Pearls of the Orient Seas

If it were a movie, it would be titled The Curse of the Pearly Blob, and the yarn would not have been better scripted if it were fiction. But it is not; it is real life—the stuff of legend, adventure, and song.

That is the fantastic tale of the Pearl of Lao-Tzu, one of the world’s great pearls, originally found off Palawan, and whose full, definitive story is told in thoroughly researched detail that spans over 80 years.

Just as I was putting together this piece on pearls from the old homestead, both famous and banal, The Atlantic magazine comes out with the incredible tale Chasing the Pearl of Lao-Tzu, by Michael LaPointe, in the current (June) issue.

The Lao-Tzu Pearl is a legendary specimen which, at this writing, stands as the second largest pearl in existence. (The title was surpassed two years ago, in 2016, when another pearl, also found in Palawan, took it away the title, but more on that later.)

 Laura Lintner-Horn, so-called “stepdaughter” of one Victor Barbish, current “owner” of the Lao-Tzu Pearl, holds the non-nacreous pearl at Barbish’s home in Colorado in 2004. The pearl is about 9.5 inches long and weighs 14 lbs (est). (Photo courtesy of Laura Lintner-Horn and  The Atlantic Magazine)

Laura Lintner-Horn, so-called “stepdaughter” of one Victor Barbish, current “owner” of the Lao-Tzu Pearl, holds the non-nacreous pearl at Barbish’s home in Colorado in 2004. The pearl is about 9.5 inches long and weighs 14 lbs (est). (Photo courtesy of Laura Lintner-Horn and The Atlantic Magazine)

In brief, the story of the Lao-Tzu Pearl began in 1936 when a Dyak chieftain in the southern Palawan areas, supposedly rewarded one William Dowell Cobb, an American-Filipino from Manila, this huge, rare pearl in gratitude for Cobb healing the chieftain’s very sick son—even though Cobb was not a doctor. Because the blob (the pearl) allegedly bore resemblance to a man with a turban, which the Dyak tribe interpreted as the visage of the prophet Mohammed, they christened it as the “Pearl of Allah”—or at least that was the provenance Cobb told the civilized world in 1939 when he tried to get it shown at the New York’s World’s Fair that year.

It did not make the World’s Fair, but Cobb and his pearl got the origins documented in Natural History (Museum in New York) magazine and a glowing appraisal from the Museum itself. Apparently, that was enough to get it shown at the newly opened Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum of Oddities on Broadway, attracting global crowds who came to New York for the 1939 World’s Fair.

And that was the start of an amazing tale which, through the years, took more surprising twists and turns than episodes of As the World Turns, including the following chapters wherein:

(1) Cobb embellished it even more by alleging that the pearl’s provenance could be traced farther back 2,500 years ago to the ancient Chinese sage Lao-Tsu (second only to Confucius in terms of renown) in old Cathay—hence acquiring the new identity as the “Pearl of Lao-Tzu”;

(2) in 1985-86, our late, demented dictator-couple, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, also supposedly tried to acquire the pearl. When their February 1986 fall from power curtailed that quest,

(3) it caught Usama bin Laden’s attention, in pre-9/11 days, just as he was embarking on his al Qaeda adventure in Iraq. The budding terrorist mastermind supposedly tried to buy it as a gift to Saddam Hussein.

What followed were still more convoluted, legal chapters than even Perry Mason could litigate in US courts, until the present. At various times, the pearl’s value was estimated from $32.4 million to $100 million, but none of those sums ever panned out to a real sale. This pearl left behind a wide swath of destruction, ruined lives, and dashed dreams—indeed, it seemed “cursed.” Lao-Tzu remains unsold to this very day, and between layers of on-going litigation, seems stuck in that “unsold” limbo status. For the full article: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-pearl-of-lao-tzu/559109/

Another timely pearl story occurred when the largest freshwater pearl in history, the Sleeping Lion, sold at auction in the Netherlands for $374,000, at the end of May 2018.

