Pearls grow in oysters and oysters grow in the sea. It usually sounds like a romantic affair; a precious, luminous gems growing inside a shell and guarded by it until it is taken out. In reality, naturally occurring pearls are rare: one found in every 10,000 oysters or mussels.
Commercial pearls, such as the ones we see in markets, are usually grown by farmers in their ponds. They can also be grown in large drums or tanks.
We recently met one such farmer, Md Kawsar Hossain, in the Parail Bazar area in Churkhai, Mymensingh. In his pond, sized two shotangsho, (871.2 square feet or two decimals approximately) he is farming 700 jhinuk (mussels) for almost a year. In another month or two, it will be time to harvest the pearls.
"I invested around Tk10,000 and if 70% of the mussels survive and around 50% of them make A-grade pearls, I may have a profit of more than one lakh," he said. In Bangladesh, there are three pearl grades: A, B and C with A denoting the highest quality.
Originally a fish farmer, Kawsar learned about pearl farming from the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI) headquarters in Mymensingh Sadar. BFRI's dedicated research centre for pearls was initiated in 2012 and fully developed by 2019.
Till now, the centre has trained around 2,000 farmers on the basics of pearl farming. At present, farmers are enthusiastically growing pearls in 90 upazilas of 41 zillas in the country.
BFRI's quest to popularise pearl farming
The market is dominated by Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian pearls which are larger in size and of better quality. Our homegrown pearl industry is still in the infant stage. Although quite profitable, the pearl farmers we reached out to do their business online.
Even in that scope, BFRI has been trying to ensure that farmers know as much about pearl cultivation and harvesting as possible. Recently the organisation tagged some of the pearl farmers with Aarong to facilitate sales.
Chief Scientific Officer Dr Mohsena Begum Tanu has been leading BFRI's research on pearl harvesting in Bangladesh from the very beginning.
She said, "When we started our research into pearl cultivation, we saw it was not like fish farming or crop cultivation. Our academic knowledge was also quite limited. We had to learn everything very carefully, especially the operational techniques."
The BFRI training for pearl cultivation is usually for three days. They are free of cost and participants are given an honorarium. Dr Mohsena informed us in the beginning, they had to reach out to farmers and invite them to participate in the training.
But now, they get calls every day from farmers all over the country who want to be trained. Those who have been trained now teach others. She also thanks social media platforms such as YouTube for popularising pearl farming.
How the pearls are formed
At present, farmers in the country are making three types of pearls: round pearl, rice pearl and image pearl.
Round pearls are made by cutting a small pocket and inserting a round nucleus – usually made from mother of pearl (the inner shell layer of oysters or mussels), dental powder or wax – into a live mussel. The shells are left slightly ajar with a clasp-like tool while the process is undertaken.
Rice pearls are pure pearls because instead of a nucleus, tiny bits of tissue from another mussel are inserted. When a design dice, also made from mother of pearl, is inserted into the mussel, the pearl becomes the shape of the dice (like baking cakes in differently shaped moulds). This latter method is the most popular among farmers because they can customise the designs and this type of pearl take the least time to form.
Round pearls can be harvested within 15 to 17 months, rice pearls in two and a half to three years whereas image pearls can be harvested in eight months to a year.
As a rule of thumb, the longer the pearls are left in the mussels, the more the layers form on the nucleus or tissue and the better the pearl quality and lustre. Farmers are advised by BFRI to leave the mussels in water for at least a year.
Senior Scientific Officer at BFRI Sonia Sku said a healthy mussel with substantial meat inside can produce two to three pearls.
She showed us how tissues were cut and inserted into mussels in their laboratory. In the same area, there were quite a few products such as jewellery and decorative pieces made from pearl as well as the mother of pearl. There were some samples of image pearls too in the shapes of fishes and boats.
She said, "Naturally occurring pearls are rare and expensive; coloured pearls grown in nature are almost non-existent. Commercial pearls such as the ones we see in markets go through colour treatment and barely have one layer on them, which is why they are so cheap."
"We tried pearl farming with large freshwater oysters from Vietnam which can grow multiple pearls at a time but sadly they are not surviving in our weather," she added.
Low-cost, low-maintenance and multifaceted business
One of the main attractions of pearl farming is it can be done in the same pond as fish farming. Most local fish and mussels can survive perfectly in the same water body.
Instead of leaving the mussels in the mud, they have to be hung in net bags and submerged in water. If left lying in the mud, the mussels will bury themselves deep into it and taking them out will become very difficult. Every 15 days the mussels are cleaned.
Local mussels or jhinuks are usually found in our water bodies such as rivers and haors. They can also be bought from local markets at Tk5 to Tk6 per piece. Farmers can make their own nucleus at 50 paisa to Tk2 and buying them will cost them around Tk3.
Farmer Abdullah Al Mamun from Netrokona learned pearl farming from BFRI five years ago. Since then, he has been engaged in it and encourages others to do the same. BFRI provided him with some sample harvesting tools and now he makes them on his own.
"Depending on the pearl quality, I can sell each piece at Tk100 to Tk150 minimum. Some of the mussels may produce some high-quality pearls and those I can easily sell at a much higher price," he said.
Last year Abdullah harvested some high-quality pearls which he sold at Tk1,000 to Tk2,000 per piece. He suggested other farmers remain patient and stick to pearl farming if they want to reap its real benefits.
Dr Mohsena said pearl farming can be really beneficial for farmers because although most mussels die after the pearls are extracted, their shells and meat can be reused. Pearls are also used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
"The shells can be used in making lime and the meat can be used as fish and poultry feed. If you farm mussels with certain fish, no extra food will be needed for the mussels," she said.
She added at a cost of say Tk10 to Tk15 per mussel, farmers can sell the pearls at anywhere from Tk150 to Tk600. If they make jewellery and per jewellery costs them Tk500, they can sell them at Tk1,800-Tk2,000.
A women-friendly profession
Sadia Akter has been a pearl farmer since 2018, after receiving training at the BFRI. She learned about it from one of her zoology courses at university and became interested. She has also trained a few times in India.
"I cultivate pearls on a small scale in Keraniganj in Dhaka and on a much larger scale in my hometown in Barishal. I make my own nucleus. Pearl farming is not costly but you need to carefully look after the mussels, they are sensitive creatures," she said. There are four workers who help her out in her business.
If someone wants, they can farm pearls in large water tanks or drums instead of ponds as Sadia does in Keraniganj. She is a retail seller of pearls and pearl jewellery and sells through her Facebook page.
"I once sent some products to Qatar and they loved them. But I could not supply as much as they wanted. This is where we are lacking in Bangladesh, we do not have advanced machinery and technology in pearl farming although our pearls are as good as imported ones," explained Sadia.