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Pearl farming on Phu Quoc Island
Ngoc Tran
Wednesday,  Apr 3, 2013,20:46 (GMT+7)

Pearl farming on Phu Quoc Island

Ngoc Tran

By Ngoc Tran in Phu Quoc

At Quoc An pearl shop, a pearl necklace can cost a whopping VND350 million - Photo: Ngoc Tran

The quiet and calm sea waters off Phu Quoc Island are the ideal place for pearl farming and thanks to the application of modern techniques from Australia and Japan, it has blossomed in a short period of time.

The cultured pearl industry officially began on Phu Quoc Island some 18 years ago when an Australian-Vietnamese joint venture company was established. Some large Vietnamese farms were also set up at that time, including Quoc An which I had a chance to visit.

Truong Hong Nhu, a saleswoman, introduced to me the pearl farming process of which the first step is to nucleate oysters with bits of old oyster shells. Depending on the expected shape of the pearl-to-be, pieces are gradually built up into a round or water-drop shape.

Farmers are required to select oysters aged between six months and two years. After nucleating, oysters are placed in cages, six per cage, which are then put on the sea bed. Cultured pearls are usually harvested after about two years.

During the period, the oysters must be cleaned weekly by removing barnacles from their shells. The water also must be kept clean to make pearls shiny and beautiful. The pearl is a solid substance in a spherical shape, produced by some species, mainly mollusca, including oysters and freshwater mussels.

Pearls from oysters and mussels can be made into rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and other things. Almost all the solid parts of oysters and mussels including their shells are useful. They can be made into buttons and engraved into furniture and fine arts articles while the soft parts offer nutritious food.

In traditional medicine, pearl powder can be mixed with other ingredients to produce tranquillizing or detoxicating effects and facilitate the lacrimal system. Pearl powder is also useful in the treatment of epileptic convulsion, cataract, tinnitus; dizziness and other problems of the bones, joints and skin. It is even used in cosmetics.

Quoc An Pearl Farm has rented four hectares of sea surface to raise pearl oysters. Le Cong Thang, a farm technician, explained the farm operations. First, they connect pairs of rafts with a metal wire of seven-eight meters long, which serves to fix the cages of cultured oysters on the sea bed. Depending on the oysters, technicians will then determine its cage design as well as farming time.

Natural oysters will be farmed in the sea for between three and six months to acquaint the oysters with their new environment. They are then put in a basin equipped with a dissolved-oxygen monitor for 24 hours which lets the oysters discharge a certain amount of mucus and remove them from the basin and wait until they are open: this is the right time to implant cut, round and polished mother-of-pearl beads into their reproductive organs.

The oysters have to produce exudates to survive. Some oysters will discharge the bead by themselves and no pearl will be formed in this case. The remaining ones will create a pearl sac to seal off the irritation, making the nucleus bead grow. The pearl’s color depends on the color of the nacre.

Color Variations

Cultured pearls at Quoc An may be black, white, yellow or pink or be shaded with different colors.

According to Huynh Cong Hau, another technician, it takes farmers from one to two years to raise small oysters and from three to four years to raise large ones. There are also oysters that take 10 or 20 years to become fully-fledged. The longer the farming period, the more beautiful and valuable the pears will be.

Hau said, to extract the pearl, the worker slides a knife between the oyster, taking care not to directly hit the pearl inside and scratch it. After being removed from the oyster, the pearl is cleaned and drilled by special instruments. The drilling place may help to hide blemishes, if any. Pearls are judged by their size, shape, luster and presence of blemishes.

Buying Pearls - Tricks and Traps

Cultured pearls are omni-present in Phu Quoc, from the North to the South of the island, from the airport to the harbor where they are on sale in the form of jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, rings and ear-rings. Sometimes pearls are displayed in the same stall with fish sauce and dried fish. They are both freshwater and saltwater pearls from all over the country, and even pearls from China.

The prices of pearl items on the market are usually much lower than those at the pearl farms. Most sellers insist they only sell Phu Quoc pearls. Many tourists, due to their ignorance or attracted by cheap prices, lap up the fake goods.

In Phu Quoc, no government agency or organization is working to certify and assure the quality and the origin of pearls which may lay the groundwork for building a strong brand for Phu Quoc pearls.

According to Quoc An owner Le Thi My Dung, whose farm was established in 1995 and has 20 workers, there are three tests to see whether a pearl is real. The first is called friction in which two pearls are rubbed against each other to create a little powder. If the pearl is polished again after being applied with the powder, it’s real. The second is called a tooth test where you are supposed to bite the pearl with your teeth. If it feels gritty or sandy, it’s real.

The last, called flame test is difficult to apply. Burn the pearl until it turns red and breaks into powder to ensure it is genuine. Tourists are also advised to turn to a professional in the field for help and buy only from trusted shops.

At Quoc An, there are pearl necklaces priced at a cool VND300-350 million a set. The owner says that all the items are sold with a warranty.

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