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The Miracle of the Golden Pearl

A golden pearl is a miracle from the sea. In its farms in the Philippines, Jewelmer breeds and harvests gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oysters that bestow golden pearls of exceptional quality. Photography courtesy of Jewelmer
A golden pearl is a miracle from the sea. In its farms in the Philippines, Jewelmer breeds and harvests gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oysters that bestow golden pearls of exceptional quality. Photography courtesy of Jewelmer

Decades ago, the pearl divers of luxury jewelry brand Jewelmer brought up a perfect pearl from the pristine waters of the Palawan archipelago in the Philippines. It was round, lustrous, unblemished, and golden—a tiny orb that seemed to radiate sunlight from within. But what really made it stand out was its size: 18.65 millimeters, a rarity for South Sea pearls that typically measure 10 to 12 mm. It was almost mythical.

Jewelmer’s founders, Jacques Branellec and Manuel Cojuangco, put the pearl aside. Their dream was to make it the centerpiece of a strand of gem-quality pearls measuring 16 to 18 mm—the most flawless strand of golden pearls ever produced. All they had to do was wait for enough perfect pearls to surface from the deep.

Easier said than done. Producing a pearl is an exercise in patience, requiring 377 steps and up to five years from breeding to harvest. What’s more, every one of those steps has to be executed precisely by human hands or the entire process could be botched. Even when they get it exactly right, there’s no guarantee of a pearl, let alone a perfect one.

A Jewelmer artist places golden South Sea pearls on a model for the Tropics necklace. The final piece, inspired by forms found in nature, will consist of 14 semi- round golden South Sea pearls, a keishi button, and 27.44 carats of diamonds, set in 18-karat gold. Exquisite craftsmanship and design are hallmarks of the Jewelmer brand.
A Jewelmer artist places golden South Sea pearls on a model for the Tropics necklace. The final piece, inspired by forms found in nature, will consist of 14 semi- round golden South Sea pearls, a keishi button, and 27.44 carats of diamonds, set in 18-karat gold. Exquisite craftsmanship and design are hallmarks of the Jewelmer brand.

 “It takes so long to grow a single pearl, and then you don’t know what you’re going to get,” says Jacques’ son, Jacques Christophe Branellec, who started in the family business as a diver and is now the company’s CEO. “A perfect pearl could take years or decades to find. It’s a really hard business.”

A Jewelmer artist places golden South Sea pearls on a model for the Tropics necklace
Golden South Sea pearl.

Even for Jewelmer, whose principals have been cultivating South Sea pearls since 1979 and now have a vertically integrated business from breeding to retail, the challenges are formidable. In order to produce quality pearls, oysters require clear, unpolluted water with good currents, a depth of between 5 and 15 meters, and temperatures between 27 and 31 degrees Celsius (roughly 80 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit). After many years and lots of trial and error, Jacques and Manuel found the ideal environment in the Palawan, a Filipino province just north of Borneo that is known for its mountainous islands, virgin forests, and incredibly diverse marine ecosystem. The company now raises its gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oysters, specially bred through decades of research and biotechnology, across 99,000 acres of lagoon in the Palawan, a marine concession that’s roughly seven times the size of Manhattan.

In nature, only about one oyster in 10,000 may produce a pearl. The rare event happens when a hard particle enters the oyster. The oyster coats the foreign body with nacre (the iridescent substance inside the shell, also known as mother-of-pearl) as a defense mechanism; eventually, enough nacre is secreted to form the round, or roundish, gem. 

Farmers transport oyster baskets at one of Jewelmer’s eight farms in the Palawan region of the Philippines. The pioneer in South Sea pearl cultivation, Jewelmer controls the process from breeding to retail. Photo by Marc Josse
Farmers transport oyster baskets at one of Jewelmer’s eight farms in the Palawan region of the Philippines. The pioneer in South Sea pearl cultivation, Jewelmer controls the process from breeding to retail.
Photo by Marc Josse

In pearl farms, scientists help things along—but cultivation is nonetheless lengthy and arduous. The first of 377 steps begin in the hatchery, where a team of marine biologists oversees the reproduction process and nourishes the larvae, which will eventually attach to artificial collectors. Larvae are fed a proprietary cultured phytoplankton as they grow into spats (young oysters). Spats are closely watched in a nursery until they’re big enough to be placed in baskets and moved to the lagoon to grow for another two years. During this time, the farm team cares for the oysters, including cleaning their shells of excess parasites such as bryozoa. It’s touching to see the tenderness with which the workers approach their tasks. Some of the women even sing to the spats to encourage them to grow.

After two years, the oyster can undergo a surgical procedure called grafting, which is something like IVF for bivalves and involves cutting mantle tissue from a donor oyster. The grafter then seeds the oyster with a nucleus—in Jewelmer’s case, a piece of shell from a mussel that lives in the Mississippi River—that is combined with the donated mantle tissue. For a month, the implanted oyster is coddled as though it’s a pregnant woman: it’s carefully monitored and gently turned, then later x-rayed to make sure it’s holding the pearl. Lately, however, that is not a sure bet. 

“The retention rate has been dropping in the pearl industry in general,” says Marion Branellec De Guzman, Jacques Christophe’s sister and Jewelmer’s chief marketing officer. “The perfect pearl is increasingly rare. This is why prices for high-quality pearls are increasing.” 

