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Important Note: The author: Vincent Pardieu is an employee of GIA (Gemological Institute of America) Laboratory Bangkok since Dec 2008. Any views expressed on this website - and in particular any views expressed by Vincent Pardieu - are the authors' opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GIA or GIA Laboratory Bangkok . GIA takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any content on this website nor is GIA liable for any mistakes or omissions you may encounter. GIA is in particular not screening, editing or monitoring the content on this website and has no possibility to remove, screen or edit any content.

 


About FieldGemology. org

This website is home for "Shameless Travel Addicted Gemologist" Vincent Pardieu (B.Sc., GGA, G.G.). Vincent is "Supervisor, Field Gemology" at GIA Laboratory Bangkok. He is a gemologist specialized on "origin determination of gemstones".
This is also home for Vincent's regular traveling companions: David Bright, Jean Baptiste Senoble, Richard W. Hughes, Guillaume Soubiraa, Walter Balmer, Michael Rogers, Kham Vannaxay and many others like recently: Philippe Ressigeac, Oliver Segura , Flavie Isatelle and Lou Pierre Bryl.

We are gemologists (gemmologists) sharing a passion for gemstones, gemolology (gemmology), gem people and traveling.

You will find in this website gemological expedition reports and some studies of gemological interest.

Visiting many gem mining areas we saw that people in remote mining and trading areas have difficulties to access to gemological publications. As today the Internet can be accessed in most of these gem mining areas and trading centers, the author started to build this website to give gem people living there the opportunity to see the result of the gemological expeditions they were associated in. It is a way to thanks them for their time and collaboration and to help them to get access to more gemological information.

At the same time the author hope that these expedition reports will please the people from consuming countries interested in gemstones and fascinated by their mysterious origins. Our purpose here is to help people facing difficulties to get quality first hand information about gems and their origins to get the information they need through this website and its links.

With our field expeditions to gemstone mines and gem markets around the world, we intend also here to share our passion for photography, gems and our fascination for the work of the "Gem People" bringing gemstones from the ground to magnificent jewelry.

From the gems external beauty to the intimate beauty of gemstone inclusions, from gem lore to the mines, the people and the landscapes gems origin from, we expect to share with you our passion for gemstone beauty.

We also invite you to join us on some gemological forums we are active in as they are convenient tools to get rapid answers to your questions as they are regularly visited by many other passionate gemologists, jewelers, hobbyists and professionals willing to learn more and share their knowledge about gemstones.

 


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Popular Articles

"Tsavorite, an Untamed Gem" with R.W.Hughes, first published in ICA's InColor (Winter 2008)
"Working the blue seam" The Tanzanite mines of Merelani with R.W.Hughes first published on
www.ruby-sapphire.com
"Spinel, the resurection of a Classic" with R.W. Hughes, first published in ICA's InColor (Summer 2008)

Gemological studies

(Apr. 2009) "Sapphires reportedly from Batakundi / Basil area" a preliminary study about unusual sapphires we saw at GIA Laboratory Bangkok
(Mar. 2009) "Rubies from Niassa province, Mozambique" a preliminary study about rubies we saw at GIA Laboratory Bangkok
"Lead glass filled rubies" :
First published on AIGS Lab Website (Feb 2005)


Expedition Reports

Autumn. 2009: GIA Field Expedition FE09: Rubies from Mozambique. (pdf file)


May. 2009: GIA Field Expedition FE08: Melos and their pearls in Vietnam. (pdf file)


Dec. 2008 and Feb-Mar. 2009: GIA Field Expeditions FE01 and FE04: Rubies and sapphires from Pailin, Cambodia. (pdf file)


Aug. 2008: Sapphires and Tsavorite from the south of Madagascar with the AFG (Association francaise de Gemmologie) : Available soon...


Apr. 2008: Expedition to the new Winza ruby deposit in central Tanzania with Jean Baptiste Senoble and the support of the Gubelin Gem Lab



October 2007: Gemological expedition to East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) with Richard W. Hughes, Mike Rogers, Guillaume Soubiraa, Warne and Monty Chitty and Philippe Bruno:


Summer 2006: Expeditions to Central Asia gem wealth with Guillaume Soubiraa and the support of the AIGS, the ICA and the Gubelin Gem Lab:


Oct. 2005: Colombia by J.B. Senoble


Sep. 2005: Madagascar with Richard W. Hughes and Dana Schorr (Will be available one of these days...)


Summer 2005: Gemological expeditions to South East Asia (Vietnam) South Asia (Sri Lanka) and East Africa (Kenya, Madagascar and Tanzania) with J.B. Senoble and Tanguy Lagache with the support of the AIGS, the ICA and the Gubelin Gem Lab:



- Feb. 2005: A visit to Thailand, Cambodia with the AFG (Association Francaise de Gemmologie) (under construction)

- 2002-2007: Expeditions to Pailin (Cambodia), Chanthaburi Kanchanaburi (Thailand) Houay Xai (Laos) Mogok, Namya (Burma) (under construction)

- 2001: Expeditions to Namya, Hpakant and then Mogok with Ted and Angelo Themelis and Hemi Englisher (under construction)

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South Sea Cultured Pearls
From Mergui,
Burma (Myanmar)
December 2007


Photos and texts by
Vincent Pardieu (GIA Laboratory Bangkok,
but working at that time at the Gubelin Gem Lab, Lucerne, Switzerland)

Special thanks to my traveling companions:
Kham Vannaxay (Sofragem, Bangkok, Thailand)
Christian Dunaigre (Gubelin Gem Lab, Lucerne, Switzerland)

This expedition, even if it was privately conducted during their holidays and financed by the authors, was supported by the Gubelin Gem Lab located in Lucerne, Switzerland, where two members of the Mergui expedition: Christian Dunaigre and myself were working as gemologists at the time of the expedition.

