10 Feb2008


I was enjoying the stir-fried tipay or mother-of-pearl meat that Noli had prepared for lunch, and as I mentioned in the previous post, I jokingly asked if they found any pearls in the shells that they opened up that morning. I thought they were seriously pulling my leg when they said “oh yeah, we found a few…” and after lunch Noli took out about 5-6 small and FANTASTIC natural pearls in irregular shapes and varying colors. These were found in the meats of the oysters from which cultured pearls had already been extracted. Actually, these were unwanted irritants, discards, really. As the planted cultured pearl gets larger and hopefully rounder, sometimes bits of sand or other solid particles make it into the oyster and since the slimy dude hates sharp objects, it coats any foreign matter with its nacre…


But I would never have imagined how common these naturally occurring “irritants” might be. Out of say 50-70 mother of pearl oysters they opened that morning, they got a half dozen little pearls… that’s a 5-10% hit rate! And they had a few more pearls from an earlier bout of tipay munching! We placed the tiny pearls on a white plate and these are in the photos here. I was told by the locals that thousands and thousands of baby oysters are raised or cultured in the nearby laboratories, then when they hit a certain shape they are moved out into cages that are secured in the clean waters around the Culion/Coron/Calamian islands. The cages are carefully tended to ensure they are in the right temperature, level, food source, and physically turned around pointed upwars and downwards in order to result in the highest yield of the finest cultured pearls. But despite all the science, the “perfectly round” cultured pearls are still a one in a thousand scenario, hence the multitude of cultured pearls in the markets that aren’t quite perfectly round. Fascinating stuff. And the locals also conspiratorially informed me that the mother of pearl beads or implants that go into the shells already have a hole drilled into them so that when the final pearl comes out, they just place it under an xray or light and drill the hole to meet up with the original drilled hole and voila! ready for a stringing into a necklace!


The pearl farms in that area were mostly run by Japanese firms and I was also told they paid their staff very well and tried to really keep them happy. I was just utterly amazed by the thought of thousands and thousands of natural pearls such as the ones in these photos were being treated as by products or irritants… no wonder they are in greenhills tiangges by the millions for such low prices. The other interesting thing to me is that the oysters apparently grow pretty fast and by the time they are a year or so old, they might be harvested and replaced… Again this explains why the prices of mother of pearl plates have remained so reasonable (for smaller sizes), when I thought they were getting difficult to find in the wild. My mom left me over a dozen 9-inch wide MOP plates that I love and it is VERY hard to find nice ones in that size anymore… I think they were wild and not cultivated. Lastly, the third photo here is of a larger mother of pearl plate, where the foreign particles got lodged on the side of the shell and was then covered with nacre, creating what looks very much like two half pearls of a humongous size. It is gorgeous but not worth anywhere near half a real or cultured pearl… This shell was part of my mom’s collection. I honestly found this whole pearl education in Culion one of the interesting highlights of the trip…



  1. Jennifer says:

    That’s a funny new poll you’ve got there MM. :)

    Feb 10, 2008 | 6:57 pm


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  3. millet says:

    MM, i couldn’t help it, i voted for three – chocolate, strawberries and THE jam, heehee…

    Feb 10, 2008 | 8:07 pm

  4. Marketman says:

    millet, how did you do that? From 3 different browsers? The poll should only allow you to vote once… :)

    Feb 10, 2008 | 8:27 pm

  5. nikka says:

    I opted for the strawberries in the poll… then i realized, do I get to pick who gives me the massage? hahah!

    Feb 10, 2008 | 9:23 pm

  6. Silly Lolo says:

    That area in Palawan must be a really special place. I once attended a presentation by Mikimoto Corp. (leading Japanese cultured pearl operation) and the one thing I was impressed with is the fact that these pearl oysters will only thrive in very clean, pristine waters. If the area becomes Boracay II, the oysters will definitely be gone!

    Feb 10, 2008 | 9:54 pm

  7. kate says:

    waah, only 6 voted for the Hallmark card ;p i used to work at Hallmark kasi… but i voted for the chocolate! teeheehee.

    Feb 10, 2008 | 10:05 pm

  8. bijin says:

    i am a pearl junkie! the luster on those pearls are pretty amazing!

