How to Dive for Pearls

“Run your hands back and forth through the sediment at the bottom of the river,” says Chuck Work, who has spent much of the last 25 years underwater, crawling the muddy bed of the Tennessee River, feeling for mussels with his hands. Misshapen shells are much likelier to contain freshwater pearls than more uniform ones. Open any deformed bivalve you find by sticking a knife in its hinge. “Twist the blade and it pops open,” Work says. Squeeze the soft meat in your hand, feeling for something hard. On a typical day, Work will collect as many as 1,500 mussels and check only a few for pearls; his more dependable pay comes from selling the shells to a company that ships them to China and Japan, where they are cut into tiny pieces and forced into oysters, becoming the nuclei of cultured pearls. Only about one in 10,000 mussels contains a commercially valuable wild pearl. “You can’t make a living diving for pearls,” Work says. “Think of them as a bonus.”

You need a license to collect mussels. Follow state rules dictating the size requirements for each species. You’ll also need an aluminum boat, a diving mask, an oxygen supply, a wet suit, a weighted belt to keep you from floating to the surface and a net bag to drape around your neck to fill as you crawl. When you go under, fly diver-down flags to alert other boaters of your presence.

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