The Export of Nacre or Mother of Pearl in Late 19th Century Iran

Bandar Lengeh, an Iranian harbor sitting on the shores of the Persian Gulf, was noted for its single item commodity export to Europe during the latter quarter of the 19th century. The commodity, in high commercial demand, was nacre or mother of pearl.

According to British commercial and Foreign Office documents, the product that was to make Bandar Lengeh famous was found in abundance on its shores in the form of pearl oyster and sea shells. The mother of pearl, known as nacre, and in Persian nagir is an organic-inorganic composite material produced by molluscs as an inner shell layer. This strong and resilient composite make up the outer coating of pearls.

Nacre was in great demand in the clothing industry largely for its use as buttons and for decorative purposes. During the end of the 19th century Qajar rule the demand for the export of this product increased significantly. In just a decade, from 1875 to 1885, the export value of the product increased more than 300% from 31,000 to 118,400 Indian Rupees per annum. By the end of the 19th century the Germans engaged in the trade of mother of pearl foremost for the commercial production of buttons in ever larger quantities.

The article is based primarily on British Administrative Reports, Foreign Office documents and Persian primary sources. It investigates the nature of this single export commodity that characterized Bandar Lengeh and will compare the product with other cities engaged in a similar export of cash-crops during this period of economic transition in Iranian history. The major cash-crops that highlighted the Iranian economy at the end of the 19th century were primarily opium followed by dried fruits and hand woven carpets. However, the export of mother of pearl was an exception.