Mon, 27 Aug 2001

Buton rises to fame with its pearls

By Mappajarungi

BUTON, Southeast Sulawesi (JP): The island of Buton -- located southeast of the province's capital of Kendari -- has been known as an asphalt producer for a long time.

The island is seeking another source of fame as it attracts domestic and foreign tourists with the beauty of its clear oceans. But that is not the only thing the island has to offer. Buton is also promoting itself as a pearl producer.

In Buton's biggest town, Bau-Bau, tourists are usually offered pearls from vendors, mostly housewives, at about 10 a.m. local time (9 a.m. Jakarta Time). The vendors also look for pearl customers -- who will set the pearls into jewelry -- every time state-owned PT Pelni ships arrive in Bau-Bau's Murhum port.

However, buying pearls is not that easy. Most shoppers usually have difficulties in telling natural pearls apart from cultured ones.

Pearls are divided into Vintada maksima (natural pearls), which are pure white, and Pteria penquin (cultured pearls), which come in more attractive colors, such as light blue, lilac, cream and even black.

Natural pearls are rarely available as they are taken from seabeds. In addition, only a few divers are available to search for sea oysters in the waters off Buton's islands.

Sold by the gram, natural pearl prices can fetch up to Rp 60,000 (US$7) per gram or Rp 500,000 per bead.

In contrast, cultured pearls are far cheaper and can be only Rp 2,500 for a bead that is the size of a grain of corn.

Pearls offered to tourists are cultivated from oysters by local farmers, who are imitating the methods applied by PT Tiara Indo Pearl, one of Buton's foreign investors.

Cultured pearls in Buton are mostly sold in the form of necklaces, with prices ranging between Rp 50,000 (US$5.90) and Rp 125,000, bracelets from Rp 25,000 to Rp 100,000 and rings for Rp 10,000 each.

"I can earn a profit of Rp 50,000 each day for selling three necklaces. I get them from my friends who are breeding oysters here," said one of the vendors, Hadimah, who started her business last year.

Future investment

Buton -- covering an area of 54,190 square kilometers dominated by territorial waters -- is rich with marine life, including fish, turtles, sea cucumbers, seaweed, coral reefs and oysters.

According to the local marine and fisheries office, the regency currently has two foreign investors in the pearl culture industry: PT Tiara Indo Pearl, with an area that covers two hectares, and PT Mutiara, which has a three-hectare farm.

No regional revenue has been earned yet from the companies' Rp 1.7 billion investments, which employs 43 workers.

In fact, the local administration is hoping for more investors in pearl oysters and mabe (pearl culture), as Buton's waters, with its vast expanse of muddy sand and calm waves, are ideal for the venture.

Gunawan Suharto, the head of the marine and fisheries office, said foreign investment in this industry had improved the economy of fishermen in Kapontori district.

One hundred families living in the district, which is in the bay area of Bau-Bau -- formerly Victoria Bay as named by Dutch governor general Speelman after the Gowa armada was conquered -- are breeding oysters to be sold to companies, which will insert the pearl culture in them.

Oysters are sold to investors at Rp 500 each after they are raised for 18 months and harvested monthly. Fishermen receive guidance from the office on how to culture them.

Gunawan said oyster breeding had increased fishermen's income considerably, with a minimum annual profit of Rp 13 million. Some farmers can earn as much as Rp 60 million a year.

The pearl business in Buton -- which started when foreign investors began the business five years ago -- has shown a marked upsurge. Buyers from Bali are even more interested in Buton pearls than those from Lombok and Maluku.

Made Ardana, a regular pearl buyer, said the pearls sold by local vendors were cheap and of fine quality. "We'll have the gems set into various jewelry pieces by Balinese craftsmen as they have better skills in this art," said the 40 year old.

The emergence of the pearl industry has helped raise Buton to fame.

Buton's vast marine resources have also been made accessible with another airport in Maranggo, Tomia district, which serves foreign tourists, especially those wishing to enjoy the beauty of the coral reefs off the coastal areas and buy cheap cultured pearls.