    Feb 10, 2008 | 10:09 pm

  9. edel says:

    i love pearls! bakit wala sa poll? flowers for me =D

    Feb 11, 2008 | 1:13 am

  10. lee ann says:

    very pretty pearls. :D
    i like irregularly shaped ones more than the perfect round beads. hehe. i have a problem telling fake pearls from real ones. what’s your method of choice? :)

    Feb 11, 2008 | 2:14 am

  11. sister says:

    Try and get a string of natural pearls, they are far more beautiful and certainly more valuable than cultured ones. Do you know that they use an irritant from the Missisippi mussel? Cheap perls from the tiangge have so little nacre that you can see the irritant under a strong light… those half pearls are “mabe”. Your plates and mine are definitely wild, purchased 20 years ago.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 2:39 am

  12. Beth says:

    Lee ann–This is the method my aunt told me–distinguishing the real ones from the fakes–bite into a pearl and with your teeth try to feel the surface of the pearl–if smooth, it is fake and if it feels rough then its real!
    MM,this entry on pearls reminded me the first time I learned about pearls from the same Mikimoto presentation that Silly Lolo mentioned.I was only 10 years old and I was so fascinated with it.Even if my lola said that there’s an old belief that single women who wears pearls never marries, I just love pearls!And of course, it was just a belief–I’m happily married for 20 years now!

    Feb 11, 2008 | 7:55 am

  13. toping says:

    MM, re voting multiple times, I did that in the latest poll too (couldn’t help it, hehe). I just cleared the cookie you set on my PC after every vote…

    Feb 11, 2008 | 9:02 am

  14. Marketman says:

    toping and millet, you are such techies! All in the name of multiple votes. Talk about election anomalies, flying voters… hahaha!

    Feb 11, 2008 | 9:47 am

  15. Bengski says:

    OK ang poll mo ngayon MM.
    Basta ako, solve na ako with a bottle of MM’s Mangosteen jam.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 9:48 am

  16. dee bee says:

    the irregular-shaped ones look like ‘keshi’ pearls… i love pearls, too.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 9:52 am

  17. zena says:

    Without the choice of the mangosteen jam, I would’ve said nothing. But the jam is priceless. I’ve been scouting for the past week for Mangosteen jam but they’re gone! thinking about the santol jam instead.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 10:02 am

  18. Cumin says:

    Very interesting post, MM. Loved the utan bisaya, too! Zena, the Montano company (Dipolog) that’s better known for its bottled sardines has started producing mangosteen preserves.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 1:32 pm

  19. Richard says:

    For Zena. Saw some Mangosteen Jam at Waling-Waling Shop at Manila Seedling Bank, dont know if they are any good.. :) FYI lang.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 1:57 pm

  20. Mila says:

    I like the weird looking shaped pearls too, they have character. While I was reading the post though, it came to mind that if creating a pearl is sort of cruelty to the oyster, will wearing pearls turn into a cause for contention for animal rights folks?

    Feb 11, 2008 | 5:44 pm

  21. sonia says:

    Dear MM,
    Jewelmer has a number of pearl farms in the Palawan area.
    Since you mentioned getting some mother of pearl shells from your mom, i would like to know if you also got some shells from her with paintings on them. I co-authored a book which came out recently on those paintings on mother of pearl shells, some of them by the foremost Filipino painters of the 19th century, like Luna.
    I was told by a friend from Cebu that she used to see those paintings in some Cebu houses she visited in search of antiques. So just curious — do you have any?

    Feb 11, 2008 | 6:17 pm

  22. Marketman says:

    sonia, none with paintings… frankly if I saw them and thought them cheesy, they would have been thrown out without a second thought… but I think I would have known if we had a Luna or Hidalgo on a side table… :) Mila, I don’t think it is cruel to coax nacre from the oyster, I think it is cruel to raise them then kill them for the pearl… but only as cruel as our raising chickens and eating those at KFC. As for these natural pearls, these were a quirk of nature, not inserted on purpose into the oyster…

    Feb 11, 2008 | 6:49 pm

  23. pecorino says:

    Once I bit into something tiny and hard in my Oyster Rockefeller. It turned out to be a tiny teardrop-shaped pearl. But it was white and dull that I doubted it was a pearl at first. This was in San Francisco. Perhaps that’s why the pearl had no luster (not from warm waters)? Anyway, I’ve kept it to this day hoping that maybe it’s lucky somehow :-)

    Feb 11, 2008 | 7:02 pm

  24. john paul sarabia says:

    am not a valentine’s person. my partner said he will cook the best bbq steak, i said cook bbq na baboy instead coz it is cheaper.

