Nov. 23, 2009
Bloom to read from 'Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls' Dec. 4
Stephen G. Bloom set out to trace a single pearl, from the moment a diver in Australia scoops from the ocean floor a giant oyster to the moment a woman 10,000 miles away fastens the clasp to a shimmering pearl necklace.
Like an obsessed detective, the University of Iowa journalism professor embarked on a 30,000-mile pearl chase, witnessing every stop pearls make, merrily plinking their way across lands, oceans and seas. In the process, Bloom hopscotched the world, interviewing hundreds of workers along a de facto pearl assembly line, from teenaged pearl sorters in rural China to hotshot New York auctioneers hawking twin natural pearl strands that fetched $7.1 million, the most expensive jewels ever sold.
The result of Bloom's improbable four-continent odyssey is "Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls," a nonfiction book released this week by St. Martin's Press. Bloom will read from the 400-page book at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 at Prairie Lights Bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, and will be interviewed on Iowa Public Radio's "The Exchange" at 12:30 p.m. that day.
"One of my goals was to discover exactly why pearls have captivated the world's imagination for so many years," Bloom said. "But that was only half of the equation. I also wanted to plumb the lives of the thousands of workers spread out over dozens of countries whose only connection to each other is readying for market perfect, luminescent pearls," said Bloom, the Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
At fast-and-furious pearl auctions in Hong Kong, Bloom shadowed pearl brokers who carried satchels stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars. Bloom fished with pearl farmers in rural China (nearly toppling over a flat-bottom boat in the process). On remote Tahitian atolls, he worked alongside farmers sorting luminescent black pearls, and on a remote southern Philippine island off of Palawan (not far from active al-Qaeda cells of soldiers), he dove for gigantic gold-colored pearls that sell for $10,000 apiece.
Bloom hired himself out as a deckhand on a pearling vessel off the rugged coast of Northern Australia, harvesting pearls from Timor Sea inlets so inaccessible they have yet to be officially named by government topographers. He wangled interviews with the world's four so-called "pearl lords," the wealthiest and most powerful producers and suppliers on the globe. To reach them, Bloom traveled in private ships, helicopters, seaplanes, single-engine prop planes, and executive jets. When he finally met these imperial pearl barons, gun-toting sentries stood guard around them on island outposts.
Bloom writes of the many uncanny similarities pearls share with cocaine: both come from Third-World origins, zigzagging their way to the developed world through a serpentine network of traders, dealers and couriers; both organic commodities are white, lightweight, portable, can be easily hidden and smuggled, and are commanding staggering sums of money. The biggest difference between the two products is that cocaine is illegal in most countries, and pearls are not, suggests Bloom.
Along the global assembly line of pearls, Bloom met legions of Armani-clothed, Bally-shod, BMW-driving brokers. "If a drop-dead gorgeous woman came into the casino at Monte Carlo wearing an eye-popping strand of outrageous pearls, these brokers wouldn't give a wit about the woman. Their eyes would immediately pivot to the pearls, not the woman," Bloom said. "These traders can pinpoint in a nanosecond where a pearl is grown, processed and strung, and which dealers likely have bought and sold it.
"Pearls are the original gem. They predate faceted diamonds and intricate gold jewelry. First on the list of reasons Columbus came to the New World in 1492 was to find pearls. On his third voyage, Columbus found a cache of walnut-sized natural pearls, which started a pearl rush in Europe that was to last the next 100 years."
"Tears of Mermaids" reaches its climax when Bloom travels to the exact longitude and latitude where Columbus discovered those pearls, and where he finds a local pearl fisherman - as close to a descendant of the original Indians with whom Columbus traded trinkets for pearls a half millennium ago. Tracking down Nicholas El Gato, which translates to Nicholas the Cat, was an adventure Bloom likens to finding the Holy Grail. "Under a naked light bulb in a rundown brick shack in a Venezuelan island slum, Nicholas El Gato was the connection I'd traveled 30,000 miles to find."
Today, nearly all pearls are cultured -- raised on farms or in the wild -- by inserting a small bead, made from ground-up Mississippi River clamshells, into the oyster's gonad. The oyster responds to the irritant by secreting nacre, a calcium carbonate-based substance that coats the bead in one to three years, transforming an ordinary bead into a glistening pearl.
"Pearls have always represented new beginnings," Bloom said. "Baby girls are traditionally given pearls. Young women receive them as wedding or graduation gifts. Pearls telegraph a sense of sublime elegance; they don't glitter or sparkle. They actually have the natural ability to radiate light."
In spite of the recession, pearls are still wildly popular, and actually are a good buy these days. "Fashion icons like Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez have rescued pearls from the old-guard likes of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton," Bloom said. "Pearls are at their lowest price point in more than two decades."
For reasons Bloom can't fully explain, he developed a lasting affinity for the natural gem as a young boy. His affection was prompted by John Steinbeck's "The Pearl," a novel he says he's read 50 times, about a Mexican peasant who stumbles upon one of the largest pearls in the world, and pays dearly for the discovery. Bloom's love also may have something to do with a memory of his mother, who reserved for special occasions a modest pearl necklace that mesmerized the author. "I loved the clean, clacking sound of the pearls when they collided with each other around my mother's neck. They had weight, density, symmetry, but most of all, they seemed to be alive."
During the course of four years, filling up 71 notebooks of interviews and material, Bloom came to realize that pearls project a series of curious paradoxes. "Pearls radiate innocence and power, simplicity and sophistication, youth and wisdom, integrity and drama, humility and conceit, tradition and haute couture, chastity and sexuality, modesty and wealth," he wrote. "No other fashion accessory can accomplish anything close to that."
In addition to "Tears of Mermaids," Bloom is the author or co-author of two critically acclaimed nonfiction books, "The Oxford Project," (with Peter Feldstein) and "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America." He also is the author of a collection of his nonfiction stories, "Inside the Writer's Mind."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070, firstname.lastname@example.org