  The Sleeping Lion , the largest freshwater pearl known, with its original 1700s brass box.

The Sleeping Lion, the largest freshwater pearl known, with its original 1700s brass box.

 A print depicting the " Sleeping Lion " pearl from May 1778, although it obviously looks more human than lion-like.

A print depicting the "Sleeping Lion" pearl from May 1778, although it obviously looks more human than lion-like.

While it may not seem like a significant sum unlike, say, top-of-the-line Jackson Pollocks, Picassos, or Gauguins which average $150+ million a pop now, the Sleeping Lion’s $374,000 is the first concrete sum of what these amorphous accretions will bear in the marketplace.

Like the Lao-Tzu Pearl, the Sleeping Lion, too, had a long and storied past—initially being supposedly found in the Pearl River of China, brought to old Batavia (now Jakarta), then to the Netherlands. In 1788, it was acquired by Catherine the Great of Russia. She placed it on public display at the Hermitage Museum until 1796.

Then in 1865, the gem returned to the Netherlands anew when bought by a Dutch jeweler. It was in his family’s possession until 1979 when it was then purchased by the Amsterdam Pearl Society. This year, the Society decided to put it up for last month’s auction. The Sleeping Lion weighed in at 4 ounces (120 grams) and was originally estimated to sell for $395,000 to $628,000.

More Record-Setting Pearls from Palawan

The current world title-holder of the “World’s Largest Pearl” is one unveiled just in 2016. As it has no unique name yet (and until the fisherman who discovered it in 2006, reveals himself), I am therefore christening it (even for identification purposes of this article only) as the Palawan 2016 Princesa Pearl. (How does that sound?)

 The (what I’ve momentarily christened the   Palawan 2016 Princesa Pearl  ) on exhibit at the Puerto Princesa City Hall.

The (what I’ve momentarily christened the Palawan 2016 Princesa Pearl) on exhibit at the Puerto Princesa City Hall.

This Palawan 2016 Princesa Pearl weighs in at nearly 75 lbs. and measures one (1) ft. wide by 2.2 ft. long.

When the Palawan fisherman discovered the nacreous wonder, he knew that it was something special but was totally clueless as to its disposition. So, he kept the gem under his bed for ten years for “good luck,” until he revealed it to the attention of his aunt two years ago. She also happened to be a tourism official of Palawan—thus, it ended up for the moment at Puerto Princesa City Hall. Because it has never been sold or built up a solid provenance, it is roughly valued at $100 million, a conveniently round figure.

(Second largest is the Lao-Tzu, and) coming in third largest is The Palawan Princess, officially recognized in 2009. It weighs 5 lbs. and also does not carry much of a provenance—even the present owner is unknown.

At first glance, these blobs do not look like your regular, traditional, round mini-pearls. Under U.S. trade law, however, it’s perfectly legal to call such objects pearls. This Palawan Princess, like the Lao-Tzu, is a non-nacreous pearl (not borne of mother-of-pearl products), i.e., they do not have the luster of regular oyster-created pearls or the sheen of the Sleeping Lion and Palawan 2016 Princesa. Instead, they have a more opaque, alabaster-like quality, and lack the iridescence of pearls made from saltwater oysters, abalone, or freshwater mussels.

 The Palawan Princess

The Palawan Princess

The Palawan Princess was put up for auction in December 2009, at an estimated $300,000 to $400,000. However, it was taken off the auction block when it did not attract any “minimum” offers.

Over-Valued Gemstones?

And that is the conundrum of these “priceless” specimens. Because they are organic “gems,” these large, amorphous accretions cannot be broken up into smaller pieces. Sometimes, there may be some minimal buffing, polishing, or even drilling (to create holes for stringing) of pearls; however, they are either perfect, near-perfect, or they’re not.  

