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  • Beihai’s south pearls
  • Workers of south pearl enterprise extract pearls from oysters.
  • The South Pearl Breeding Base in Tieshan Harbor

Beihai’s south pearl relives its glorious past

South pearls, or Chinese akoya pearls, were considered a major tribute to the imperial courts throughout the history of China. Cultivation of south pearls in Beihai, a city in the south of Guangxi, has a history of over 60 years. Office of Reviving Beihai’s South Pearl Industry has recently talked with Hong Kong Jewellery on the significance of and outlook for the reviving south pearl industry.


What are the features of Beihai’s south pearls?

The pearls found in the waters around Beibu Wan near Hepu (now Beihai) in the old days were called “south pearl”. The pearl outshines its freshwater counterparts due to the superior quality and lustre. As it was a precious tribute to the Chinese imperial courts, it has been subject to a set of stringent quality standards.

South pearls are grown in pinctada martensi in the waters around Beibu Wan, also called Hepu pearl oysters, which harvest the best pearls. Cultivation of south pearls takes place eight to 15 metres down under the water. Mainly round or oval, south pearls are small in size with a smooth surface and a thick layer of nacre. They are mainly in silver white, milky white or pink with rose, blue and green undertones. Natural south pearls is scarce, with just 19 grams found in 10,000 oysters. They are mostly around 1 to 2 mm in diameter, those with 4 mm are exceptional.


Beihai’s south pearls were cultivated in large scale some years back. What accounted for the decline later on?

The cultivation of Beihai south pearls started over 60 years ago. It is an industry the Chinese government attaches great importance to. Early in August 1955, the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, asked Hepu County People’s Government to consolidate information about the pearling history and status of south pearls. In 1957, the local government conducted a thorough study on the subject to prepare for pearl cultivation. Premier Zhou Enlai made an important statement that it was essential to transform the backward pearl-fishing activity to the cultivation of south pearls.

The pilot scheme for pearl cultivation in Hepu County started in 1958. In May of the year pearl-nucleus implant was properly done. In November, the first piece of south pearl was successfully cultivated.

In August 1966, the first batch of pinctada martensi was bred with great success. With progressive technological advancement, akoya pearl cultivation has reached an international standard.

China’s reform and opening up has brought to a golden era of Beihai’s south pearl industry, during which three important pearl festivals were organised. Driven by the leadership of the government and market force, south pearl cultivation reached a historical height with an output of over 8,000 kg in mid-1990s.

In 2008, southern China was suffered from disastrous cold weather when a huge amount of oysters were dead. The damage, together with deteriorating quality of oysters, insufficient R&D, poor quality control and rising pearling cost accounted for the subsequent decline of south pearl cultivation in Beihai.


Why was south pearl cultivation revived?

The revival of the south pearl industry has industrial, economic, ecological and cultural significances. It was done at the right time, the right place, by the right people.

In terms of timing, the revival of south pearls was everybody’s hope. In April 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a clear instruction to develop maritime economy during his visit to Beihai. Industrialisation has fostered the growth of R&D which has taken pearling technology to a new level.

Historically, the sea near Beihai has been the breeding ground for south pearls. In ancient time, six out of the seven major pearl bases were near Beihai where equips with incomparable pearl cultivation conditions. In 2017, the sea near Bintang harvested 1.5 catties of high-quality south pearls out of 10,000 pearl oysters. In 2018, production of south pearls recorded a remarkable growth. Quality golden pearls were found in the area.

The long period of south pearl cultivation has nurtured an abundant senior “south pearlers” who have the experience, technology, passion and faith in reviving the pearling activity in Beihai. They can master every process in south pearl cultivation.

Besides, south pearl products have huge market potentials. Under economic development, consumers are craving for organic jewellery, cosmetics and healthy products, which illustrates a promising future of akoya pearls in China and the world. According to statistics, the global demand for akoya pearls reaches 60 tons, a gap of 35 tons. Beihai has become the country’s trading hub for cultured akoya pearls with a sales network spreading all over the Mainland. Domestic sales of akoya pearls account for 50 percent of the total sales every year. The recent China-ASEAN Expo has further enhanced the popularity of Beihai’s south pearls.

According to Chinese pharmacopeia, south pearl is a precious medicine in itself with a wide application. It opens huge market opportunities to medicines and skincare products made of south pearls.

What is the output level of south pearls?

