When Spanish explorers came up the White River and found Indians wearing strings and sheets of pearls, they probably said to each other, "Amigo, I think we've found a place to unload those cheap glass beads we brought along."
There are indeed mussels in these rivers. Over seventy species have been described since 1800, and some of them make delicately colored pearls of peach, rose, gold, blue, green, silver, and so on and so forth. It's really an amazing thing to see. You could throw a retina looking at a pile of this popcorn.
Now for the bad news. Very few pearls come from Arkansas rivers these days, and there are a number of reasons for that. Pollution from industry and agriculture and destruction of habitat from the damming of rivers to create large, deepwater lakes has reduced the native populations of mussels such that there are few beds large enough to be harvested commercially. The most important reason, though, is (are you ready?) plastics. Specifically, plastic buttons.
Pearls were a by-product of the button industry, which thrived in Arkansas up through the late forties. Disks of shell were drilled from mussels and polished into buttons, which were then shipped to clothing factories all over the world. About one of every twenty mussels would contain a pearl, and most of those were amorphous wads of opalescent nacre, not really worthless, but not exactly precious, either. Every now and then, though, out of the tens of thousands of annually harvested mussels, a rounded pearl would be found; and that would be sold for a high price.
I read in Arkansas: Off the Beaten Path, by Patti DeLano that one such pearl from the White River is set in the Royal Crown of England; and in 1969, Richard Burton bought one for Elizabeth Taylor. The largest pearl to come from Arkansas was about 20 millimeters (just short of one inch) in diameter. It sold for $3000. I don't know the year or other circumstances.
Now that the button industry is finished, and now that the mussel populations are much attenuated, the supply of Arkansas pearls is effectively fixed. In the early eighties, this woman and her partner bought up all the remaining inventories of Arkansas pearls they could find and they set up a store that sells nothing but Arkansas pearls. Phyllis Holmes and Jan Pratt Coe manage Pearls Unique in Newport. If you want something nobody else has, this might be a good place to look for it. The address is1902-d McLain in Pratt Square, but call ahead for an appointment and directions. (501)523-3639 or (800)637-3233
Phyllis here tells me that she buys less that one ounce of new pearls each year, and most of those are from local individuals who have inherited small collections taken from mussels harvested before the second world war. The top photo is taken from the Pearls Unique brochure, by the way.
Mike Armstrong of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission tells me that there are a couple of academics experimenting with the possibility of culturing pearls in Arkansas waters, but that certain critical processes are secrets closely held by a few Japanese families. There is a pearl culturing operation at Kentucky Lake in Tennessee, but the guy who runs that place had to marry into a Japanese pearl-culturing family to get the necessary know-how.
The only connection Arkansas has today with the pearl industry is that polished beads of Arkansas mussel shell are sold in Asia as the nuclei for cultured pearls. It don't hardly seem fair, do it? On the other hand, wherever you find diamonds, gold, pearls, all things made valuable by thier rarity, you also find enormous cruelty and slavish human exploitation. Maybe Arkansas is better off without the pearls.