Inside Tennessee’s disappearing pearl industry

Once a source of major economic growth, the state’s shell and pearl industry has in recent years all but vanished

CAMDEN, Tenn. — Two hours west of Nashville, the highway narrows, and the trees close in. Camden, the seat of Benton County, has a scant 3,582 residents and is rural yet connected with the outside world. This is, after all, where country music star Patsy Cline’s plane crashed in 1963, killing her on a rainy March evening. And Camden is the hub of the American shell and pearl industry — though for how much longer is uncertain.

Pearls are “the earliest gems known to prehistoric man,” the American mineralogist George Frederick Kunz wrote in 1908. “No object of veneration has been without this ornament; no poetical production has lacked this symbol of purity and chastity.” To create a pearl is a kind of alchemy. What was once ordinary — a bead, a shell — transforms, over time, into the rare, the fantastic. There is a mythic quality to this metamorphosis, immortalized in verse in Shakespeare's “The Tempest”: “Full fathom five thy father lies,” the spirit Ariel sings. “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

Pearls have been found in burial mounds in Ohio and along the Tennessee River. The colonist John Smith, writing in 1608, recalled the “many chains of great pearls” the Native American leader Powhatan wore around his neck. The so-called New World, Kunz writes in his definitive study, “The Book of the Pearl,” would go on to supply many pearls to Europe, and pearl rushes in an increasingly industrialized United States were not uncommon.

Opening a mussel that has been cultivated for pearls
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.

Bob Keast, owner of Tennessee River Pearls with a basket of mussels
Bob Keast, owner of Tennessee River Pearls, with a basket of mussels.
TennesseeRiverPearls.com

The U.S. Pearl Co. is owned by James Peach, a former member of the Tennessee House of Representatives who started out as a fisherman and pearl farmer, credits himself on Twitter as the “key person in blocking Gov. [Ned] McWerther from enacting a state income tax.” Peach confirmed via email that “the shell industry has been [in] decline since 1995. Consequently, natural pearls have been on [the] same decline … The increased production of tissue-pearl production in Asia has had a very big impact.”

Today the only freshwater-pearl-culturing farm in the U.S. is owned by Bob Keast and is 15 minutes from Camden. The Birdsong Resort, Marina and Campground stands on the shores of the Kentucky Lake, one of the country’s largest man-made bodies of water, which was created in 1944 by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

At the compound’s center stands the farm’s freshwater pearl museum. It is a small room to the right of a combination office and gift shop, and its shelves are crowded with a boggling amount of pearls. Under the room’s low lighting, they glint like oil. Photos of Keast and a variety of old newspaper clippings hang on the walls. “Keast named official Tennessee ambassador,” reads one from 2001; another shows him shaking Bill Clinton’s hand, grinning. In the corner stands a mannequin in a wedding dress. A few pearl-themed toys from the 1990s — a Barbie, some sort of game with claws — sit next to the pearls on one shelf, still in their packaging. A thin layer of dust covers the plastic wrappers.

The farm was founded by John Latendresse, a Mikimoto-esque figure credited with bringing pearl culturing to the United States. While his family still owns the American Pearl Co. — a wholesaler like U.S. Pearl Co. in Nashville — and sells jewelry in the farm’s gift shop, Keast bought the farm after Latendresse’s death in 2000.

A biographical placard devoted to Latendresse hints at controversy between the farm and Camden’s divers, stating that “protests from local fishermen” followed the farm’s founding because of an agreement between Latendresse and the Tennessee Valley Authority that granted Latendresse exclusive use of the lake. “The lease,” this placard goes on to state, “allowed fishing 150 feet from the shore, and culturing is actually good for aquatic life,” but it is unclear whether the protests stemmed from outrage over this exclusivity or concerns about overfishing. Nevertheless, in 1983 the farm produced its first crop of pearls.

Today the farm employs 12 people, with only one diver among them — fewer than half its employees during its heyday, when a yearly harvest of 25 million pounds of shells was not uncommon. Back then, Keast says as he paces the floor, the Chinese farms were “a big customer. And they have invented an imitation process for implantation. We, on the other hand, have the real thing.”

But as he promotes the authenticity and significance of Tennessee pearls, Keast admits that the farm no longer focuses on shell and pearl export. In what seems like an attempt to survive Tennessee’s declining role in the global pearl industry, the farm has turned its attention to local tourism, hoping to shift its revenue from shell and pearl harvests to tours of the farm’s facilities. But will it work? “People want the real thing, you know?” he says. “Americans want to buy American. We want to buy the hamburger at the county fair and pass up 10 McDonald’s and 10 Taco Bells getting to the county fair.” Voice rising nearly to a shout and arms swinging, he continues, “And we’ll pay two dollars more for a hamburger at the county fair than we will pay at the local McDonald’s, because the baby boomers are wanting to reach into America and take those road trips and get off the beaten path.”

But is a pearl necklace akin to a sandwich? The Chinese pearls have furthered the democratization of the pearl market even beyond Mikimoto. A traditional 16-inch strand of cultured pearls — the kind that brings to mind a smiling Jackie O. and a different America — retails for the baseline price of $2,620 on the Mikimoto website. In comparison, a strand of Chinese-grown cultured Akoya pearls (the most famous variety) retails for $250 at New York’s American Pearl jewelers. In a country still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, Mikimoto’s is out of the price range of many, no matter how much more authentic it may be.

A reality show pilot called “Goin’ Pearl Crazy,” which bills itself as a “Duck Dynasty”–esque portrayal of Keast and the pearl farm, was filmed by Animal Planet and aired in the fall of 2013 (in what seems to be a point of contention for Keast, it was not picked up). Another, “Dixie Divers,” was filmed by the Discover Channel; Keast says it has not aired.

An employee enters the room, bringing Keast a cup of tea and a folder filled with business cards and fact sheets, including a 12-page printout from his website that includes his resume, height and weight, dislikes (rice pudding) and personal accomplishments (“sold Hank Williams Jr. a new Ranger boat”). The school year will soon be ending, and tourist season will soon begin. Keast expects 20,000 to 24,000 visitors a month, he says. And then?

“Our younger people are not into it for the long haul,” he admits. “Would you say that it’s losing popularity?” Another long pause. “Probably so.”

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