The woman of pearls in Ben Tre: Interview

In 2002, comments and discussions were spreading among locals in Con Tien (Tien Long Commune, Chau Thanh District, Ben Tre) about a woman who had invested almost a billion dongs (VND) in cultivating fresh water oyster, or manodonta. Her name was Nguyen Thi Thu Cuc. She had succeeded with pains and hardship in this business. She even established a private company of her own - the Boi Ngoc Company Limited - to cultivate and sell the pearls. Her company's pearls have recently won 2 gold medals, of classes AAA and AA, at the International Women Trade Fair organized in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnam's Labour Union. On the event, our reporter interviewed Ms Thu Cuc in Ben Tre. 

+ Reporter: Ms Thu Cuc, could you please explaining why you decided to cultivate fresh-water oyster (or manodonta), while until now oyster cultivated at sea have been mostly preferred?

- Ms Thu Cuc: As a young girl, I was very fond of true pearls while it was almost unable to distinguish between true and faked ones bought in the market. I kept that love until I was grown up, and decided to cultivate them by myself whenever possible. Before I did this, I had read books about oyster and found that the stuff was classified into two types: the first type lives in sea water, which is called oyster, and the other lives in fresh water, called manodonta. Then, I leased a large area of water surface in Con Tien to start growing manodonta and cultivate pearls, for I saw that the water here was fresh all year round and not affected by saltish water during the dry season. Also, the natural environment here was very good for manodonta growing.

Still, it was the first time I ventured into the business of manodonta pearl cultivating, so I was faced with numerous difficulties in the early time. Manodonta died en masse, and I had to go to many places to find out causes. It was all but a deadlock. Some time later, I found that manodonta's death was caused by the growing water environment. My mistake was that I copied the way sea-water oyster was cultivated in cages, while this is quite improper for manodonta. The manodonta was killed by lots of micro-forms clinging to it. This knowledge helped me save my business. I finally decided to change to new method, and manodonta was grown in open water instead of in cages.

+ For the moment, your manodonta growing is so successful. So, could you tell us how many product items, and how many kinds of them made from the Con Tien pearls? Do you have any plans to invest in expanding the business?

- At the moment, the pearls harvested at my farm have various color shades such as pinky white, red white, blue, and black-shaded colors, etc. Because we are only in the first stage of business, I think I have to do more to improve cultivating techniques in order to create more beautiful and to diversify the products. The yielding ratio of premium pearl at the moment is rather low, and 20% of output may be seen as acceptable. I am growing about 200,000 manodontas in 45,000 sqm of water surface in Con Tien. In the future, I want to expand further. Preliminary surveillance has shown that pearls are more and more preferred in the markets. So far, the Con tien pearls have been used in making various ornamental items including earrings, necklaces, fingerrings, etc, and the spring collection, wedding collection. Cutest pearls are set aside to sell separately to special collectors.

+ How are Boi Ngoc's pearl products introduced to customers and what are their appreciation of the pearl products made in Ben Tre?

- Last Binh Tuat Tet Holiday, several overseas Vietnamese returning from Australia, who are also interested in pearls, appreciated Boi Ngoc's pearl very much because of its thick pearl layer, so they bought some to resell back in Australia. Generally, pearls cultivated at sea have very thin pearl layer, about half a millimetre at most, while pearls cultivated in Con Tien may be three times thicker, or 1.5 millimetres.

At the moment, Boi Ngoc has a showroom to display its pearl products at 39 Thu Khoa Huan street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Our target customers are not just confined to elderly users, we also design products for younger people, because we thought that pearls may be the right stuff to enthrone the luxurious beauty for young people. In Ben Tre, I also have a store of pearl products inside the Guest House controlled by the province Party's Committee. This is just for displaying and introducing the locally-made products to visitors, deal transactions are mostly carried out in Ho Chi Minh City.

+ How about the prices of your pearls cultivated in fresh water compared to the sea pearls?

- Pearls are no easy stuff to evaluate. It's no problem for experienced buyers who have inside knowledge of pearls, but for those first-timers or amateur buyers, the prices are too high.

The prices of sea pearls vary according to the variety of pearls. Some pearls may be sold at cheap prices but the quality is unpredictable. In the old times, pearl and gem are among the items of treasure, or the most valuables. So, pearls can not be seen as cheap things as you may see them sold in some stores. That premium pearls can be sold at just more than VND100,000 is not the way premium quality pearls are sold. I've seen a Japanese pearls sold online at up to 1,550,000 yen. For Boi Ngoc's pearls, I think the prices are much more reasonable and affordable for even middle-class folks. They are priced between US$60 to under US$1,000 a piece, depending on size, diameter, and the lustre of the stuff.

+ So, in your opinion, what are the basic differences to identify between true and fake pearls?

- Faked pearls of high-level are hard, and almost unable to identify by naked eyes. Only experienced experts on pearls can tell. The most basic point to identify true pearl is that the lustre can reflect the pearl layer. Faked pearls are not heavy enough, not cool enough, and lack lustre. To make sure not to buy faked pearls, it is advisable to buy pearls with a certified trade-mark or brand name. Boi Ngoc has registered its pearl products under the trade-mark Pearlight. As a way to assure customers, Boi Ngoc is implementing the pollicy to buy back pearl products that customers want to sell after buying them from Boi Ngoc stores.

Translated by Truong Hung.

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