wpe102.jpg (4690 bytes)
by IRA KENNEDY

BORN IN DARKNESS,THEY SHARE THEIR COLORS WITH THE STARS

 

 

 

 

 

wpe104.jpg (10283 bytes)Wayne Casey emptied the contents of a brown paper bag. Thousands of pearls, carefully sorted in plastic bags according to size, color, and shape, covered the kitchen table. The white, pink, lavender, and purple gems, with an estimated value of $55,000, seemed to emit an inner light. They were the result of one summer's diving in lakes throughout the Hill Country.

There are more pearls in Texas than most people would believe. Pioneers often used the mother-of-pearl shells of freshwater mussels to adorn graves, and finding pearls was very common. The Spanish explorers who invaded and looted the Gulf Coast encountered Indians of various tribes who adorned themselves with pearl bracelets and necklaces. Hernando de Soto and his companions emptied several Indian sepulchers, and one raiding party made off with 350 pounds of pearls.

Casey, a hardy, barrel-chested Hill Country diver, has been harvesting mussels from the Highland Lakes since 1978 and has collected thousands of pearls from Lake LBJ and Lake Buchanan. He was introduced to freshwater pearls by pure chance. Returning from a fishing trip on Lake LBJ, he noticed fifteen scuba divers unloading several boatloads of mussels. The divers were filling an order from a Tennessee shell company for about six hundred tons - almost $250,000 worth of shells. The enterprise intrigued Casey, and he asked for a job. For the next few weeks he went to work cleaning shells.

"It's a real messy job, like cleaning hogs or something," Casey observed. "You can imagine, all that mud and shells, water steam, and everything. One day I looked down by my feet and said, "Those are pearls, aren't they?" A guy said "Yeah, they are. " I picked up one and asked what it would be worth. He said you could take it to a jewelry store and probably get about fifty dollars. They were paying me five dollars an hour, and fifty dollars seemed like an awful lot of money." Casey laughed. "Those pearls were just being stomped in the mud. The divers' interest was in the shells, and they just didn't have time to mess with the pearls. I asked if I could have them, and they said sure. So right after I got off work I collected about four hundred eighty pearls."

Pearl diving turned out to be less lucrative than Casey first imagined. The cost in time and effort spent researching the subject and buying equipment ran pretty high. After seven years and thousands of pearls, he is only now reaching the break even point.

Casey is the unofficial spokesman for a handful of Hill Country divers, as tough and independent a breed as Texas has produced. They are a secretive bunch. Though questioned about the details of their avocation, they offer tight-lipped responses or outright lies. They say that they're diving for Indian artifacts, a boat motor, or whatever pops into their heads. Many refuse to display a diver's flag, because of the attention it arouses.

Exploring to depths of twenty to forty feet, the pearl divers work for hours in murky darkness amid the unseen dangers of abandoned trotlines, submerged barbed wire fences, and motor boats racing overhead. Diving flags often go unnoticed by boaters whose craft skip across the surface like flat stones. On one occasion a diver's air hose got caught in a prop, and he was jerked to the surface at about thirty miles per hour. If they hear a motor, the divers settle on the lake bed like listless catfish and wait.

In the Highland Lakes mussels are generally found in muddy, mushy silt. Even before the first mussel is removed, visibility is limited to a few inches beyond the face mask. When divers work a particularly productive area, so much silt is stirred up that they see nothing but a dense, dark amber haze; they must search the bottom like blind men.

The freshwater mussel divers in Texas fall into two distinct groups - pearl divers and shell divers. Although a pearl can wholesale for thousands of dollars, such finds are rare. The shell divers are in the majority, and they make the big money.

A state permit for pearl diving costs $20 and there is no limit to the quantity of shells that can be harvested. Twentieth-century commercial harvesters have adopted a method the Indians devised to collect mussels, with considerable improvement in technique and efficiency. Known today as brailing, the process was simple. The Indians dragged cedar branches over the beds, knowing that the mollusks opened during feeding. Once disturbed, the mussels would clamp shut and inadvertently attach themselves to the boughs.

Five big American companies buy shells for about 20 cents a pound and sell them to the cultured-pearl industry in Japan for about $1 a pound. A 3,820,000-pound harvest of Texas shells was bought by an American shell company over a four-year period - at a cost of about $764,000. A single diver can collect between 1000 and 1500 pounds of shells a day. In a drought year, when mussels are easier to find and gather, harvests are considerably greater. In one summer fifteen divers can harvest, at 20 cents a pound, $250,000 worth of shells, and the state gets little more out of it than the divers' fees—about $300.

Between 1963 and 1970 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued an average of two permits annually. Between 1970 and 1977 no permits were issued. Suddenly, in 1978, when out-of-state shell companies began buying Texas shells, 205 permits were sold. In 1980 the state issued 520 permits. Both 1978 and 1980 were drought years.

Ancient marine predecessors of today's mussels fossilized over the millennia, helping to form the limestone strata common in the Hill Country. Because of the warm, alkaline, calcium-rich drainage, the area is the perfect habitat for freshwater mussels. They rely on water-borne elements to produce their nacre, a viscous secretion that hardens and creates pearls.