    Feb 11, 2008 | 9:52 pm

  25. Maria Clara says:

    Pearls talk to me!

    Feb 12, 2008 | 2:22 am

  26. shalimar says:

    No pearls on the valentine’s wish? I lost the other half of my pearl earrings and its not a cheap one.. hay.Am single this valentine’s am just going to hang out with my crew mates at SOBE.

    But I will go for silver jewellry I love good ethnic pieces which I love to scour on my travels.

    Feb 12, 2008 | 4:02 am

  27. Trish says:

    Beautiful :)

    Feb 12, 2008 | 5:09 am

  28. sonia says:

    Thanks for your response MM. Agree with you that a lot of those paintings on MOP are cheesy. We sourced most of what we featured in the book from Spain as they were a favorite souvenir item from the Philippines.Having Luna and Hidalgo — and our national hero, Jose Rizal –paint on them raised these collectibles a notch higher than just being collectibles.

    Cheers to you and thanks for a consistently engaging ( addicting even!) blog. I love it that you do everything YOUR way

    Feb 12, 2008 | 6:03 am

  29. Ted says:

    Everything but the jam can be had here in the U.S. so the Jam is priceless!!!

    The cultured pearls are also cheap at honolulu’s tiange. You can have a string of pearls for less than $20.

    Feb 12, 2008 | 10:02 am

  30. anonymous paul says:

    actually, there are activists against pearl cultivation. oysters, particularly the pinctada margaritifera and pinctada maxima are used to produce south sea and tahitian pearls. they are implanted with a nucleus (“irritant”) of shell particles obtained from freshwater clams. using other forms of nuclei will render the oyster dead. an incision is made in the oysters’ gonads and inserted with the desired size of pearl to produce in mind. so yes, the oyster is hurt. but it is not killed. upon harvesting 2 to 3 years later the oyster can be used again. the oysters can only take in one implant at a time. and during harvest, only about 30% will be considered gem quality. and only a fraction (maybe less than 5%) of that 30% will be the round and clean and very expensive pearls we know of. they do have some use for the “rejects”. some are ground up and mixed in beauty products as facial creams, pills and lipstick.

    the japanese usually farm akoya pearls/oysters which yield very consistent round pearls of about 8mm. south sea pearls are generally found in larger sizes but greater variety of shapes. there have been technological advances made in freshwater pearling that has produced freshwater pearls in same sizes as south seas. considering production of south seas range in only the tens of tons per year versus the hundreds or so tons per year of freshwater pearls, there will obviously be a great variance in price. so be careful when buying!

    to test if a pearl is real or not you can RUB it against your tooth but don’t bite. or better yet, you can rub two pearls together lightly or try to scratch with a fingernail. you’ll be trying to look for grittiness.

    Feb 12, 2008 | 12:21 pm

  31. Marketman says:

    anonymous paul, thanks for that. OMG, I had no idea they sliced the oysters testicles and lodged the irritant THERE! I would be frigging annoyed if that were me! But if I understood the locals correctly, these particularly oysters grow pretty fast and they only leave the implant in for a year, hence the abundance of small MOP plates and not the really big ones. At any rate, thanks for the info… I certainly learned something… for other readers, anonymous paul is in a profession that would require him to possess this knowledge, so it is expert advice… :) If I were a militant shell I’d slice open one of those pearl farmer’s gonads open and see what kind of pearl HE produced after two years! And yes fake hunters, rub the pearl on your teeth, don’t bite. And if you have caps, try using a real tooth… :)

    Feb 12, 2008 | 12:51 pm

  32. anonymous paul says:

    oops. i meant to say freshwater pearl production is in the thousands of tons per year, not hundreds… so much for the build up ;)

    Feb 12, 2008 | 5:55 pm

  33. Ted says:

    I think i would rather slice the gonads of those people involved with the zte/nbn deal ;-)

    Feb 14, 2008 | 6:06 am

  34. shelby says:

    this is awsome i would love to have one

    Mar 25, 2008 | 9:33 pm

  35. jim says:

    our company is into pearl culture. anyone interested in buying loose authentic Philippine South Sea Pearls, pls contact me by email jimpab76@gmail.com

    we also culture raw and processed mabe pearls same as in the photo both from the pinctada maxima oyster and pteria penguin.


    Jun 17, 2008 | 12:26 pm


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