| ZHUJI, China
ZHUJI, China (Reuters Life!) - For decades, the clean waters of Zhuji have fed China's rise to the world's top producer of freshwater pearls and now they are helping to turn this eastern city into a global trading hub for the lustrous gem.
The rivers and ponds of Zhuji are protected from the farm and factory wastes that foul much of China's prosperous east coast, and now its family-run pearl farms are being steadily replaced by companies that cultivate and distribute their produce worldwide.
"I have been working in this industry for more than 20 years, nearly 30 years," said Wu Zhiyuan, a 52-year-old pearl farmer who tends freshwater mollusks in a lake in Zhuji.
"In earlier days, we didn't work for a pearl company, it was just a family business. Now we are under the management of the pearl company."
Major pearl companies in mainland China and Hong Kong joined forces in April to open China Pearls and Jewelry City (CP&J City), the nation's largest pearl trading centre.
Officials said the massive complex, occupying 1.2 million square meters (13 million square feet), would be home to more than 5,000 shops when it is completed this fall.
Looking at pearl cultivation as a growth industry, CP&J City executives said China aims to get a worldwide hold in the sector.
"The labor cost for pearl cultivation in China is comparatively low. After China got involved in the pearl industry, Japan could no longer compete with China in the pricing or any other aspects," said Lin Xianfu, CP&J City's executive director.
"In terms of technology, mainland China was not as advanced as Hong Kong in the past. But mainland China has gradually caught up with Japan and stepped up to an international level. As a result, the pearls made in China are pretty and cheap as well."
Zhuji, about 250 km (155 miles) south of Shanghai, played a key role in the rise of China's freshwater pearl industry, which hit the world stage in the 1960s with huge quantities of cheap cultivated pearls.
Farmers later moved to higher-quality pearls and pushed the Japanese, who pioneered freshwater pearl cultivation, out of the commercial market.
China's success has pulled global pearl prices to record lows, while making them more affordable for average consumers.
Zhuji is now home to more than 3,000 pearl cultivation companies producing up to 30 million pieces of pearl jewelry every year.
Pearl cultivation farms occupy more than 250 million square meters in the area, with some focusing on research and development for pearl companies.
Company employees attributed Zhuji's success to protection of the natural environment.
"Due to the prosperous industrialization in Jiangsu province, especially in the area to the south of the Yangtze River, the water for pearl cultivation was polluted to some extent," said Shou Tianguang, office director for Zhejiang Shanxiahu Group Co Ltd, a local pearl cultivation company.
"We used to do pearl cultivation there earlier on, but now we do the cultivation here and we are currently ahead of them."
(Writing by Edmund Klamann; editing by Miral Fahmy)