Special Report, Part 1: A Visit to Jewelmer’s Pearl Farms in the Philippines

Many pearl enthusiasts have some idea of where the lustrous gems come from—beyond a jeweler’s showcase—but it’s rare to actually see farms firsthand because they’re located in such faraway places. But last March, right before the Hong Kong International Jewellery Show, I had the privilege of visiting the Jewelmer golden pearl farms located in the Palawan Islands in the Philippines. (Yes, this is near where Typhoon Haiyan just hit.)

The trip enabled me to tick off one of my proverbial Bucket List items. Pearls are my favorite type of gem; I am mesmerized by their surface luster and their unique colors—each one is different, and dependent on the lip color of the oyster from which it’s born, as well as a host of other environmental factors. So to get a firsthand look at a farm (and a South Sea pearl farm—hello, tropical waters!—at that) was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So nearly a week before the start of Hong Kong show, I flew 15 hours from JFK to Hong Kong and, upon landing, hopped on a two-hour flight to Manila. My Jewelmer host—Jacques Christophe Branellec, son of founder Jacques Branellec (known as JB)—and beloved industry friend, Patricia de Brügger, arranged a transfer for me from the airport to a hotel in Manila, where I would spend the night. Patty and Jacques—JCB, as many call him, and who lives in Manila—were staying elsewhere, but they told me to look for four retailers from Mexico and two from Brazil, my fellow travellers to the farms, in the lobby the next morning. What do international retailers look like? Right—they could look like anybody! So I listened to the accents of other guests, straining to hear the familiar sounds of Spanish and Portuguese, those romantic languages I’ve heard from myriad industry peers at shows. In the sparsely populated lobby, the task wasn’t too difficult, as my ear picked up the melodious strains of foreign dialects. I honed in on a well-dressed group of six—three women, three men, all clearly couples—surrounded by luggage, and wearing giddy expressions on their faces, like school kids readying for a field trip. Yep, that was my group. I walked up to them and introduced myself, and sure enough, they were going to be my companions on the trip. 

My new friends were: Julio Yoshio Okubo and Lucy Okubo, owners of Julio Okubo Joias in São Paulo, Brazil, as well as Gabriel Bobadilla Rodriquez and Consuelo Carrillo, and Felix Bobadilla Rodriquez and Lourdes Cruz, owners of Grupo Cristal, headquartered in Naucalpan, Mexico.

Twenty minutes later, a van appeared at the front of the hotel, and Patty and JCB emerged. They explained to us that our larger suitcases—we were all heading to the Hong Kong show after the farms—would be secured by Jewelmer until the trip was over. To the farm, we could only bring small carry-on bags with enough clothes for three nights because the choppers we would fly in to reach the farms had precise weight restrictions.

Wait—helicopters? That was the only way to reach the farms since they were located in the remote northern tip of the Palawan Islands, some 500-plus miles south of Manila. Fortunately, the idea of soaring over the warm, pristine, and most definitely shark-filled waters of the Philippine and Sulu Seas for two hours in a cramped whirlybird didn’t bother me. After all, the payoff would be witnessing the source of those gorgeous golden pearls, and meeting JCB’s dad, a magnanimous Frenchman, I was told, with a larger-than-life personality and a fierce love of his adopted Filipino culture. Kathy Grenier, marketing director with Cultured Pearl Association of America and Imperial Pearl, in Providence, R.I.—as well as a close personal friend of mine—had taken this same journey just the year before, and still struggled to articulate the overwhelming emotions she experienced from witnessing the operations, the passion and commitment of the Jewelmer employees, and the generosity and love expressed by the Branellec family for the Filipino islander communities surrounding the farms. So, yes, I knew this trip would be powerful, and even “life changing” because Kathy and others told me it would be. Still, I had one nagging and seemingly silly personal hang-up in play regarding this journey: an intense fear of spiders. Don’t judge! We were headed to the tropics, after all, and I knew there would be big ones lurking in the shadows of our bamboo huts during our stay on Flower Island, a rustic hotel owned by Jewelmer. But I decided the story and experience were much more important than my arachnophobia, so off we went.

Scale to weigh everything--and everyone--getting in the choppers going to the Jewelmer pearl farms.

Scale to weigh everything—and everyone—going in the choppers flying to the Jewelmer pearl farms

Our group going to the Jewelmer pearl farms in March of this year

Some of our group who went to the Jewelmer pearl farms in March of this year. From left: Consuelo Carrillo and Gabriel Bobadilla Rodriquez, Patricia De Brügger, yours truly, Lourdes Cruz, and Felix Bobadilla Rodriquez

View from the choppers over the Sulu and Philippine Ses

View from the choppers over the Sulu and Philippine Seas

View from the choppers over the Sulu and Philippine Seas

It looks just like a postcard, doesn’t it?

Jacques Branellec and Jacques Christophe Branellec

Jacques Branellec and Jacques Christophe Branellec, both commercial pilots who often fly themselves and guests to their pearl farms, at a stop to refuel mid flight

(Photo: Ian Santos for Photos Graphos Inc.)

Flower Island sign

Our hotel

The view from the beach at Flower Island

The view from the beach at Flower Island

My accomodations at Flower Island, complete with one bedroom and a bathroom in a buidling housing four apartments

My accomodations at Flower Island: one bedroom and a bathroom in a building housing four apartments (and unknown numbers of giant tropical spiders)

Sunset on Flower Island

Sunset on Flower Island

Patty DeBrugger, JCB, and me

Patty, JCB, and me during an evening reception on Flower Island

(Photo: Ian Santos for Photos Graphos Inc.)

To be continued! Stop by Monday to read Part 2!

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