By Radhika Bhirani
Savusavu (Fiji)- From the serene environs of the country’s second largest island Vanua Levu, Justin Hunter’s uniquely hued pearls in green, blue, chocolate, aubergine, gold, burgundy and more, are not just selling Fiji’s story to the world, but setting an example for promoting sustainable luxury among ethical consumers, thereby giving a push to the global blue economy.
“Everytime we sell a pearl, we sell the story of Fiji,” Hunter told IANS here at his workshop where his workers and technicians were busy cleaning oysters and extracting new pearls — only a small part of the labour intensive process of pearl farming.
“I am very passionate about pearls being seen as sustainable and supportive to the communities that are a part of managing marine biodiversity. When you buy a Fiji pearl, a consumer should feel like they are investing in our oceans and in the long-term health of our planet,” said Hunter, a marine biologist.
According to a UN report, it is estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $100 billion per year and about 260 million jobs to the global economy.
Hunter’s contribution towards this began in 1999 when he returned home to Fiji from the US to establish J. Hunter Pearls Fiji by producing pearls in distinctive hues, which despite a small annual output, has managed to put the brand and Fiji on the world pearling map.
He said Fiji in itself doesn’t really have pearl oysters, but the size and nacre colour of its oyster are an asset.
“We have to make our own babies, which is very difficult and technical, but that allows us to bring characteristics and colours that fetch the best prices,” said Hunter, explaining how from the time of mixing sperm and egg, seeding and getting a pearl can take close to five years.
For curious guests, there’s a chance to visit the pearl farm via a short glass bottom boat ride away from the small-town community here to see pearl oysters at different stages of growth. These are suspended on 200 metre long lines that run three to five metres below the ocean’s surface.
Cyclone Winston in 2016 came as a blow.
“We lost a lot of habitat lines and young baby oysters that should have been producing pearls for us this year and last year. This year will be our smallest production since 2005. But that’s when the realisation of climate change and protecting the environment started making all the more sense to me,” Hunter added.
His pearl farms provide jobs for local people, and he feels therein lies the essence of his business.
“We have 50 people full time and over a 100 who work part-time. When you can show economic return with something from so sustainable, and people realise there’s a connectivity between the health of oysters and pearl quality, they become what you call environmental stewards of the sea.
“They are the ones who now want to fix pollution and protect our ocean, which is the need of the hour in climate change.”
Luxury comes at a price, and Hunter ensures he charges right.
A pearl pendant from the brand would be no less than $1,000. Something rare and big may even sell at a retail price of $70,000.
Hunter, who hopes Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio — an environmental activist — promotes his pearls someday, says keeping the price high is the way to reach out to ethical consumers who understand sustainable luxury.
“Let’s price the brand high, tell them why it’s expensive and then let the consumer choose. The ethical consumer will invest and pay a lot more for what they know is being done right, has a good story and is helping people,” said Hunter, who is currently catering to the European and American market.
India has been a hard market for Hunter, who doesn’t believe in mass production.
“India and the Middle East are traditional markets where they still want natural pearls, which is in one out of 10,000 oysters maybe… But then you’re killing 10,000 oysters for it,” he rued.