Find out how large South Sea Pearls are grown and harvested from our Bali trip on 30 September 2019. A ton of preparations had to be made to get this done. Thank you everyone who planned this for me. Find out more about South Sea Pearls here.
As we travel around for work, we sometimes get the opportunity to experience behind the scenes how certain gemstones especially organic ones are produced.
In this post, I would like to share my personal experience at the South Sea Pearl Farm. These huge round pearls 20mm diameter are harvested from the farm that I will feature in this post. Before I get to it, I would like to thank PT Horiko Abadi and my friend Ikuo-san for making all of these possible - a behind the scenes insider experience at a South Sea Pearl Farm.
It was not too long ago where I first met Ikuo-san at one of the gemstone industry events - a jewellery fair to be exact. We hit it off as friends and hung out with other South Sea Pearl dealers after trading work ended. I have always been predominantly a coloured gemstone dealer - meaning faceted cut coloured gemstones. Pearls or any organic gems used to never be my field of expertise. To put it in perspective, diamonds, coloured gemstones and pearls to each other is like comparing different asset classes in finance - equities, bonds, crypto-currency. All a little similar but yet they function with their own rules.
Hence when I got to know Ikuo-san and friends, I was so thankful that they were willing to teach me all they knew about South Sea Pearls. I later worked for Ikuo-san in other jewellery shows in that year... and that's when the topic about visiting the actual farm came about. I was later introduced to Horiko-san, partner and owner of the South Sea Pearl farm off the coast of Bali.
Starting My Trip - An experience by Jayne
Bali, a beautiful tourist resort. Below is the view at my resort where I had only enough time to spend a day in, at the end of my South Sea Pearl farming trip. If you are interested, this resort is called Ayana Resort and Spa, a five-star romantic place to spend your last few loving memories with your boyfriend/girlfriend at the so-called rumored (please don't quote me) Breakup Bali. Yes, I was ditched soon after. Anyway, back to the story, Bali is home to numerous South Sea Pearl Farms, just that we do not often see them due to where they are located at - far far away from tourism.
Most tourist hot-spots are located in Kuta, Denpasar or south of Bali. Farms on the other hand are unable to operate in these areas as they would then have to compete with tourism activities such as snorkeling or diving for the use of the waters where they grow their oysters. Hence, they are located at the northern tip of Bali, in a district called Menjangan.
Golden South Sea Pearl grown from Indonesia, Australia and Philippines have a distinct difference. Only the golden pearls from Philippines can produce that deeply saturated mustard colour while those in Indonesia and Australia produces the light champagne (if you are lucky) colour or less. Find out more about South Sea Pearls here.
Commuting to Menjangan
We started our journey by making a 3.5hr drive from Denpasar, the main capital, to Menjangan, the northern tip of Bali Island. Average travelling speed; 50km/hr as the highway through the mountains had only 1 lane...
When we finally got to the main office, look at all these ducks + turkey kept as pets. We waited around before heading to the floating platform (in the waters) and to the Oyster Hatchery. In the meantime, I got attacked by the duck for not sharing my breakfast. No, I did not talk to the duck, nor did I imagine eating it or aggravate it in any manner. Ducks don't like me. Had to carry a bruise on my calve for the next few days. Anyway, from here on, I will write my post according to the oyster growth stage.
STAGE 1: Oyster Hatchery
The process of growing oysters that bear South Sea Pearls. In this facility, oysters are artificially born in tanks. They start out really tiny, at a microscopic size when they are a few days old. In the picture below, each brown button that we see is an oyster! All these baby oysters in a single drop of water placed under a microscope.
There is actually a size vs time pictorial chart but I missed out on taking a picture of that.
STAGE 2: Baby Oysters
Gallons full of water containing oysters are them poured into a tank where these baby oysters will spend the next 6 months or more growing in. In this hatchery, there are about 30 of such large tanks with tags documenting which dates these oysters are born. When a torch shines on it, each speck of white ‘dust’ we see in the picture below is a baby oyster growing.
While living in in these tanks, these oysters are fed a home made brew of algae. Two types of algae are being cultivated in a cold room of 15 degrees celsius. They are fed to the oysters based on their growth stage.
