An abundance of fake and cheap pearls widely sold on Phu Quoc has ruined its reputation as a producer of some of the world's finest organic gems.
Tourists visiting the "Pearl Island" as Phu Quoc is otherwise known can easily buy a pearl for just VND50,000 (US$2.5). Kiosks hawking "Real Phu Quoc Pearls" are literally everywhere on the island--hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and even at the grocery stores.
The owner of one souvenir shop at the Dinh Cau Night Market told a reporter: “On this island there are Phu Quoc pearls and nothing else.”
However, experts and insiders say that only a few farms sell real cultured pearls and natural pearls, harvested by divers, are now extremely rare.
Le Thi My Dung, the owner of the Quoc An Pearl Farm in Duong To Commune, said farming pearls is a difficult job that takes at least three years before a harvest.
“A strict culturing process yields only 5-10 percent good pearls," she said. "We don't have enough cultured pearls to meet demand and never sell to the island's many hawkers.”
Dung said a single high-quality pearl can fetch hundreds of millions of dong.
“A pearl cannot be sold for just a few hundred thousand dong,” she said.
More fake than real
Hai Nang, a diver on the island, said many locals once hunted pearls which weren't nearly as rare as they are these days.
“Phu Quoc’s real pearls are famous for their purity and durability. Some fishermen make a killing after getting lucky on a single precious pearl.”
“Many people still dive for pearls today, but it's much harder to eke out a living,” he said.
Japanese and Australian firms set up pearl farms on Phu Quoc in the 1990s and exported the fruits of their operations back home.
The global economic crisis forced them to abandon their farms and leave their technology to their local partners.
Only a few households still cultivate pearls, which they only sell at their own shops.
A retired pearl trader on Phu Quoc, who asked to be identified only as V., said everything else being sold on the island is a fake or cheap Chinese imitation.
“Only pearl farms sell real pearls, the rest are from other places, mostly China,” he said. “Fake pearls have badly affected Phu Quoc's reputation.”
V. said he used to buy Chinese pearls in the northern province of Quang Ninh by the sackful.
“Natural or cultured pearls aren't perfect spheres like the Chinese ones,” he said.
V. said Chinese pearls are produced by binding ground oyster shells with adhesive and polishing them to make it difficult to distinguish them from real ones.
Many pearl farmers say one can easily tell them apart by rubbing the pearl on a rough surface or burning them. Real pearl don't scuff or melt.
Most vendors on the island won't let you do either, saying it will damage the pearl.
Nguyen Van Dung, chairman of the Saigon Jewelry Association, said you know a pearl isn't real if the vendor won't allow you to test it.
“A good pearl can fetch VND10-20 million ($472-944) while a low-quality or fresh-water pearl is only worth a few hundred thousand dong.”
VIETNAM'S PEARL ISLAND
Dubbed “Pearl Island,” Phu Quoc sits inside a UNESCO-recognized World Biosphere Reserve off Vietnam's southeastern coast.
A district of Kien Giang Province, it has a total area of 574 square kilometers (222 square miles) and a permanent population of approximately 85,000.
According to the island’s authorities, about 500,000-600,000 tourists visit Phu Quoc each year, of which 40 percent are foreigners.
In May, the Ministry of Planning and Investment called for Singapore to support Vietnam in developing Phu Quoc into a regional hub for tourism, science and technology.
A visa exemption policy that took effect last March allowing foreign visitors to Phu Quoc up to 30-day visa exemptions.
Visa waivers will also be offered to foreigners who transit at any airport or seaport in Vietnam on their way to Phu Quoc.