Abstract: This web page presents the field trip Vincent Pardieu and Christian Dunaigre, gemologists at the Gubelin Gem Lab, Lucerne Switzerland, had with Kham Vannaxay (Sofragem, Bangkok, Thailand) to the Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd south sea pearl farming operation in the Mergui archipelago from Dec 08 to Dec 13, 2007. A report about this visit was published in Jewelry News Asia March 2008 issue.

1) Introduction: A rapid presentation of the Mergui archipelago, its importance for the cultured pearl industry and a presentation of some key people I want to give some very special thanks to have helped us to visit Mergui.

2 ) From Mergui to Ravenshaw island, a cruise through the Mergui archipelago: From Mergui harbor we had a 10 hours cruise on the Mergui archipelago, a remote and difficult to access tropical archipelago located in the south of Burma on the Andaman sea. It was a wonderful visit of one of the last archipelago still out of range of any tourism industry. We passed numerous beautiful Burmese fishing villages with their wooden houses and golden stupas, passed the remote "marble islands" where bird nests are collected. Sailing in the archipelago from one pearl farm to another gave us also the chance to meet the sea gypsies of Mergui: The Salon people living a nomadic life of their small boats.

3 ) A visit to the Orient Pearl Co Ltd pearl farm around Ravenshaw island.
In Formerly known as "Myanmar Ocean Pearl Co Ltd" the "Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd" is a private company which is working at Ravenshaw island since 1993. Its owner, U Myint Lwin was first involved in fishing before to become one of the main pearl producer in Mergui. "Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd" was presented to us as the second most important pearl farm in Mergui after Tasaki, a Japanese company and Myanmar Pearl Enterprises, the Burmese state owned company. In 1999 Kham Vannaxay visited already the operation with Ted Themelis. A report was published later by Ted Themelis. It was interesting to see that pearl farming in Mergui changed dramatically since that visit,

4) Special Thanks, interesting links and bibliography.

1) Introduction:

We invite you to follow our winter 2007 field trip to the mergui pearl farms using the potential given by the free software Google Earth. Just download and install the software, then using our links you can get a better idea about the mining areas we visited or those for which information is available in the gemological literature. We recommend you to select the "terrain" option (down left in the "layer" booklet) in order to enjoy a 3D visit.

Using our Google Earth placemarks, you can now follow our expedition and explore the Mergui archipelago downloading the placemarks we prepared.
Just download them clicking on the icon on the left to discover the Mergui archipelago.

The Mergui archipelago is located in the south of Burma (Myanmar), it is composed of more than 800 tropical islands covered with forest. Mergui (Myek), the archipelago main sea port with its 70.000 inhabitants is a ethnically very diverse: Its population is mainly composed of men and women of Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Karen, Mon origin. The area is also famous for its "sea gypsies" called "Salons" by the Burmese, "Chao Naam" by the Thais and "Moken" in many English publication. Probably less than 2000 sea gypsies still live on small boats in the archipelago, others left to settle around Phuket and Phan Nga. The city has a rich history and past. It was known for centuries as a dynamic trading seaport. It was regularly visited by foreign travelers and traders (Themelis). The city was in the past Siamese or Burmese. It was annexed by the British after the first Anglo Burmese war and remained under British rule until the Burmese independence in 1948.
In the gemological community the Mergui Archipelago is famous for its large golden color "South Sea" pearls from the past. Recently cultured pearl production was reformed and Mergui pearls seen to be back in the world markets mainly in Japan and Hong Kong trading centers.


We had our first contact with Mergui "Cultured South Sea" pearls at the Mergui airport few minutes after our arrival. There we were welcomed by some fiends of U Myint Lwin the owner of Orient pearl Co ltd.
One of them, U Maung Win, immediately got all our attention: This strong, friendly looking man with his proud moustache, was wearing a beautiful white pearl as a ring..
I've to say that it was the first time I saw a man with such a pearl ring and we were surprised, very positively surprised in fact.. It was a beautiful ring!
Mergui people tare told us that pearl was worn as a symbol for peace, but more officially at the Yangon Emporium gem museum, in the traditional Burmese "Nine Esteemed Gems", pearls are told to be symbols of pride, glory and grace.

Our team was lead by U Myint Lwin, a Burmese marine biologist turned into a private entrepreneur involved is fisheries and more recently into pearl farming .
He is the owner of "Orient Pearl Co Ltd", a man in love with his boats, and his pearls.

He amazed us as he was never missing an opportunity to sail or to drive giving me the feeling that I was not the only "travel addicted" person around..

Thanks to him we were about to discover this remote archipelago, perhaps the last "tourist free" tropical archipelago on Earth.

To take us around in the Mergui archipelago, U Myint Lwin asked one of his friends U Tin Nge to join our expedition.

U Tin Nge has spent his life on the bay working with Burmese, Thais and with the Salons, the Mergui "Sea Gypsies".
For our pleasure and his pride he was also wearing a golden "South Sea Pearl" as a ring. A beautiful pearl coming from the "Orient Pearl" farm: Our destination!


1) From Mergui to Ravenshaw island, a cruise through the Mergui archipelago
Immediately after our arrival at Mergui airport, we left to Mergui Harbor to take our place the "Ashe Tai Palei" (the "Orient Pearl" in Burmese, a boat from U Myint Lwin fleet used as transport between Mergui and Ravenshaw island. Just before our departure I had the chance to take this photo of the man and his boat who were about to lead us for a wonderful journey to this remote archipelago:

We left Mergui Harbor on the "Ashe Tai Palei", the Orient Pearl. Within few minutes we were sailing in the middle of tens of other boats along the beautiful old city crowned with giant trees, mysterious monasteries and golden stupas..

Video courtesy Christian Dunaigre.

