Editor's Pick

Treasure Island

The South Sea pearl farms of the Philippines are shrouded in mystery and romance. Kristine Fonacier travels to Palawan to hear the incredible story of the pearl farms of Jewelmer.

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In the summer, in the dead of the night, in a house on an island so far south and so tenuously tethered to our archipelago that it feels like it may drift away any time, a marine biologist is awake.
 
Somebody has to be up to keep watch, and so the satellite TV is on, with its volume kept down to a murmur so as not to wake everyone else in the house.
 
The scientists take shifts at this time of the year so that they can feed the babies growing in the tanks a painfully exact ration of nutrients every four hours—a formula that took the team a decade to perfect. In a few hours, before the crack of dawn, the rest of the island begins to stir, and in the early morning, they will all go to their stations: the marine biologists, the divers, the boat captains, the technicians, all working in a well-rehearsed chain of events. The world, as far as this island is concerned, revolves around these babies: The aim is to protect them from harm, make them as strong and healthy and perfect as they can possibly be, and then, when they come of age, to pluck them from their cages and give them over to surgery, to insert implants into their delicate mantles, hoping that they will, in a few years, produce treasure.

Operations start very early each morning, particularly for divers who check the lines.

The island exists worlds away from, say, the auction house of Bonham and Butterfields in Los Angeles, where the Palawan Princess, the second-largest pearl ever found, was put up for auction in 2006, expecting to fetch between $30,000 to $40,000. It’s worlds away from Japan, where the bulk of the pearls harvested here go to the trade. It’s worlds away even from the office in Manila, where the jewelers put together the pearls they harvest on the island into necklaces that have been sold for $250,000 and up.
 
On this island, and on seven more like it, the goal is to coax the perfect pearl from within the Pinctada maxima, the largest of the pearl oysters, and capable of producing the rarest of the South Sea pearls. The pursuit of the perfect pearl—perfectly symmetrical, perfectly round, flawless, and with a rich golden color—is shared so single-mindedly by the people here that they almost seem to possess a hive mind. The pearl farming operations here have become so vast and so complex that it seems unlikely that this all came from the vision of one man. But it did.
But first, consider the pearl. As with all gemstones, its value comes from its rarity—not of pearls themselves, but of perfection. Pearls are the only gems produced by living creatures, and are (theoretically) infinitely renewable.
 
Who first stumbled on a pearl while, well, eating the oysters? It was worthless then, nothing more than a hard stone to interrupt the briny flesh. Who first noticed the pearl’s iridescence, its warm light, its soft luster, and decided that its beauty was valuable?
 
All pearls used to be wild, to be chanced upon inside their shells. At most, they were hunted by divers, though their finding was still more about luck than skill. Not being able to explain how pearls were made, and so legends were whispered about them. 

LEFT TO RIGHT: Shells from a South Sea pearl oyster and Golden South Sea pearls

The ancient Chinese said that pearls came from the brains of dragons. Old Hindu texts say that the god Krishna discovered them. Others believed that pearls were dewdrops swallowed by oysters; others thought that they were the oysters’ eggs. The ancient Greeks valued them for their beauty, and believed that they brought love, luck, protection from harm. The Incas and the Aztecs of South America believed them to have magical properties. Pearls are mentioned seven times in the Qu’ran, and pearls are among the promised treasures of Paradise. In the Bible, the very Kingdom of God is likened to a “pearl of great price.”
 
Everything began to change when science caught up. Pearls were discovered to be the product of a natural protective process within the oyster in the presence of an irritant. It was only a matter of time before someone would get the idea to induce the process—and here the claims diverge. The Mikimoto company of Japan, whose name is synonymous with cultured Akoya pearls, of course claims that their eponymous founder, Mikimito Kokichi, invented the process, becoming the first person in the world to culture a semi-spherical pearl 122 years ago. Others will insist that the honor belongs to William Saville-Kent, once the Commissioner of Fisheries for Queensland. He may have given the patents over to Tokichi Nishikawa, who patented the process and who also married into Mikimoto’s family.

Whether it was the entrepreneurial-minded son of a noodle shop owner or a tragic Englishman, it barely matters now. Mikimoto revolutionized the process and made it commercial. What cultured pearls did was change the game in its entirety: Where pearls were once valued because they were so hard to find, culturing meant that the new quest was for sheer perfection. Now that pearls were no longer solely a product of luck, the quest was now to work with nature to make the perfect pearl, not to find it. 

