Bali’s Lustrous Gems: A Deep Dive into the Fascinating World of Pearl Farming

A Conversation with Lawson Callaway, Farm Manager at Ocean Blue Mutiara

by Reema Farooqui

Located in the azure waters off the coast of Bali, Indonesia, and within view of a spectacular volcanic landscape, Ocean Blue Mutiara pearl farm produces South Sea pearls of surpassing beauty. Established in 2005, the pearl farm focuses on quality rather than quantity as seen in the silvery white lustrous pearls produced by the farm.

This non-negotiable emphasis on producing gem-quality pearls is one aspect of pearl farm manager Lawson Callaway’s job. Recently, Callaway oversaw Ocean Blue Mutiara’s second auction for 2023. A resounding success, all 33,000 exceptional South Sea pearls offered at the auction found buyers.

With a BSc in Marine Science, Callaway is no stranger to the world of pearls and pearl farming. Originally from Australia, Callaway started his career in the pearl industry as a pearl diver in Broome, Western Australia, before moving to Indonesia where he worked at a pearl farm in West Papua for three years. This will be his fourth year as farm manager at Ocean Blue Mutiara. With his education and hands-on work experience, Callaway has an all-round and deep understanding of pearl farming and cultivation.

As pearl lovers, we rarely realize the years of hard work, dedication and patience that go into production of a single, lustrous South Sea pearl. Pearls are a miracle of nature. Pearl culturing has harnessed this miracle, allowing countless jewelry lovers to wear and enjoy these dazzling drops of luster.

But saltwater pearl farms are also on the front lines in the global struggle against environmental pollution and degradation. Pearl oysters filter and clean water. This makes saltwater pearl farms some of the most environmentally sustainable organisations in the world today.

But very few of us really know what it mean to farm pearls.  

In my conversation with Callaway, we discussed the different details of pearl farming, what a typical day at a pearl farm looks like and the recent, very successful South Sea pearl auction at Ocean Blue Mutiara.

What is pearl farming? What are the different steps involved in successful pearl farming?

Pearl farming is the process of culturing pearls with human intervention. This involves inserting a nucleus and donor tissue inside an oyster to encourage it to grow a pearl. The donor tissue, also called saibo secretes nacre around the nucleus to create a pearl. The Pearl Industry provides a sustainable and controlled way of producing pearls, reducing the reliance on naturally occurring pearls harvested from the wild.

Step one of pearl farming is selecting a location with reasonable weather protection, good quality water, high nutrients, enough water flow, and away from any potential pollution sources.

Two is the oyster source. Most companies in Indonesia produce oysters in the hatchery, whereas in Australia a sustainable wild fishery still exists, supplemented by hatchery-reared shells. At Ocean Blue Mutiara (OBM) we produce all of the oysters from our hatchery.

Many years ago we purchased a few wild oysters from artisanal fishermen to use as broodstock. These are oysters that have produced an exceptional pearl. Such an oyster adds to our genetic diversity and we hope will help future generations of our oysters to produce bigger pearls. It is essential to have good genetic diversity in broodstock to breed better oysters and in turn, create better pearls. Broodstock is also selected during harvest time.

When we spawn our oysters, we need to keep them in a fairly sterile environment to protect the larvae from bacteria or viruses. Our oyster larvae stay in the hatchery for up to 1.5 months, where they are fed a few different varieties of algae. As the larvae grow and metamorphose, they attach to collectors. They are then placed in the water.

Once the baby oysters (or spat) are big enough, we remove them from the collectors and put them into nets, reducing their stocking density. We clean the oysters and progressively reduce their stocking density as they grow. Once the oysters are about 2 years old, we bring them in from the ocean for the operation, or bead nucleation, process.

This operation is the most important part of pearl farming. We select saibo from shells that have brilliant white to silver coloured lips. This will determine the colour of the pearl. The tissue is taken from these oysters and cut into tiny squares. Our skilled pearl technicians make an incision inside the oyster, insert a nucleus, then insert the piece of saibo tissue. They must insert the nucleus into the correct location and ensure the saibo tissue is fully adhered to the nucleus to produce a quality pearl.

The oysters are then allowed to rest on the sea floor for over 2 months. This is an important step to keep the nucleus and saibo in the correct position as the pearl forms. During this time, the saibo tissue grows around the nucleus to create what we call a pearl sac.