Oysters grow in suspended baskets inside the pristine waters of the Palawan
Oysters grow in suspended baskets inside the pristine waters of the Palawan.

“Last year, prices in the industry went up 30 percent in some categories, and others even doubled,” explains Jacques Christophe.

Several factors are to blame for this. First, water levels are rising. At one of Jewelmer’s farms, water markers show several new tidal highs over the years. Because of increased water levels, docks and cement structures have had to be rebuilt. According to Marion, melting ice caps means more freshwater, which leads to decreased salinity, which is not good news for oysters.

Infrastructure and water quality are also impacted by natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis (the Philippines are in the Pacific Ring of Fire), as well as man-made horrors like plastic pollution and illegal fishing with cyanide and dynamite. To combat the latter, Jewelmers founders established the Save Palawan Seas Foundation to educate local communities about alternative livelihoods like organic chicken and vegetable farming, seaweed farming, and sustainable fishing. The foundation also sponsors medical missions and early childhood education, and it provides food and construction assistance every time a calamity strikes.  

Oysters grow in suspended baskets inside the pristine waters of the Palawan 1
Oysters grow in suspended baskets inside the pristine waters of the Palawan.

Sustainability is key to the Jewelmer business model. “Oysters have a net positive impact,” says Marion. “Cultivating oysters increases marine biodensity and biodiversity, and has a ripple effect on the environment. In the process of [cultivating] one gem-quality pearl, 24 million gallons of seawater are filtered by the oystery. That’s equal to 36 Olympic-size pools.”

The philosophy trickles down to every level. When an oyster is no longer able to produce, for example, its scallop-like meat is harvested. The mother-of-pearl is used for everything from furniture to crafts to beauty products. Nothing goes to waste.

Despite all these efforts, a serious threat looms: warming waters. Since 2010, the farm staff have recorded higher water temperatures for sustained periods of time, which can be devastating to an organism whose survival depends on precise water conditions. “We’ve seen the real effects of climate change [in the] rising temperature of the seas,” says Jacques Christophe. “Our oysters are comfortable within a very tight temperature band. We’re constantly having to change their depth to compensate. The challenge is the food is closer to the surface; deeper, there is less food and less growth.”

A classic Jewelmer strand is coveted among pearl enthusiasts and collectors. The pearls are direct from oyster to strand, without any alteration. “That’s what makes the piece so rare,” says Jewelmer CEO Jacques Christophe Branellec.
A classic Jewelmer strand is coveted among pearl enthusiasts and collectors. The pearls are direct from oyster to strand, without any alteration. “That’s what makes the piece so rare,” says Jewelmer CEO Jacques Christophe Branellec.

Over the last 15 years, Jewelmer’s South Sea pearl production has dropped by 30 to 40 percent, a rate that’s consistent across the entire pearl industry. “If we needed 100 pairs of 11-mm studs, I wouldn’t even be able to fulfill that order in the quality we use,” says Jacques Christophe of Jewelmer’s retail operation, which has boutiques and retail partners across five continents. “We’re limited by what nature is able to give us.”

A classic Jewelmer strand is coveted among pearl enthusiasts and collectors. The pearls are direct from oyster to strand, without any alteration. “That’s what makes the piece so rare,” says Jewelmer CEO Jacques Christophe Branellec.
The pearls are direct from oyster to strand, without any alteration.

The pearl, he says, is a natural indicator of the health of the environment. Fewer pearls means the oysters’ habitat is ailing. “Climate change keeps me up at night,” he adds. “No matter what we do, we’re not in control. I like to say we’re in a joint venture with nature, but we only have 49 percent.”

As if these challenges weren’t enough, Jewelmer is further restricted by its own quality standards. Only a gem-quality pearl can be a Jewelmer pearl, which means only 2 percent of what they harvest ends up in Jewelmer boutiques, including the one on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, the brand’s only stand-alone brick-and-mortar location in the United States. It’s also one of the boutiques featuring one-of-a-kind pieces, which are handcrafted by Jewelmer artisans according to the intricate techniques of Place Vendôme, the French epicenter of high jewelry.

To make the cut for such pieces, a pearl has to have exceptional skin purity and luster. To put it into perspective, Jewelmer harvests an average of 10,000 pearls for a 10- to 12-mm strand comprising 33 pearls. 

The pristine waters of the Palawan.
The pristine waters of the Palawan.

For an exceptional strand like the one the partners started with a single pearl, hundreds of thousands of pearls crossed the bench before 35 perfect, 16- to 18-mm gems were selected. It took 37 years. When the Palawan Strand was presented to the farm staff, they cried. For some of them, it had taken an entire life’s work to coax those golden miracles from the sea. The strand was eventually sold for an undisclosed sum to a collector who added a donation to bring fresh water to the communities around the farms. 

“The collector said the reason they wanted to acquire the strand was to support Jewelmer [and its foundation],” says Jacques Christophe. “We were able to fund a huge water project.”

The pearl and the people who produce it are inseparable, he says. The farms employ 1,200 people, all of whom are the breadwinners for their families, sustaining an average of eight people each. More than 60 are second-generation workers whose parents worked at the farms to pay for their children’s education. For them, pearl farming is more than a livelihood that has sustained generations. “It’s a kind of physical manifestation of universal energy,” says Jacques Christophe. “The pearl is a gift from nature that provides for these communities and we’re a channel for that. It’s a cycle. That whole story is within each pearl.” 

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