In the 1850s, a New Jersey shoemaker found a large pearl inside a mussel pulled from a New Jersey river. The valuable pearl was sold to Tiffany & Co. for $1500. The find inspired others to scour freshwater rivers and lakes, hoping to find more gems. The hunt for pearls moved south, and in the early 1880s, more pearls were discovered in Arkansas. The discovery set off the Arkansas pearl rush which produced more than $2.5 million in pearls annually before the mussel population began to dwindle around 1905.
It was the discovery of a large pearl in 1897 that fueled the Arkansas pearl rush. Dr. J. Hamilton Meyers found a large, valuable pink pearl in a mussel shell from the Black River. News of the discovery spread, and people flocked to the lakes and rivers, hoping to make a similar find. Makeshift settlements popped up along the rivers as men, women, and children joined the search. Newspapers compared the frenzy to the Klondike Gold Rush. The mussels were abundant, and pearl hunters gathered them by hand in shallow waters. Those lucky enough to find a pearl inside discovered gems in many colors, including white, pink, blue, purple, and black. The pearls were prized by jewelers and some even became part of a royal gem collection.
Single pearls could command a premium price if they met the specifications a jeweler required to form a matched string of pearls or earrings. One Arkansas pearl buyer recalled selling a single pearl to a French jeweler for $1,500. It was the final pearl needed to complete a necklace. The finished string of pearls had a value of $200,000!
The pearl rush also gave birth to a robust shell button industry. In the late 1890s, thousands of mussel shells were shipped by rail from Arkansas to Iowa, where button factories turned them into beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons. By 1900, button factories were operating in Arkansas, popping up along northeastern Arkansas rivers. Factory workers gathered mussel shells and placed them in hot water to open them. They removed the meat, graded the shells, and then cut them into button blanks. By the end of WWII, plastic buttons put most shell button factories out of business.
Overharvesting led to a dwindling mussel population in Arkansas, and by 1905, pearls were much harder to find. Shells were no longer available in shallow waters and pearl hunters relied on boats and special tools like long-handled tongs called pearling rakes to search in deeper waters. About the same time, cultured pearls were also making their way into U.S. markets. A Japanese man, Mikimoto Kokichi, had patented a new process of injecting a grain of sand or ground mussel shell into an oyster, forcing the oyster to form a pearl. Cultured pearl jewelry became popular and much more accessible.
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