Many of Guangzhou’s residents have heard of the jade, pearl, and jewellery markets in town; multi-level malls crammed with flashy, gem-stacked stalls. For a slightly more mellow experience, however, a visit to the Yakushi Pearl Factory will make for an equally satiating shopping excursion.
Located on the Eastern side of Guangzhou city, past Zhujiang New Town close to the border of Dongguan, Yakushi Pearl factory is a first-generation, privately owned, Japanese company. With offices in Osaka and Hong Kong, the Guangzhou branch has been operating since 1987. The factory sources its select freshwater pearls from farms along the Yangtze River in Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Yakushi is perhaps most famous and proud to supply its jewellery to the Tiffany’s brand, with rumours of having supplied to Cartier in the past.
The harvest of a pearl
One early Saturday morning, I awoke at 8:00 and boarded a shuttle bus to the factory, past the gleaming towers of Zhujiang new town, where the roads became noticeably wider as the buildings became drabber. We pulled into a manufacturing prefecture and up a driveway, where our tour guide Simon Li greeted us at the front entrance. Before even entering the large glass doors, we were directed out front, where several buoys were floating in a small man-made pond.
Here, our small group of about 15 (mostly women, a couple of men, and two small children) watched and listened as the President of the company, Mr. Yakushi, explained in Japanese the lifecycle and particularities of freshwater pearls. Mr. Li, fluent in both Japanese and English, effortlessly translated, and we didn’t miss a beat learning about the nuances and beauty of these freshwater pearls. Three oysters were then lulled out of the small pond and workers took to them, using industrial-sized shucking knives to open up the large oysters – all the size of my face. Crammed between the wet meat of the oyster were tiny, opalescent rocks – fresh pearls!!
The pearls that come through Yakushi are all farm-raised, harvested as naturally as possible by hand. For Yakushi, the oysters are generally cultured for around five years (rendering a pearl that is between 5-7mm). The younger the oyster, the smaller the pearl, and vice-versa. Purple tinted pearls are the rarest, while pearls with an orange-pink tent are more abundant. Yakushi does not dye nor colour their pearls, and the colours of the pearls are strictly part of the natural selection process – factors that involve location of oyster growth, pH of the water, temperature during growth, and various other conditions. Out of the twenty or so pearls produced by each oyster, such as the ones we witnessed opened for us that morning, only several will be chosen for processing at Yakushi – a testament to the strict quality control and high-quality standards of the brand.
The selection of a pearl
After watching Yakushi’s workers extract the pearls from their oysters, the group is led inside the factory – a small but very industrial building that is reminiscent of a trade school from the turn of the century. We step into a large marble, pillared foyer, where all guests are requested to change their shoes and slip into fuzzy slippers before entering the facilities. Most of the group’s feet are far too big for the small slippers, but all of us manage to find a pair that somewhat fit.
Walking upstairs, the tour group is led into a mini conference room, where the history and workings of Yakushi Pearl Factory are explained – again, first in Japanese, then translated by Mr. Li to the audience in English. The group is then led up a flight of stairs, to workshop rooms that place me back to the standardised testing facilities of my youth. Rows of long school desks sit atop drab grey industrial carpeted floors, lit by tubes of flickering fluorescent lighting. The factory isn’t humming, as one might imagine a highly-productive factory to be, rather rows of young Chinese workers are silently hunched over, separating pearls by shape and colour with a long thin pair of tweezers. Their thin fingers are agile, swiftly separating and examining pearls in a fastidious, not to mention boring, process.
On this floor we flow from room to room, and here is where we see the process from pearl to necklace come together. After the first room where we witnessed pearls being separated and checked for quality, there is another room where the pearls are sanded down and buffed. In yet another identical room, tiny holes are drilled with specialised machines, ready to be strung. All the way down the corridor, in a larger room down the hall, the pearls sit in large plastic bags, some coded and labelled in shallow plastic bins with what are presumably Tiffany’s model or make numbers. Scattered in between the plastic bins are workers who are hand stringing the upcoming season’s new line of Tiffany’s pearl necklaces.
The price of a pearl
What is perhaps the largest incentive to visit the factory is what happens at the last leg of the tour – we are led back to the ground floor where there is one small “showroom”. Here, Yakushi offers their visitors to purchase any of their strung and set pearls for a discounted warehouse price. Earrings, rings, and necklaces are on display, ranging anywhere from 1,000 RMB upwards of 15,000 RMB and even higher, are all at 50% off the tag prices. It’s a small room that would typically not fit more than 10-15 people, but everyone manages to crowd in anyway and try on pearls with the aid of a helpful sales team. Quite a bit of cash is exchanged before lunch that morning.
Tours can be scheduled for small to medium-sized groups by contacting Yakushi company representatives. A maximum of 20 people are allowed on the group tour – but frankly, the fewer the better for each person on the group. A tour shuttle is provided by the company, which will pick your group up at a designated location anywhere in Guangzhou and take you to the factory. After the factory visit, the company treats its visitors to a Cantonese lunch at a nearby restaurant – presumably as a thank you to the piles of money that you have just spent buying pearls in the showroom. There are no additional costs to schedule a tour.
Transactions in the factory showroom are cash only. Yakushi has offered to deliver pearls to any location in the city, and if your eyes are bigger than your wallet, the factory can work with you and negotiate a pay upon delivery deal.
To organise a tour, contact Simon Li from Yakushi Factory at firstname.lastname@example.org. The factory is located in the Taiping Industrial Zone, Xintang, Zengcheng, in Eastern Guangzhou at the border of GZ and Dongguan.