For several hours we were cruising on the quiet waters of the Mergui archipelago composed of more than 800 islands. It was not without reminding me of the scenic Ha Long bay in Vietnam I visited also in 2005 to visit pearl farms..
From Dec 09 to Dec 12 2007, with U Myint Lwin and U Tin Nge we had a wonderful pair of friends to open us the doors of the Mergui archipelago from its pearl farms to its bird nest islands, from its Burmese fishing villages to its "Sea Gypsies" sailing the bay on their small boats..
Here are some selected photos of Mergui archipelago landscape:
First the "Rock Turtle" a rock which shape reminds a turtle on which 5 years ago was build a pagoda. A donation by a boat captain. Each time we were passing the rock a sailor was going to the head of the boat with rice and water for a prayer and some offerings..
The village of "Sakan Thit" meaning "New Camp" is the largest village is Mergui archipelago with 20.000 people with fishing as the main activity. It is located in the north of the Sellore island.
A visit to "Thal Chaung Yua": Thal Chaung Yua village is located on Domel island. It's name means "the sandy stream village". It is after "Sakan Thit" the largest village in Mergui archipelago with about 6000 people. It's pile houses are located around a muddy channel navigable at high tide. The village is very Burmese with its pagoda, its boat construction site and its school. The atmosphere there was very lively and food was just great..

Arriving in Thal Chaung Yua with the "Orient Pearl"...

Video courtesy Christian Dunaigre.

Life in Thal Chaung Yua was appearing very colorful and peaceful. Down the Pagoda, build on the hill, was the village school with possibly 200 lively children. The village main activity was fishing, and betel production.

The main street was busy with people coming in and out carrying goods and food. The arrival of three foreigners in the village was a small event. People were nice and smiling, young Burmese speaking English came to us to practice a little bit while mother were bringing to us their children visibly in order to show them some leaving foreigners.. We had then some great photograph opportunities..

We had our lunch at U Tin Nge sister house. This strong, very charismatic women was a great cook and our lunch turned into a real feast we took with the owner of the Bird nest license at marble island. A great occasion to ask him some questions and get his approval to visit the island and its precious hidden cave.

"Bird nests" from the "Marble islands": After our visit to Thal Chaung Yua we left to "Nyet Tiak Kyunn", the Marble islands, in order to visit the cave were the famous bird nests are found. The birds, in fact swallows, build these nests each year with their saliva and they are a traditional delicacy for Chinese people. Mergui archipelago is no the only place in the world were these nests are collected, I was even told recently that some people in Chanthaburi, Thailand stopped his gem burning business to start a bird nest business as he found a way to attract the birds in his house..
We were told that the Marble island bird nest production was estimated around 40kg per year, a drop compared to the several hundreds of kilos we were told to be produced each year in other areas of the archipelago in Mali island and even in some houses of Mergui city. But marble islands is probably one of the most scenic area of the archipelago for this production, with its vertical white marble cliff covered with a scare vegetation they are a fine example of karstic relief as we can found in Halong Bay in Vietnam or in Phan Nga bay in Thailand:
In Marble Islands, the cave where the swallows build their nests is located in a lagoon which can be accessed only at low tide though a deep cave connecting the sea to the lagoon. The bird nests are collected in the deep cave using some bamboo ladders in March first as soon as the birds have build their nests and then in June when the youngsters have left their nests.
As we visited the area in December, we could not see any bird nest, just the empty guardian hut at the entrance of the cave and some piles of Bamboo waiting in the cave for the next spring and a new harvest. Nevertheless we were lucky to see during our expedition in Burma how the bird nests are cleaned using tweezers of any trace of dirt.. Here are some photos and short movies you might found interesting about this expedition:

Here is a short video taken while we were approaching the marble islands where the bird nest are found in a remote lagoon..

Video Vincent Pardieu.

The "Mokens", the Mergui Sea Gypsies: During our visit of the different pearl farming sites around Ravenshaw island, we were lucky to meet two times the famous "sea gypsies" of Mergui: The "Salons" people as the Burmese call them or the "Moken" people as they are named in many English speaking publications.
For centuries they were outcasts, living a nomadic existence in the sea they were possibly the oldest inhabitants of the region. Thanks to U Tin Nge who can speak their language we were able to share with them some precious minutes and some fresh sea food..

The first family we met was drying the result of their fishing on the beach, the family was composed of a man, his wife and their children. He bought from them some dry sea food for our diner.

Here is a short video taken while we were approaching this Moken family and the boat they were living in..

Video courtesy Christian Dunaigre.


Moken people were known in the past to be excellent divers.
For centuries they were living on the sea on the archipelago, fishing and sometimes probably diving to collect oysters to get their natural pearls.
It is not clear if they were working as free men or forced to dive by local leaders..
But it seems that they have after many centuries adapted to the sea (Gilsen, 2003).

During our expedition we did not heard about Moken people still diving to collect natural pearls, but many Moken worked as professional pearl divers during the last 120 years.

The second group was composed of several men, women and children. Most women from this group were wearing some Burmese style gold and ruby jewelry. They were looking more wealthy than the first group and were taking their lunch, composed of rice and fried squid on their boat. Several small pirogues used for fishing were attached to the main boat. Later we will find again two of the old ladies of this groups fishing squids on their tiny pirogue. A great occasion for us to taste some squid sashimi..

Here is a short video taken during our visit to the second group of Moken people we met while sailing near Ravenshaw island. The Moken were sharing some fried squid they fished using their small boats and a simple line.

Video courtesy Christian Dunaigre.

Here is another short video where two old sea gypsy ladies were fishing squids. They were members of the second group we met few hours before. U Tin Nge bought some squids from them that few minutes later were turned into yummy sashimi..

Video courtesy Christian Dunaigre.

