You don’t often hear the name J. Hunter Fiji Pearls in the same breath as the world’s leading luxury brands like Rolex, Bvlgari and the like.
So how did the small pearl company from a tiny coastal town on Fiji’s northern island Vanua Levu end up at BaselWorld, the world’s premier watch and jewellery show in Switzerland?
The answer is simple: due to the unique Fiji coloured pearls found nowhere else in the world.
Whereas South Sea producers like Cook Islands and Tahiti are better known for black pearls, J. Hunter Fiji Pearls come in the rarest of hues, ranging from warm gold, champagne, copper, chocolate and ranberry tones to cooler greens and blues.
This has Europe’s finest jewellery brands clamouring for the very small number of pearls the company produces annually—’a drop in the ocean’ compared to its regional competitors.
A number that’s gotten smaller still in the last two years because of the devastating Hurricane Tomas in 2010 that almost wiped out the company’s entire pearling operations.
Which makes J. Hunter’s BaselWorld debut all the more impressive.
It comes on the back of a recent, exclusive distributorship signed with one of Germany’s largest luxury jewellers, Gellner, which deals in cultured pearls from around the world.
Since 2009, Gellner has been snapping up J. Hunter Fiji Pearls at closed auctions in Japan, for use in its fine jewellery lines, placing the pearls’ provenance front and centre.
Under the new arrangement, Gellner cherry-picks only the finest jewellery companies to distribute to, which will no doubt up the Fijian pearl brand’s cachet for years to come.
Justin Hunter, the man behind the brand, is himself astounded with the runaway success.
“Here’s this product from Savusavu that’s basically being created from nothing as there wasn’t really an industry here. And yet, in the extremely competitive world of luxury goods and fashion, it is creating a buzz,” he says.
Funnily enough, the “Fiji” coloured pearls—the reason behind all the fuss—almost didn’t happen.
“Nobody really knew how different the pearls were going to be,” says Hunter about starting out in 1999. “We thought we were going to be producing the same thing as Tahiti .But when we saw we could produce something pretty unique, we took a big gamble and went towards that.”
Not everyone took to them immediately. Says Hunter: “To be quite honest, the first time we sold our pearls in Japan, the Japanese would look at the multicoloured ones and say: ‘very interesting but we’ll take the black pearls’… they didn’t know what to do with them.”
Luckily, the Europeans came knocking and today Hunter is somewhat of a minor celebrity—in the international pearling world at least.
The farm’s natural environment, largely free of impurities and pollution, has been key to the brand’s success and Hunter plans on keeping it that way.
Since inception, the company has championed environmental stewardship and in 2008, it established an internal code of environmental practice to help minimise negative environmental impacts and maximise positive impacts.
The pioneering company’s biggest coup, however, has been to engage the local community by making them partners in the pearl farming venture.
J. Hunter’s Savusavu farm is located within the traditional fishing grounds of the Tikina ni Savusavu, a group made up of nine Fijian villages.
In exchange for leasing the area, the Tikina ni Savusavu receives yearly lease payments, dividends from profits and much needed jobs that help improve the villagers’ standard of living.
J. Hunter outsources aspects of its pearl cultivation to village groups, sponsors education scholarships for young students and provides funds towards village projects such as community halls that double as hurricane shelters.
Despite these achievements, Hunter is not one to rest on his laurels. Post cyclone, the company has been rebuilding new pearling sites and investing in new farming techniques to produce more of the high quality pearls it is renowned for.
And getting the big boys of luxury to take notice is only the beginning for J. Hunter
With its pearls now commanding the highest of all prices on the international pearl market, its future has never looked brighter.
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