Since 2017, a number of south pearl enterprises, cooperatives and “south pearlers” have revived their pearl cultivation activities one after another. In spring 2018, we had 8.22 million pearl oysters, a 3.16-percent growth over 2017; there were 2.03 million grafted oysters in autumn. It shown signs of a positive revival trend. According to the samples collected on a random basis, 66.82 percent of oysters carried pearls, 58.63 percent of pearls have a diameter of about 6 mm, 19.86 percent were over 7 mm. The unit output reached the peak level of cultivation, while it reached or even exceeded the peak level in terms of quality.

How do you compare south pearls with other pearls?

The trade roughly calls the pearls from southern Leizhou Peninsula, northern Hainan Island, and the waters at junction of Fangcheng and Vietnam “south pearls”. As Beihai is located at the centre of the region, Beihai’s south pearls are the most presentative pearls of a kind.

Chinese south pearls are grown in pinctada martensi. The pinctada martensi used for pearl cultivation in Japan comes from China. In the last century, Japan mastered akoya pearl grafting technique and imported a huge number of wild pinctada martensi from Beihai. Therefore, Japanese pearls and China’s south pearls are basically the same species.

South pearls are round, solid and lustrous. They display an iridescent rainbow colour under natural light. Considered the best of seawater pearls, they can also serve as medicines. China’s south pearls usually measure 5 – 9 mm in diameter.

Commonly from Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, South Sea pearls come in big size ranging from 9 to 15 mm.

As different types of pearls are cultivated under specific conditions, they are different in terms of colours, nacres and sizes. They have their own values.

How is the scale of pearl cultivation in Beihai?

Since 2017, Beihai City has carried out strategic measures to revive the south pearl industry. The region with a total of 235,000 acres across the waters near Bintang and Bailong Pearl City of Tieshan Harbor, together with five regions including Hepu County Wuni and Weizhou Island Nanwan is designated for south pearl cultivation.

At present, there are over 10 enterprises and cooperatives engaging in south pearl cultivation. We grew 10,250,000 pearl oysters in 2018. In spring 2019, the number of grafted oysters amounted to 12 million pieces. There will be over 5 million pieces for grafting this autumn. We are seeing a remarkable growth in the number according to our schedule.


What is the government’s role in reviving the industry?

The decision to revive the south pearl industry comes as a specific measure to address to the instruction given by President Xi Jinping to strengthen the maritime economy. Guangxi and Beihai City officials also attach great importance to the project. The industry revival committee of Beihai City has taken measures in several aspects:

Financially, Beihai City has set up a special fund of 20 million yuan as loan, insurance and incentive for south pearl cultivation enterprises or cooperatives.

Environmentally, a law enforcement division is formed to remove illegal occupancy of cultivation waters, enhance water quality monitoring and warning systems, and determine a designated area to protect the growth of pinctada martensi.

To enhance the quality of pearl oysters, we further our study on artificial hatching and cultivation technology at various institutes including the new Fourth Marine Research Institute in Beihai. Started 2017, we have launched various scientific research initiatives to upgrade the quality of oysters.

In order to elevate the output of quality pearls, it is important to strengthen trainings in every aspect of the supply chain, improve cultivation and monitoring skills, and study the possibility of advancing pearl cultivation at factory level.  

In terms of market regulation, it is pivotal to establish a standardisation system for south pearls, set and implement a higher product standard to support the production and processing of south pearl products in future. Market regulation should be enhanced. Frauds and counterfeits should be tackled in a serious manner. Besides, anti-forgery technology such as “one pearl one code” is applied.

We would try our best to attract investment in south pearl processing and build up our south pearl brand, and give a boost to economic efficiency of the south pearl industry by enhancing production of pearl jewellery, health products, medicines and food.

We would assist south pearl enterprises and specialists in finding suitable locations for cultivation, providing them with quality support facilities.

Last but not least, initiatives will be taken to organise celebration events under the theme of the culture of south pearls, foster the establishment of Bailong South Pearl City tourism project, development south pearl tourism, infuse the elements of south pearl culture into urban-rural and public architecture development, creating a favourable atmosphere to revive the south pearl industry.


What are the development focuses in future?

Reviving the south pearl industry is a long-term commitment. In coming years Beihai City will extend the scale of pearl cultivation, enhance output and ecological protection, boost technology investments, maintain quality standards, strengthen market regulation, further brand building and enrich cultural charisma. We believe, with the hard work of all parties, Beihai’s south pearl industry will relive its glorious past, and our people’s wish for “returning pearls to Hepu” must be realised. (Photo courtesy: Office of Reviving Beihai’s South Pearl Industry


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