Hello Pearl Girls! I have just arrived in China for my annual treasure hunt… and I am exhausted! Fortunately it is 10:30 at night so I have an excuse to go to bed.
I will spend exactly one day here in China before heading off to the Philippines to tour South Sea pearl farms (and yes, I will shoot a video!) but I thought ya’ll might first want some info on the South Sea pearls of the Philippines.
The Philippines is a small producer of the gorgeous and enviable South Sea cultured pearls. South Sea pearls are large, averaging 10 to 13mm in diameter, and ranging in color from silvery grey to golden yellow depending upon which mollusk is cultured: the Gold Lipped or Silver Lipped oyster. The Philippines contributes to 15% of the world’s supply of these South Sea pearls.
There are exactly 23 pearl companies in the Philippines today. 19 of these companies are locally owned and the remaining 4 are owned by international companies.
The Philippines is a perfect example of how difficult it is to get established in the pearl farming business. There have been attempts at establishing successful pearl farms in the Philippines since the early 1900s but it really took 70 years for modern day farms to get established. The Philippines government is very supportive of pearl farming but they also fight hard to regulate this industry.
The pearl farming techniques here are considered to be primitive compared to the large-scale production in Australia (which is the largest supplier of the world’s South Sea Pearls).
90% of the oysters used to produce South Sea Pearls in the Philippines are born in hatcheries but the pearl farming began with mollusks that world famous divers found in the sea. On average after a day of diving, they would yield 3-5 mollusks. So, as you can imagine, the process was time consuming and eventually there was a depletion of mollusks in the wild.
Now, hatcheries are used to breed and grow the mollusks, which are then nucleated at some point between 18 and 30 months in age. Nucleation is a delicate process where a round pearl shell is inserted in the gonad of the oyster. Once inserted, the pearl grows for 18 to 30 more months until the pearl is extracted. The oysters might be nucleated again, for up to 3 times.
The Philippines is an island nation and there are more islands than most people imagine…7100 in all. But of all of the islands and waterways, it is difficult to find good pearl farming sites. What is needed to create a pearl farm? Good clean water. So, the farm must be far enough away from highly populated areas with potentially polluted water. Typhoons and changes in water temperatures can pose a risk to the growing mollusks so sites must be well protected. Finally, the mollusks need well-oxygenated water and a supply of fresh plankton. This means the best sites are small channels between remote islands where the water flow is good. These remote areas add to total production costs. Pearl farmers research their farming sites by using nautical maps, charts and by scouting areas by airplane.
The Philippine government is supportive of pearl farmers and they have named the South Sea pearl the national gem of the Philippines. They are also very conscious of the impact of pearl farms on the local environment and local fishermen. The government requires feasibility studies before a farm can be established. The farmers must have proven expertise and guaranteed capital. It can take as long as 10 years for a farm to be profitable so farmers must be prepared to bear the cost of getting their farm established.
For a farm to be a success, half of all of the mollusks it nucleates must produce a marketable pearl. The nicer the pearls a farm is able to produce, the more successful it will become.
Most of the South Sea pearls cultured in the Philippines are sold within the Philippines to wholesale and retail buyers who travel here.
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I am a modern day treasure hunter who travels the world for gorgeous pearls and amazing adventures. I own a pearl jewelry and jewelry repair business, ThePearlGirls.com, with a cute retail store in Athens, GA. I also have a Pearl Travel business and travel blog at TheWorldofPearl.com.