Phuket.com goes shopping for pearls – and not just any pearls, but pearls from a Phuket pearl farm. We talk with Amorn Intarrajaroen, a local pearl farmer and owner of the Phuket Pearl Factory in Sapam about this classic staple of jewellery.
Khun Amorn is not your average boss. He loves to get down into the muck with his workers, making sure that his pearl oysters are good and healthy. And when he's not doing the dirty work on the farm, he enjoys coming up with innovative designs for pearl jewellery.
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A Family Business
“My family have farmed pearls for almost 40 years off Koh Rang, near Phuket. We started in my grandfather’s time,” says Khun Amorn. The industry was started in Phuket by the Japanese, who had the know-how – they were the originators of pearl-farming and cultured pearls. Some Phuket people learned from the Japanese and have since developed techniques further.
Khun Amorn split away from the family business about seven years ago and set up his own farm at Koh Maprao, just off the east coast of Phuket. His is now the biggest pearl farm in Phuket. “Before the 2004 tsunami, we farmed about 100,000 pearl oysters. When we harvested them, we usually got pearls from 70% of the oysters in any year.
Then came the tsunami and Khun Amorn’s farm was wiped out. “I lost 70 million baht in that one day,” he says. Despite this massive setback, he started again, though with about half the investment involved in the pre-tsunami farm.
Pearl of Phuket
There are currently three active pearl farms in Phuket, Khun Amorn says. It’s not an easy business, he explains. Pearls grow in oysters that must be kept in the water for a long time, sometimes a year or more, before harvesting. Theft is a problem. Most pearl farm owners hire employees only for very short periods – a few days at a time – so that none of the workers can figure out when the pearls are ready to be harvested, and steal them.
“On top of this, it seems that the natural conditions around Phuket have been changing since the tsunami. The sea level is different – even the local fishermen are confused. The chemical composition of the water is also changing.
“We have to adjust a lot and study more in order to be able to continue producing pearls.”
All of this, however, has not stopped Khun Amorn from farming pearls. He does it, he says, for the love of it – though not blind love.
“In this business, you can’t expect a quick return. It takes time, and you can’t really control most of the factors [that influence pearl growth]. Many people think I’m crazy to still dedicate time and investment after the tsunami,” he smiles.
In his case, he says, running a pearl farm is not just about how much money he has put in. He loves to experiment with the pearl-making process himself, not always successfully. There have been many times when he and his team had to throw away lots of oysters after putting in pearl nuclei because the experiments were a failure and the oysters were dying. “I remember once I had to throw away 500 oysters,” he says.
But he is undeterred, and continues in his attempts to advance pearl-making techniques and also to come up with new ways to use pearls in jewellery. Marketing he leaves to his brother – his own energies go into the creative end of the industry.
How To Tell A Fake Pearl
He says there is a popular misunderstanding about cultured pearls – that they are somehow not real. He explains that the difference between a natural pearl and a cultured one is simply the nucleus. In the case of a natural pearl, currents in the sea deliver the nucleus of the pearl – a grain of sand, for example. In the case of cultured pearls, the nucleus is inserted by hand. After that, the process is no different; the oyster does the work.
What is true is that there are fake pearls, mostly made from plastic. Khun Amorn offers this guide to telling the difference between real and fake.
• Check the weight of the pearl. A real pearl has some heft to it and is, of course, heavier than a plastic imitation.
• Feel the surface of the pearl. If you gently rub two pearls together and feel a slight grittiness, the pearls are real. If the sensation is smooth, it’s likely the “pearls” are made of plastic.
• Check for natural flaws. All real pearls have flaws because this is a natural process; the likelihood of a real pearl having a perfect shape, for example, is next to nothing. On the other hand, a good pearl should not have too many flaws.
• Sea pearls take time to produce. Some pearl shops may try to fool buyers into paying over the odds by selling them river pearls, which take a much shorter time to produce. Also, a river pearl oyster can produce 50 pearls or more, whereas its marine cousin can produce only one at a time.
• The most difficult scam to detect is pearls made from the dust left over after real pearls are made into jewellery. Using modern technology, this dust can be moulded into a “pearl” that is so like the real thing, with the right weight, luster and even colour, that it takes a professional to tell the difference.
What’s It Worth?
“Pearls are different from other luxury jewellery,” says Khun Amorn. “There are no agreed standards for pricing them. It all depends on the buyer and seller.” Factors that may influence the price include current trends in colour and shape, or simply personal preferences.
Consumer behaviour varies also with age, he says. Most young women start out buying jewellery that is not too expensive, such as silver. As they get older they graduate to white gold, gold, diamonds and then other gems. “Pearls are usually the last category they go for. People who like pearls are different and are sure of their own identity,” says Khun Amorn.
“To get a perfect match of pearls to make a necklace or other type of jewellery takes a lot of effort. We usually trade among the pearl farms here to get a good match, or a good set for something like a necklace. We also buy South Sea pearls from other places for the same purpose,” Khun Amorn explains.
In his show room visitors can see a bewildering choice of shape, colours and prices. Some items sell for less than 5,000 baht, but prices of 100,000 baht and more are not extraordinary. Buyers can purchase pearls alone, or pearls made into jewellery such as earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings.
The most expensive item in Khun Amorn’s showroom on the day we visited was a set of pearl necklaces priced at 1.8 million baht.
Khun Amorn says that his dream is to see pearls become a part of activities on the island. One possibility would be regular fashion shows in Phuket, with fashions that use Thai silk and Phuket pearls. “If I could find a good location to set up a permanent runway, it would be nice,” he smiles.
If you are interested in visiting Khun Amorn’s pearl farm and seeing the entire process for producing pearls, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pearl Farm Tour
The beach is perfect to get some exercise on and not far from the restaurant lies a line of beachfront bamboo bungalows with a decidedly 'back to nature' feel to them.
They're called 'Rim Talay' which means 'by the sea' and there simply couldn't be a more tranquil spot with the only noise being the gentle lapping up of the waves on the shore, not ten metres away. This is where tranquillity reigns and the flash and brash razzle that is Patong seems light years away.