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Burmese Pearls

Burmese pearl treasure of Meregui
Ted Themelis

Lore and myth. The Greeks and Romans associated the birth of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, with the birth of the pearl. In the first century AD Pliny the Elder wrote that Cleopatra dissolved a fine pearl earring in her wine and drank it as a testament of her love for Antony. He also wrote that among all prized items, the topmost rank is held by pearls. Arabs believed pearls to be "tears of the gods" and other civilizations have paid tribute to pearls, which have been cherished over the centuries as symbols of purity, wealth, perfection and love. 

The Burmese pearl industry began in the early 1960s, started by the Japanese, in the islands of the Mergui Archipelago. On March 12, 1969, the Burmese Ministry of Mines nationalized all industries. After the Japanese left, the Burmese government took control of the pearl operations, leading to a decline in production. On April 1, 1976, the Myanma Gems Enterprise was founded to revive Burma's ailing gem industry. Several pearl farms were established and a very limited production appeared in the government-sponsored Burma Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporiums.

 Now that's all changed. After a two decade absence, pearl farming in the Mergui Archipelago is back and ready to make an impact on the top echelons of cultured pearl production. Recent government reforms in the gem mining and pearling industries have led to joint ventures between the Burmese government and private Australian, Japanese, Thai and local concerns. The Burmese pearl industry is ready to emerge as a serious player in the international pearl industry. 

The journey to the Burmese pearl islands begins at Myeik, (pronounced Beik), or simply Mergui, its anglicized name. The town dates from antiquity and it is mentioned as a great trading seaport in the Chinese annals of the Liang Dynasty (502-506 AD). Early in the 15th century, Mergui was visited by Venetian Nicol? di Conti, and Portugese traveller Duarte Barbosa. It was also noted by Ceasar Fredericke in 1568 and other early European traveler-traders. For centuries, Mergui was the gateway to the Spice Islands and the battleground between the Burmese and Siamese kingdoms. 
Mergui was annexed by the East India Company after the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-1826), establishing the town as a major port the company used to pursue its monopolistic trade practices. It remained under British rule until Burmese independence in 1948. Today, Merqui is a bustling trading and fishing town of mixed ethnic population, predominately Chinese settlers, who virtually control the trade of the region. The Tenasserim Coast and the Mergui Archipelago islands are completely off limits to foreigners.

 At Last the Journey begins. Our company, a clutch of veteran divers and pearl experts, armed with insect repellents and special government permits, boarded a double-decker, 40-foot pearl boat and accompanied by armed Burmese Navy officers, weighed anchor at Mergui and headed south. 
Islands of all sizes slowly emerge on the sea horizon as the journey gets underway.

 Some of these islands are rich in flora and fauna, fringed with mangrove swamps and sharp spiked bamboo forests that make them virtually inaccessible. Occasionally, the lush vegetation is interrupted by virgin white sand beaches. The beach sand in some of these islands is so pure, it is used as a raw material to make glass in Rangoon. It is a wild jungle habitat -- home to poisonous snakes, deadly scorpions, wild pigs, bats, insects and bloodthirsty malarial mosquitoes.

 On board, we eat ka-tha-baung (king fish), and nga-pon-na (mango-fish), seafood dishes accompanied by the locally produced ngapi, a gamey paste made from salted, pounded and fermented shrimp. Afterwards, the sailors light up cheroots -- Burmese hand-made cigars -- the shrimp logo on the package a reminder that we are indeed in "shrimp country."

 Sliding comfortably into a post-meal chattiness, the sailors talk of the exotic Salon people, the local sea-gypsies, who wander the 804 islands scattered throughout the Archipelago. The Salons are probably descendants of Malays from Sumatra who found refuge in Burmese waters. They spend most of their lives with their families in small wooden boats roofed with low, hemispherical bamboo-woven mats. The Salon are a timid, simple, semi-aboriginal people with little in the way of pecuniary thoughts. They are also expert divers, swimmers, fishermen, hunters, navigators and boat-builders.

