ONGOING efforts by the Myanmar Pearl Enterprise under the Ministry of Mines to improve the pearl industry, including cooperation and support for local and foreign joint ventures, has helped establish Myanmar as a major pearl producer.

Pearls may be cultivated from either wild fished oysters or hatchery-produced shells. The Myanmar pearl industry has moved quickly to produce increasingly large quantities of pearls from hatcheries rather than from wild shells as in the old days.

The British engaged in pearling for natural varieties in the Myeik Archipelago as early as 1891.

After independence, around 1950, a Japanese-owned company engaged divers to search for natural pearls and sold them in international markets. They proved very popular, and ‘Burmese pearls’ began acquiring a reputation ‘as being one of the world’s finest varieties. One reason for this is that 40 per cent of Myanmar pearls are golden in colour, unlike those from Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines, which are silvery or yellow. Golden pearls are sought after because they are scarce and command a premium price.

The pearl industry was eventually nationalised under the socialist regime. In 1988 the government embraced a free market philosophy, and by 1996 foreign pearl companies began investing in Myanmar. The first was the Thai-owned Andaman Pearl Co.

In 1995 the Tasaki Co. signed a joint venture agreement with the government.

The Myanmar Atlantic Pearl Co., based in Australia, in 1998 ; signed a joint venture agreement with the Myanmar Pearl Enterprise to culture pearls in the Myeik Archipelago.

The company specialises in the culture of South Sea pearls. There are many varieties of pearls in the world today, including black pearls, tiny akoya Japanese pearls and freshwater pearls from China and India. But of all these, South Sea pearls are most valued and fetch the highest prices.

” At first we sold all our produce in Japan, but since our last two harvests we have also been selling in Myanmar and have been successful beyond our expectations,” said Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, the general manager of the company.

“We have a product sharing agreement with the government: We give them 25 per cent of the pearls we produce and are then free to dispose of our 75 per cent as we please. We can sell them locally or export them without paying any further taxes because we are a joint venture with the government,” he said.

Oysters can be fertilised only between the months of January and May. Male and female oysters are placed in water tanks at a ratio of 6 males to 20 females. Then the temperature is raised. This causes the oysters to release sperm and ova into the water. These seek each other out and become larvae, which attach themselves to knotted ‘collector ropes’ that are put into the water.

After 45 days the ropes are placed in panels that are sent out into ocean waters within the contract area. This area is off limits to fishermen and unauthorised boats and ships. Security is enforced by Myanmar Navy patrol boats.

After two years the oysters are about 10 centimetres long and ready to be seeded. This consists of prying open the shells and inserting a nucleus or foreign body into it. The oyster tries to deal with the foreign body by depositing layer upon layer of calcium called nacre on it. The accumulated nacre constitutes the pearl.

Seeding an oyster is a delicate process; the shell must be pried open to implant a nucleus and mantle tissue in the oyster’s gonads. Until recent times, only Japanese specialist technicians were able to perform this work at high speed and with good nucleus retention rates. Now this skill is being acquired by Myanmar technicians.

Breeding and seeding techniques are being improved to increase the percentage of gold pearls produced, due to both their greater market appeal and value compared to the white and yellow pearls.

By the end of the fourth year the oysters are ready to be harvested. The shells are reopened and the pearl removed, after which another nucleus can immediately be inserted. This can be repeated two or three times during the oyster’s lifetime, after which it has grown too old and is set free in the ocean to begin life anew as a wild oyster.