At the end of the resting period, we lift the oysters up and x-ray them to see if they are growing a pearl. Ones that have rejected the nucleus can be operated on at a later date.

After the x-rays, the oysters are hung onto our sub-surface longlines for the remainder of their growing period. During this time the oysters are regularly cleaned to remove any marine fouling and make repairs to the nets or the ropes, usually on a 40-60 day schedule.

Two years after the operation, it’s harvest time. The oysters a bought in off the lines and given to the pearl technicians. The technician will make an incision and use a hoop-shaped tool to gently extract the pearl. If it is high quality, the oyster will be reseeded to  produce another pearl in 2 years.

Oysters that produce low-quality pearls, will be harvested for their shell and meat. Both of these are sold, so there is no waste at all.

After the harvest is finished, we wash our pearls in water to remove any dirt or slime. After the wash we polish using corn chips that are permeated with beeswax.

Finally, the pearls are graded. We separate the pearls by shape, then split them into colour groups, and skin grade. We use the A-C grading system here.

What does a typical day at a South Sea pearl farm look like? How does it change in different seasons?

A typical day on a pearl farm is spent cleaning the shells. This makes up the bulk of the workload of over 70 local staff that we employ.

Cleaning involves using a water jet to remove some of the fouling, and then the remaining hard fouling like barnacles is done with a chisel. Also, the nets are checked and repaired as  needed.

Here in Bali, we try to spawn oysters over the warmer months, between September and March. During the cooler months of the year, we harvest oysters. There is less bacterial load in the water, and the cooler water helps the oysters produce a finer nacre, resulting in a more lustrous pearl.

What are the main highlights of a year at a pearl farm?

Definitely harvest time, it’s great to see the result of our hard work. It is generally one of the busiest times on the farm.

What, in your opinion, makes the waters of Indonesia ideal for culturing South Sea pearls?

So much water! Indonesia has over 17,000 islands and many bays that provide ideal locations for pearl farms. There is good water flow amongst the islands bringing in new food and removing waste products from the oysters.

What was the most exceptional pearl you have harvested at the OBM?

That would have to be a 17mm round grade A we harvested a few years ago. Last year we also harvested a very nice drop shape with a pinkish colour to it.

What, if any, environmental challenges are faced by pearl farms in Bali? How do they affect pearl farming, and have you at Ocean Blue Mutiara tried to overcome or lessen the impact of these challenges?

Pollution would be the biggest concern, especially industrial waste that could kill or make the oysters sick. Pearl farms mitigate this by operating in remote areas, away from potential pollution sources.

Before I started working with OBM the company closed down one site on the east coast of Bali due to a prawn farm opening on land nearby. Waste from the prawn farm was pumped directly into the ocean, resulting in high mortalities of juvenile oysters.

Plastic is also an issue here. While it doesn’t directly impact the oysters, but the amount of rubbish that is washed into the ocean during the wet season can result in a buildup of debris on our lines, putting more strain on them.

Sungai Watch has been active in Bali for the last few years installing trash barriers in Bali and parts of Java to catch the rubbish before it enters the ocean. It is worth checking them out and the programs that they are running. (Sungai Watch is an organization on a mission to stop plastic going into the ocean.)

Ocean Blue Mutiara also holds its own pearl auctions. How long have you held these auctions and what is your target audience for these auctions?

We started our own auctions in 2023. Previously we used a broker to sell our pearls. Our target audience is wholesale buyers from Japan and Hong Kong.

What happens during an auction? How do buyers bid for their chosen lots? How long does it take for them to find out if they have won the bid?

After we have graded our pearls, we prepare them for auction according to their quality, size, and shape. We hold our auction in a room with abundant natural lighting to aid buyers in inspecting the pearls.

Each buyer can inspect one lot of pearls at a time, and return these to a central table, before taking the next lot that they are interested in. Buyers who are unable to attend in person can view the lots online from video and photographs.

Some buyers will look at everything, while others may just be interested in only the high-grade pearls. Buyers will write down their bids on a bidding sheet before submitting it to the salesperson. Buyers will usually be informed within a few hours after the close of the auction if their bids are successful.

How do pearl buyers apply to attend your next auction?

Our Pearl auctions are invite-only for wholesale companies. Companies that may wish to attend can contact me.

You can follow Lawson Callaway on Instagram @lawsoncallaway

Featured Image: A selection of highly lustrous, gem quality South Sea pearls from Ocean Blue Mutiara’s recent harvest

You may also like