The round shape of the cultured pearl makes it the epitome of those produced by the Pinctada maxima, or South Sea oyster. Boasting a width of nine to 10 millimeters, the pearl is striking due to its exquisite contours and the tangible heft that comes with the size. While the pearl might seem to be ubiquitous as those made in Australia, its color is strikingly different. It boasts a deep gold shade whose effect sets it apart from most pearls, yet retains the spotlessness and flawless luster of its better-known counterparts.
“The pearl and others like it are typical of Indonesian cultured pearls in that they come in a variety of hues and lusters,” says pearling entrepreneur Rajendra Nasution, whose company Artha Samudera harvested the pearl.
“Aside from the yellow gold color, which is derived from the oyster’s ‘lip’ of the same name, the pearls also come in shades like blue, pinkish and gray, as well as the better known shade of white.
“On the other hand, Australian South Sea pearls might be bigger because their larger pearl sacs can accommodate larger pearl nuclei, but they are predominantly made of the white-lipped variety. But regardless of which strain of pearl is used, their value is determined by natural factors like their roundness, spotlessness, hue and luster. This is unlike diamonds, emeralds and other gemstones whose value is determined by color, carat and cut.”
Getting started in the pearling business
“I’ve always drawn by the sea and marine life since I majored in marine biology at the University of Indonesia’s School of Math and Natural Sciences. That interest got me started in the pearling business in Maluku in 1974, five years after the industry started in the area,” says the 67-year-old Rajendra.
“But I didn’t get to start in earnest until I went to the Kakuda pearl company’s oyster farm in Mikimoto Island, off Japan’s Nagoya area, for job training, before I helped set up their operations through Artha Samudera in Indonesia four years later. The company has since divested into a mostly Indonesian business in recent years.
“The techniques that I learned in Japan greatly improved the pearling methods that we started with. Before, our yield depended on how many South Sea oysters we could find on a dive so that we could implant the pearl nuclei. But the installing of oyster nets helped make the pearl oyster hatching more systematic.
“We also became more aware about a number of factors like water temperatures, salinity and humidity in harvesting the pearls. That’s why our business is done in three places: Raja Ampat in West Papua as the source of the pearls; Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara as the source of the plasma needed for the pearl nuclei; and Bitung in North Sulawesi to harvest the pearls. The locales are chosen because their water temperatures, salinity and humidity affect the time and quality of the harvested pearls.The oysters need to be cleaned at least once a month to maintain a high quality of pearls.”
The finer points of pearling
Rajendra points out that pearling is a trade best defined by whittling down, a point he makes by showing samples of pearls, ranging from big beads of over eight millimeters or more, smaller beads, as well as reject samples that lack the pearl’s characteristic luster.
“Annually we harvest hundreds of thousands of oysters for their pearls. But since pearls are weighed by grams, we can harvest 20 to 80 kilograms of them, usually each June,” he says.
“Of that amount, only one or two kilos will be sold at auctions around the world, among them major auctions in Hong Kong or Kobe, Japan, while the rest might find their way to the domestic market.”
Rajendra says the industry has its pitfalls. “The pearl business is hit-or-miss in more ways than one, as the value fluctuates. For instance, the most lucrative harvest I experienced was in 2002, when I harvested over 54 kilograms of pearls at a time when they were worth an average of $150 per gram. The gains were substantial enough that I made millions of dollars, enough to pay off my debts worth about the same. But nowadays their worth in the global market is worth about $15 or $20 a gram, so even if I made bigger yields of more than 70 kilograms it won’t exactly replicate that success. The downturn came after 9/11 and the global recession that hit the US and European markets.”
He adds that pearl aficionados in Indonesia are a consistent clientele, though their numbers remain small.
Rajendra also laments the lack of skilled pearling workers in the country.
“The need to improve the manpower quality of pearling laborers is imperative, especially in areas like Raja Ampat. The government should also do more to promote Indonesian pearls. Despite these odds, Indonesia is still a major performer in the global pearling sector, so there’s no telling how much better we can do if we remedy these problems” Rajendra says.
Indonesia was the world’s number nine pearl producer in 2013, with the industry generating nearly $30 million in revenue, according to the Trade Ministry.
Rajendra’s passion for the industry stems from his fervent belief that the future of the Indonesian economy lies in the development of its maritime sector.
“The underdevelopment of Indonesia’s pearling sector reflects the lack of development of the country’s maritime industries. As a country with one of the world’s longest coastlines and biggest area of water, there is a lot of untapped potential for the taking,” he says.
“So far, the government is mostly focused on tapping oil and gas in our oceans. But they’re still finite resources, compared to more infinite ones like fish, seaweed and other foodstuffs. We should develop fisheries to make seafood more readily available. It’s a productive way to meet the growing demand in Indonesia, and it’s a surefire way to keep them from getting poached by other countries.”
Rajendra has handed the reins to Artha Samudera over to his daughter, Farah, but remains a diehard champion of the pearl industry.
“The pearling industry has a way of growing on you. Once you’re in, you find it hard to get out. I guess the unpredictability of the industry, much of which stems from the fact that you’re dealing with a living organism instead of a mineral like diamonds, adds to its appeal. But most of all, nothing beats the aesthetic appeal or luster of a perfectly round, spotless pearl,” he says.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 12, 2014