08 April 2014

Travel tales: Diving for pearls

I tend to get a little keepsake from each city I visit when I travel, it's usually a piece of jewellery. On my last day in San Francisco I realised all I'd done was eat, and other than sunglasses, a hat and scarf I'd bought to protect myself from the weather, I only had one keepsake that I'd posted back to Australia already to save space (a cookbook).

Carolyn, her mum and I went to Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf - it's an outdoor shopping and eating area, a lot like Santa Monica Pier. We ate and meandered through the windy open area looking at shops and laughing at sights. We came across a pearl store called Pearl Factory. At first I thought I couldn't afford to buy anything (because the necklace I initially picked out cost more than any piece of jewellery that I own) but then I saw the pearl diving ceremony and I wanted in.

That's right, a pearl diving ceremony! At $15 I couldn't go wrong!

First I had to pick out an oyster from a bowl with some wooden tongs. I placed it in a wooden bowl and the sales assistant began the ceremony.

The ceremony involved tapping the shell three times, the staff ringing a bell and encouraging everyone in the store to shout "Aloha"! I half expected some hula girls to come out from under the counter and dance.

Then the sales assistant opened the oyster shell really carefully. She showed me the oyster inside - it was smelly and I was told I couldn't eat it! She said the colour of the inside of the shell determines the pearl colour. Pearls come in many colours, and Pearl Factory has meanings for each colour.

And then she gently removed the oyster to reveal the pearl. What a beauty it was! She said it was a big pearl and it had been forming for two years.

After cleaning the pearl by gently rubbing it in some salt on a towel, it was placed in my hand. "Congratulations!", the sales assistant said, telling me that I'm the first person to touch it. She asked me to rub it in my hands for good luck. She then showed me a tiny hole which is known as a belly button. She said an innie is a boy and an outie is - well you know, a girl. She said "Congratulations" again, telling me I have a boy!

Such a fuss was made over me - it was like when I was five years old and 'gave birth' to a cabbage patch kid. Really kitsch but special too.

The pearls are cultivated in mollusc shells from the Mississippi River. They are left to grow and are then chosen by customers. That little belly button hole I mentioned is where the pearl is attached to the oyster, getting its nutrients I guess. Isn't that amazing? It's also used as a point for a fitting to be affixed to the pearl - a bigger tiny hole is drilled with a machine.

I was asked what I wanted to do with my pearl. I wanted an affordable necklace. I was shown some fittings including a little cage, and I picked a whale tale. The sales assistant glued the fitting in place and I was presented with a beautiful pendant. Mum suggested I wear it on my wedding day!

Diving for pearls was a lot of fun, and I'm glad I have something to wear to remember San Francisco by.

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