The last active pearl farm in the U.S. is a relic of a Tennessee long forgotten.

By Meghan Overdeep
May 09, 2019
Facebook/TN River Freshwater Pearl Museum, Tour & Pearl Jewelry Showroom

South Dakota native John Latendresse was on a cross-country road trip in 1949 when he found himself at Kentucky Lake in Tennessee. Looking out at the divers combing the fertile lakebeds for mussels to sell, the former Marine saw an opportunity. Shortly after, John moved his family nearby, to the tiny town of Camden, and in 1954 he started the Tennessee Shell Company.

Now, a little bit about pearls. To make one, you need two things: an oyster or freshwater mussel and a foreign object, otherwise known as an irritant. When a foreign object, like a piece of sand for example, becomes lodged in an oyster, the animal will protect itself by coating it with a shiny substance called nacre, A.K.A. mother of pearl. The mollusk deposits layers and layers of this substance until finally a pearl is formed.

Back in the 1950s, Tennessee was exporting mussel shells to pearl farmers in Japan who used them as irritants. Tennessee shells were thicker and considered easier to implant than those in Japan.

By the ‘60s, business was booming for Tennessee Shell Company. John was exporting shells as well as buying and selling pearls. But, as his daughter Gina recently recalled to Topic, it was around this time that a comment from a Japanese colleague changed everything for him. "You sell our beautiful pearls in the United States. It's too bad you can't grow pearls in Tennessee," the colleague reportedly chided.

"Another light bulb goes off and my father's like, ‘You think I can't grow pearls in Tennessee? Just watch,'" Gina told Topic.

And grow pearls he did, and he had quite the talent for it. According to Inc., John tinkered endlessly with the shape of the beads he inserted into his mollusk, changing the shape of the pearl. As a result, he created pearls of all shapes, including bars, drops, coins, and even duck wings.

Other pearl farmers in the area came and went over the years, but the Latendresse family's American Pearl Company was always the most successful. By 1985 they had moved their operation to Kentucky Lake and were harvesting enough pearls to build a substantial inventory.

But by John's death in 2000, the shell industry in Tennessee had weaken significantly. At its peak, it had been worth around $50 million annually. Today Topic reports that number is closer to $6 million.

When John died the Latendresse family sold their pearl farm to Bob Keast the owner of Birdsong Resort, Marina, and Campground. Today, Keast oversees what's now known as the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm, the last active pearl farm in the United States, and a relic of a Tennessee long forgotten. Though the farm still operates, it's mostly a tourist attraction.

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Gina, who has a graduate diploma in gemology, now runs the American Pearl Company with her mother and sister, selling the pearls her father stashed away to artists and retailers around the word, including Tiffany.

She told Topic that keeping the business going is a way of preserving her family's history. "We learned everything we learned from the ground up," Gina said. "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."