The Gold Rush – Myanmar’s Golden Pearls
Anu Seth
January , 2019

A string of lustrous golden beads, perfect rounds that glisten and glitter, has become one of the most eye-catching pieces of jewelry today. It outshines pure gold necklaces, with the grace it adds complementing all types of attire for every occasion. The golden pearl once extremely rare, is now being increasingly cultivated in countries like Australia, Indonesia and our very own Myanmar. The golden pearl is the newest addition to Myanmar’s vast repertoire of gems from rubies and sapphires to spinel and amethyst. Myanmar’s cultured South Sea golden pearls became popular after a single pearl was sold for 30,000$ at a private auction in Hong Kong. Though Myanmar had been participating in international auctions and sales since the early 2000s, the first decade did not include high quality pearls, and were sold at lower prices. Gradually, the quality of pearls being cultured has improved phenomenally, and now Myanmar’s golden pearls participate every year in the Hong Kong jewelry show, besides local shows that attract internationalbuyers.

Pearls – Natural and Cultured

The pearl is one gemstone that is appropriate for every occasion, never ostentatious, always understated in elegance, at once adding grace and charm. From Aung San Suu Kyi to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton, pearl strands adorn the neck of millions of women, at the work place and beyond. Pearls are known by numerous names, as the queen of gems, the gem of the moon, drops from heaven and so on. White pearls have an astrological significance and are believed to bring peace to the wearer. The quality, value and beauty of pearls is determined by the color, luster, size, shape, nacre and surface. Pearls are sold in ‘parcels’ made by sorting similar pearls and vary in value accordingly.

The most common are white pearls, but increasingly now, pink, grey, golden, black and various other colored pearls have flooded the market. Natural or cultured, real pearls from saltwater or freshwater come in wide ranging price levels, from $50 – 50,000 and more. Pearls are the only gemstone that can be called organic, produced by a living creature. They come in various shapes and sizes, different shades and lusters. The best pearls undoubtedly are the natural pearls, which are made up of nacre, right till their innermost core. The pearl is completely made of calcium carbonate. These are also the most expensive and scarce, since only one in 10,000 wild oysters yields a pearl, which again is seldom of the shape, size and color needed for it to qualify as a piece of jewelry. Natural pearls coming out of wild oysters are difficult to find since these pearl producing oysters were hunted decades ago, to near extinction. Pearls are naturally formed in the shell of an oyster, when any irritant enters a mollusk. The oyster, in self defence secretes a substance called nacre, over the irritant. Layer after layer of nacre leads to the formation of the pearl.

Pearls are now cultured and formed due to human intervention. Trained technicians (the Japanese being the best, with an 80% success rate, seeding 600 oysters a day) insert an irritant, a mother-of-pearl bead, or nucleus into the oyster, along with a small piece of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue is a piece of lining of the mollusk that will prevent injury by surrounding and protecting living creature in the shell. The tissue also contains the cells that induce production of nacre which will eventually cover the bead. It takes 4-6 years to harvest a pearl, and the same oyster can be seeded 2-3 times in its lifetime, before being left in wild waters, free from captivity.

The demand and beauty of the pearl has made it into a flourishing industry and human intervention into the natural process has helped to increase production of pearls, though these are cultured pearls. Cultured pearls can be Akoya, South Sea or Tahiti. Akoya pearls are cultivated mainly in large pearl farms in Japan and China, are white, cream or grey in color, and grow to a size of 2mm-10mm, over a period ranging from 8 months to 2 years. The tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean around countries including Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar, are ideal for cultivating the fine, larger South Sea pearls. These have a thicker coating of nacre and grow to a size of 10-15mm in shades of white, cream and yellow (this is the famed golden pearl). Black Tahiti pearls are cultivated in French Polynesia, in a group of 5 island archipelagoes. While called black, they are in various shades of dark grey, with blue, green, violet and other color tones. Freshwater pearls are found all over the world, but particularly in the US, Japan and China, in streams, rivers and lakes. The typical size of these pearls ranges from 4mm to 10mm. Freshwater pearls are different due to their thicker nacre, different shapes and colors, and take 2-6 years to be fully formed. Freshwater mussels interestingly, can produce more than one pearl at a time, unlike their saltwater counterparts.

Myanmar’s Own Golden Pearls

Myanmar’s golden pearls come with a unique pinkish, apricot hue, a thicker layer of nacre and large size, and are widely perceived as the best in the world. Myanmar produced a total of 687,000 pearls in 2017-18, showing a 10% increase in number in three years. Pearls are sold loose in lots or parcels, and also as finished ornaments. The pearl industry is managed by the Myanmar Pearls Enterprise (MPE) that comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Mines. It is responsible for the sale of pearls through auctions and exhibitions, and participation in jewelry exhibitions in Hong Kong and other places, where they fetch high prices due to their quality. The industry is regulated and valued at over $ 100 million, even though it pales in comparison to the richer jade, ruby and other gems’ industries worth billions. Golden pearls being in the limelight is a very recent phenomenon. While being famous in the 1800s for their natural golden hues collected by the nomadic locals called sea gypsies, pearl production fell for a few decades, before being revived again. Today, there are nine domestic and international pearl culture companies, including a stateowned one, which together invested around one billion Kyat to resume pearl cultivation. The Myanmar Pearl Law has also recently been amended to permit foreign direct investment. Within the country, the golden pearls can be purchased at various retail outlets in Yangon and Mandalay. The retail sector is flourishing, though it is not unusual to find dyed pearls to get better prices. The dyeing process does not indicate poor quality, but does differ from original shades of even cultured pearls.

Myanmar is one of the few countries whose pristine clean waters around the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago are the ideal cultivating place for South Sea pearls. Both white and golden pearls are produced by local water inhabitants, the Pinctada maxima oyster. The gold lipped oysters produce the golden colored pearls while the silver lipped ones produce white and silver pearls. Generally, a clean local environment produces the best quality pearls.

It is therefore imperative to preserve this clean domain, despite the promotion of tourism in the area, while finding other ways to enhance and maintain the golden pearl quality. Pearl cultivation in the Myeik Archipelago has been revived with the help of companies and expertise from Japan and Australia. Pinctada maxima oysters, both male and female are placed in water tanks, and the fertilization process takes place only between January and May. Collector ropes are also placed in the water, to which the larvae get attached. These ropes are then left in an area of the ocean that’s been cordoned off from ships and fishermen. It takes two years for the oysters to grow sufficiently to be seeded. Japanese technicians have now trained Myanmar locals in seeding techniques ensuring similar success rates. The seeding process needs precision and speed, to open the shell to place a nucleus without injuring the living being inside. The oysters are then released back into the waters. It takes four years for the pearls to be ready for harvest. After four years, the golden pearls are cautiously removed by opening the shells again, and another nucleus implanted. In its lifetime, this process can be repeated at least three times for every oyster.

Golden pearls are among the rarest of pearls, and also amongst the largest in size, going up to 12-14 mm in diameter. The shades range from bright golden akin to 24 carat gold, to a soft champagne hue, which is lighter but no less regal. Myanmar is the ideal cultivation ground to reap a rich harvest of these golden beads, which will yield the much needed revenue to aid economic growth and development in the country.

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