 The Salons fashion their boats from long tree trunks hollowed out over a slow-burning fire, shaping them with primitive tools. Some Salons domesticate dogs, which often live aboard their boats and are used to hunt wild-pigs when ashore in the islands. The Salons trade fish, sea slugs and bamboo mats for rice, firewood and other provisions, including opium to which many are heavily addicted. They continue to live restless, floating lives - as they have for centuries.

 Stunning vertical limestone cliffs jut into the sea several hundred feet above the water level - mute evidence of the extensive geological activity and plate tectonics that took place in the region more than 200 million years ago. These phenomena are connected with the mountain-building process of the Himalayas, passing through Mogok - fabled home of rubies and sapphires in Upper Burma. 
The remarkable fortress-like rocks of these islands form undersea caves and natural tunnels leading to lagoons that are accessible only at low tide.

 As we approached the Bird Nest Islands (Nyet tiak kyun), we transferred to a small dinghy and cautiously enter a natural cave studded with sharp stalactites. A 100-meter long tunnel, expertly navigated by our local guide opened onto a beautiful lagoon, surrounded by huge vertical limestone rock. Inside these crags, at the high-ceilinged pockets of the dark caves and rock fissures are the famous swift bird nests. These birds fashion their nests from their saliva and mature nests are collected by licensed natives who sell them for about $3,000 per kilo. The bird nests are considered an edible and exotic delicacy by the Chinese and served on esteemed occasions in Hong Kong restaurants for $150 a bowl. 
The licenses are auctioned by the government, with hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands. The nests are accessed via elaborate bamboo scaffolds, constructed without using nails. We are told that some of the ladders have been booby-trapped to break apart, plunging unwitting thieves to their deaths.

 As the journey continues south, more islands emerge from the sea horizon. Great stories are told by the native sailors, involving sea-spirits and other superstitious beliefs as we navigate past the dark shadows of the islands. The numerous nats (spirits) residing in the waters of the archipelago are intrinsically involved in the daily affairs of the islanders.

 At nightfall, we spotted patrolling Burmese navy gunboats, keeping the passages clear of pirates and smugglers. These modern buccaneers ply the waters in 70-kilometer-per-hour speedboats, hunting for victims. There are several types of pirates: The "good", who just rob the travelers; the "bad", who steal the cargo and rob the passengers. And the "ugly", who seize the vessel, kill all the passengers, then take control of the vessel by repainting, changing its name, forging all marine documents and heading to a new destination. 
Then of course there are the smugglers. These "unlicensed traders", as they called themselves, use high-speed boats, trading raw materials from Burma with their Thai partners for luxury items, computers and other manufactured goods. 
And it's not just pearls and shrimps in these waters - some of the islands also contain gold. In fact, in the bubble years when the price of gold in New York hit the $1,000 per ounce mark, the gold mines at the Mergui Islands were being thoroughly prospected.

 We anchor at Russell Island and visit the gold mine, climbing a treacherous 45-degree hillside, about a hundred feet above sea level. The gold mine consists of several horizontal tunnels blasted out of solid rock. From 1977 to 1985, the island bustled with the gold rush activity of about 200 miners, but with the current recovery rate of only 4 ppm (parts per million) the low price of gold, the mine has been abandoned. 
We cross the tombolo (a natural flat bridge connecting two islets) and follow the Navy officers as they cut a path through the dense jungle. Suddenly, a beautiful sandy beach rolls out before us. It is a pearl farm! The gold mine on the hill with a pearl farm in the sea below makes a bizarre and unique combination, not found anywhere else in the world. 
The Russell Island pearl farm is under rehabilitation. Small huts built on stilts near the seashore provide basic protection against rain and the beating sun. But there is no effective protection against the insects in these islands, as the unstoppable malaria carrying mosquitoes penetrate the delicate woven nets. Poorly managed by the government's Myanmar Pearl Enterprise, most of the buildings are neglected, decayed, and infested with termites. Wire baskets and discarded oyster shells are evidence of the once booming camp with its 200 or so pearl workers. As we sip juice from emperor-coconuts the size of California watermelons, the farm superintendent recalls the golden years at Russell, when 16mm pinkish round pearls, (though admittedly very few), were harvested.

