Pearl Farming in The Philippines
Having just returned from Australia, this is pretty wild that I turned around four days later to another destination for South Sea pearls, The Philippines. And, compared with Australia, production in the Philippines is miniscule. Only 15% of the world’s south sea pearls are produced in The Philippines. That equals about 3700 lbs of South sea pearls. (as a point of reference, although China cultures a majority of freshwater pearls, their production of these freshwater gems is 1 billion pearls a year. Quite the comparison!) Of that amount, 75% of the Philippines pearls are cultured by one pearl company. So that means, by comparison, the other farms are much smaller operations. As of 2009, there were 23 pearl farms in The Philippines and 4 of those were jointly owned by Japanese companies. 19 were owned by people of The Philippines. But it is now 2015 and the demand for pearls have plummeted so I was curious to know if there are still that many farms in operation. Upon investigation, I was not able to figure out the exact number. Many farms I spoke with had closed down. Others (most) were super-secretive. So, I never got exact figures although I did learn a few things.
Exports are king! It is pretty darn tough to buy high quality pearls from The Philippines in The Philippines. Of the 2-3 operations that are partnered with Japan, the pearls are exported directly to Japan. And the other operations export directly to Hong Kong. It is recognized that The Philippines just doesn’t have the money to support the sale of these Auber-expensive gems. So, the pearls are exported and sold to prominent clients in Asia, mainly Japan and China.
A pearl farm must be able to produce marketable pearls to stay in business and this is especially true when the market demand is low. So, first, a pearl farmer must get marketable pearls from at least half of its mollusks. If that scale tips and they do not get quality pearls out of half of their shells, the pearl farm most likely will not survive. Next, a high percentage of those pearls must be high quality or they will not get the money they need to continue pearl operations. South Sea pearls are expensive with one perl being sold in the retail market for $100-$500 per pearl. And that depends on quality and size! Of course if it is a high quality pearl and big, cha-ching! It will command an even greater price. There is almost no ceiling on high quality pearls if you have the buyer. But there is a floor to prices. It is just too expensive to run a South Sea pearl operation and not get a certain amount of money back from your harvest. It just won’t happen! Which is one reason I say “Cheaper Prices equal Cheaper pearls.” Pearls cannot be sold too low… if you get a really good deal on pearls it is most likely because the price is lower.
But that is not the point I am making. The point is, you must have the harvest and you must have the quality or the pearl farm just wont work. One farm I work with said they produced fewer pearls that the largest farm operation in The Philippines but that they made more money. Smaller farm, smaller harvest but better quality equals more money, right?
As for size, as with all South Sea pearls, the pearls are big, average 10-13mm after growing 18 months to no more than three years. The P . maxima mollusks, which are the species that produces South Sea pearls, love to lay it on thick so nacre thickness is not usually a problem. The minimum acceptable nacre thickness is 1mm per radius but it is easy to find South Sea pearls with up to 4mm of nacre per diameter. On average, the nacre thickness on South Sea pearls from The Philippines is not as thick as Australia but, again, this is just an average!
The more successful farm that I visited said of 1000 mollusks nucleated, they produce 600 pearls. What happens to the other 400? The mollusks either die or are stolen. But, a 60% return is considered very good in this industry!
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.