DUBAI (Reuters) - Abdulla al-Suwaidi dreamed of reviving a long-lost part of Middle Eastern culture when he seeded his first oyster with a tiny bead and placed it in the warm waters of the Gulf in 2004.
Almost a decade later, the co-founder and vice-chairman of RAK Pearls is finally seeing the fruits of his labors with the first auction of cultured pearls from RAK's oyster farm off the coast of Ras Al Kaimah, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.
"We're seeing today a revival of a culture, a treasure that's been lost to us for many, many years," al-Suwaidi told Reuters in an interview.
Natural pearl diving was once the main income of many families in the region. But it vanished after World War One with the development of vast oil reserves in the Gulf and the rise of competition from Japanese cultured pearls.
RAK Pearls, the region's only cultured pearl producer, now has some 40,000 oysters bedded down in the Gulf's briny waters and in June the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre Authority (DMCC) held an exclusive auction for some of its produce.
"Dubai has been a trading center of pearls for many years but this is the first time that we auction locally cultivated pearls with a quality that surpasses anything that you've seen farmed in countries like China and Japan," DMCC Executive Vice Chairman Ahmed bin Sulayem said.
The value of traded natural and cultured pearls through nearby Dubai grew by an average 25 percent annually between 2003 and 2011 to hit $30 million a year in the last few years, while volumes have risen 10 percent annually, according to Franco Bosoni, director of commodity services at DMCC.
Prices per pearl could hit as much as 1 million UAE dirhams ($272,300), according to RAK's Japanese board director Daiji Imura. Smaller pearls could sell for as little as one dirham.
Historically, natural pearls were symbols of style and an important indicator of wealth and status in the Middle East.
Until the decline of the natural pearl market, local fishermen throughout the Gulf used to dive deep into the waterway's warm waters, hunting for the pearls which provided a main source of income for many people.
The Gulf has produced fine jewelry for thousands of years, and the best natural pearls appeared in the jewelry of kings and queens.
RAK Pearls intends to grows its production of 40,000 oysters to around 200,000 in a few years, but considers it more than just a business.
"Pearls are mentioned in our poems, books and even the names of our daughters," al-Suwaidi said.
His firm has adopted the Japanese pearl farming technology of inserting tiny beads made from mother of pearl into oysters along with a small piece of the mantle organ from a donor oyster.
The mollusc then naturally coats the bead with layers of a substance called nacre, the same hard, iridescent material which lines its inner shell and is known as mother of pearl.
The oyster is then placed back in the water and over several months, the build-up of nacre layers eventually creates what is known as a cultured pearl.
Holding tweezers and a small sharp blade, RAK's pearl-seeding expert Lutfi Hasayed treats the oysters with the loving care of a doctor and the sharp eye of an artist.
"Success at our farm is 80 percent," Hasayed said from his air-conditioned workspace near the turquoise waters.
That's just as well, as the project is partly owned by the government of Ras Al Khaimah and expected to become part of the tourist trail as well as contribute to the food industry.
Waste from the shells is used as fertilizer and the oyster meat is served at the company's Japanese restaurant chain in the emirate.
"This is a pilot project and we're receiving interest from investors across the region to duplicate it in other countries," said RAK Pearls marketing manager, Mohammed al-Suwaidi.
"We plan to bring the pearling industry of the Gulf back to its golden days." ($1 = 3.6730 UAE dirhams)
Reporting By Mirna Sleiman, editing by Paul Casciato