 Along the route, we anchored near the picturesque village of Thit-Chaung, at Dornel Island (Letsok-aw-kyaun) - a small town built entirely on wooden stilts. Ascending the wooden ladders to the bamboo deck that serves as the main street, flocks of villagers came to meet us. School activities came to a halt as throngs of pupils ran out over to see their first Western visitors.

 We paid the customary respects to the local head monk at a magnificent monastery studded with dozens of statues of "Walking Monks" lined up in a row, praising Buddha. Elements of the modern lifestyle were reflected in a large sign that read: "Welcome Y2K for Happy New Year". The television age also reared its head with an invitation to watch the morning Larry King Live show -- an offer that we could not refuse without gravely insulting our host. The entire atmosphere creates an unforgettable, exhilarating feeling of joy and memories.

 The journey continued south. Near midnight a dim light blinked in the distance through the darkness. Pirates? Smugglers? Salons? Burmese Navy patrol? Our radio operator was already in touch with the other end and intense conversation took place in a tongue spoken only in these islands, not even understood by the Burmese. That's typical for Burma, considering that more than a hundred languages are spoken by the more than the 130 or so ethnic groups who live in the country. As we approach, the dark shadow of a landscape emerged. Suddenly, the boat took a sharp turn and a sandy beach appears. We have arrived at the Ravenshaw Island base camp.

 At Ravenshaw island, or Zinyaw kyun as the Burmese call it, we had the rare opportunity to look at a typical Burmese pearl farm. We also observed the activities of its 250 workers, divers and technicians who live and work at the base camp. Here, the situation is completely different from Russell island. The base farm at Ravenshaw is alive, bustling with activity. It is the 90-day inspection period and everybody is busy. Workers carry truckloads of oysters to the inspection house, where the delicate surgical operation-inspection is taking place.

 The farm site of Orient Pearl Company has been carefully selected. It sits in a natural bay with a beautiful sandy beach facing east, fully protected from the monsoons and high tides. The shallow waters near the shore are deceiving, as chasms 200 feet or more deep are found just a short distance from shore.

 The farm is unmarked, without buoys, as security measure to prevent theft. Oysters are placed at depths ranging from 60 to 90 feet in unpolluted waters. This unspoiled water is the natural habitat of more than 36,000 pinctada maxima wild oysters originating from the same waters.

 Intricately tattooed Burmese divers plunge into warm 75-foot waters in antiquated diving gear to place the oysters, packed in wire baskets, on the sea floor. Each basket holds 10 oysters positioned vertically in individual compartments. Groups of 130-150 baskets are connected in line and firmly anchored The oyster positioning differs in other farms; Tasaki Sinju use a "surface-lining" method, while the "long-line" method is used by the Atlantic Pearl Company.

 One of the two pearl boats on the bay, a dilapidated Japanese steel vessel is a remnant of the Second World War, maneuvers with its roaring diesel engine to coordinate the positioning of the oyster baskets. The other vessel is a Thai shrimp fishing boat that sank during a typhoon, and was pulled from depths, cleaned and outfitted with a "new" Chinese engine. On board, a dozen workers appear busy. The scene is like construction workers in New York City with one man actually working and five supervising him - each making thirty bucks an hour. Except here an experienced worker makes thirty dollars per month!

 The waters of the bay maintain a nearly constant pH and temperature, except during the monsoon season, when heavy rains dilute the salinity of the sea. To keep the oysters in the same conditions, the baskets are moved to deeper waters. Constant currents flowing at a continuous rate and the abundance of plankton organisms create ideal living conditions for the sensitive pearl-bearing oysters. 
They say only nature can make a pearl. This is true, at least in the final stages, but it takes a lotof human intervention to help nature do it consistently. 

 The newest kid on the block is actually a veteran of the pearl wars. Although the Burmese pearls cannot be classified as South Seas pearls, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, they are comparable in quality and size with their Australian, Indonesian and Filipino counterparts. But, with less than 1 percent of the world's cultured pearl production, the limited production of the Burmese pearls in the world market should continue being swiftly absorbed by eager customers.

