On the shore of one of Europe’s oldest lakes, two families have been guarding a tightly held treasure for 100 years: fish pearls.
Straddling the border of North Macedonia and Albania, Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. A cultural and natural Unesco World Heritage site, the lake’s emerald-green waters are home to 212 known species of endemic plants and animals. One of them, the plasica fish, is an essential ingredient used to make one of the area’s most famous treasures: the Ohrid pearls.
For nearly 100 years, there have only been two families that have known how to produce the Ohrid pearls: the Talevs and the Filevs. Unlike regular pearls, Ohrid pearls are made from shells, which are ground and made into balls of various sizes by adding at least eight coats of a secret emulsion, giving them their characteristic shine. Each layer has to be dried before the next one is applied, which can take between 45 minutes and an hour each. The emulsion’s ingredients include scales stripped from plasica fish – sometimes called Ohrid trout or bleak – but the rest of the process remains a mystery.
The history of Ohrid pearls in the region dates back to the 1920s, when a Russian immigrant introduced the technique to the two families. Since then, the Talevs and the Filevs have only passed down the secret production process verbally from father to son. Whereas traditional pearls may only last 150 years, the Talev family claims the Ohrid pearls will last forever.
In the last several decades, Ohrid’s gleaming gems have become one of the country’s biggest trademarks and have been worn by such European royalty as Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana.