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Philippine Pearls
By David Federman

We don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade or party, but perfect storms look to have burst or be brewing in some of the world’s biggest pearl crop centers. When we say “perfect storms,” we’re not being literal, of course. We’re talking about savage alignments of environmental and/or political factors—any of which can wreak havoc but when combined becomes part of an apocalyptic synergy. This synergy can cause sudden crop failures followed by sustained disruption of pearl farming. In this case, nature and man have conspired to threaten aquaculture long term in areas known for growing mainstay 8 to 10mm ocean-variety pearls with a very broad range of white to golden colors.

Start with Japan where cruel overcrowding, poor heredity, and unstoppable pollution have shriveled once-voluminous production to such chronically low levels that its pearl farming industry may belong on the permanently disabled list. Next, move to Indonesia where massive political and economic woes have darkened the recently ultra-bright future of its pearl-growing sector. With these two pearl-harvesting hubs in deep trouble or headed for it, dealers are seeking a sizable, sound and, above all, safe haven for sea-water pearl production whose sizes, qualities, and colors overlap with Japan’s and Indonesia’s.
The best backup would seem to be the Philippines. According to South Seas pearl specialist Alex Vock of ProVockative Gems in New York, “The Philippines have made enormous strides both from a standpoint of quality and quantity in the last five years.”

Vock, who is primarily known for connoisseur-class goods, is firmly convinced that the Philippines now produce the best golden pearls ever grown anywhere—even fabled Burma in its heyday of pearl-culturing 40 years ago. “One Chinese-owned farm in the Philippines is growing golden pearls which beat everyone else’s past and present,” he exclaims. “These are superb goldens with no hint of brown or green, just fiery red and orange overtones.” Early this year, a fellow dealer paid Vock $236,000 for one of this farm’s top strands comprised of 13 to 16mm pearls. Those are big wholesale bucks for pearls nowadays.

That the Philippines may now rule in golden pearls should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the region’s long history as a pearl producer. But Vock, and others, say this Pacific Rim pearl power is vying for equal stature in the realm of whites, too. What are its prospects? Good. Very good.

FAIR AND WARMER

According to Jacques Branellec of Jewelmer, generally considered the single biggest pearl grower in the Philippines, there are around 26 farms, six of them “large-scale.” Nearly 70 percent of the country’s production comes from Palawan way west of Mindanao and far north of Malaysia.

As in Australia and Indonesia, farmers work with the Pinctada maxima breed of oyster. However, since most native oysters are of the yellow-lipped variety more suited for growing pearls with cream and golden colors, Philippine farmers have used biotechnology to produce large hatchery populations of cross-breed whiter and more silver-lipped oysters—an important step in expanding the diversity and depth of pearl hues from the region. While most Philippine pearls can still be characterized as warm-colored, there are a promising number of pearls with cooler hues for fairer skin types. And with Philippine production said to be outpacing Indonesia’s, that’s good news indeed. Indeed, 200 kan (or 200,000 momme) is forecast for this year.

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Philippine Pearls