This isn’t the story of Mikimoto, nor of Saville-kent. The man responsible for the pearl farms of Palawan is a Frenchman, an explorer and adventurer in the old, romantic sense of the word.
 
Jacques Branellec was born in the village of Saint-Pol-de-Leon, in the craggy, temperamental land of Brittany, and raised as a man of action. His autobiography, The Ultimate Orient, begins with the story of a storm and a shipwreck, on Branellec’s 18th birthday. “Despite the near-death encounter, my love for the sea continued,” he ends the first chapter.
 
Branellec’s early years were certainly full, and it is only in the interest of this particular story that we’ll fast-forward through the salient parts. (Those who are interested in reading the full, swashbuckling story in Branellec’s own words should really pick up a copy of his book, available in French and in English.) It’s clear from the early chapters that he has saltwater in his veins, having grown up so near the sea, and later joining the French Navy as a draftee. He eventually earned a commercial pilot’s license, which, as luck would have it, would bring him to Tahiti: In typical fashion, Branellec blindly accepted an overnight offer from Air Tahiti to move to the French Polynesian islands.
 
Here, the book’s pace slows down a little, as if to linger in the memories. Branellec is a little hazy when it comes to timelines; the best guess puts him in Polynesia in the early 1970s. There was a lot going on as Branellec settled into life in Tahiti—though “settling” is a relative term that means, for the lifelong adventurer, only that he had a doorless hut to call home for a while, even as he relentlessly continued to live and learn. The pearl began to be part of his life.
 
Black pearls—for which Tahiti is now known the world over—weren’t the coveted jewels they now are, nor was the practice of culturing pearls known widely outside Japan, where technicians guarded the process as a matter of national honor.
 
Branellec, through many trips to Japan and with the help of Japanese technicians that he recruited to work in Tahiti, learned how to culture pearls. It was hard going for the self-described “pearl pioneer”:
 

Living conditions were nonetheless hard for the men because of the tropical climate and the prolonged isolation… Maintaining a pearl farm under these conditions was indeed quite an achievement. The smallest incident could reduce years of hard work to nothing. A raft’s strap might break, causing the oysters to slip to the bottom where they would perish in the muddy coral sand. If a boat’s motor broke down, there was no calling for help. It had to be hurriedly repaired to avoid floating like a cork on the waves or being smashed into the reefs.

Electricity came only much later. And our team of Robinson Crusoes did not even have the luxury of relaxing in the nearby waters where sharks were always on the prowl. The slightest injury could end in tragedy if we didn’t have the right kind of medicines available. We had to foresee every eventuality, in double or triple, since anything could happen. Bearing up and living under such conditions, the men—my men—were truly exceptional.

Branellec’s Polynesian adventure was pivotal in his life, though it ended, he says, in “heartbreak,” after his business partner forced him out of the company, taking nearly all the money with him. (Branellec writes that the company he founded, now named Tahiti Perle, continues to be “the largest pearl enterprise in Polynesia, with a market share of seventy percent.”)
 
The book spends several chapters on describing the odyssey that followed that brought Branellec and his small family all over the world on their boat, the Marutea Sud. Dismissing several locations, including Haiti and Papua New Guinea, as unsuitable for pearls, Branellec took off for the Philippines in the late 1970s at the behest of potential investors.
 
Balesin was the initial site proposed, though Branellec was disappointed to see that it “would not be the pearl El Dorado I had hoped for.” His investors eventually backed out graciously, and instead pointed Branellec to another potential partner—Manuel Cojuangco.
 
Finding a location for pearl farms is notoriously difficult. One must find a place where large tracts of water can remain undisturbed, but are continuously replenished; the site must not be too far out that the currents are unmanageable; the waters must be rich and nutritious, and most of all, clean of pollutants. And while Tahitian pearls are legendary the world over, so are Philippine pearls; Palawan pearls in particular.
Golden South Sea Pearls and a Jewelmer pearl farmer
The largest known pearl comes from Brooke’s Point, in Southern Palawan, for example. The incredible 6.35kg pearl, measuring about 24 cm in diameter and about 9.45in in length, is known variously as the Pearl of Allah or the Pearl of Lao Tzu. Its real origins are shrouded in mystery, no thanks to its last recorded owner, an American named Wilburn Cobb, who liked to tell fantastic tales about how he came to possess the pearl while he was in the Philippines in the late 1930s. (Perhaps he wanted to create a story to boost the pearl’s market value. Though incredibly large, the irregularly shaped, non-nacreous pearl from a giant clam isn’t a thing of great beauty. Appraisals of the pearl’s value range wildly from $35 million to $93 million.) The second-largest pearl on record is a 2.27kg wonder called the Palawan Princess, precisely because of its origins.
 
