Diving For Pearls in Three Feet of Water

These shining bright pearls were birthed by me - yes! delivered into the world! - by plunging my hands into the wet and dripping muscular pseudopod insides of a giant pearl-filled mussel, oozing mud and brackish pond water, by the side of a lake in Suzhou, and forcing them one at a time from their slimy mollusc nest. If that little description doesn't make you feel squeamish, read on.

I spent last weekend in Suzhou, exactly 23 minutes by very fast train from Shanghai and once a green and enticing canal town, paired forever in history with the delights of Hangzhou by the oft-repeated and now completely untrue phrase "Above there is paradise in heaven, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou".

What was once a gorgeous old trading town, canals lined with willows, streets full of intellectuals and silk merchants (the silk industry originated in Suzhou), is now a smoggy metropolis of over 11 million people. So, yeah, small by Chinese standards. 

Suzhou now makes components for nearly all the world's digital cameras, and is also famous for its pearls. As you can guess by the title of this post, I didn't drive an hour out of town to find cheap digital camera bits. But I would go to the same lengths for pearls.

Suzhou has a huge pearl industry, and thanks to my intrepid friend RS (she and I battled the Jeweled Hornet together in Guangxi Province) she discovered an enormous lake where you could pick your own oysters and have them opened to look for pearls. There would even be a boat trip involved! 

An hour-long taxi ride from downtown Suzhou brings you to this gleaming, modern building, the China Pearls and Gems City. RS reassured me that there was a lake here, hidden completely by the green biosphere of Pearls and Gems City, and sure enough, she was right. 

Behind the building is a large shallow pond bordered with low-rise apartment blocks, and lined with olympic pool-style rows  and rows of coloued floats on strings, most of which turned out to be empty Sprite bottles.

We made our way to the tiny boats, and rustled up a boatman from among the six security guards on duty. Another guard acted as guide, while the remaining four helped us into enormously bulky bright orange fluorescent life-jackets. Now, at this point I didn't suspect we were in any real danger of drowning, the whole body of water being no more than three or four feet deep at most, but I appreciate that many Chinese people can't swim and that public health and safety is really big in China. Ahem.

Then I saw the boats up close, which explained why the life jackets were necessary.

The boatman, once we were all safely aboard, pushed out about twenty metres from shore into the murky water, the smog-filled air hanging low and heavy around us. Our guide, up front on the rickety craft, began to pull up string nets full of mussels from below the plastic bottle floats. If he thought a mussel was large and mature enough enough he would extract it from the net and place it carefully in our bucket, until we had one shell for everyone. The world's shortest boat trip was over soon after, and we floated between the rows of softdrink bottles all twenty metres back to shore.

Now for the good part. Our guide took a sharp knife and expertly split each huge slime-covered mussel shell in half. As the halves split open, we all released an involuntary 'aah!' for inside each shell were about twenty pearls, nestled inside the meat. And here was I thinking each oyster only ever contained a single pearl! Only in the good old days, apparently, or if you're a saltwater oyster (oysters grow cultured sea pearls one a a time), but the freshwater pearl mussel (seen here) grows freshwater pearls in multitudes.

Now for the messy part. The pearls are embedded within the mussel and have to be 'extracted' by milking them out - birthing them - one by one. 

Initially a little reluctant, we eventually all got our hands dirty once we saw the beautiful shining pearls in our hands. 

In shades of dark cream through rose pink to an occasional mauve or purple pearl, our pearls were all sizes and shapes. Six shells yielded over a hundred pearls. Six shells also yielded quite a lot of mussel meat, which was kept in a separate dish and handed over to a local man, no doubt to take it away and stirfry it.

The pearls were packed into a ziplock bag with the help of yet another security guard, and then it was time to take the pearls to a vendor inside the market to have some jewelery made. From six shells you won't get enough pearls for a string of perfectly matched 12mm shinies, but you will have plenty for numerous bracelets, a necklace or two and a few pairs of earrings.

The inside of the market is filled with rows of jewelery-making stalls and shops selling ready-made pearl jewelery. You simply choose a spot, and show them what you'd like made, with cost depending on the quality of the clasps and fixtures. Earrings start at 10 yuan a pair ($1.50) and bracelets at 15 yuan ($2) each. It's not an expensive process, and there is no extra charge for bringing your own pearls.

Inside, we laid out our cleaned pearls and selected the best ones for each piece. Holes were drilled on the spot, to ready the pearls for stringing. Twenty minutes later and the jewelery making was complete. Holes drilled, pearls strung, clasps attached. Unbelievable. Next time you go to Suzhou, consider a side-trip to pick your own pearls. It's quite wonderful.

Suzhou 'China Pearls and Gems City'

288 Zhenzhuhu Lu, near Chenyang Lu
江苏省苏州市珍珠湖路288号+86 512 6540 1281 
Mussels 50 yuan each ($8) each, including boat ride and life jackets,all pearls are yours to keep.

Taxi fare: you will need to settle on a fare before you leave downtown Suzhou. We paid 100 yuan ($16) per hour per taxi, including waiting time at the pearl market (where there are no taxis). The total round trip, plus time collecting mussels and jewelery making, took 3.5 hours. 

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