The three Palawan specimens discussed here are estimated by gemologists at astronomical sums—ranging from $60 million to $100 million, of which, only the sheiks of Araby or Brunei (throw in a millionaire-terrorist, or maybe billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates) could actually afford. Unfortunately, none of these top three saltwater treasures have actually been sold. (Even the Sleeping Lion did not break any records.)

On the other hand, the La Peregrina pearl (the centerpiece of an elaborate choker-necklace with pearls and other gems), whose last owner was actress Elizabeth Taylor, broke world records with a $12 million sale at Christie’s in December 2011. (La Peregrina is thought to have been fished from Panama.)

Therefore, the absence of actual sales/auction figures begs the question, are these gems over-rated? Will anyone ever buy these world-record pearls? Or are they just too vulgar, crass, or rough-hewn to be even displayed tastefully other than at a City Hall or a Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit?

Conversely, ordinary Filipinos and tourists who cannot even afford the pricier pearl chokers or parures, let alone those gigantic specimens, can treat themselves to more mundane capiz products. The capiz or mother-of-pearl is a byproduct of the larger clams which, when they cannot produce perfect, beautiful pearls on a mass scale, still give up the ghost as lovely household products and souvenirs.

 Novelty products made from Philippine capiz or mother-of-pearl.

Novelty products made from Philippine capiz or mother-of-pearl.

The National Gem of the Philippines

In October 1996, by an Act of the Philippine Congress, the pearl was officially proclaimed as the country’s National Gem. The Act was signed by then-president Fidel Ramos.

 The current 1000 Philippine peso bill celebrating the Tabbatha Reefs Natural Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pearl as the country’s national gem.

The current 1000 Philippine peso bill celebrating the Tabbatha Reefs Natural Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pearl as the country’s national gem.

The Mysterious Pearl Farm in Davao

For its pristine waters, Palawan has become the epicenter of a resurgent cultured pearl industry in the Philippines. Previously, there used to be smaller pearl farms in Cebu and Iloilo, but the first really concerted “cultured pearl-farm” effort was one started by businessman and ecologist Daniel F. Aguinaldo outside Davao City.

But according to local townsfolk, all of that was just a cover for the real story.

Supposedly, in 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, a Japanese naval ship carrying several tons of loot and plunder from Malaya, Brunei, and Indonesia, sank off Samal Island; and it remained untouched for years. Then, all of a sudden, in 1958, Daniel Aguinaldo showed up and established a pearl farm there, so far away from his home base of Cavite. For years, the pearl farm seemed to be chugging along, until sometime in the mid-1980s (just before Marcos was deposed), operations suddenly ceased and the premises were abandoned.

For years, local kids scoured the abandoned farm buildings for pink and white pearls, which they used for marble games, not realizing their intrinsic worth. So, the locals put two and two together, and speculated that the “pearl farm died a natural death” when there was no more treasure from the sunken Japanese ship to be salvaged. Although it has never come up in other Marcos plunder accounts, it seemed very much a Marcos-type operation even it started way back before Ferdinand Marcos became a national name.

Sometime between the hasty exit of Marcos in 1986 and the scattering of his top cronies, “banana king” Antonio Floirendo bought Samal Island and by the 1990s, turned it into a resort destination. His daughter-in-law, former 1974 Miss Universe, Margie Moran, went from being beauty queen holder to resort administrator, for some 15 years.

Where Aguinaldo “failed,” Manual R. Cojuangco (MRC; youngest brother to another top Marcos crony, Eduardo “Danding” Cojunagco, and first cousin to the late Cory Aquino) took over. In 1979 MRC teamed up with one Jacques Branellac, a one-time pearl fancier from France and Tahiti, to establish the Jewelmer Pearl farms in islands off northern Palawan. While most statistics are proprietary secrets, Jewelmer seems to have made a go of the very delicate business of culturing pearls. It also has its own chain of retail stores in the Philippines and has distribution deals with leading international luxury brands like Cartier, Chanel, Tiffany & Co., Piaget, etc., even the acknowledged industry leader, Mikimoto (since Mikimoto’s own farms in Japan have all but dried up).