As luck would have it, Cojuangco had the perfect site for a pearl farm. They decided to call the new enterprise Jewelmer—the gem of the sea.
We’ve fallen off the face of the earth, as far as everyone’s concerned. Mobile phone signal doesn’t extend to this part of the archipelago, though that scarcely seems to matter on the third day or so. When I inquire about making an expedition to the village, where I might find a sari-sari store for basic supplies, everyone just chuckles and looks away.
 
In the search for undisturbed waters, Branellec’s first farm had to be situated on the borders of the believable. Here, the heavy, quiet air of the summer night is broken by the threatening grunts of feral cows freely roaming the grounds, monkeys lord it over the gardens, and one has to step lively to avoid the coconut crabs who have taken over one beach.
 
Around forty years ago, the pearl farm shared the island with a coconut plantation. It was a behemoth operation—the pearl farm occupies only one side of the island, and the coconut plantation most of the interior. There is a ghost town where the workers used to live: hundreds of houses and dormitories, now mostly abandoned, around the only empty basketball court in the entire country. Surprisingly, the school is in full repair and is operational, drawing children from far away as the mainland. Other than that, though, the place feels post-apocalyptic; a testament to the collapse of the company following the tidal shifts in the politics of the country.
 
The forest always feels like it’s encroaching on the settlement, as here is where Palawan’s old reputation as the Philippines’ last frontier is still earned. There’s a marsh in the middle of the island where schools of large bangus literally jump into fishing boats (getting knocked in the head is a very real danger), and where crocodiles haunt the mangroves near the staffhouses. They recently lost a beloved guard dog to a rogue croc that had ventured near the farm, in fact.
 
The old wooden building where the officers sleep boasts of breathtaking views of the white sand and the painfully clear blue-green sea. There’s a smaller village area made of a cluster of huts and dormitory buildings where workers live. In the afternoons, after work is called off for the day, life centers around the basketball court, where friendly, if intensely competitive, games are held to train their A-team against the teams from the other farms.
 
Over to the far end of the island, a hundred meters or so away from the officers’ hall, is an empty house where Branellec lived with his family when they were on the island.
 
In the morning, we meet Pastor, which is the shorthand name for Abelardo Alfaro, who is the strange product of this strange place. If his recollection is still accurate, Pastor came over from Tarlac in the 1960s to work security for the plantation, though over the decades his role has evolved, and he is now spiritual guide, barangay kagawad, and crocodile wrangler.
Mr. Hamaguchi, a Japanese pearl technician at Farm 4
Pastor still knows how to navigate the massive plantation by counting rows and pathways. “More accurate than GPS!” he laughs, and keeps up a constant chatter as he takes us through the woods to get the lay of the land. The parched earth hadn’t seen rain in months, and he was distressed to see some of the coconuts dying in the heat. In the plains, a group of wild carabao forms a defensive circle around their young as we approach, then stampede away. The bones of a dead carabao are sunk into the dirt.
 
Part of Pastor’s duties include trapping troublesome crocodiles, and maintaining a reptilium where he takes care of a number of crocs. There is a glass python enclosure, too, but the 12-footer is no longer there. “Nakawala,” Pastor says. “Kasya pala sa butas na ganito lang kaliit,” he adds, his fingers forming a circle just an inch or so in diameter.
 
Pastor lives in the ghost town, in one of the few houses still occupied. His brother acts as captain of the barangay, and their clan likes to keep things tidy. “Gusto naming maayos at malinis dito,” says Pastor as we walk through the abandoned town. “Para hindi nakakalungkot,” he adds, and sighs.
 
