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Myanmar’s golden pearls outshine rivals

NAYPYITAW — Hillary Clinton wears them, and so does Aung San Suu Kyi. They nearly disappeared for decades under military rule, but the world’s most sought-after pearls are once again to be found in Myanmar.

Two international auctions this year — in Hong Kong in March and Naypyitaw in late June — saw traders bid up prices to new highs. While Clinton, the U.S. presidential hopeful, and Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, prefer traditional white, the latest trend in high-end fashion has seen demand soaring for pearls of shimmering gold.

Myanmar’s celebrated return to the international fold has also helped. “The lifting of sanctions allowed Myanmar pearls to be seen around the world and sold as Myanmar pearls,” said Craig Henderson, an Australian who spent five years as a pearl farmer in Myanmar. “Deep golden have suddenly become popular and are the now the most valued.”

Henderson has since set up his own Bangkok-based company, Archipelago Pearls, to take the ocean’s creations from inception to the design and making of jewelry. A necklace with a gold and jewel clasp can cost more than $20,000. By comparison, Amazon offers an 18-inch Princess-length necklace of Japanese small White Akoya cultured pearls, plus bracelet and earrings, for about $1,000.

Prices at the Hong Kong auction for Myanmar pearls averaged more than $100 a momme (3.75 grams), which traders describe as the highest seen at auction for multiple lots — pearls are sold in “parcels” ranging from a few score to more than 1,000, sorted by size, grade, shape and color. A pearl weighing 1 momme would be about 14mm in diameter, although Myanmar pearls are usually smaller.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was renowned for its South Sea pearls in the 1800s, when the nomadic and sometimes enslaved Salon or Moken people, also known as “sea gypsies,” dived for natural pearls around the 800 islands of the Myeik archipelago in the far south of the country.

The industry flourished with the advent of professional diving equipment, leading to attempts to regulate oyster harvesting by British colonial rulers. The port of Myeik became a boom town, and Mumbai, then called Bombay, a center for pearl trading — which Indians still dominate today.

A new chapter opened in 1954 when a Japanese pearl company under entrepreneur Kichiro Takashima set up Myanmar’s first pearl farm, a joint venture with the government, off what came to be known as Pearl Island. Its cultured pearls were soon the world’s most sought after. But the farm was nationalized in 1964, two years after a military coup, and the industry eventually stuttered to a halt because of an exodus of foreign expertise.

Ethnic conflict

A gradual revival began in the 1990s as the military loosened restrictions on the economy. New joint ventures were formed and the Japanese were the first to return, led by the well-known company Tasaki Shinju, whose pearls are some of the most prized.

Jeff La Valette, who worked in those pioneering days for Myanmar Atlantic, an Australian joint venture, recalls that he spent the first six months on a small boat scouring the archipelago for suitable pearl-cultivating waters. His companions were the skipper, a six-man military escort — needed because the area was still a center of ethnic conflict — and a dog. A site was found and a farm established.

La Vallette’s contacts with the outside world were restricted to occasional mail deliveries and the ship’s wireless. He spent the next six years trying to cultivate a perfect golden pearl. He admitted that he failed, but a new generation of technicians from Japan and Australia eventually succeeded in the complex process of inserting a nucleus — using genetically similar shell material from the Mississippi freshwater mussel — and grafting oyster tissue from a donor to create the pearl in each individual host.

“I feel proud and emotional,” said La Vallette, picking out pearls of a deep gold with a slight pink or apricot hue at the Naypyitaw auction. “I spent years on the farm trying to achieve this.”

The pinctada maxima oysters found naturally and farmed in Myanmar are technically the same as those in Australia, Indonesia and other parts of Asia. But, for reasons unknown, they behave differently. “For example, in Indonesia the oysters love to clump together. In Myanmar if they do, then in 90 days they die. They don’t like being near each other,” said La Vallette.

Pearls can be a dodgy business, however, and traps await the unknowing, especially at the retail level. The farming industry in Myanmar is highly regulated and remains relatively clean, but in India pearls are often “manipulated.” Like an onion, their skins can be peeled, and they may be bleached or dyed. This also happens, traders say, in Yangon’s famed Scott Market.

