Lady Jasmin is one of the oldest pearl stalls at the Greenhills Shopping Center (GSC). On a Sunday afternoon, Subaida Batua, the owner, is entertaining a customer while her husband, Sirad, takes a late lunch of Muslim fare—turmeric rice and beef rendang. Her daughter Jasmin, 40, grew up with the family business since the Batuas put up their first stall in Virra Mall in 1979.
Some 160 pearl traders, mostly Maranaos from Lanao del Sur rent over 300 display shelves of pearls and fancy jewelry in 1,200 sqm of space. Their stalls are either branded after their jihad name or family member. The GSC jewelry section has become a microcosm of the Maranao community: The traders are related to each other either by blood ties or long-time friendship. The men retreat to the Greenhills Masjid, a few meters away, for their prayers.
“It’s important to have a mosque near our work,” says entrepreneur Normina Macaurog in Tagalog. “Our earnings mean nothing without a mosque to sustain us.”
To protect their trade, the sellers formed the Greenhills Muslims Traders Association, which handles the lottery for the slot rentals. Their membership also guarantees the customers that they are legitimate entrepreneurs selling real pearls. Longtime vendors, such as the Batuas, pay more for a permanent spot. Yet, a portion of the fee goes to either the charity or the mosque, according to Muslim tradition.
The traders have only two things in their mind: peace in Marawi and surviving the challenges of pearl trade.
“Every family here has a relative in Marawi that either perished or displaced by the war. Some relatives lost businesses or properties,” says Jasmin. Their hope is that their prayers reach their home province.
The Batua couple began selling antique furniture, and jewelry and baskets in the ‘70s in Manila. When Virra Mall opened its flea market in 1979, Subaida found a niche by selling freshwater pearls. Back then they were more expensive since pearl culture farming was still in its infancy in the Philippines.
By the mid-‘90s, the family would go to Tahiti for the trade fairs and the Paspaley Pearling Company, a wholesaler in Australia.
However, the brownouts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s affected their business. It picked up slowly in the ‘90s.
Like most Muslim traders, components such as settings and chains are imported from Hong Kong. The advent of pearl farms made pearls more affordable and accessible.
The pearls are sourced from Palawan and China, while the most expensive ones are kept in vaults. The traders themselves assemble the inexpensive jewelry.
The more expensive accessories are either made by plateros or imported from Hong Kong.
The traders are mum about their sources.
The Batuas moved to GSC in 2006 when developer, Ortigas & Co. assigned the jewelry section to the Muslim traders. Connoisseurs note that GSC is known for trendy pearls. Many of the freshwater pearls have been treated to create champagne or silvery or greyish shades while others are bleached for a perfect white sparkle.
The place is ideal for bargain hunters who can get a pair of stud earrings for P50 to P100.
Jasmin debunks the notion that pearls sold in GSC are fake, because they are cheaper than those sold in department stores. On the contrary, when customers buy unknowingly faux pearls, they can complain to the mall management. The errant trader, if found guilty, is prevented from renewing the rent.
Majority of sellers in GSC treat their business with respect.
The sales reach a peak from November to February. Tourists and balikbayans are the largest bulk of customers.
Nadj Yusoph Dimaporo has pedigree. Her maternal grandfather is Datu Samaladeg. Her uncle’s father is the late politician Mohammad Ali Dimaporo whose clan comes from a sultanate.
Still, she prefers running her business called Nouran and Nadine, and moonlights as a creative jewelry designer. A longtime balikbayan customer and events producer tapped Nadj to make crowns for Miss Earth Canada and Miss Grand Canada. She assembles the pearls and crystals with wires to make regal crowns.
Nadj began selling pearls at a mall in Bonifacio Global City. Former First Lady Imelda Marcos frequented her stall to buy 50 to 100 pieces of necklaces for Christmas presents.
She moved to GSC for the customer traffic, and GSC has since been designated as a tourist destination for pearl bargain hunters.
At Nouran and Nadine stall, a choker with a mother-of-pearl pendant surrounded with freshwater pearls costs P3,000. The pearl brooches from Hong Kong range from P1,500 to P2,500. A long strand of freshwater pearls costs P1,500 while a short strand of perfectly round and white pearls fetches P3,000. A pair of diamond-studded pearl earrings costs P1,500.
Foreigners prefer freshwater pearls for their irregular shapes which make them unique and organic.
Asked how the customer could differentiate one stall from the other, Nadj says one has to look closely. The sellers have their interpretation of micron strands and pearls formula.
“If they see a salable design, expect it to be copied,” she notes.
Since 1998, Normina Macaurog and her husband Faizal Pangantin, owners of the Nurfaidah stall, have made their presence in Greenhills. The couple sources its pearls from Japan, the Philippines, and China. Normina assembles the micron bracelets band stainless steel bands with baroque pearls. A set of earrings and a ring costs P35,000 to P50,000. Long freshwater pearls with jade and turquoise fetch P2,500 while the commercial-grade South Sea pearl necklace costs P12,000. A chain bracelet of baroque pearls costs P1,500 to P3,500.
“We entered the pearl trade because it’s honest,” says Normina. “When our relatives see that the business is doing well, they follow. Maranaons are inborn traders. We don’t like war. We just want to make a clean living.”
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