Pearl farmers are a dexterous crew: acting as pilots, captains, scientists, deep sea explorers, leaders, and pioneers in service of their farming communities. The first to feel the effects of rising temperatures and Ph levels in the ocean, many of these farmers, now steadfast stewards of the seas, have come to the land from western cities, adapting immensely to become unrelenting advocates for their workers and environment.
JB & JCB
Jacques Branellec and his son Jacques Christophe farm in the Palawan region of the Philippines. The farms they have built are self-sustaining communities where the workers and their families live, work, eat, sleep, grow, and care for one another. They organically farm on the land and rely on their relationship with the sea for their livelihood.
“We have to respect what nature wants. Pearls are the only living gem on this planet,” says Jacques Christophe. Not only do these pearl farms have severe weather and global warming to contend with, they have also taken on the role of policing the seas. Everyday the divers hear dynamite blasts and must chase off the illegal cyanide and dynamite fishermen and pirates. In order to survive, everyone on these remote islands has intimately bonded with the land, the oceans, each other, and the surrounding communities. When typhoon Yolanda hits, their bond alone will be their strongest asset.
Reza Tumbao is the manager on farm two of The Jeweler Pearl Farms in the Palawan region of the Philippines. She not only oversees all farm operations, but is the “farm mother.” Pearl farming requires a great amount of sacrifice. Everyone on the farm must live far from their families, in remote places, for long stretches of time. Reza is a source of strength and a beacon for advice. She knows everyone on the farm deeply and takes individual morale personally. She leads prayer groups and organizes celebrations. She is the first point of contact for issues both technical and emotional.
It takes a strong woman to lead a community of 200 people through both the good and bad. A heavy weight rests on her shoulders.
Rogelio Bass was the first person Jacques Branellec hired in 1979 when he started Farm One on Bugsock Island. Rogelio was only 18 at the time and worked alongside Jacques as they built the farm from the ground up. He has worked every single job on the farms over his career and knows all 300 precise steps that it takes to make a pearl.
Today Rogelio is the manager of farm three, but continues to dive every single day. His daughter and granddaughter live with him on the farm and help to raise his chickens. He is nearing retirement. Things should be slowing down and becoming easier, but the impacts of global climate change are having dramatic effects on his farm. A massive typhoon puts Rogelio, his workers, and their families futures in jeopardy.
Nyoman Suhartini lives in Bali, Indonesia and is known by her friends and family as Komang, which means “the eldest”. She lives with her husband, son, and father-in-law, but is the sole provider for her household. She is the technical supervisor on the Bali Atlas Pearl Farm and oversees all of the operations done to the oyster. She takes much pride in her position because her journey to here was not an easy one.
When Komang was 18 she had to travel far away from her family to find work. She spent two years working in a paper factory in Surabaya. There she shared a room with 20 other women and was expected to work six and a half days a week. She left and came home uncertain of her future. The pearl farm was opening up in the area, but Komang had heard that no Balinese person had ever operated on an oyster before; it was technology reserved for the Japanese.
Joseph Taylor met Komang and encouraged her to give it a try. He had successfully built a farm in Alyui bay and was looking to hire local people in Bali, specifically more women. Joseph believed that women were gentler with the oysters and with the operations. Komang was just that. She moved up the ranks fast and has since traveled extensively learning and teaching the techniques.
Joseph Taylor, an Indonesian pearl farmer, has a farm in Alyue bay, just west of Papua, near the equator and nestled amongst islands that have been relatively untouched by the western hand. There are over 800 languages in Papua and each island has its own unique culture, history, and mythology. Joseph recounts how important it was for him to learn the practices of the preexisting cultures, speak their languages, and earn respect. Before the pearl farm, these local villages were destitute and dying out. The nearest village had been whittled down to a mere 80 people, comprised of mostly the elderly and small children. Anyone capable of hard work had to leave for the mainland to earn a living. Now Joseph’s pearl farm employs 80% of its workforce locally. Joseph has has merged his workforce and the community into one giant family where he is the “papa,” but this will be a struggle for his own family who lives a thousand miles away.
James Brown, a third generation Australian pearl farmer, clings hopefully to the future of his farm. Brown grew up in the Kimberlys, a collection of over 2,600 islands in the waters surrounding Western Australia, where the weather, climate, and conditions are extreme and unpredictable. He went to the public school that his parents built on the farm, hunting and fishing with the Bardi people who shared with him a knowledge of what is now “the last untouched tropical marine wilderness on the globe.” But, the way of life that the Brown family has known for the last 70 years is rolling out with the tide.
The fate of his young family and that of his local community lay in his final attempts to innovate and save his farm.
Aside from being an incredible designer, Rosario is possibly one of the best Italian chefs in all of Australia. In his early twenties, he left his Sydney peers in the dust when he decided to follow the rumors to the little known town of Broome, on the other side of the country. Not a single pearl farmer would give him the time of day; at that time Japan still held onto the Diamond Principle, which maintained that all pearls be exported and sold in Kobe, by the Japanese, before they could be sold anywhere else. Rosario built up his own grassroots operation with pasta. He would make the 15 hour, five-stop flight from Sydney to Broome,
cook dinner for the industry leaders, and the next day be sorting pearls in a paperbark hut on the pearl farm. Today, he is still partnered with the Browns and one of only two surviving pearlers in Australia.
The Paspaley family maintains the oldest and most well know legacy in Australia. Nicholas Paspalis fled the Greek Island with his family during WWI and ended up in settling at his ships first port of call in Cossack, Western Australia. Apart from only a few government officials on remote postings, the Paspalis family were among the few Europeans living in the area with the traditional Aboriginal inhabitants and Asian pearl fishermen. Pearling, or diving for mother of pearl, was one of the few viable industries in the area. Nicholas crewed up on a ship and one day, while cleaning shell, he discovered a natural pearl that was the largest and most beautiful pearl he had ever seen. That night, a terrible typhoon came in and wiped out all of the lugging ships. Nicholas sold the pearl, bought three ships of his own and began his families empire, which his son Nick runs today. They now have a vast fleet of ships, but when a virus hits the seas and begins wiping out shell, it won’t matter how many boats are in the water.