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

This post is a continuation from Friday’s Part 1; JCK visited the Jewelmer pearl farms—some of which were hit by Typhoon Haiyan—earlier this year.

Terramar Four is Jewelmer’s fourth pearl farm, and the one where we spent the most time. Terramar essentially means a waterfront community, and despite its great distance from the Philippines mainland, T4 is home to more than 300 employees—many men who spearfish on Saturdays for fun and food, and because it’s safest for the environment—who hail from all over the Philippines, traveling home only sporadically for family visits. Some 1,200 employees (“a family,” explained JCB, who grew up playing with some staffers’ kids who now work on the farm) make up Jewelmer’s payroll.

Flying into farm Terramar 4

Flying to farm Terramar 4

Staffers at T4 welcome us; they don't get a lot of visitors.

Staffers at T4 welcome us.

We had an unforgettable education on T4. Clara—a farm manager, biologist, and pearl technician with Jewelmer for 18 years—taught us prerequisites for pearl farming in a classroom-turned-office space inside a breezy bamboo hut on stilts in the water. According to Clara, you need a site far from pollution for healthy oysters to grow, plankton for them to eat, good current and water flow (no stagnation for bacteria to breed), and sandy—not muddy—sea conditions.

Tracking water levels is one task on the Jewelmer pearl farms

Tracking water levels is one task at the Jewelmer pearl farms; these signs affixed to the main T4 building show just how high water levels have previously risen.

JCB teaching us about the pearl process

JCB teaching us about the pearl process on T4

In the Hatchery department, we learned that all oysters start life as hermaphrodites, and our group was permitted to enter a dark, garage-like space with steamy temperatures ranging anywhere from 79–89 degrees—the ideal climate for oyster growth. Inside, massive clear round vats of water that at first appeared empty under a flashlight were, upon closer inspection, teeming with tiny creatures (think Sea Monkeys, Gen Xers). These were spat: oysters in the larval stage.

In the room next door, the lights were on and the temperature dropped considerably to properly house floor-to-ceiling shelves of beakers of liquid—Jewelmer’s own Miracle-Gro formula for oysters that took 10 years to perfect—varying in color from yellow to light brown to dark green.

Beakers of baby oyster food made by Jewelmer

Beakers of baby oyster food made by Jewelmer

(Photo: Romain Rivierre)

Meanwhile, farm workers record weather and other marine conditions like salinity and plankton density while oysters grow to maturity from the relative safety (sea life is a predator) of submerged net baskets for up to three years. Then oysters are plucked from their nets, scraped and cleaned, and grafted with a shell bead nucleus and a piece of mantle from a donor oyster of the desired color—both of which are placed into an oyster’s gonad or sexual organ by a master grafter. A pearl forms in a defensive act as the oyster encases the irritant or shell bead with as many as seven layers of nacre daily. Grafted oysters are deposited back into long rows of baskets in the sea to grow for about two years, being rotated frequently to insure even nacre distribution and having shells cleaned about every 15 days. The whole process, from spat to first pearl (second grafts that grow larger pearls can take place among healthy oysters) takes about five years.

Employees cleaning oysters before they're grafted

Employees cleaning oysters before they’re grafted

Oysters waiting to be grafted

Oysters before being grafted

“There are 323 steps where the human comes in contact with the pearl,” explained JB quickly, before dashing off to another area of the farm. “You have to be gentle and follow the steps religiously; if not there is mortality and flawed pearls. A pearl is like a time capsule, where—like tree rings—you can see what happened to it during growth.” (JCB promised me I could speak to dad later that night.)

“Nature is the majority partner in our business,” added JCB, a serious twentysomething who clearly idolizes his dad (he is the only son to join the business, and also followed in pop’s footsteps by securing his commercial pilot’s license to fly to and from the farms). “If we get perfectly round pearls, nature is saying thank you.”

Julio Yoshio Okubo, co-owner of Julio Okubo Joias in Sao Paulo, Brazil, gets to clean an oyster

Julio Yoshio Okubo, co-owner of Julio Okubo Joias in São Paulo, Brazil, gets to clean an oyster.

Julio cleaning an oyster

Julio cleaning an oyster

Yours truly cleaning an oyster

Here I am cleaning an oyster…

Yours truly cleaning an oyster

…and scraping sea debris off an oyster!

Jewelmer harvests about a million pearls a year. But that’s if conditions are perfect—if not, mortality could be as high as 70 percent. In 2008, a heat wave and heavy rains affected crops, and another typhoon moved an entire farm 5 kilometers away. “There is no insurance for pearl farms,” JCB jokes. Thirty percent of any batch might be round, and then 2–3 percent are considered perfect and kept by Jewelmer for its own finished jewelry, which is designed by JB’s daughter and company creative director Gaelle Branellec, whom I later met at the Hong Kong show.

A pearl surgeon extracting just-born pearls from oysters

A pearl surgeon extracting just-born pearls from oysters

A golden pearl

A golden pearl

(Photo: Romain Rivierre)

JCB showing us a fresh crop of golden pearls; see his tiny golden pearl stud earring? That makes diamond studs on guys look so last decade.

JCB showing us a fresh crop of golden pearls; see his tiny golden pearl stud earring? That makes diamond studs on guys look so last decade. (Felix Bobadilla Rodriquez and Lourdes Cruz are behind him.)

A fresh crop of golden pearls; somewhere in that lot was a pearl worth upwards of $50,000 to a collector, according to JCB.

A fresh crop of golden pearls; somewhere in that lot was a pearl worth upwards of $20,000 to a collector, according to JCB.

After a day of education, we had dinner—fresh fish, rice, vegetables, most likely the sweetest mango on earth, and sugar cookies made by a young Filipino Flower Island staffer “who should be a pastry chef!” proclaimed JB. Afterward, we walked over to the bar hut—literally a lone bamboo hut fronted by a patio with picnic tables and chairs. I broke open my notebook and started directing questions to JB, who sat in an Adirondack-type chair with his back to the beach, the sound of the waves crashing gently on the sand. For such an outgoing man—not a moment passed that he wasn’t telling jokes to and chatting with anyone in earshot—he looked uncomfortable being interviewed. In the light of tiki torches staked in the sand, he spoke for about five minutes about how he ended up calling the Philippines home—born in France, he got his pilot’s license and a job with Air Tahiti, getting acquainted with pearl farmers in the process, eventually making his way towards Asia—before jumping out of his chair, announcing he was going to bed. Wow! For sure, he was reticent, though JCB promised that I would have more time to talk with him the next day.

At that point, most of us decided to retire for the night. In my room, I saw a small lizard (they don’t bother me) crawling on one of the bamboo walls, but no spiders—meaning that I would sleep.  

Stop by tomorrow to read Part 3!

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