With the lure of Myanmar's golden pearls irresistible to mainland buyers, bringing a new international pearl auction to Hong Kong paid off for the Myanmese government, fetching about US$4 million from keen bidders.
The buyers paid around 30 per cent more than what would have been paid at an auction in Myanmar, said Michael Hajjar the spokesman for Belpearl, co-organiser of the auction on Friday and Saturday.
The auction was held a few days before the opening of the quarterly Hong Kong International Jewellery Show, and booth holders were keen to add golden pearls to their stock.
"If you don't have any golden pearls, no one will come to look at your stall," said Kenneth Choi Chi-wai, the chief executive officer of GYSO Pearls and Jewellery. His stall saw a steady stream of mainland buyers looking for golden pearls on Tuesday.
Choi attended the auction but his bids fell short. "At most other auctions, the end price ends up being around 20 to 30 per cent more than the floor price," he said, referring to the smallest price a seller would accept.
"That 19mm pearl at the auction," he said, "I've never seen anything go so high above the floor price. I put in double, but it went for about eight times. Many of the other lots went for five times the floor price."
The 19mm pearl, known as the "New Dawn of Myanmar", had a floor price of US$4,300. An anonymous buyer took it for an undisclosed amount thought to be between US$30,000 and US$40,000.
Myanmar is known for its high-quality gems, and much of the jade sold at an annual gem auction in the capital, Naypyidaw, is snapped up by mainland buyers. While the exploitation of labour, land disputes and corruption in the gem industry has been well documented by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, conditions in the pearl industry remain unclear.
Geoffrey Myint, an independent researcher on labour and politics, says he has heard no rumours about abuses at the farms on the Mergui archipelago in southern Myanmar. Nor have other NGOs and researchers in the region contacted by the Post.
Sean Turnell, an economic specialist on Myanmar at the Macquarie University in Sydney, said he was cautiously optimistic about reforms there. Holding the auction in Hong Kong is a positive sign," he said.
"In the past, auctions were secret. The fact that they're holding it outside Burma means that they're keeping it more with international practices, and that's good, but it's still a narrow one-off," he said.
Hong Kong has no taxes on pearls and other jewellery, and the rapid pace of business is attractive to buyers