Abalone History

The following abalone history was recorded by Kunz & Stevenson and first published in 1908. This information is from 100 years ago.

If you are interested in securing Abalone, first check the local laws regarding the capture of Abalone in your area.

Abalone Shell

Abalone History -- Definition

"Abalone": a name applied to those pearls that are found in the univalve "ear-shell" or awabi, as it is called in Japan. They are generally green, blue-green, or fawn-yellow, and have an intense red, flame-like iridescence. They are rarely round, generally flat, or irregular, and are occasionally worth several hundreds of dollars each.

Abalone History -- Pearls

Abalone pearls are especially interesting on account of their brilliant and unusual colors. Green predominates, but blue and yellow also occur. Although commonly very small, some of the well-formed ones exceed seventy-five grains in weight, and those of irregular shape may be very much larger. The ear-shells also produce any irregular pearly masses. Although these are without an established commercial value, their beautiful greenish or bluish tints adapt them for artistic jeweled objects, such as the body of a fly or of a beetle.

Abalone History -- Japan

Kaempfer ("History of Japan," 1728) noted that the Japanese obtained pearls from the awabi or abalone Haliotis). This mollusk was much sought after for food, being taken in large quantities by the fishermen's wives, "they being the best divers of the country."

Dr. T. Nishikawa writes in 1908 that pearls were used in Japan for ornamental purposes more than a thousand years ago. Large abalone pearls are found in images of Buddha made in 300 A.D.

Abalone History -- USA

Not the least interesting of the American pearl fisheries is that which has the abalones (Haliotis for its object. These occur in many inshore tropical and semi-tropical waters, and particularly in the marginal waters of the Pacific. They attach themselves to the rocks by means of their large muscular disk-shaped foot, which acts like a sucker or an exhaust-cup.

On the California coast the abalones are gathered in large quantities for their pearls, for the shells, and especially for the flesh, which is dried and used for food. The principal fishing grounds are at Point Lobos in Monterey County, and along the shores of Catalina and Santa Rosa islands in Santa Barbara County, with smaller quantities from Half-moon Bay and from the rocks along the shores of Mendocino County.

Abalone History -- Obtaining Abalone

At low tide the fishermen wade out in shallow water, and, by means of a knife, separate the mollusk from its resting-place. Unless this is done quickly and before the mollusk has time to prepare itself for the attack, it closes down on the rock by means of its sucker-like foot, from which it cannot be removed without breaking the shell. A story is told at Santa Barbara of a Chinese fisherman having been drowned off one of the outer islands by having his hand caught underneath the shell of an abalone.

A few years ago, Japanese fishermen introduced the use of diving-suits in taking these mollusks in three fathoms of water; but in March, 1907, the California legislature interdicted this form of fishery. That legislature also interdicted the capture of black abalones measuring "less than twelve inches around the outer edge of the shell, or any other abalone, the shell of which shall measure less than fifteen inches around the outer edge."

Abalone History -- Drying Abalone Meat

The animal is removed from the shell by thrusting a thin blade of soft steel between the flesh and the shell, and thus loosening the great muscle. The flesh is salted and boiled, and then strung on long rods to dry in the open air. When properly cured, the pieces are almost as hard and stiff as sole leather. Most of it is packed in sacks and exported to China, but large quantities are sold on the Pacific coast at from five to ten cents per pound. The catch is much less than it was forty years ago.

Abalone Hisotry -- More about Pearls

Many pearly masses are obtained from the abalones, and a few of these are of considerable beauty. Some are very large, measuring two inches in length and half an inch or more in width; but they are rarely of good form, and their value is commonly far less than that of choice Oriental pearls. Owing to their irregularity in form, they are scarcely suitable for necklaces. One of the best necklaces of these pearls ever brought together sold a few years ago for $2000; but individual specimens have exceeded $1000 in market value. While abalone pearls are not on the market in any great quantities, one resident of Santa Barbara has a collection of more than a thousand specimens, ranging in value form several hundred dollars to less than one dollar each. Most of the objects sold in curios and jewelry stores on the pacific coast as abalone pearls are simple irregular knots or protuberances cut form the surface of the shell. The California fishermen are credited with having received $3,000 for the abalone pearls in 1904; but it is safe to say that this represents only a small fraction of their final sale value.

Abalone History -- Experiments

Experiments in growing pearls in the abalone or Haliotis were made in 1897 by Louis Bouton, an account of which was given at the meeting of the Pris Academie des Sciences in 1898. The tenacity of life in this mollusk makes it especially desirable for experiments of this nature. Through small holes bored into the shell, pellets of mother-of-pearl were inserted and placed within the mantle, at the small holes being afterward closed up. Other nacreous pellets were introduced directly into the bronchial cavity. The objects were soon covered with thin, pearly layers, resulting in a few month in spheres of much beauty, resembling somewhat the pearls naturally produced by this mollusk.

Abalone History -- Experiment Results

In six months, according to M. Bouton, the layers became of sufficient thickness to be attractive. Within limitations, the size of the pearl produced is in proportion to the length of time it is allowed to remain within the mollusk. The results of the experiments seem to encourage further efforts in this line, and possible in course of time there may be a profitable business in growing pearls in abalones on the Pacific coast of the United States. Indeed, the experiments in transplanting and cultivating the pearl-oyster in Australia leads one to fancy that the culture of that species in the warm coastal waters of America is by no means an impossibility.

Read more about abalone pearls after abalone history.

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