Exploring the life of a pearl

BY BEN EVANS | DECEMBER 03, 2009 7:30 AM

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It is early in the morning — the Sun has barely risen above the horizon. All deckhands are already hard at work, hauling up from the depths thousands of the world’s largest oysters.

Stephen Bloom looks out into the ocean and sees in the distanc arches of three whales migrating south, their tails spraying water into the faint sunlight.

This is the life of a deckhand on a pearling vessel near northern Australia, one of the countless adventures Bloom records in his new book, Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls.

A UI journalism and mass communication professor, he has written two other books, Postville and The Oxford Project, which have both achieved a tremendous amount of success. Bloom will read from his new book at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. Friday. Admission is free.

Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls follows the life of a pearl from the moment it is scooped out of the ocean to the moment it dangles from a person’s neck.

“The idea with the book is to attempt to trace every single rung of the giant pearl ladder,” Bloom said. “It was a fascinating moment to see how the oldest gem continues to be processed and readied for the consumer.”

The book follows more than just the incredible story of a pearl; it also covers the people who come into contact with it.

“At the book’s heart, the heroes of this book are really unsung men and women who toil away in anonymity,” he said.

And he strove to capture the essence of these unsung workers through experience. To prepare for the book, he dove for pearls in the Philippines and China, interviewed pearl lords surrounded by guards in rough jungle compounds, bargained with Chinese pearl brokers, and shadowed pearl dealers.

“The book is all about pearls on one hand, but really on the other hand, it really isn’t about pearls at all,” Bloom said. “It is about people along this global assembly line.”

The reading provides him with a chance to share some of his exotic experiences with readers. Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights, said the readings at the bookstore allow authors to reach their audience in an unique way.

“It gives the author a sense of his readers,” she said. “This is a small enough town that it is nice to be able to read to people you normally know socially, and in Iowa City, the author reads to people of all ages.”

Bloom’s readership is attracted by something deeper than his engaging themes, Weissmiller said, noting his rare, personal relationship with his subjects. His new book is no exception.

His fascination with pearls was, in fact, one of his inspirations for writing this book.

“My mother use to wear a single, modest strand of pearls that as a little boy I was just fascinated watching,” he said. “I still have the vision of my mother and father walking out of a very middle-class front door to their moment of celebration, with these glistening, luminescent pearls leading the way.”

Bloom utilized his emotional connection with the pearl as a way to delve into the lives of individuals inside a world unnoticed by average human beings.

“This book is a way to plunge into a world that is wholly distinct from the reader’s world and a way to go from country to country following these pearls as they go from continent to continent, following unsung heroes the entire way,” he said.

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