ self-sufficiency have begun to be felt in Camden. There is a distinct feeling that what was once a boomtown is now a bust. The city, which experienced steady population growth from 1850 to 2000, reported a decline between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
A mural on the side of the United States Pearl Co., a pearl wholesaler headquartered in downtown Camden, welcomes visitors to “Benton County, Pearl Capitol [sic] of the USA.” The building’s windows are tightly shuttered.