 Besides the proper natural breeding habitat, in pearl cultivation, each farm employs different methods, depending upon the quality, condition and type of the following ingredient-parameters: oyster, nuclei, mantle. Also, the nuclei and mantle insertion methods, inspection and correction procedures, as well as other parameters play important role in the pearl cultivation process. 

 Oyster: The Burmese use oysters of the pinctada maxima species, ranging from 6" to 12" in diameter. The interior of the shell is iridescent producing the "orient" (rainbow iridescent), characteristic of the Burmese pearl. The color of the lip (periphery of the animal's body in the shell) is gold and/or silver, like the ones used in Australia, Indonesia and Philippines. But the major difference between the Burmese and other pearl farms is that the Burmese oysters used for pearl cultivation are 100 percent wild, while the Australian farms use 75-80 percent wild; the Filipinos 25 percent and the Indonesians 1 percent. The term "wild" refers to a natural oyster, as opposed to a "hatchery-bred" oyster. A distinct bright orient contributes greatly to the beautiful luster of Burmese pearls. 

 Nuclei: The nuclei used in the Burmese farms, as in most other farms, are supplied mainly from numerous fresh-water Tennessee and Mississippi mussel-breeding farms. Nuclei are mussel or clam shells manufactured by machining, tumbling and polishing until the desirable spherical shape is formed. Usually, the nuclei ranges from 6 to 9 mm in diameter and classified as follows: 2.0 BU (6mm), 2.1 BU (7mm), 2.3 BU (8mm), 2.5 BU (9mm). In certain cases, nuclei up to 14mm are also used. 

 Mantle muscular tissue: In the Burmese pearl cultivation method, the mantle that creates the nacre coatings is cut from the muscular tissue of the same oyster (using the "autograph" method). Whereas in the Australian, Indonesian and Philippine pearl cultivation methods, up to 40 pieces of the mantle tissue may be cut from a different oyster (donor-oyster), which must be killed, and then used in the host-oyster (the "homograph" method). This is an important difference between the Burmese and the other methods. 

 Nucleation process: The nucleation process, that is the insertion of the nuclei and mantle in the proper position in the animal's body is the most delicate and critical task. The process is performed by experienced technicians using numerous specialized tools and methodology that are jealously guarded trade secrets. Using the Japanese method, the mantle is inserted prior to nuclei, while in the Burmese method the mantle is inserted after the nuclei. 

 Growth rate: Like the other pearls from Australia, Indonesia and Philippines, the growth rate of the Burmese golden pearl is faster than other colors. Thus, if a 10mm nucleus inserted in the golden pearl-bearing oyster, after two years, a 13mm pearl will be produced. By contrast, if a 10mm nucleus was inserted in a silver or in a silver/pink pearl-bearing oyster, after 2 years, a 12mm pearl will be produced. 

 Maintenance-inspection: Periodically, the oysters need to be cleaned of various obstacles that cover the outer shell of the oyster and prevent it from opening and closing at will. In the Burmese pearl farms, the maw-chins containing the oysters are raised and brought ashore to the pearl camp. They are returned to their farm after the surfaces are cleaned. In Australia, the cleaning is often performed aboard on site in specially designed pearl boats.

 During the quarterly inspection period all oysters are inspected and meticulous recordings are made. Using the Burmese method, the oysters are brought ashore to the camp and all algae, barnacles, sea-weeds and other foreign substances are scrubbed off. The shell is opened about 2-3 cm, and a technician, using special tools designed for the purpose, inspects the oyster from all aspects. The death rate of the oysters at Ravenshaw is below 10 percent, and more than 24,000 "non-operated" oysters are on standby. The inspected oysters are returned to the sea, guided by the experienced divers. By contrast, several firms cultivating pearls in Australian waters use x-ray instruments on board the pearl boats or ashore. 

 Harvesting: At Ravenshaw, the cultivation period lasts about two years and the harvest takes place in August. 

 Treatments: It is also reported that the Burmese pearls are not enhanced by "bleaching" or any other process onsite. However, after the pearls have been auctioned, anything is possible.


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