Phu Quoc pearls out of reach
Visitors to Phu Quoc Island may not know that Phu Quoc pearls are said to be the best in the country, but they will certainly notice the abundance of pearl stores dotting the island. Despite the fame of Phu Quoc pearls, most pearls sold do not originate there, and are mostly cheaper fresh-water pearls. Connoisseurs say genuine Phu Quoc pearls are scarce and expensive.
Ho Phi Thuy is the owner of the largest pearl producer on Phu Quoc Island.
The 39-year-old man, who could not afford to attend university, has over 1.5 million oysters, capable of producing about 200kg of pearls each year.
"No shop on the island buys pearl from my workshop," Thuy said, "Our products are mainly exported to Japan."
Although pearls are sold everywhere on the island, Thuy’s claim should spark the curiosity of visitors. Many stores claim to sell Phu Quoc pearls, and prices vary widely from store to store, ranging from several hundred thousand dong to thousands of dollars for a necklace.
According to a manager of a pearl shop on Phu Quoc island, the price is dependent on the pearls’ age and lustre.
Normally, it takes between six months and one year to produce a pearl. This explains why there are only four pearl producers on the island. Most of them are joint ventures with foreign companies.
Asked if the pearls were from Phu Quoc, a shop owner named Le Bich Ngoc in Rach Ham Hamlet, Ham Ninh Commune replied, "I do not know where they come from. It is said that these pearls are brought in the north."
Ngoc said visitors had usually bought pearl necklaces for a few hundred thousand dong each. She said the most expensive one she had sold was worth VND3 million (US$181).
Director of the Centre for Gem and Gold Research and Identification, Pham Van Long, said Phu Quoc pearls were the most beautiful in Viet Nam because the island water was cleaner and the layer of mother of pearl was usually thicker and more lustrous than pearls grown in other parts of the country.
The price of one Phu Quoc pearl ranges from $2 to $2,000, depending on its size, shape and colour. For example, a beautiful, shining pearl of between 15mm and 16mm is sold at $2,000.
Sea-water pearls are more lustrous than those grown in fresh water.
Long said Chinese pearls were rampant in the island, with 90 per cent of them grown in fresh water.
Island people recall their ancestors diving for pearls, but nowadays they use nets to trawl for oysters. They said that some families had found very valuable pearls this way.
Known as the pearl island, Phu Quoc is surrounded by pure, blue water gulfs where oysters abound.
Holding a handful of Phu Quoc pearls, Ho Phi Thuy’s wife Khong Thi Truc said she had sold pearls for VND9 million each. She said she had sold one pearl at a price of VND100 million. The cheapest necklace she sold was worth several million dong.
Head of Kien Giang Planning and Investment Department’s Business Registration Section, Le Quoc Tuan, said one local had bought a pearl production establishment from a Japanese business in An Thoi Town. But Tuan said he did not know where the establishment was located at present.
Thuy, who now owns the business, worked odd jobs for years after high school, with one stint as a deep-sea diver that left him with perforated eardrums and temporarily deaf.
His company in An Thoi Town, Duong To Commune now employs 30 workers who get a monthly salary of VND2 million ($120) each. Last year, he earned a monthly profit of VND2.6 billion ($156,626).
Originally from Quang Nam Province, Thuy grew up in a poor family with many children. After graduation from high school, he tried his hand at many jobs before moving to Phu Quoc Island in 1989 to deep-sea dive.
"That was a very dangerous job, although I made good money," he said. "But my eardrums were perforated from having to dive so deep and I had to have an operation."
Thuy, whose hearing was restored, then decided to sell his fishing boat to a Japanese man who cultivated pearls on the island, and began working for him.
After the Japanese company went bankrupt following the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Thuy, who had learned cultivation techniques from his boss, bought equipment, cages and vessels from the Japanese company.
Beginning with 3,000 breeding oysters, Thuy began to turn a profit and expanded his business to two hectares. In 2005, his pearls brought him VND4 billion ($2.4 million) in profit.
He is now re-employing his ex-boss at US$2,500 a month.
(Source: Viet Nam News, URL:http://english.vietnamnet.vn/profiles/2008/10/808681/)
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