When Branellec first arrived on the island, he could hardly believe his eyes. “I had the strange feeling of having found the Promised Land,” he would write. Today, the island is still breathtakingly, incredibly beautiful, despite its present-day abandonment, and it retains a large part of its Edenic air. The fortunes of the plantation are but a side note to the pearl farm, of course, serving only to highlight the contrast between it and the thriving business on the shores of the island.
Isolation is a running theme here, as it is on every one of Jewelmer’s other farms in varying degrees. This also means that there has developed a distinct culture in each island, as if their existence there has been one big social experiment. It certainly helps it along that the staff tend to remain loyal to the company, staying for years and years. A look through the personnel list posted on the office board will show plenty of common surnames—people often recruit family members, and some are second-generation hires. A good number, like Branellec himself, found spouses among their co-workers.
 
Perhaps it helps to be with someone who understands the life of a pearl farmer. Unless you have family working within the company, you’re required to spend months alone and far away from home, with a few weeks’ vacation every year. Once you’re at work, the oysters take over your entire life.
 
The process itself isn’t a secret, and it’s virtually remained unchanged over the years, with a few tweaks here and there: the mature Pinctada maxima are taken from their beds and cleaned, and then given over to technicians who implant them with a nucleus, around which the pearl should grow. A piece of mantle from a donor oyster is grafted on to the pearl oyster, which is then returned to the sea. They’re taken again a few months later to check if the implant has taken, and if a pearl is on its way.
 
Beyond that, it’s luck and love that makes the difference. Divers go out into the lines every day to make sure the oyster cages are all right—that they haven’t been shaken loose from their moorings, for example, or eaten by eagle rays, or stolen by poachers. They can tell when an oyster has rejected the nucleus.
 
“Babies,” you will hear workers refer to the oysters again and again. If it doesn’t seem creepy at all to them, it’s because everyone has completely bought in to this mindset. When divers surface to report a damaged cage, they do so with a dejected air, as if reporting the illness of a child. “HG 208T,” they might report, rattling off the tag numbers as if they were names. When a storm hits, or if there is a naturally occurring mass death among the oysters, the mood in the farms turns black; they genuinely mourn. It’s very nearly anticlimactic when the harvest comes, because everyone is so focused on making sure that the oysters have a good life. “I believe that if the shells are taken care [of] by someone with a good hand and a happy heart, they will look better and grow faster,” says a marine biologist in an old company reel, echoing a line that is still repeated by her present-day counterparts.
 
It takes up to five years until the pearls are harvested, and everyone gets to see the fruit of their labors, when the technicians examine the oysters and take out what may be a near-worthless blob, or a perfectly formed pearl. The technicians—there are still a few Japanese technicians, though there are as many Filipinos now working alongside them—work with delicate hands at the beginning and at the end of the culture process, but even they can’t take full credit for how a pearl turns out. The company keeps meticulous records, of course, but that has only revealed how random the results can be. A mediocre technician can be responsible for an excellent harvest, and an excellent technician can have mediocre results, a farm manager tells us, shrugging. Nature is still responsible for most of the job, everyone is fond of saying; they only help Her out.
 
There is one major development that truly did turn things around for Jewelmer, however: After over a decade of intensive laboratory experiments and rigorous fieldwork, the marine biologists were able to successfully breed Pinctada maxima. This may not sound like much, but the meticulous experimentation involved wading through tens of thousands of possible iterations of the process until the team finally hit on the exact combination of factors. It was a great breakthrough for everyone, and for Branellec personally, as the depletion of pearl oysters in the wild has always been a concern. This was finally a solution to that problem.
On Farm 1, the houses remain ready for the company's bosses.
We finally meet Jacques on Flower Island to where he has sailed from Subic. Flower Island is over on the other side of the southern Palawan peninsula, off Taytay and near the plush resorts of El Nido.
 
Flower Island once belonged to a Frenchman and his Filipino wife, who named the island in honor of their brood of daughters. Now, however, it is a beach-paradise resort that could potentially serve as a blueprint for a symbiotic relationship between pearls and travelers.
 
It’s not easy to get to, the island being five or six hours away from Puerto Princesa and from El Nido. It requires a commitment to getting-away-from-it-all.
 
The resort offers the standard vacation packages, of course: island-hopping, scuba diving, snorkeling, beach picnics. But beyond that, and whether it was designed to or not, Flower Island has become a great way to showcase the bigger picture at work here.
 
Visitors (among them, significantly, trade partners and VIP clients) are offered a guided tour to the nearby pearl farm and to Sitio Calabugtong, a few more minutes away, where the offices of the Save Palawan Seas Foundation are found.
 
