South Sea white and Tahitian pearls have a honey-colored sibling and its popularity is on the rise
During the course of her 33-year career at Ben Bridge Jeweler, Laura Barringer hadn’t noticed much interest in golden pearls. Earlier this spring, however, a few sizable sales—two golden pearl strands in excess of $10,000 each to Chinese tourists in Southern California, and a 16 mm loose golden pearl to a client based in the company’s hometown of Seattle—encouraged the senior buyer to think twice about how she positions the product.
“Golden pearls are a category that we have not readily stocked, but we are now considering putting some in our more metropolitan markets,” Barringer says.
Like Ben Bridge, Providence, R.I.–based Imperial has also witnessed strong interest in golden pearls—coupled with diminishing availability. For the past two years, Josh Bazar, the face of Imperial on HSN, has been selling tens of thousands of light golden color, slightly ringed baroque pearls set in silver.
Increased demand from the Far East, however, has made sourcing a universal challenge. “Gold pearls are hugely popular in China right now and prices have gone way up as a result,” says Jeremy Shepherd, CEO of PearlParadise.com.
And though Imperial, PearlParadise.com, and other volume sellers have whetted the appetites of mass merchandise customers, the shortage of volume goods creates a new opportunity for those who sell top-quality golden pearls, which are available—provided buyers know which producers to target. “This is a great opportunity for smaller jewelers,” says Bazar.
Divers rotate and clean baskets of oysters to ensure optimum growth for the golden pearls.
Ben Bridge sources its golden pearls from vendors in Japan and Hong Kong, most of whom acquire their stock from Concorde Pearls and Gems, whose Indonesian farms are among the world’s largest suppliers of golden pearls. For pearl buyers in the know, however, Jewelmer, a boutique golden pearl producer headquartered in Manila, is gaining a reputation as the preeminent source of the gems.
Jewelmer maintains eight pearl farms on the remote Palawan Islands, located more than 500 miles from Manila in the Philippine and Sulu seas. JCK visited two of its farms this past spring and learned firsthand what it takes to run an aquaculture operation.
Each pearl is carefully nucleated and harvested by Jewelmer technicians.
Visitors who make the long journey to Jewelmer’s farms are rewarded with a tropical idyll: white sand beaches strewn with seashells and warm, crystal-clear water. It’s the same scene that greeted former commercial pilot and native Frenchman Jacques Branellec in 1979, when he left a flight post in Tahiti (where he founded a black pearl farm) to voyage west to the Philippines and encountered the wild, gold-lipped pinctata maxima oysters that would seal his destiny. Until then, the golden pearls that grew inside the oysters were collected by the Badjaos, Southeast Asian nomads who base their livelihoods on the sea. Of course, finding a pearl was a rare occurrence, made even more difficult by the prevalence of pirates in the Sulu waters that are home to the wild oysters. Ever the optimist, Branellec—a cofounder of Jewelmer who “fell in love with Philippine culture,” as he told JCK on a tiki-torch–lit night in March on the rustic Flower Island resort near his farms—decided to try growing the oysters and the pearls himself.
Aerial shot of a Jewelmer pearl farm some 500 miles from Manila in the pristine Philippine and Sulu seas
With the help of Filipino businessman Manuel Cojuangco, Branellec started flying wild oysters from the southern provinces to his first farm on Bugsuk Island. In those early days, he lost many a shell; the stress of the relocation was simply too much for the sensitive mollusks to bear. Then he experimented with breeding oysters, and the first harvest was so small that “we had to make finished jewelry with the pearls just to keep funding the operation,” Branellec recalls. Plus, many of the first pearls were white because he had few gold-lipped oysters to graft. But he pushed onward, eventually perfecting a process of growing goldens exclusively. According to Branellec’s precise steps, humans come into contact with the shells exactly 323 times over the 60-month growth period, from spat to pearl.
“A pearl is like a time capsule in that you can see what happened to it,” he says. “You have to be gentle and follow the steps religiously. If not, there are flawed pearls or oyster mortality.”
A marine biologist examines beakers of phytoplankton—microscopic plant-like organisms—used to feed Jewelmer’s oysters.
Today, Jewelmer has its own hatchery, proprietary food formula for baby oysters, and grafting and harvesting operations, as well as its own jewelry design and manufacturing facilities and retail stores. Each year, the company produces about 1 million pearls, keeping up to the top 3 percent of production for its own jewelry, with finished pieces—18k gold haute joaillerie designs featuring perfectly round, creamy golden pearls paired with F VS diamonds and sold primarily in the Philippines—now representing the bulk of sales.
Branellec, however, also has designs on the U.S. market. To further that cause, Jewelmer has exhibited at the Couture show in Las Vegas for the past three years and recently hired an American sales agent to drive business.
Back home in the Philippines, however, Jewelmer’s top priority is still growing big, beautiful, and—above all—healthy pearls. “Dad and the Jewelmer team have refined our processes over the last 30 years,” says Jacques Branellec’s son, Jacques Christophe, who joined the family firm four years ago. J.C.B., as he is known, grew up playing with the children of farm divers (Jewelmer employs 1,200 full-time workers), and eventually decided to try to help increase the sustainability of the business by bringing more retailers and journalists to the farm to create enthusiasts, raise the profile of the pearls, and, “do justice for all the people involved in the process,” he says of Jewelmer’s Filipino workforce.
Ian Santos for Photos Graphos Inc.
The author studies a shell bead used to nucleate Jewelmer’s gold-lipped oysters.
And while the firm estimates it is one of the largest employers in the Palawan region, it even provides nonemployee island inhabitants with free clean water, clinics, educational opportunities, and additional means of sustainable employment by teaching organic vegetable farming; fishing without the use of cyanide or TNT (both common in the islands and incredibly harmful to the rich biodiversity); and bee, seaweed, cashew, and sea cucumber farming. Branellec refers to this philosophy of generosity as utang na loob, or debt of gratitude, part of the Filipino way.
“This country is God’s gift to humanity because it is so beautiful,” he says. “All of these operations are funded by the pearls, and the pearl farm could not operate without a healthy community and environment.”