Part 3: A visit to the "Orient Pearl Co Ltd" farm around Ravenshaw island:

An introduction to the history of Pearling in Mergui:
Pearling was a traditional activity in Mergui for centuries as different pearl producing oysters species are found in Mergui including the Pinctada Maxima and the Pteria Pinguin. According to B.Bronson in "Pearls without price", 2000:

" The other great pearling area of ancient times lay in Southeast Asia, the Mergui Archipelago of Burma-Myanmar, the Leizhou Peninsula of southern China, and the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines. With long histories of reasonably continuous use, these supplied pearls to markets that lay outside the sphere of the Bombay-centered commercial system that controlled the bulk of the world's pearl trade. Mergui and Sulu, as well as occasionally exploited pearl beds in eastern Indonesia, produced a different kind of pearls, golden ones from the very large pearl oyster species Pinctada Maxima. The pearls were much larger than those from Sri Lanka and the Persian Gulf, and are exceptionally beautiful in modern eyes: even now, insiders claim that the finest cultured pearls in the world come from Mergui. Early pearl buyers may not have agreed, however. Southeast Asian pearls were not a major factor in the world's jewelry trade. The Chinese knew about them but obviously preferred pearls from places further west, and the Indians and Persians may not even have known that Southeast Asian pearls existed."

According to "The history of industrial marine fisheries in Southeast Asia" by G.R. Morgan and D.J.Staples:

"In 1839 Augustus Siebe developed diving gear which was eagerly adapted by companies with sufficient capital to purchase the necessary equipment. The addition of diving equipment not only enabled divers to reach greater depths (up to approximately 54m) than had previously been possible with free-diving, but also to increase the proportion of the year in which it was possible to collect oysters from three to nine months. The development also enabled stocks in deeper waters to be exploited and, by the late 1800s, areas in the Aru islands, the Mergui Archipelago and the Sulu Archipelago were being fished. Faced with the high costs of the pearling operations, pearlers generally adopted the strategy of extracting as much as possible is quickly as possible and then moving on to another oyster bed. This strategy was adopted in all three of the main pearling areas.
The first area where the diving equipment resulted in an increase in yield was in the Mergui Archipelago where, according to an official report by Rudmore Brown and Simpson in 1907, the was no systematic pearling in the archipelago before 1891 when the attention of the government was drawn to these banks by a Queensland pearler [presumably from the Torres Straits]. To Manage this fishery, the government of Burma immediately introduced a “block system” whereby the government auctioned the rights to collect pearl oysters in five “block” covering the richest pearling grounds. As a result of this system the mentality was adopted that it was imperative to extract as much pearl shell as possible during the year as the same company would not necessary secure the same block the following year. Official figures indicate the yield rose dramatically from 26 tons in 1891/92 to 340 tons in 1894/95, leading to the emergence of Mergui a a boomtown. By 1900/01 the yield had fallen to 66 tonnes and the government abolished the block system and replaced it by a system under which pearlers bought a license for each pump they used.
During this period the accepted view was that there was little danger of overexploitation of the Mergui pearl bed as the beds were continually restocked by the offspring produced by oysters in deeper waters beyond the reach of the divers. It was argued that there was a natural balance between the number of divers and the quantity of shell available, as yields fell, divers would leave and the stock would recover. As a result it was concluded that the was no need for any sort of regulation of the Mergui pearl fishery."

At that times pearls were recovered from wild oysters .It is only during the 1950's that pearl farming was introduced and developed in Mergui by Japanese cultured pearl producers: Tint Tun in his article "Myanmar pearling: past, present and future" report the following in 1998:
"Pearl culture in Myanmar commenced in 1954 after the establishment of a private Japanese—Myanmar joint-venture farm. The joint-venture farm, Burma Pearl Fishing and Culture Syndicate, started pearl cultivation at Domel Island. Then, about two years later, they moved from Domel to Sir J. Malcolm Island (later, it was named Pearl Island) which has more favorable conditions for pearl culture.. Divers equipped with the most modern diving gear of that time collected pearl oysters, and joint-venture could successfully cultivate Myanmar pearls.
The Revolutionary Government nationalized the joint-venture farm on 16 August 1963. After nationalization, the Syndicate, People’s Pearl and Fishery Board tried to produce pearls using Myanmar citizens. At that time, the pearl culture branch was temporarily attached to the Salt Industry, and it was finally transformed into a separate enterprise in 1989, Myanmar Pearl Enterprise (MPE), under the Ministry of Mines.
In 1988, Myanmar reformed its socialist economy to become a market-oriented economy, and a total of three joint-venture companies, both local and foreign, are now undertaking Myanmar white South Sea Pearls production. Pearl Island became the main station, as pearl cultivation has been expanding to some other islands of Myeik (Mergui) archipelago, conducted by state-run and joint-venture pearl companies. The significant fact is that the People’s Pearl and Fishery Corporation or Myanmar Pearl Enterprise (MPE) was the one and only pearl producer in Myanmar since 1963. Foreign interest and investments have been flowing into various sectors of the Myanmar economy since Myanmar reformed its xenophobic system to become a market-oriented economy. Both local and overseas (Japanese, Australian, Tahitian, Thai) companies have made enquiries to invest in Myanmar for South Sea pearl cultivation. With the covetous glances from investors, the pearl culture section is also expanding by forming joint ventures between MPE and both local and overseas companies. Nowadays a total of four companies, the state-run MPE and three joint ventures, are undertaking Myanmar cultured pearl production. MPE is the main partner in all those three joint ventures: two foreign and one local. The first venture was established in August 1993, with Niino International Corporation of Japan forming the Myanmar —Niino Joint Venture Company Limited. In January 1994, the second joint venture was formed between Ocean Pearl Company Ltd of Myanmar and MPE. The latest partner is a giant Japanese pearl company, Tasaki Shinju, with which they formed a joint venture in March 1997. Except at Tasaki, seeding is done by Myanmar technicians at all companies. At first, the Myanmar—Niino joint venture used a Japanese technician, but later Myanmar technicians for MPE have been seeding there on loan. A proposal to form a joint venture between MPE and an Australian company, Atlantic, was submitted to the Ministry and Commission concerned. This latest joint venture is waiting to take part in Myanmar cultured-pearl production."