After the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the next largest center of freshwater mussel harvesting is the Colorado River of Texas and its tributaries, the Concho, San Saba, and Llano Rivers. Among the Highland Lakes, Lake Buchanan is considered by pearl divers to be the most productive; there, about one shell in ten produces a pearl. One pearl in ten will have some value, and one in a thousand will be a collector's gem worth a few, possibly several, thousand dollars.

A novice outfitted with diving equipment may search a thinly populated mussel bed for an hour and bring up only half a dozen mollusks. In the same area Wayne Casey can stand in chest-high water, carry on a conversation, and every minute or so casually drop one mussel after another into a basket-lined inner tube—without ever going underwater. Barefooted, he can find a mussel, determine whether it is alive or dead, dig it up, and slide the shell up one leg with the toes of the other, bringing it within easy reach. Wayne has learned where to go and when. He uses the method of harvesting appropriate to whatever area he is working. Most important, he has developed the industry contacts necessary to market his finds.

Determining the value of a pearl is a skill not learned overnight, and setting a price is a subtle as the colors of the pearl itself. In the pearl business the motto might be "Let the seller beware." Novices seldom know true values of pearls. One buyer paid a naive teenager $200 for a pearl worth more than $20,000.

Japan's interest in the shells of North America began in 1912, when pearl expert Kokichi Mikimoto discovered that the shell of the three-ridge freshwater mussel, with its creamy white mother-of-pearl, made the best nuclei for cultured pearls. The shell is cut into beads, which are inserted in saltwater oysters. The oysters coat the irritant with nacre, forming the pearl. Although mollusks create natural pearls in exactly the same way, cultured pearls have a head start, are uniformly round, and can be mass-produced. Cultured pearls are mother-of-pearl beads with a pearly veneer.

Unlike cultured pearls, natural pearls aren't just round. They take on many shapes with names like "turtleback" and "biscuit", as well as asymmetrical, or baroque, shapes like wing, petal, pear, strawberry, and snail. A wing pearl, which is long, flat, and tapered at one end, does not fit the common conception of a pearl. Out of ignorance, novices often discard those pearls, which sometimes are worth several hundred dollars.

Regional preferences also affect the value of a natural freshwater pearl. "I had a long talk with an internationally known pearl dealer," Casey said while holding a large, lustrous, baroque pearl up to the light. "He bought a pink pearl from me, said he could go right up to New York and sell it. But a baroque pearl I had didn't interest him at all. He said, "Wayne, if you take the pearl and go anywhere in Tennessee, you can sell it in a minute and get what you want for it."

"Tennessee likes big baroque pearls. It's a pearl center. The American Shell Company is there; so is the Tennessee Shell company. Anytime you find big shell companies, you are going to find pearls. Where you find natural pearls, you'll find a lot of baroque pearls and people who have developed a taste for the baroque.

"In the Mediterranean countries orange, yellow, and golden hues are preferred because they compliment the skin complexions. San Angelo, Texas, right now is the best market for purple pearls. They're more common up there, and people go there to buy them."

After assessing size, shape, color, luster, and orient (the refraction of light through the multi-layered pearl), the dealer must consider flaws. A perfectly round natural pearl is rare, so matched pairs are almost nonexistent. However, two nearly matching wing pearls, for example, will make exquisite earrings; sold together, they can command a higher price than they would separately.

Apart from the simple and universal notion of making a quick buck, pearl divers are often afflicted with something called pearl fever. When the thrill of the find combines with an irresistible desire to retain possession of the pearl—sparticularly those of extreme beauty, size, and value—any schemes of easy money are forgotten. Wayne Casey has the fever. And he's not interested in finding a cure—just more pearls. He reads everything he can find about natural pearls; his favorite article is a report by freshwater mussel authority George F. Junz, published by the United States Fish Commission in 1897. Casey's knowledge is encyclopedic, his enthusiasm infectious. But beneath it all, like an irritant nucleating in a shell, is a single, perplexing problem—waste.

There is a ready market for pearls and shells, but the meat of the mussels is anything but tasty—Casey has already tried eating it. He once packaged and marketed the meat for bait. "You sell all you can the first time around and don't go back, " he said. "It just sits there on the shelf. Merchants can't give it away." He is working on donating the meat to the San Antonio Zoo, but questions about nutritional value, cold storage, and transportation have yet to be answered.

The pearl and shell industries in the United States may be small, but together they are a multimillion-dollar enterprise that relies on a natural state resource and public waters for existence. In Texas, except for the $20 license fee, pearl and shell harvesting are totally unregulated and poorly monitored. The quantities of shells removed from streams are unknown. It's only because mussels sometimes contain pearls that they inspire any interest at all. They are not cute and furry, they taste worse than gar or armadillo, and they're hardly ever seen.

Some people fear that every word written about freshwater pearls threatens the mussels' existence. But a given area is seldom completely depleted by shell divers. Once the concentration of mussels becomes too sparse, the site is abandoned, and over the years it usually has time to recover. But overharvesting combined with habitat modification and population could place the normally prolific mollusks on the endangered list; several North American species are already included. An out-and-out pearl rush might inspire officials to regulate and protect mussels. Casey believes that if the current harvesting and environmental standards aren't improved, some species of freshwater mussels in the Texas Hill Country are headed for certain extinction.