Of all exquisite gems, pearls stand out, yet are often underestimated. While other precious rocks, from diamonds to rubies, need man and machine to turn them into sparkling pieces of jewellery, a perfectly round and lustrous pearl is a work of art solely created by nature.
Pearl oysters in baskets under the sea.
"Pearls are not fully understood, and yet they are among the popular gemstones," says Kenneth Scarratt, the Gemological Institute of America's managing director for Southeast Asia and director of the GIA Laboratory in Bangkok.
"When people go to the jewellery store, they will see a pearl for 30,000 baht and also a pearl for 300 baht, and many do not understand why. So, it is best to pass the message about where are these pearls from."
Aiming to promote a wider knowledge of gemology, Scarratt invited several members of the Thai media to a leading pearl farm in the Philippines, Jewelmer. The world-renowned eco-farm produces natural golden pearls.
Founded in 1979 by Filipino businessman Manuel Cojuangco and French perliculture specialist Jacques Branellec, Jewelmer is an eco-friendly pearl farming located in the island province of Palawan. For the past 10 years, the company has become known for rare golden pearls, having discovered oysters that could produce them naturally. The oysters have since been bred in an environmentally-conscious farm, using local farmers in the area as helping hands.
According to Jewelmer, it takes 323 precise steps and up to five years of love and care to harvest one pearl. In the case of its famous product, a gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oyster is bred and grown for two to three years before being grafted.
The shell of a gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oyster.
Baby oysters are placed in baskets or nets and submerged under the sea at a perfectly calculated depth, where their environment is undisturbed. The sites are scattered around the farm, done deliberately, since only a certain percentage of the oysters will make it to adulthood. Oysters eat plankton, and tonnes of it, which is why the farm needs to be located away from pollution in a place rich with marine diversity.
"We treat them [pearl oysters] like how we treat a child," says Branellec while guiding us around the farm.
"We clean the shell to get rid of parasites and seaweed almost every week. Some of the farmers even sing for them."
Branellec explains that even though the oysters are given equal attention and care, there is still a great range in quality, which human beings cannot control. In the early 70s, Branellec quit his career as a pilot and found his passion culturing pearls and making jewellery. He also pioneered black pearl farming in French Polynesia, before moving to the Philippines and founding Jewelmer with his Filipino partner.
Speaking from experience, he says the threat of global warming has directly affected pearl farming, as rising sea temperatures can alter the state of pearls and the health of oysters.
However, human beings, he says, pose one of the biggest threats.
"A pearl farm occupies a lot of space; we cannot ignore the populations that live [on the boundaries] of the pearl farm.
"We interact with the community through a foundation and also multiple projects in order to change the mentality of the people from short-term destructive methods of fishing or farming," says Branellac.
Jewelmer also helps support the Save Palawan Seas Foundation (SPSF). This non-profit organisation is run by agriculturists and staff who work closely with the community to develop effective conservation methods and teach alternative living to facilitate long-term, sustainable use of the province's marine and aquatic resources.
About the author
- Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer