Golden Globes

July 2014

By Cynthia Unninayar

The Philippine archipelago is home to the highest biodiversity of marine organisms on the planet. The nation’s ocean habitats are also listed as the most threatened in the world. One company, Jewelmer, is taking great strides to reverse this trend, while cultivating some of the world’s most fascinating South Sea golden pearls. A look inside an environmentalist pearl farm…

Jewelmer’s co-founders, Manuel Cojuangco (left), President, and Jacques Branellec, Managing Director, in front of one of Jewelmer’s helicopters, which are the main forms of transportation to the remote islands where the pearl farms are located. Jacques is also a pilot and often flies employees and guests to the farms.

When I first had the opportunity, seven years ago, to visit Jewelmer’s pearl farms on Palawan in the Philippines, everything was very impressive, from the incredibly complicated process of cultivating the pearls to the dedication of the company’s co-founders and its employees to protect the natural surroundings.

On a return visit last July, I was able to get an update on this amazing company, whose story is one of passion, perseverance, challenges, and golden rewards.

Aerial view of the manta ray-shaped island in Palawan that is home to one of Jewelmer’s largest pearl farms, seen on the left side of the small island. The buoys, which mark the lines supporting the baskets with the oysters, can be seen as little dots in the right foreground and in the middle left of the picture.

The Beginnings

Some 37 years ago, a Frenchman named Jacques Branellec arrived in the Philippines. A pilot by training, he was no stranger to pearls, having pioneered the development of the black pearl culture in Tahiti. “I was looking for a new place for a pearl farm and the Philippines seemed promising,” he says. [Note: The compelling story of Jacques Branellec’s extraordinary and often turbulent journey from the rocky coasts of Brittany to the sandy shores of Palawan can be found in his autobiography, -The Ultimate Orient – The Quest for the Perfect Pearl. The book was reviewed in our Winter 2014 edition of CIJ Trends & Colours, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in human adventure and the cultivation of pearls.]

Shortly after his arrival in the Philippines, Branellec met Manuel Cojuangco, a Filipino businessman and entrepreneur. “I was in charge of a coconut hybridization program on a remote island in Palawan,” reminisces Cojuangco. “I have always loved the sea, wondering what else could be done in this pristine environment, and pearls came to mind.” After their serendipitous meeting, the two men did an inspection dive, followed by a feasibility study, with results so promising that together they created Jewelmer, now one of the largest pearl producers in the world.

Path to the Perfect Pearl

Getting to this point, however, took nearly 20 years. At first, the company purchased wild oysters from the southernmost tip of the archipelago. Unable to keep up with the growing demand for pearls, and worried about depleting the natural populations, the two men decided to try breeding oysters in hatcheries. A team of experienced marine biologists was brought in to work with the gold-lipped Pinctada maxima, a fragile mollusc that produces white to pale gold pearls.

Head marine biologist, Doris, points out the “Pedigree” of each oyster that is individually tracked from birth, as part of ongoing research in selective breeding in order to obtain the highest quality golden pearls possible.

The head biologist, Doris, who has been with Jewelmer more than 25 years, explains, “After much trial and error, we finally succeeded in reproducing the oysters in vitro, but then had to figure out the exact amount and type of food that they required, as well as the critical times to feed. It took us ten years to perfect the method and the recipes.”

Fragile baby oysters require constant care, then are released into their natural habitat at two months old.

Starting with fertilization to the time the baby oyster or spat is released into the natural habitat, it stays in the laboratory for two months. From the initial swimming larval stage, it transforms into the crawling phase at about 19 days with the growth of a foot that can adhere to a solid substrate. At this point, the oyster measures about 300 microns. After 31 days, the shell forms, and after another month, the spat is transferred to the sea environment. To avoid contaminating the vulnerable tiny oysters, the lab maintains very stringent conditions of cleanliness, both for breeding and growing the plankton. The young oysters need constant care, with precise feeding schedules and regular changes of diet before they are released into their natural habitat to continue growing.

“In the beginning, the pearls were white, but we wanted something unique to the Philippines, a darker gold tone,” Doris continues, explaining that another ten years were required to master the complicated process of producing the desired unique golden colour.

The Grafting Process

After two to three years in the ocean environment, the oysters are ready for grafting. For this process, the technician needs a spherical nucleus, carved from a freshwater mussel, and a piece of living mantle, taken from a donor oyster, which contains the pigmentation coding for the pearl’s colour.

The skilled grafter makes a small incision in the gonad, and carefully injects the nucleus and soft mantle tissue. The soft tissue grows around the hard sphere, forming a membrane or pearl sac, which forms aragonite crystals (calcium carbonate) on the surface of the nucleus.

Ten years of research were needed to perfect the recipes for nourishing the baby oysters or spat. These vats contain various types of plankton used to feed the spat. To avoid any contamination, the laboratory maintains stringent conditions of cleanliness

In Pinctada maxima, the crystals are laid down like bricks in a wall, cemented together by a protein glue. For the pearl to be perfectly round, the bricks must be arranged in perfect symmetry with smooth and even surfaces. The uniqueness of Jewelmer’s golden pearls comes from the high density of the alternating layers of the protein glue and the calcium carbonate, which produces a dense thick layer of nacre, giving it a higher orient.

Suspended in baskets in the sea, oysters are regularly cleaned to keep them healthy. Many species of tropical fish and other sea creatures thrive in the clean nutrient-rich water of the farms.

After grafting, the oysters are labelled and numbered before being placed in baskets and returned to the sea. The baskets are rotated regularly to optimize pearl development.

After three months, the oysters are sent through a “soft X-ray machine” to see if the pearl is growing. If the pearl has not taken in some oysters, they are removed, while the others are placed in the water for another two to three years. Each month, they are cleaned to remove mud and organic material.

After two to three years, the technician who made the initial graft removes the pearl. Once they are collected, the pearls will be examined and pre-sorted in the lab.

At extraction time, the same technician who made the graft generally performs the operation. About 40 to 50 percent of oysters can be re-grafted. Once the pearls are collected, they undergo a first sorting in the farm’s laboratory, where each numbered pearl is examined and analyzed. These detailed records serve to improve techniques in order to obtain a more perfect yield.

The pearls are then sent to Jewelmer’s headquarters in Manila for further sorting. Each pearl is examined, classified, and priced based on its size, shape, smoothness, and lustre. The colour and orient of Jewelmer’s pearls are what make them so unique. A glow is refracted from their centre to the surface through the many layers of nacre.

During our stop at one of the newer farms, Branellec examines pearls right after extraction. After analysis at the main lab, they will go to Jewelmer’s headquarters in Manila for final sorting and cataloguing.

“The perfect golden pearl can only be created when there is perfect equilibrium between state-of-the-art scientific knowledge on one hand, and intuitive reverence for natural life on the other,” muses Branellec.

People Power

The ideal sites for raising oysters are in remote pristine areas, which are not necessarily ideal locations for the farms’ employees. “As a result, we not only had to build a functioning organization, but also a viable community in every sense of the term,” says Cojuangco.

“With attractive salaries and job security, we are able to attract talented workers,” adds Branellec. “We have built a team, a family of loyal people who are passionate, who consider this a career, not just a job. We have less than five-percent turnover, and most people have been with us more than twenty years. Now, we are employing the second generation.”

“Our goal has been to create high-quality living conditions, making each island a bit like a resort, with a restaurant, sports and religious activities, and good working conditions,” continues Branellec. Employee loyalty was tested in December 1998 and then again in 2006 when devastating typhoons hit the farms, destroying most of the buildings and lines. All of the employees pitched in, and rebuilt the facility in a bit over a month. In November 2013, typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, again wreaking havoc on some of the pearl farms, but once more the employees pulled together to repair the damage.

Human Hazards

Typhoons are not the only threat to the pearl farms. Man-made dangers are much more hazardous. “A pearl farm needs a healthy sea, but what we are witnessing is an increase in unhealthy activities that are damaging the oceans. You cannot raise pearls and be indifferent to the philosophy of protecting the environment,” affirms Branellec.

Among the greatest dangers is illegal fishing involving cyanide and dynamite. In cyanide fishing, liquid cyanide is dropped or blown under the water. It stuns the fish, which are scooped up in nets. The fish are then sold to restaurants all over Asia, which display them in aquariums for customers to pick out their next meal. One teaspoon of cyanide dropped into the water will kill all marine organisms, including the coral, over an area of 1,000 square meters. Even diluted, its toxicity will persist for some 20 years.

[Note: When in Hong Kong a few years ago, I heard colleagues talking about someone who had died from cyanide after eating fish in a restaurant. Something to keep in mind.]

In the equally reprehensible dynamite fishing, sticks of explosive are thrown into the water, killing the target fish as well as all fauna in the area. The fish that rise to the surface are scooped up, while the others sink. The explosions produce craters of 10 to 20 square meters on the sea floor, and the reef can take decades to recover. “the sound of the explosions also deafens the birds, marine mammals, fish, and other animals, thus causing disorientation, disease, and death. These cruel blasts can even cause whales to ground themselves,” explains Branellec. And, during my visit, it was unfortunately not uncommon to hear explosions in the surrounding areas.

Both cyanide and dynamite fishing result in reduced stocks of fish for local communities that depend on them, thus increasing the spiral of poverty. Even though against the law, it seems that enforcement is very difficult.

Sedimentation is another threat to coral, and indirectly to pearl culture, and results from the unlawful slash-and-burn method used for cultivating rice in the mountains. After land is cleared by burning the hillsides, the soil erodes and ends up in the ocean, where it upsets the natural balance in the coastal ecosystem, leading to its ultimate destruction. is desertification of the land then makes it unusable for other crops.

Sustainable Solutions

While the pearl farms serve as de facto sanctuaries for marine life, the Jewelmer team is also helping to improve the lives of people in the neighbouring communities. “Many live a hand-to-mouth existence, and thus turn to slash-and-burn farming, dynamite, and cyanide fishing,” says Cojuangco. “We are trying to educate them about the long-term consequences of their actions so that their own future can be brighter. Part of this education is providing eco-friendly alternatives for their livelihood.”

As we flew over islands on the way to Palawan, we could see, through the clouds, examples of erosion on the hillsides, resulting in silt entering the ocean. This desertification of the land was caused by illegal slash-and-burn methods of farming. In other areas, we could see forests being burned. Jewelmer’s SPSF provides ecofriendly alternatives and education about the long-term consequences of these actions.

The biggest change since my last visit to Palawan, apart from the creation of more farms and hatcheries, was the Save Palawan Seas Foundation (SPSF) infrastructure and model organic farm, which have been set up to serve the local communities. Among its specific projects are classes about organic farming, seaweed cultivation (the demand from large buyers currently outstrips supply), fish farming in sea pens, sea cucumber farming, and raising bees. “The results have been nothing short of spectacular! We have people lining up for this type of education,” adds Branellec. In addition to feeding themselves, some have started small businesses to sell products to other communities and the tourist resorts in the area. Other SPSF programs include creating art objects and jewellery from natural and no-cost items, such as driftwood, shells, and seeds, which can be sold to tourists visiting the resorts in Palawan.

Jacques Branellec and Tina Morados see to the loading of 500 chicks, in the cardboard cartons, being flown to the SPSF’s organic farm to serve as examples in environmentally-friendly and healthy farming methods.

On the day we helicoptered to the Flower Island resort, where we stayed during our visit to the pearl farms, one of my fellow passengers was Tina Morados, the owner of Pamora, an organic chicken farm. Her entourage included 500 tiny chicks destined for the SPSF facility, to serve as examples for organic chicken farming. At the SPSF, the chicks were set free in a pen for a few weeks until they were large enough to be transferred to a larger enclosure. Classes were o’ered to the local population on how to care for them as a healthier alternative to the inhumane and unhealthy methods of factory farming.

Jewelmer Joaillerie

A logical extension of its pearl business, Jewelmer established the jewellery co-brand, Jewelmer Joaillerie, in 2011. Its collections of fine jewellery are derived from the classic French tradition of high jewellery combined with genuine Filipino sensibilities and talent. From inspiration to perfection, each South Sea pearl is set in 18K gold and embellished with the finest diamonds and precious gemstones, evoking French elegance combined with Asian artistry.

Clearly, Jewelmer represents a new and modern breed of conservationist pearl farmers. When wearing its fine jewellery, women can be assured that their pearls are not only beautiful, but that they are helping protect the environment. All this, thanks to these little golden globes.