STAGE 3: Cleaning Oyster Shells
This sums up all the work done on land. We then took a boat from the shore to the floating platforms where each had its own purpose. This is the kind of boat we took out to the waters. The employees had a pull a rope anchored from shore to the middle of the ocean, and manually drag the boat into the waters. Tough job man.
At this floating platform, employees use a knife to literally hack off barnacles off the shells of the young oysters. At a considerable size, like a 50cent Singapore coin, they are stored in nets and grown till the size of a palm where they are hauled up for cleaning. This protects the oysters as barnacles and other organisms like sucker fishes and crabs that harm the oysters.
STAGE 4: Preparing the Oyster Mantle Tissue
Inserting a square slice of oyster mantle tissue on a round bead will ensure that the pearl does not stick to the oyster shells. From a sacrificial oyster, we cut it open into two and use a pair of scissors to cut out a strip of mantle tissue. We then use a penknife to slice it into small 0.5cm squares. These are doused with pink anti-bacterial liquid to reduce any infections when used in another oyster. This mantle tissue is inserted to ensure that the South Sea Pearl does not stick to the oyster shell.
STAGE 5: Inserting the First Bead Nucleus
Now we're thinking of South Sea Pearls! In order to create a round South Sea Pearl, we will need the oyster mantle tissue squares which we acquired previously and round shell beads. These shell beads determine what shape the South Sea Pearl will grow into. If a odd shape bead is placed inside, the pearl grown will take after it as the oyster will coat it with layers of nacre.
The shell beads as they call it, is literally made of shell. But as common sense tells us, shells do not come in round balls, and they are too thin for it. So therefore these shell beads have to be manufactured and are quite pricey to make. Some South Sea Pearl farmers may choose an alternative cheaper option like wax or lower quality shell beads but these are not good for the South Sea Pearl as very often they result in cracks in the pearl after polishing and uneven surface lustre. The bead is implanted into the oyster after making a small incision.
These oysters will then be placed back into the ocean for 2 years to make a beautiful South Sea Pearl. If they are kept in the waters longer, the South Sea Pearl grown will be much bigger in size. South Sea Pearls produce at this farm ranges from 15mm to 24mm, with the biggest in their records 32mm. We then take another boat ride to the Harvesting Floating Platform.
At the floating platform, oysters are hauled up from their nets and ready to be harvested for their South Sea Pearls. Its a very messy job that takes a few more steps to get our final South Sea Pearls.
STAGE 6: Prying Open with Wooden Stakes
Here are some employees using wooden stakes and a hammer to pry open the oysters bearing South Sea Pearls. Later on, a metal pry will be used when the pearl technician operates on it. Using wooden stakes is a cheap option to use during preparation.
STAGE 7: Surgically Harvesting the Pearl
In here, a pearl technician uses a small knife edge to slice open the pouch of the oyster holding the South Sea Pearl. He then uses a stick with a hoop around the end to push out the pearl, very similar to extracting a blackhead using a pimple popper.
If the oyster is deemed healthy, a new shell bead will be inserted and the oyster will return back to the waters to produce
another South Sea Pearl in 2 years. However as the surgical process of harvesting South Sea Pearls are very damaging to oysters, not many oysters can survive more than 3 rounds of producing South Sea Pearls. In those cases the oysters will just be brought to land for other uses. Here are my oysters that I operated on, I will have to be back in 2 years to check on the South Sea Pearls grown in them.
Other uses include being cleaned off for the mother-of-pearl, which means the shell of the oyster. This is used to make souvenirs such as box holders, cutlery, decorative items that are sold throughout Bali. And yes of course we have Hotate Sashimi, raw oysters, well because these guys are Japanese.
In here we see an old guy using a mallet and a scrub to clean the oyster nets so that they can be reused. We rested by the seaside as this concludes our South Sea Pearl Farming visit.
If you ever stop by Bali, do visit Horiko's shopfront in Denpasar or Menjangan to look at his exquisite range of South Sea Pearls made into beautiful impressive jewellery. If you are in Singapore and would like any South Sea Pearls, we do have ready stock of South Sea Pearls Golden and White colour from size 8mm to 15mm. Sizes beyond 15mm would have to be sourced.
Stay tuned to find out how South Sea Pearls are polished in our next post. And here is a video of me trying to harvest the South Sea Pearls as gently as possible. Find out more about South Sea Pearls here.