At the time of our visit in Mergui in Dec 2007, we were reported the following:

The largest operation in the Mergui Archipelago is the "Tasaki" joint-venture (Japan) with started in 1997 with currently about 800.000 oysters. The second largest operation in 2007 was "Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd", a private Burmese joint-venture created in 1993 under the name of "Ocean Pearl Co Ltd" with around 500.000 oysters. "Atlantic Pearls", a small Australian operation working in the north of the archipelago recently stopped its activities. Their oysters and farming equipment were to be moved to Ravenshaw island. The third largest operation was reported to be the Burmese government operation run by "Myanmar Pearl Enterprises" with probably around 200.000 oysters.

Regarding the Mergui South Sea cultured pearl production, an article in G&G in Fall 2007 by Russell Shor (see bibliography) provides some interesting information:
In 2005 Mergui was reported to have produced about 179 kan (1 kan = 1000 momme = 3.75 kg) on which Tasaki alone contributed for 102 kan. It is still a modest production compared to the quantities reported by R.Shor for Indonesia (1,022 kan), Australia (850 kan) and the Philippines (450 kan) but it is a serious improved compared to the 1.92 kan reported for 1969 and the 17 kan for 1983.
This increase in production can be explained with the arrival of better pearl farming technologies imported in Mergui mainly by Japanese technicians and the traditional quality of the Mergui water in this archipelago composed of 800 tropical islands far away from modernity. Mergui is becoming again an important pearl supplier for the Hong Kong and Japanese pearl industry. Possibly in the future, Mergui production might increase to levels seen in Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia, the other traditional "South Sea Pearls" suppliers.

Our main objective for this expedition was to visit the "Orient Pearl Co Ltd" operation located on Ravenshaw island. There "South Sea cultured pearls" are farmed from the giant "Pinctada Maxima" oysters: The term "South Sea cultured pearl" is defined by CIBJO this way "Cultured pearls from Pinctada Maxima extensively cultured in the Indian and Pacific oceans including Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines and Northern Australia." while "South Sea pearls" are "natural pearls from Pinctada Maxima":
Here is a modified satellite map made using Google Earth on which you can discover the pearl farms of the Mergui Archipelago. For more details please use Google Earth and our Mergui placemarks.
The "Orient Pearl Co Ltd" company we visited is a 70/30 per cent joint-venture between U Myint Lwin, a Burmese marine biologist turned into a private entrepreneur involved in fisheries and Myanmar Pearl Enterprises. It was created in 1993 under the name of "Ocean Pearl Co Ltd" and changed its name in 2000 for "Orient Pearl Co Ltd". We were informed during our visit that the company recently acquired the farming material and the oysters from "Atlantic Pearls", an Australian operation located at Elphinstone island in the North of the archipelago which stopped its activity. Oysters and equipments from "Atlantic Pearls" were moved to the different "Orient Pearl" farms. "Orient Pearl" is farming oysters around "Zin Yaw", "Than Pachok" and "Taung U Yin" islands. In 1999 "Orient Pearl" was also running a pearl farm near Russell island, an island known for its rich gold mines. Russell Island pearl farming operation is now closed as we were reported that the pollution resulting from gold mining was not suitable for pearl farming.
The "Orient Pearl" farm is located on the eastern side of the jungle covered Ravenshaw island. The farm buildings are facing a quiet bay on which each morning a beautiful sunrise is visible. 250 people are living and working at the farm supplied from Mergui by the boat who took us to the island.
A view from the operation room where the nucleus are inserted inside the oysters on the residential area of the pearl farm where we have spent several night and the pagodas dominating the south of the farm location. The lodging was simple but very comfortable, and even a real luxury considering the fact that the island is very remote. For us nevertheless the real luxury was not to be given a comfortable bed, even if we have appreciated it very much. It was to enjoy while taking breakfast a wonderful sunrise on the bay over the numerous boats and "long lines"...
A view at sunrise on the boats and the long lines covering the bay in front of "Orient Pearl Co ltd" main location on the east of Ravenshaw island.

Here is a short video taken at sunrise over the bay at Ravenshaw island. The area was very peaceful. Numerous boats were waiting near the "long lines" visible thanks to their buoys.

Video: Vincent Pardieu.

"Long lines" with their buoys on the quiet waters of the Mergui Archipelago. The "long lines" are placed in areas were there is a slight current in order to optimize the renewal of nutrients and oxygen for the oysters. While snorkeling we could notice that the current stream was about 3 to 4 knots near Ravenshaw island. Strong currents do not facilitate the work of the divers and can be harmful for the oysters while stagnant waters are not a good environments due to the build up of waste which will pollute the area.
As pearl farming profitability is depending not only on technology and know how but also on the quality of the water in which the oysters are farmed, the presence of several pearl farms in the Mergui archipelago will, we hope, motivate Mergui people minimize the archipelago possible pollution.
On the following photo you can discover these scenic "long lines" with at the back the misty "Marble Islands" where the bird nests are found..
"Orient Pearl" farm workers starting their day using small boats to go from the island to the boats waiting in the bay near the long lines.
A diving boat and its crew are on the way to start their day near the "long lines".
The best way to inspect the long lines was to go snorkeling among them. An interesting task which was also a real pleasure as the water temperature was reported to be about 28 to 30 degrees.


A detailed view on the "long lines". we can see that the cages in which the oysters are located are not very deep. Around Ravenshaw most oysters are kept at about 2 meters deep. This dept was told us to be a good compromise between growing rate and convenience for the daily work as the cages have to be cleaned regularly. Nevertheless during the last months before the harvest the cages are placed much deeper at about 30 meters in order for the pearls to get a better luster.

A view on the suspended flat cages hung from the buoys-supported surface "long lines". The cages in which the oysters are located are suspended 2 by 2.
Each flat cage host six oysters and each "long line" has 100 flat cages. It means that a "long line" means 600 oysters.

Another view and a video taken while snorkeling in the pearl lines. We can discover here the cages in which the juvenile oysters are cultivated.

Here is a short video taken while snorkeling in the "long lines" where some cages hosting juveniles oysters were located.

