Golden Pearls

Photographers by Patrick Aventurier

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This feature was shot in December 2009. A full edit of 84 images available on request. The following text was written by independent journalist Sebastian Farcis, and is for reference only. Anyone wishing to publish the text must obtain rights from the author, whose contact details we can provide.

Amongst the turquoise waters of the Palawan archipelago, in the western Philippines, a man from Brittany in northern France is the only person in the world to have discovered the secret to producing a very rare jewel: the golden pearl. It’s a natural and fragile gem which is cared for like royalty. It takes 5 years for an oyster to produce one of these pearls, and the slightest shock during that time could ruin it. The feature documents the harvesting of these pearls, in the midst of this tropical paradise.

The motorboat advances slowly amongst the rows of ropes in this 5000 hectare park used for pearl production. Five divers wearing t-shirts put on their scuba tanks and masks, and descend into the turquoise waters. It’s harvest season. In this wilderness in the northern part of the Palawan archipelago in the Philippines, is a hidden area encompassing about twenty or so small islands, which protect the 20cm wide pearl producing oysters from the currents. The oysters spend two years in an incubator, followed by around three years slowly growing at a depth of 15m in these calm, warm waters of the South China Sea.

The location is roughly 500km from Manila, and well protected from its pollution. Everything here is set up to protect these oysters from any outside aggression, or negative influence on their growth. At one of the Jewelmer International pearl farms, the biggest producer in the Philippines, a huge board displays even the slightest monthly water temperature variations, to the nearest tenth of a degree. A boat full of armed guards patrols on the outskirts, ensuring no one is able to approach and disturb the oysters.

This farm, located around Malutamban Island, is very well stocked. Thousands of white buoys are dotted in neat lines around the island, like grains of salt sprinkled across the ocean’s surface, showing the scale of Jewelmer International’s production. There are 140,000 oysters waiting to be harvested at this location alone, which is one of six that the company holds. But it is a delicately poised wealth, as the jewels themselves are natural.

Jacques Branellec, director and co-founder of Jewelmer in 1979, is very much aware of this. He starts to inspect and scrutinize the oyster farm with an obsessive stare as soon as he gets out of the Dauphin helicopter that he has just piloted all the way from Manila, to reach this hidden location. Every details counts. Practically jogging around the place, wearing a fuchsia shirt and a hat, as only a company director in the tropics could, he fires his observations in English at his Filipino assistant, who tries to follow him through the warehouses and processing buildings, amongst the machines and pipes.

What worries him the most though is not to be found here. It is what lies beneath the waves. Fishing with dynamite and cyanide is still common practice in the waters of the Palawan archipelago. This has already destroyed a lot of the coral, and could do the same to the pearl-producing oysters. Jewelmer has therefore already provided new boats to the local authorities, to enable them to better control these forms of fishing, and to encourage the local population to understand the importance of preserving the natural environment that surrounds them. Some fishermen have benefitted from the subsequent improvement in water quality to enable them to develop algae farming, which they then sell to pharmaceutical companies. Jacques Branellec is an ecologist both by personal conviction, and by necessity.

“Growing pearls is a real craft industry,” he explains. “Any change in water temperature, or pollution of the sea, will affect the oysters. Anything that the oyster feels or experiences is directly reflected in the pearl, which can therefore lose its quality.” This Frenchman aged 60, who was one of the first to cultivate black pearls in Tahiti, remains humble and respectful of the laws of nature. “I have been producing pearls for 38 years, and I am still learning,” he says with an amused look on his face. “Obtaining these golden pearls is extremely difficult. It is a long road to attain perfection.”

It is indeed a long road, punctuated by the 324 times the oyster will be handled during its five years of growth. Before being placed in the sea aged 2, it will have a mineral nucleus placed in its core, around which it will form the pearl. Then for the three subsequent years, divers will try to compensate for the effects of gravity, flipping over the oyster’s cage every week so that the pearl that is formed around the mineral nucleus is as even and round as possible. Once each month the oysters are taken out of the water, cleaned of all the small crustaceans and shellfish growing on them, and checked by X-ray to make sure that the pearl inside hasn’t been expelled.

But on this ancient deserted island of Malutamban, since converted into this pearl farming operation, the most delicate part of the process is also the most hidden part, taking place in a modern laboratory that is hidden from view by vegetation. It’s here that the real success took place, when the team of biologists finally managed to reproduce the ‘Pinctada Maxima’ gold-lipped oyster, a very rare kind which is only present in the wild in the southern Philippines, off the island of Jolo. It took over 15 years to achieve, and now Jewelmer is the only pearl company in the world to be able to produce these magnificent golden pearls.

The divers arrive back on land with baskets full of giant oysters. The pearls lie hidden within their flesh, in a still unknown form. Despite all the care and attention that goes into producing them, the end result is far from guaranteed. A few hours later, the first part of the harvest is visible in the workshop. Jacques Branellec is there to oversee things. He goes through the oysters by hand, sorting and separating them. “Many of the pearls can be spoiled, some deformed, others circular in shape as they grew around a parasite. Others are the shape of a spinning top, or baroque (irregular/bizarre).” But a large number of other pearls have a beautiful shine to them, and a shape that appeals to the eye. Not all are gold, some can be white, or champagne coloured, depending on the colour that the oyster took on. The success is not absolute, but the considerable efforts involved do reap rewards. Of the 700,000 pearls that Jewelmer produces each year across their six farm, 75% are commercially viable. Around 2% of those harvested will be considered ‘perfect’. Their value depends on various criteria, most of which are subjective: their shine, their color, and their lustre, the latter being one of the most precise and key classifications, defined by the way in which the pearl’s crystal form refracts light. “A large portion of these pearls will be worth €150-300 Euros (USD $200-400) in the shops,” says Jacques Branellec, inspecting the latest harvest.

A worker brings him a pearl with a spectacular shine to it. Suddenly his eyes light up. He stares intently at the pearl, holding it in a precise manner in his fingers. “This one is perfect, it’s the crème de la crème. A Hanadama,” he states proudly [Hanadama: a very high grade pearl]. But Jacques Branellec won’t divulge the extravagant price of this jewel, because he prefers to keep some of his company figures private. This connoisseur always seems to display a voluntary detachment from the commercial and financial success that offers him a very comfortable life nowadays. The Jewelmer International company, that he runs alongside Manuel Cojuangco, a member of one of the wealthiest families in the Philippines, has over 1000 employees, and twelve shops in the Philippines in which the pearls are sold, once mounted on jewellery.

On top of the many hectares of islands for the oyster farms, the company owns two helicopters which Jacques Branellec and other use to travel from Manila to the islands, to re-supply them. This former airline pilot arrived in the Philippines over 30 years ago, after a sailing trip around the world. He left Polynesia having sold off his black pearl farms due to debt, but today has had his revenge on that past. He says he is not interested in wealth, and yet has managed to achieve it. He owns a house in one of the most expensive parts of Manila, and recently bought himself a paradise island of a few hectares called “Flower Island”, where he refurbished a former resort of ten bungalows, and has made it his second home. He is passionate about the Philippines, and has a Filipino wife, and would like these ‘Pearls of the Orient’ to become the symbol of this archipelago, just as black pearls became that of Tahiti.

Meanwhile, these jewels have made him his fortune. Some pearls are indeed sold at a very high price. For some exceptional pieces, their value can become as subjective as their beauty. Two years ago, a Japanese man fell so ‘in love’ with a perfect golden pearl that he bought it from Jewelmer for USD $500,000.