Think pearls and you think Asian pearl divers and Japanese cultured pearls. Perhaps you think of Indian Moguls or rich belles dames from the glittering age of the turn of the century. But it’s a good bet you don’t think of the quiet backwaters of the Tennessee River. But you should. Pearls are an all American classic.
In 1954, John R. Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee for the purpose of exporting American freshwater mussel shells to Japan. In Japan, the shells were shaped into beads to be used as the nuclei in cultured pearls; at one point, the company shipped as many as 23 tons of mussel shells to Japan to feed the booming cultured pearl business. Latendresse eventually became involved with importing Japanese and Chinese pearls and selling them.
Inevitably Latendresse became convinced pearls could be cultured in the waters of Tennessee. After all, many mollusks produce pearls and pearls had been found for centuries hidden in the meat of freshwater mussels. Native Americans found and treasured them long before Europeans landed on the eastern shore. Thousands of pearls of all qualities had been found as a by-product of the mother-of-pearl button business. If pearls formed naturally, reasoned Latendresse, he should be able to culture them, and in 1961, Latendresse formed the American Pearl Company to do just that. His daughter, Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, once remarked the location was “not the pristine, clear blue waters of Tahiti with half naked women diving for pearls, rather it’s the muddy rivers of Tennessee. A little bit less romantic, but maybe more intriguing.”
While the Mississippi River and its tributaries (such as the Tennessee River) and Kentucky Lake, contain an estimated 300 species of mollusks, explains Gina Latendresse, her father discovered that not all of them will allow pearl culturing. Only 24 species are viable, and “only one we tested out of the 24 was best suited to our needs.” The freshwater mussels’ anatomy was different than pearl oysters, so Japanese culturing techniques wouldn’t work, either. After studying the differences in anatomy, John Latendresse and his wife, Chessy, developed new surgical techniques designed especially for the mussels.
Although John Latendresse had developed good relations with the Japanese pearl-culturing companies, says his daughter, the Japanese were not happy to find out her father was trying to culture pearls. “They knew the southeast had lots of water and possibilities for pearl culture. They were a little fearful. They asked my father, ‘What are you doing? This is part of Japanese history and heritage.’ My father was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘Henry Ford was part of our heritage and history, but look what the Japanese have done with that idea.’ My father said later, ‘It was so quiet you could hear a pearl drop.’” After 20 years and five million dollars spent in research and development, John Latendresse harvested the first marketable American cultured pearls in 1983; two years later, he began cultivating on a large scale.
Then in the mid-1990s, says Latendresse, “We got a call…saying that the president of Mikimoto [the huge Japanese cultured pearl company] was coming to the US and was interested in seeing our farm. Eventually, Mikimoto became our biggest customer of American cultured and natural pearls. My father said, after that first visit, ‘Never in a million years, would I ever have guessed that I’d sell the Japanese American pearls.’ The Japanese buying from us was the most fulfilling moment for my father.”
When Gina Latendresse visited Japan after that, she was surprised to find that the pearls were being marketed as an American product, with a brochure explaining where they come from. “The brochure talks about these pearls being from the Tennessee River, a tributary of the Mississippi, which the Japanese know.” She bought a set of earrings designed by Mikimoto and containing pearls from her father’s company. She wore them at her wedding and they are still her favorite pair of earrings. The American classic had come home.