Video: Vincent Pardieu.

Mergui archipelago is known to be one of the first places where modern diving equipment was used to collect oysters. The following hard hat diving equipment was bring in Mergui in 1957 by the Japanese and is still used today by the divers at "Orient Pearl Co Ltd".
The divers are traditionally Moken or Burmese. It is a difficult and dangerous work as the divers often work at depths of 80 meters in order to collect wild oysters. These oysters are then selected depending of the quality of their nacre for reproduction purpose. Since 2002 all the oysters cultivated at "Orient Pearl Co Ltd" were produced in hatcheries. A significant change compared to 1999 when Kham Vannaxay and Ted Themelis visited the farm. At that time all the oysters used to grow pearls were wild oysters collected in the area. Before 10 diving boats were necessary to collect oysters, now only two are remaining. This change enables the wild oysters population to prosper as pressure on them is lower.
A Burmese diver is preparing for diving: The diving suit is composed of a suit on which the hard hat is screwed and some lead weights. It is very heavy. Air is sent to the diver from a pump located on the boat.
The hard hat is now screwed on the suit and the diver (myself on the photo) is ready to go down. The difficulty for the diver using this equipment is to adjust its internal pressure. Without nose clip, as in my case, I was told to try to "bite" the metal of the hard hat in order to close the nose and adjust this way the pressure. In my case after testing the equipment, I was not able to decompress. With my very limited diving experience it was not reasonable to test this diving suit deeper than 3 meters.
In the water I was impressed not to feel anymore the weight of the equipment that much.. Nevertheless I was informed before to go in the water that using such equipment it is necessary to stay vertical as if the diver fall, he will not be able to stand again due to the weight of the hard hat. Such a diver he will need some help from a second diver in order to survive.
The diving experience was for me short between the lines. Just few exotic minutes for a visiting gemologist, but it was enough to see the difficulty of the daily task of the Mergui divers: By 30 to 80 meters deep the diver has to run and follow the boat while collecting oysters. A mistake under such conditions can be his last..

During our visit of Ravenshaw island we could witness the activity of the 250 people working at the "Orient Pearl" farm. Most of the working force is busy fabricating, cleaning or repairing the oyster baskets, the buoys forming the numerous "long lines" visible all around the island. One of the secret of the success of "Orient Pearl" is that, from boats to buoys, nearly everything is fabricated on site.

Burmese workers cleaning the oyster cages at Ravenshaw island. Here the cages are empty but the "Orient Pearl" company own some machines used on small boats to clean the cages on the "long lines". A team of line cleaners can clean without machines up to 5 lines per day. Using machines 12 lines can be cleaned. It is necessary to clean regularly the cages from fouling organisms that grow on the shells as these marine organisms compete with oysters for food and add weight to the lines. At "Orient Pearl" the lines are cleaned monthly in order not to stress too much the oysters.

Burmese workers preparing the "long lines". This system is widely used in the pacific. From the buoys to the cages everything is fabricated at the farm.

On the previous photograph, U Myint Lwin is explaining to Christian Dunaigre and Kham Vannaxay the secrets of the "long lines" using the beautiful western beach of Ravenshaw island as a teaching board:
The "long lines" are typically 100 meters long and 5 to 10 lines are grouped together. They are placed on different locations around Ravenshaw island in order to limit the risks in case of accident. We were told that 3 to 4 days are necessary to install a group of "long lines" which needs to be adapted to each locations specifications. It is not an easy work. The lines are fixed on the sea bed using several weights, the number of long lines and of weights is depending of the current power on each location.

On Ravenshaw island a group of young Burmese women are preparing and repairing oyster boxes. At Ravenshaw island, as in many parts of Burma, Burmese women use a very traditional powder made of wood called "Tanaka" to protect their skin from the sun.

 

U Myo Thant, working as "Pearl Culturist" at "Orient Pearl Co ltd" present us a Pinctada maxima shell on which we can see some drawings delimitating golden and silver areas.
Using this shell he was explaining to us that the piece of mantle inserted in the oyster with the nucleus during the grafting will decide of the final color of the cultured pearl produced:
Using an external part of the mantle the cultured pearl will be of a golden color similar to the color visible in the shell in the external part of the shell. Now if the piece of mantle inserted is coming from a more inner part it will be white or silver color as the color visible in the central area of the shell U Myo Thant present to us.


PRODUCING "CULTURED SOUTH SEA PEARLS" IN MERGUI:


The difference between "South Sea Pearls" and "South Sea Cultured Pearls" is that in the case of cultured pearls a nucleus and a tissue graft are inserted in the oyster during a surgical operation called "grafting". In the cases of natural pearls the process is purely natural and somewhere "accidental".
Maria Haus on her "Basic method of pearl farming" p 51 gives a good explanation on this subject:
"Natural pearls occurs when a foreign body irritates the pearl oyster. Nacre is secreted around the foreign body by the mantle tissues to protect the oyster's tissues. Grafting is a means of imitating this natural process so a cultured pearl can be grown. Grafting is a surgical implantation of a shell nucleus and a tissue graft (a small piece of mantle tissue) into the pearl oyster."
At "Orient Pearl Co Ltd" some oysters are selected to provide tissue grafts while others will become hosts. The oysters selected to become donors are selected for the quality of their nacre. The tissue graft have to be carefully cut at the quality of the cutting work will have consequences for the final quality of the cultured pearl produced.

On the other hand the host oysters are not selected for the quality of the nacre but for their stamina. At "Orient Pearl" currently vigorous, fast growing young oysters around 12 cm in size coming from hatcheries are selected as host oysters. Before 2002, wild oysters about 14 cm in size were found to be the best hosts.
Before the surgical operation the selected oysters are kept for several weeks in special boxes with tiny holes in order to limit the amount of food available for the oysters. We were explained that the purpose of this diet is to weaken a little the oysters which will then be less likely to reject the nucleus.
At "Orient Pearl" the nucleus and the grafting tissue are inserted in the gonad, the reproductive organ of the pinctada maxima oysters. This explain why grafting is not performed from March to May, the reproductive period of the oysters as during that period the oyster gonads are full of gametes.
The oyster surgical operation is not a complicated task but it needs a lot of skills and concentration to be performed correctly as the death rate after grafting and the quality of the pearls produced depends also of the quality of work of the grafting technician.