Using state-of-the art practices and modern biotechnology, Jewelmer specializes in producing the golden South Sea pearl and perfected the process of breeding by using the gold-lipped Maxima Pinctada oyster. The golden South Sea pearl produced by Jewelmer is supposedly the biggest and rarest of all cultured pearl varieties—per Jewelmer’s website.

 A bountiful harvest of Palawan golden pearls being sorted. Rejected, inferior pearls are destroyed so that the overall quality of what is sold, is maintained. (Photo from:  http://blog.asiantown.net/-/9980/natural-golden-pearl-in-palawan--philippines---how-they-make-it.aspx)%20- 20How%20pearls%20are%20made .)

A bountiful harvest of Palawan golden pearls being sorted. Rejected, inferior pearls are destroyed so that the overall quality of what is sold, is maintained. (Photo from: http://blog.asiantown.net/-/9980/natural-golden-pearl-in-palawan--philippines---how-they-make-it.aspx)%20- 20How%20pearls%20are%20made.)

The Precarious Nature of Pearl-Farming

The culturing of pearls is an extremely precise, delicate, and sensitive operation. To get the perfect golden pearls, you must have the right combination of healthy oysters and clean waters with the right nutrients and channels where there must be currents to continually cleanse the oysters. Most important of all is the proper temperature of the ocean water in which the oysters will thrive. Even a rise of more than three or four degrees in water temperature will ruin a couple of years’ harvest of oysters and their pearls with it.

Because of this precarious nature of the business, Jewelmer and Cojuangco established the Save Palawan Seas Foundation in 2006. It seeks to safeguard as much of the marine environment they can control, and to create sustainable livelihood programs for the local communities who provide the human muscle power of the enterprise.

Here is a video of an exclusive visit to the Jewelmer farms:

And the following link is from the company’s 35th Anniversary Gala in 2014 held in Cebu. It’s truly a feast for the eyes not only for the stunning pearl jewelry, but also for the beautiful Filipina models showing off the South Sea treasures.

https://www.pearlsofjoy.com/Jewelmer-35th-Anniversary-Gala_b_77.html

And that’s why the old turf is called “The Pearl of the Orient Seas.”

Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/style/article/worlds-largest-pearl-sleeping-lion-auction-netherlands/index.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44320724

https://thejewelerblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/once-owned-by-catherine-the-great-the-sleeping-lion-pearl-hits-auction-block-this-week/

https://www.cnn.com/style/article/largest-pearl-philippines-amurao/index.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/fisherman-hands-in-giant-pearl-he-tossed-under-the-bed-10-years-ago

http://naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1939_11_pick.html

http://www.pearl-guide.com/forum/content.php?76-The-Pearl-of-Allah-The-Facts-the-Fiction-and-the-Fraud

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-pearl-of-lao-tzu/559109/

https://www.ft.com/content/97603af2-e424-11e4-9039-00144feab7de

https://www.pearlsofjoy.com/Jewelmer-35th-Anniversary-Gala_b_77.html

https://www.ft.com/content/71bf7030-1954-11e7-9c35-0dd2cb31823a (Financial Times of London)

https://gia13615093.livejournal.com/62160.html

The bin Laden story: http://www.wnd.com/2004/10/27270/

https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/17535/lot/2377/

https://cbholganzablog.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/the-legend-of-davaos-pearl-farm-resort/

http://www.pearl-guide.com/forum/showthread.php?427-major-pearl-producing-countries

http://ncca.gov.ph/about-culture-and-arts/culture-profile/philippine-fast-facts/national-gem-philippine-pearl/


 Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to  www.positivelyfilipino.com.   His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . ., features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication.   The book is presently available onamazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).  

 Myles’ two other books are:  Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from amazon.com.  

 Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.    

 Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco.  The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.  

 For any enquiries on the above: contact razor323@gmail.com  


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