The freshwater pearl industry once flourished along Indiana's inland waterways. The Wabash, flowing south from Lafayette to join the Ohio at Mt. Vernon, bustled with the shallow boats of such fishermen, with about 600 operating around Vincennes alone.
This film documents Barnett Bass as he fishes for fresh-water mollusks in the White River in southern Indiana, seeking gem-quality pearls and the mother-of-pearl lining of the shells. The film depicts the local jewelers, a pearl dealer, and a shell exporter. The Pearl Fisher explores issues of technological innovation, international trade, and resulting stresses on the environment. It suggests the traditional symbolic meanings of pearls: immortality, purity, virtue, and trust, as well as the role of romanticism in everyday life.
The use of incidental music from Georges Bizet's 1863 opera Les Pechers de Perls enhances the film's most compelling images: the fisherman on the river, a ballet of water spiders, the maneuvering of burdened poles from the quiet water.