To minimize the death rate and the oyster stress during the grafting which could result in nucleus rejection, the oysters are first anesthetized for about 30 minutes using a magnesium chlorate solution. All the instruments used during the grafting operation are carefully cleaned and sterilized using fresh water. We could witness that the grafting operation was taking less than a minute per oyster. Working fast is important for grafting technicians but they are also evaluated for the quality of the final work as each oyster is followed: Minimal death rate, lowest reject rate and also quality of the pearls produced are major factor in the evaluation of a grafting technician.

At "Orient Pearl" we could see that four grafting technicians were working in the operation room together with several other technicians preparing for them the tissues grafts. The operation room is very quiet but very busy and more than 80.000 oysters were reported to have been grafted between June and December 2007.

Here is a short vide showing the complete process, from the sacrifice of the donor oyster to provide tissue graft, to the insertion of the nucleus and the tissue graft into the host oyster.

Video: Vincent Pardieu, 2007


After the grafting the oysters are placed in special boxes at 7 meters depth in order to minimize the oyster stress and limit the percentage of nucleus rejections. After 3 months the oysters are inspected using an X-Ray machine. We were reported that usually less than 10% of the oysters are found to reject the nucleus. At "Orient Pearls" such oysters are usually inserted a new nucleus. If not a so called South Sea Keshi pearl will be produced from the small piece of mantle graft which was inserted. If a nucleus is inserted again a baroque pearl which can display 2 different colors can be produced.
At "Orient Pearl" the oyster that have undergone surgery will stay in the water for a period of 18 months to 2 years. During that time a thick layer of nacre will coat the bead which was inserted. It was very interesting to see as in the following photograph the result from a random harvest: These pearls were produced by oysters grafted the same day by the same technician and they stayed for the same period in the water the same cage:

As you can see, the pearls produced are not only different in color, but also in size. It was something very interesting for us. U Myint Lwin explained to us that if the color is depending mainly of the small tissue graft which was inserted during the operation, the difference in size seems to be mainly due to the host oyster: An interesting subject for further research.

 

U Myint Lwin told us that " Orient Pearl Co Ltd" production was composed globally of 70% of golden pearls and 30% of silver pearls.


Conclusion:
This expedition to Mergui was a great experience for Christian and myself as we were dreaming to visit the Mergui archipelago pearl farms for many years. We were not disappointed. We have spend in Mergui some exceptional moments with wonderful people. We were able to literally dive in the world of cultured pearls and discover some of its fascinating secrets. We could collect some interesting samples and data to work on back home in Switzerland. I hope that visiting this page was a pleasant experience for you and that you will appreciate more Burma, its people and its pearls.

(U Myint Lwin, U Tin Nge and Kham Vannaxay in Ravenshaw island)

I would like to thanks particularly for his precious help U Myint Lwin as without his help we could not have been able to visit Mergui and its pearl farms. I would like also to thanks U Tin Nge to have been such a great guide in the archipelago. Thanks to you an old dream became true.
I would also like to thanks my friend Kham Vannaxay (from Sofragem, Bangkok) as without him we could not have visited Mergui and Christian Dunaigre and myself would still dreaming to visit one day Mergui..

Thanks Kham!

Finally I don't want to forget to thanks the Gubelin Gem Lab in Lucerne, Switzerland, my fellow gemologists and colleagues working there for their support in the realization of this expedition.


Interesting Links and Bibliography about pearls from the Mergui archipelago:

"Historically Famous Myanmar South Sea Pearl" by Myanmar Pearl Enterprises. website: An interesting up to date article relating the history of pearl farming in Mergui.
"Treasures of Mergui" by Ted Themelis: this article was also published in Gemkey May June 2000, It is an interesting report as Themelis visited in 1999 the same pearl farming operation as we did in 2007. It is interesting to compare our reports to understand that pearl farming in Mergui had experienced a real revolution during the past seven years.
"Photo gallery of Mergui Archipelago (Burma)" by Ted Themelis.
"Myanmar pearling: past, present and future" by Tint Tun: This article is also available as pdf in "Pearl Oyster Information Bulletin, number 12, dec 1998".
"Atlantic Pearls": The website of the former Australian-Burmese joint venture farming pearl oysters in Mergui.

"The history of industrial marine fisheries in Southeast Asia", by Gary R.Morgan and Derek J.Staples, an interesting link in which we can read the following:

" The first area where diving equipment resulted in an increase in yields was in the Mergui Archipelago where, according to an official report by Rudmose Brown and Simpson in 1907, there was “no systematic pearling in the archipelago before 1891 when the attention of the Government was drawn to these banks by a Queensland pearler [presumably from the Torres Straits].” To manage this fishery, the Government of Burma immediately introduced a “block system” whereby the government auctioned the rights to collect pearl oysters in five “blocks” covering the richest pearling grounds. As a result of this system the mentality was adopted that it was imperative to extract as much pearl shell as possible during the year as the same company would not necessarily secure the same block the following year. Official figures indicate that yields rose dramatically from 26 tonnes in 1891/92 to 340 tonnes in 1894/95, leading to the emergence of Mergui as a boomtown. By 1900/01 the yield had fallen to 66 tonnes, and the government abolished the block system and replaced it by a system under which pearlers bought a licence for each pump they used. There was apparently no limit on the number of licenses used.

During this period the accepted view was that there was little danger of overexploitation of the Mergui pearl beds as the beds were continually restocked by the offspring produced by oysters in deeper waters beyond the reach of the divers. It was argued that there was a “natural balance” between the number of divers and the quantity of shell available for, as yields fell, divers would leave and the stocks would recover. As a result it was concluded there was no need for any sort of regulation of the Mergui pearl fishery."