Pearl farming, Branellec will never tire of saying, is wholly dependent on the environment. With his farms necessarily out in open water, there is no protection from polluted seas, or from climate change. As a pearl farmer—and, personally, as an explorer and adventurer—he has a stake in protecting the environment.
 
The success of Jewelmer and its growth into a major corporation has only meant that the company can afford to invest in the intangibles, and in the far-off future.
 
The Save Palawan Seas Foundation, for example, provides livelihood training for the community, presenting people with access to education and training (in organic farming practices, for example, or handicraft making) and materials. This isn’t charity, it’s an investment in the future: If people can afford to feed themselves, and if they know better, they won’t turn to cyanide fishing. They won’t have to raze the forests to clear them for farmland.
 
“On the way here, I saw smoke from the kaingin fires everywhere, on every island,” is one of the first things Branellec says upon meeting us. “But when you talk to people about it, they always say, ‘But kawawa naman the people,’ because it’s part of their traditions.” Branellec says in his Filipino-flecked, French-accented 114 English. He shakes his head: “‘Kawawa naman the people!’ Wait till they have no more land and no more food!”
 
Now in his 70s, Branellec is still the adventurer with a puckish sense of humor—behind his back, his staff trade stories of how “Sir JB” pulls pranks remorselessly, how “kulit!” he is. (“And his favorite song is ‘Aringkingking.’ No matter who you are, employee or ambassador, he will make you dance to ‘Aringkingking.’”). He shows signs of having softened a little over the years—there’s a newfound devotion to yoga, for one thing, and a new fondness for the flowing linen tunic shirts that marks him out as an island man.
 
He still makes the rounds of the farms, though at a less frantic pace now, and often on his yacht instead of the corporate helicopter. Two of his children have followed him into the company, and have taken key positions in Jewelmer: Gaëlle is now creative director, managing Jewelmer’s fine-jewelry line; and his son Jacques-Christophe, known as JC, is deputy CEO. The younger Jacques seems adamant about following in his father’s footsteps, not only taking up the management reins in the company, but also, like his father, becoming a pilot. He’s also inherited his father’s belief in the mystic and symbolic powers of the pearl—he wears one of their gold pearls around his neck as a talisman, and speaks persuasively about the gem’s energy.
 
The new generation of Branellecs spent a significant part of their childhood growing up with—and on—the company’s pearl farms, though now they have to deal with an entirely new industry. An entirely new world, even. On the one hand, the success of the farms’ oyster breeding program has meant that they no longer have to worry about depleting stock in the wild, and the golden South Sea pearl is becoming a valuable signature product for the Philippines. But even on the farms, the rising sea levels through the years are marked out on poles.

1 ) Doris Domingo, head marine biologist, was part of the team that first successfully bred Pinctada maxima.

2 ) A farmer tending chickens for a livelihood program by Save Palawan Seas Foundation.

Globalization also comes with certain threats. The markets are flooded with pearls that every other merchant will claim to have come from Sulu or Palawan. On the road from Puerto Princesa to Taytay, on the way to Flower Island, vendors hawk earrings and pendants with all kinds of pearls, from Palawan! they claim, found in the wild by Badjao divers. But go to a pearl convention in Hong Kong, and you’ll see that the global pearl trade is now a juggernaut, a faceless giant with its feet in China and its fingers everywhere in the world, including market stalls in Manila and in tiny stores in Palawan.
 
This is also the world where a typhoon could wipe out a farm in a part of the country that hasn’t even seen a storm in living memory, as Typhoon Yolanda did to the farms in Busuanga a couple of years ago.
 
To their credit, the next-generation pearl farmers are confidently taking the helm through these uncharted waters. Gaëlle’s push to further refine Jewelmer Joaillerie line has given Jewelmer not just a strong new revenue stream, but also a fresh public face. JC, for his part, is also pushing the Jewelmer brand both here and abroad. He beams as he takes out his phone to show a photo of the distinctive Jewelmer script lit up in the same frame as international luxury brands.
 
Who knows what Jacques Branellec must be thinking when he sails to Flower Island this time around? He’s passed most of his pearl farms on the way here, and even if he doesn’t stop, there’s always somebody to give the ship and its captain a friendly wave. From the first uncertain harvest, the company has become the world’s largest source for golden South Sea pearls. It’s not a business for the faint of heart, clearly: This is a business for adventurers, for explorers, for those who understand that nature always wins.
 
 

Originally published in Issue 08.