Tears of Mermaids

A PEARL IS, essentially, an irritant in the gonads, coated with layer after smooth layer of aragonite and conchiolin as the mollusk attempts to ease its discomfort. The layers happen to be shiny, and therein hangs a tale.

In Tears of Mermaids, Stephen Bloom traces pearls’ path through the global economy, detailing how spheres of calcium carbonate become gems. Traveling all over the world, he takes us from the moment a mussel, dangling in a basket hung from a green bottle on a lake in Zhuji, China, is hauled out of the water and split open with a machete to the moment at a Christie’s pearl necklace auction when a mysterious bidder phones in an offer of $6.3 million.

The story starts with Columbus, whose voyage, in part, was launched to assuage Europe’s hunger for pearls. His sponsor, Queen Isabella, liked to weave them into her hair. When Columbus returned from his third trip with a hefty treasure chest, reports of Indians draped in pearls, and a map of the oyster-rich coast of Venezuela, the plunder began. After a few decades of intensive pearl harvest, the oyster beds were depleted.

Although pearls and oysters are linked in the imagination — no one declares that the world is her mussel — they grow in other mollusks as well. The species and its home waters determine the color and shape, whether the lavender, orange, and yellow jellybeans from China’s lakes or the lustrous black pearls of Tahiti. Natural pearls are rare (one in ten thousand oysters might form one), but the jewelry world no longer relies on them. In early- 1900s Japan, Kokichi Mikimoto patented a method of putting a tiny bead in an oyster and harvesting it after a pearl had grown. The method is still used today. This cultured pearl business and its players are the heart of the book. In it, we meet characters ranging from Zeide, a compulsive online pearl shopper in Fresno, to Tammy, a savvy saleswoman at a stall in the Hongqiao Pearl Market, to Bri, a foul-mouthed, hard-partying deckhand on an Australian boat, as well as an overwhelming array of wealthy pearl tycoons and their much younger wives.

Bloom, who unabashedly loves pearls, makes an argument for contemporary pearl harvesting as environmentally benign, particularly compared to mining for other gems, like diamonds, that surface with such violence. Pearls emerge glistening, so don’t need a lot of processing. Many oyster species require pristine water to survive, providing a conservation incentive. While jobs at the bottom of the ladder don’t pay much compared to the profit of an international pearl empire, they are not abusive.

The most memorable pearls in Tears of Mermaids are not in the necklace Michelle Obama wears, but the ones that are missing. Time after time, a fisherman, diver, or small-scale pearl farmer recalls a tremendous pearl he found on the ocean floor. But they always disappear: lost, sold by a spouse, swindled away by a supposed friend. The fishermen seem upset, but not much. They seem to know, even without an economics class, that the value is not the pearl itself, but the setting.