The Pearl Clutchers

Natural pearls from Gina Latendresse’s collection, acquired by her father John, the first pearl farmer in Tennessee.

The Pearl Clutchers

There’s only one place left in the country where gemstones are farmed. We meet some of the last American workers harvesting mother of pearl.

The pearl capital of the United States is not on the ocean. It’s not even in a state that borders the coast but in Tennessee, over 400 miles from the Atlantic. There, in Kentucky Lake, which sits right on the dividing line between Tennessee and Kentucky, Bob Keast, the owner of Birdsong Resort, Marina, and Campground, oversees the last active pearl farm in the United States—the remnant of a once-thriving regional industry.

Tennesseeans have been involved in the pearl industry since the early 20th century, but the gemstones themselves weren’t always farmed there. Instead, the state’s freshwater lakes and rivers supplied the raw material, with local divers scouring for shells that could be sold to Japanese pearl farmers—ie, shells to plant inside other shellfish.

To make a pearl, you see, you need two things: an oyster or freshwater mussel, and a foreign object—what’s called an irritant, nucleus, or seed. When a foreign object lodges itself in these bivalve mollusks, the animal will try to protect itself by coating the nucleus with nacre—what most people know as mother of pearl. Starting in the 1900s, the Japanese began to farm, or culture, pearls, instead of collecting them from shellfish in the wild. Their experiments with different kinds of nuclei led them to an ideal solution: pieces of Tennessee mussel shell, which were thicker than the shells available locally, and therefore sturdier and easier to insert into the Japanese mollusks. Tennessee was a major supplier of naturally occurring mother-of-pearl used to manufacture buttons for the American clothing industry until around World War II, and Japanese pearl farmers gave the state’s lake and river divers an enthusiastic new importer.

Naturally round pearls are the hardest to find. This graduated necklace, comprising only natural pearls collected by the late John Latendresse from around the Tennessee River, took him nearly 25 years to complete.

It wasn’t just professional divers who got in on the action. “During the boom years, a woman would get her kids off to school in the morning and her husband off to work. And then she would go with a five-gallon ordinary plastic bucket with a handle on it, she would put her bathing suit on, and she would wade around up to her waist and pick up mussel shells,” Keast explains. “She’d make $40, $50, $100 per bucket, and she might get two or three buckets. We would call that ‘toe digging.’ Anybody could do it.”

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In 1949, John Latendresse, a former Marine from South Dakota, stopped at a lake in Tennessee during a cross-country road trip. He found the water teeming with divers searching the lakebed for mussels to export and, sensing an opportunity, decided to move his family to tiny Camden, Tennessee, where, in 1954, he started the Tennessee Shell Company.

The Latendresse pearl archive in Nashville, Tennessee. Gina says that, as soon as he could, her father, who died in 2000, held back 10 to 20 percent of every harvest for a rainy day.
Gina, who has a graduate diploma in gemology, examines a cultivated pearl from her father’s collection. “Today we still sell to manufacturers hundreds, thousands of pearls at a time,” she says. “If that gives you an indication of how many pearls he’d clawed back.”
Gina’s collection of nacre—or, as it’s more commonly known, mother of pearl—buttons at her office in Nashville. Mother of pearl got its name because it literally creates pearls: layers of it build up around an irritant until a pearl is formed.

By the ‘60s, business was booming—Latendresse was buying and selling pearls, in addition to exporting shell, and his company became a major employer for the town. It was at this point, according to his daughter Gina Latendresse, that he received a gentle ribbing while he was on a business trip to Japan that would radically alter the course of his career. “You sell our beautiful pearls in the United States,” John Latendresse’s Japanese colleagues said. “It’s too bad you can’t grow pearls in Tennessee.”

“Well, bing!” Gina says now. “Another light bulb goes off and my father’s like, ‘You think I can’t grow pearls in Tennessee? Just watch.’”

By 1985, the Latendresses had settled on a section of Kentucky Lake, north of Camden, and were harvesting enough pearls that they were able to build some inventory. While a few other pearl farms cropped up around the country—including one rival in Tennessee called the United States Pearl Company—Latendresse’s, which he called the American Pearl Company, was the most successful.

Diver John Nerren hauls mussels from the Tennessee River. He’s been diving for over 25 years, and his father, Don, was the American Pearl operations manager for decades.
Nerren slices open a freshwater mussel, revealing the mother of pearl inside.
Nerren on the Tennessee River. near the Birdsong Resort and pearl farm.
“My father’s like, ‘You think I can’t grow pearls in Tennessee? Just watch.’”
Two species of mussels called heelsplitters (left) and bankclimbers on the deck of the boat.
Stephanie Cruchfield and Johnny Peach sort shells that a diver brought to the United States Pearl Company in Camden.

Tennessee’s pearl and shell industries started to stumble not long after Latendresse’s new venture found its footing. Disease began killing off Japanese oysters in the 1990s, and China stepped up—but instead of using the shell exported by Tennessee companies, Chinese producers started culturing pearls using a different part of the mollusk instead, and the demand for shells stagnated. At its peak—between the 1960s and the 1990s—the Tennessee shell industry had been worth around $50 million annually; now that number is closer to $6 million. When Latendresse died in 2000, the family sold the business to Keast, who incorporated it into his resort. Thought the farm is still in operation today, it’s mostly a tourist attraction.

Rusty brail hooks, which are traditionally dragged through rivers to harvest mussels, on display outside Birdsong’s Pearl Museum.
The controls for the machine that cleans mussel shells and cooks out the meat so they can be sorted and shipped to countries such as China and Japan, where they’ll be used as nuclei to culture pearls.
A wheelbarrow full of cooked mussel meat at the United States Pearl Company.
Cleaned and sorted mussel shells stored at the US Pearl Company warehouse in Camden.

The future of the now-small pearl industry in Tennessee is uncertain. There is no new guard lined up to take over existing businesses like the pearl farm. Whereas there had once been thousands of people working as mussel divers across Tennessee, as of 2018 there were only 27 licensed in the entire state. But for Gina—who now runs the American Pearl Company with her mother and sister, selling the large cache of pearls that John squirreled away—preserving the business also means preserving her family history. “We learned everything we learned from the ground up,” she says. “From pulling mussel shells out of the muddy Tennessee river to shipping them overseas, to how to make jewelry out of them, how to sell them. How to create a pearl out of a living animal.”

Shell buyer Steve Hatley gauges mussel shells at his home near Camden: if the shell is too big to fit through the ring, it is legal to harvest. Steve acts as a middleman between local divers and importers in Japan and China.
Pearls and mother of pearl on display at the United States Pearl Company showroom. The company’s owner, James Peach, formerly ran a pearl farm, as well as selling shell; he’s now primarily a dealer, selling pearls from Japan, China, and the South Pacific.
A display at Birdsong Resort’s Pearl Museum.
James Peach at his office, holding a shell coated with mother of pearl. “I’d like for it to be like it was before, but we can’t go back,” he says of the local pearl industry.
Camden local Barbara Doyle with the naturally round pearl that her late son Eugene Baker—who went diving for shells every day—found near Pilot Knob, Tennessee.
A display showing cultured pearls grown in the Tennessee Rivers next to the nuclei used to create them, on view at Birdsong’s Pearl Museum.
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