Freshwater pearls mussel their way back into gem shop

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SCOTTISH freshwater pearls are being sold again in Edinburgh following a ban to preserve endangered mussel stocks.

The stones, which are said to have attracted Julius Caesar to ancient Britain, have gone on sale at city jewellers Alistir Wood Tait in Rose Street after a special licence was granted by the Scottish Executive.

The shop, which specialises in Scottish antique jewellery, can sell the rare pearls as long as they were obtained before 1998, when laws preventing their sale were introduced.

Last year the Executive and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) launched a crackdown on shops selling pearls, carrying out raids which uncovered hundreds of the pastel-coloured stones.

For seven months, all Scottish pearls were stripped from shelves in a bid to protect the under-threat mussels that now thrive in only a handful of Scottish rivers.

Mr Tait, the store’s owner, said yesterday that he hoped to raise the profile of the pearls.

‘‘I am absolutely delighted we have now been granted the appropriate licence and that at last there seems to be some clarity on this issue,’’ he said.

"Like most jewellers, we want to see the mussels protected, and for years have handled only vintage stones collected many years ago. However, the entire profession was confused about the exact nature of the law, and that has now been clarified.

"Scottish pearls are among the most beautiful and sought-after in the world, and I am extremely pleased we are now able to sell them again, particularly given that pearl is the birthstone for June and that pearls are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment."

He added that he had received hundreds of requests for Scottish pearls after last year’s raids.

His collection starts with a four-strand matched pearl and diamond bracelet costing 3,530. He plans to sell Scottish pearls until his antique stock runs out.

Scotland is home to half the world’s population of freshwater pearl mussels, but only 61 known breeding sites are left in the country. The species is embedded in Scottish culture, and the famous Kelly pearl, the largest ever found in Britain, is part of the Scottish crown jewels.

However, mussel populations have been falling sharply and the mussels, which can live up for up to 120 years, have been disappearing from an average of two rivers every year in Scotland since 1970.

While cultured pearls are formed by deliberately inserting an irritant into a mollusc, the most sought-after pearls are those that form naturally.

A Scottish Executive spokeswoman said freshwater pearls were protected under national conservation laws similar to other protected species such as the red squirrel.

"Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is an offence to kill, injure, take, intentionally disturb or damage their habitat; or sell, offer or expose for sale, advertise for sale and transport for sale any freshwater pearl mussel or its pearls without a licence from the Scottish Executive.

"A licence issued by the Scottish Executive only permits the sale of pearls obtained prior to 1998.

"Illegal sales of freshwater pearls carry a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 5,000 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981."

John Ralston, a licensing officer at SNH, said: "Although it is illegal to fish for freshwater pearl mussels, we know from our monitoring work that plundering still goes on in many parts of the country, which is damaging extremely fragile populations of this endangered species.

"It is against the law to sell freshwater pearls without a licence, but we think there may be numerous jewellery companies which are continuing to trade in stock purchased before the law was changed in 1998, or as part of the black market trade."

Mr Ralston said SNH would work with jewellery companies to raise awareness, and with police to track down those breaking the law.