At the Naypyitaw auction, Henderson examines parcels of pearls poured into a tray. The auction is held over three days and is mostly by closed tender, so the traders have plenty of time to peruse. For his sometimes-modernistic jewelry, Henderson is also looking out for irregularly shaped, or “baroque” pearls, which may cost less.

His first wave of enthusiasm soon wears thin, however. He says the colors are uneven and suspects that Myanmar Pearl Enterprise, a state monopoly, has already sold the best quality pearls at the Hong Kong auction in March, when more international traders were present.

“Most of these pearls are from MPE, which has its own farms. They have improved over the past five years, but the reason that Myanmar pearls have improved significantly is due to foreign joint ventures bringing in high quality technicians, transferring their knowledge. And typically they are Japanese,” Henderson said.

Unblemished “skins”

He peers at Lot 120. Like a judge in a TV reality show, his verdict is eagerly awaited. He pauses and then utters, “Horrendous.” He adds: “Dull. No luster. They are like wax beads. I would be embarrassed to sell these. Perhaps the Indians will buy to dye and treat, and make them look like someone oiled in the sun.” Lot 66 is also dismissed. “Luster like chalk. No shine at all.” Lot 204 comes and goes. “This is the dregs.”

But as the hours pass, Henderson finds what he is looking for — several lots of golden pearls with unblemished “skins” and delicate hues, some of apricot. He recognizes them as cultivated by Tasaki and auctioned by MPE as part of its quota under their joint venture production sharing system.

Henderson purrs over Lot 154, a parcel of 125 slightly misshapen pearls with a reserve price of 2,500 euros. ($2,831). “If perfectly round, they would be five times more,” he said. They eventually sell for 7,400 euros.

Three Indian traders from Bombay gather at a nearby inspection table, pouring pearls onto towels. “The quality is mixed,” said Milan Jhaveri, holding up lustrous pearls in one hand and dullish ones in the other. “Some are for dyeing as they lack luster.”

Marlar Myint, a 27-year-old Myanmar trader who is ethnic Chinese and comes from Myeik, is worried that Myanmar’s change of government and the uncertainty hanging over the economy will have an impact on her company, which sells jewelry and Myeik’s prized birds’ nests for soup.

In the end, she bids for two lots of smaller pearls, silver and cream. Speaking later in Yangon, she is triumphant, having bought one parcel for 11,111 euros. She said that was just one euro more than her nearest rival, although it was not clear how she knew that in a closed tender.

Marlar Myint said she went for small 7mm to 8mm pearls, which will be used as settings for earrings. “Even in difficult times, women will always first buy a set of earrings before moving on to more expensive necklaces,” she said.

Myanmar’s pearl industry, said by analysts to generate annual revenues of less than $100 million, is dwarfed by jade mining, which is unofficially estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year to Myanmar in smuggled exports to China. Unlike jade, however, the pearl industry in the Myeik Archipelago is legal, safe and well regulated.

Pearl farms are no longer in the middle of a conflict zone, nor are they wreaking environmental havoc, like the jade mines of war-torn Kachin State. Exports are not subject to U.S. sanctions, as are legal exports of jade and rubies.

But the rapid expansion of tourism poses a threat to pearl-farming.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Henderson. “Apart from the threat of pollution from such operations, the greater threat is the creation of a local market for pearls. Staff will steal pearls to sell to the tourists. Inevitably this leads to the end of the pearling business in those areas.”

Such practices would devalue the pearls and turn the farms into nothing more than low-cost, low-quality souvenir producers, like the ones in the Thai resort island of Phuket, he warned.

Like other pearl producers, Henderson reasons that Myanmar, with its golden pearls now recognized as “the best in the world,” should aim for the professional, global gems market. MPE officials are concerned about the “commodification” of golden pearls but, as industry members warn, must act quickly and declare large protective zones to keep resorts away from pearl farms. However, powerful forces in the tourism industry, who have shown scant concern for the environment elsewhere in Myanmar, could well resist such moves.

“The entire reason that the pearl-farming business is in the archipelago in the first place is the fact that it is a pristine environment,” Henderson said. “Once this is no longer the case, pearl-farming will no longer exist in the region.”

 

Source: Asian Nikkei

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