Pearls are a gift from nature bestowed on Vietnam. Despite the advantages of pearl cultivation, Vietnam has not yet fully explored this industry. However, along with the development of Vietnam’s economy as well as travel, the pearl industry has gradually received much interest from domestic and international customers.
A precious gift from heaven
Known as “precious beads,” pearls are formed by an irritant (usually a parasite or particle of sand) inside a living mussel, oyster or clam. They are popular for making jewelry, trimming clothing and favored by nobles and celebrities.
People still remember Lady Sarah Churchill’s legendary quote: “I feel undressed if I don’t have my pearls on.”
Pearls have been favored by many big names such as former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, actress Audrey Hepburn, and Princess Diana. Coco Chanel’s fashion designs were always accessorized with pearl chains.
In oriental medicine, the pearl is also used as a cure. Due to its balancing properties and sweet taste, it can go into the meridians of the heart, liver, and kidney. Pearls have sedative effects, stop seizures, detoxify, and cure nebula, tinnitus, dizziness.
Long known as the “Queen of Gemstones,” pearls possess a history and attractiveness beyond what today’s wearers might recognize. Before the creation of pearl cultivation technology in the early 1900s, natural pearls were rare, expensive and exclusive to the nobility and upper-classes. At the peak of the Roman Empire, when the pearl craze was hottest, historian Suetonius wrote that Roman general Vitellius financed the entire military campaign by selling only a few pairs of his mother’s pearl earrings.
Pearls played a vital role in the most famous party in human history. To convince Rome that Egypt possessed great wealth, Queen Cleopatra made a bet with Marc Antony that she could offer the most expensive dinner in history. Accordingly, the Romans were dumbfounded when the queen sat with an empty plate and a glass of wine (or vinegar). She then crushed a large pair of pearl earrings, dissolved them in the liquid, and drank it.
In Vietnamese literature, we remember the poems in Nguyen Trai’s Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (literally: Great proclamation upon the pacification of the Wu). There were lines mentioning the exploitation of the Minh army when Vietnamese people had to go to the sea to search for pearls and pay tribute.
“Divers were forced to dive deep to look for pearls, fearing sharp teeth of sharks and alligators.
Miners were forced to find gold by sieving sand, risking their lives in unwholesome forested mountains.”
This shows that pearls have been valuable throughout history.
The pearl cultivation industry
A pearl’s quality and value depends on how it meets the following seven factors – size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, nacre quality, and combinability. The brightness and the shine of the outer nacre layer of each pearl is also important.
Vietnam has an advantage in the pearl industry thanks to its 3,200 km long coastline with many islands and lakes. Pearls are categorized according to their habitat – fresh and saltwater. Saltwater pearls are much more valuable and expensive than those grown in freshwater. This is because the environment to cultivate saltwater pearl oysters is much harsher than freshwater pearl mussels. Also, the climate and water temperature of the sea are extraordinarily erratic and uncontrollable, a big challenge for jewelry manufacturers. In contrast, the environment for cultivating freshwater pearl mussels is easy to control. It does not have many demanding requirements.
To create a pearl, saltwater oysters require an average of six times longer than freshwater mussels. Freshwater mussels can be transplanted from 20 to 30 kernels, so the nacre layer is often thinner and the size smaller than the saltwater pearl. In Vietnam, the famous pearl-producing places are the islands of Quang Ninh, Nha Trang (Khanh Hoa), and Phu Quoc.
In Vietnam, there is a pearl farming village on Bai Tu Long Bay, Bac Ninh Province, known as a pearl kingdom. There are many islands named after pearls such as Minh Chau (bright pearl), Ngoc Vung island ( shining pearl) and the famous trade port Cai Rong – Van Don. Phu Quoc is a famous name in the pearl business. Visitors to Phu Quoc can shop at local pearl businesses such as Long Beach and Ngoc Hien. Pearl farming in Phu Quoc has thrived in the past seven years, due to cooperation between producers from Australia and Japan and domestic partners. Depending on the quality, color, and shape, the price of each pearl can range from ten to several thousand dollars. The most valuable is the black pearl, priced at more than US$1,000 (size 10-12 millimetres), while light pink pearls are priced at US$40 or more (size 6– 8 millimetres). Visitors learn that pearls are used in other products, such as being crushed into powder for cosmetics such as pearl masks and essence lotion. Pearls, those beads from heaven, are prized in fashion, culture and have high economic value. With their characteristics and stories, pearls are timeless treasures.
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