"Pearls without price: The rise and fall of a sometimes-precious gem" by Bennet Bronson, an interesting article in which we learn about the past of Mergui as a pearl producing area:

" ... The other great pearling area of ancient times lay in Southeast Asia, the Mergui Archipelago of Burma-Myanmar, the Leizhou Peninsula of southern China, and the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines. With long histories of reasonably continuous use, these supplied pearls to markets that lay outside the sphere of the Bombay-centered commercial system that controlled the bulk of the world's pearl trade.

Mergui and Sulu, as well as occasionally exploited pearl beds in eastern Indonesia, produced a different kind of pearls, golden ones from the very large pearl oyster species Pinctada maxima. The pearls were much larger than those from Sri Lanka and the Persian Gulf, and are exceptionally beautiful in modern eyes: even now, insiders claim that the finest cultured pearls in the world come from Mergui. Early pearl buyers may not have agreed, however. Southeast Asian pearls were not a major factor in the world's jewelry trade. The Chinese knew about them but obviously preferred pearls from places further west, and the Indians and Persians may not even have known that Southeast Asian pearls existed.

China itself had a moderately active marine pearl fishery, off the Leizhou Peninsula and northern Hainan Island just east of Vietnam. The Leizhou pearl fishery remained active from at least the 1st century BC down through the 17th century AD, during which time it sporadically produced large quantities of medium-quality pearls. As in the case of the Sri Lankan fisheries, those of Leizhou were boom-and-bust affairs, with a few years of feverish activity followed by several decades of quiescence while the stocks of Pinctadas rebuilt themselves ...

... Interestingly, while pearl divers in the western Indian Ocean area tended to be free individuals who were kept in debt to pearl merchants, those in Southeast Asia were members of outcast groups who were effectively unfree. They belonged to the Sea Gypsies or Mawken in Myanmar, the Bajau in Sulu and the Danjia or Tanka in southern China. They were often, and perhaps always, forced laborers, compelled by local leaders to dive for pearls. As Yuan Zhen's poem suggests, the divers' lot was not a happy one.."

"Melo pearls from Myanmar" A very interesting article about another fascinating treasure of the Mergui archipelago: melo pearls on palagems.com

Interesting Links and Bibliography about Pearls, "South Sea Pearls" and pearl farming:
The literature. on pearls in general is very important but here are some links, articles and books references that I've found useful:

The "CIBJO pearl book": A useful reference book about terminology and classification of natural, cultured and imitation pearls. As an example is interesting to read the CIBJO definition for South Sea Pearls: "Natural pearls from Pinctada Maxima" and for Cultured South Sea pearls: "Cultured pearls from Pinctada Maxima extensively cultured in the Indian and Pacific oceans including Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines and Northern Australia."
"South Sea Pearls | Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, New Guinea" by khulsey.com: An interesting article about South Sea Pearls.
"Pearl farms of the world, full list" by khulsey.com: A very interesting link with a list of pearl farms worldwide.
"Gems and Gemology data depository: Expended localities for cultured pearls and natural pearls": A very interesting pdf with a list of pearl farms and natural pearl producing areas worldwide.
"The basic method of Pearl farming: A layman Manual" By Maria Haws: An excellent pdf explaining most of what needs to be known to understand pearl farming..

"A description of pearl farming with Pinctada Maxima in South East Asia" by H. Hanni, Journal of Gemmology., 2007, 30, 7/8, 357-365: A very interesting report about "South Sea Pearl" farming in Indonesia in which we can notice many similarities with what we saw in Mergui.
"From single source to global free market: The transformation of the cultured pearl industry" by Russell Shor. Gems & Gemology, Fall 2007.
"Spectral reflectance and fluorescence characteristics of natural color and heat treated "golden" South Sea cultured pearls" by Shane Elen, Gems & Gemology, vol 37, Summer 2001, pp.114-123.
"Update on the identification of treated "golden" South Sea cultured pearls" by Shane Elen, Gems & Gemology, vol 38, Summer 2002, pp.156-159.
"Treatment and coloration of South Sea cultured Pearls" by Elizabeth Strack from her book: "Pearls" (2006)
"Myanmar expected to produce 200 kan in 2006" Jewelry News Asia, 2006, No 259, p.65
"Pearls, glossary of pearl terms" by Paula M. Mikkelsen, Ph.D., American Museum of Natural History.
"Pearls: A natural History" by Neil H.Landman & Al. (2001),
"Pearls" by Fred Ward (1998),
"Pearl Buying Guide: How to evaluate, identify and select pearls & pearl jewelry" By Renee Newman (2004)
Pearls can be found in the nature from a large variety of sea animals from oysters, to sea snails: as we can see in the following page from Natural pearl lover Thomas Hochstrasser


Interesting General Links about Mergui archipelago:

"MERGUI MYEIK ARCHIPELAGO MYANMAR - BURMA"
"Moken sea gypsies: Seeing underwater" Interesting article about the Moken capacity regarding underwater vision.
"The Mergui Archipelago Project" A very interesting website full of resources about Mergui archipelago and the people living there. The MAP has printed several excellent books on the subject.
"Mergui Archipelago, Biodiversity project" by ECoSwiss Website, an interesting resource about biodiversity in Mergui archipelago.
"Burma Sea Gypsies Compendium" By MAJE Project, another very interesting resource about Mergui and its Sea Gypsies.

 

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Important Note: Vincent Pardieu is an employee of GIA (Gemological Institute of America) Laboratory Bangkok since Dec 2008. Any views expressed on this website - and in particular any views expressed by Vincent Pardieu - are the authors' opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GIA or GIA Laboratory Bangkok. GIA takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any content on this website nor is GIA liable for any mistakes or omissions you may encounter. GIA is in particular not screening, editing or monitoring the content on this website and has no possibility to remove, screen or edit any content.